Dogs are born with the natural ability to communicate with each other; they practice that ability with their siblings and mother whilst they are being whelped and learning to play.
At the beginning they are helpless little suckling machines, with closed ears and wobbly bodies. Even the puppy’s brain is barely developed at birth. They do have a very special nose, though, which is heat-seeking and helps them and their mother and food source. So, if they are moved away from mother, they wriggle back on that fat little belly, to eat or sleep next to the most important thing in their tiny world – their mom. As they reach two-weeks-old they become a little more animated. As the weeks pass, they become little play blobs, they start to use communication skills after only a few short weeks on earth. Puppy play is clumsy. Play is based on ritualised behaviour, fighting, biting, wrestling, and eventually (when they can move quickly enough) chasing. It’s carried out for fun and the aim is to maintain the play; for that the puppies need to be good communicators.
If one puppy bites too hard when playing, one of two things will happen. Their partner will reprimand them, and the game will end. This is the point that puppies learn to inhibit how hard they bite. In a process called bite inhibition. Bite inhibition is the act of learning only to bite hard enough that is needed to maintain the game, which ideally translates later in the puppy’s life to biting hard enough to be left alone by the scary thing. Canine communication is intricately associated with social learning.
Social learning for dogs is a weakness we have created in the Western world. We often have a family dog, bring them home as a puppy and treat them like an extension of the human household, as opposed to the dog that they are. We naturally hinder their social learning from other dogs – often with the best intention. In addition to this, unless we learn dog language, we literally isolate the dog because they are not exposed to anyone they can naturally communicate in their own language with.
These dogs adapt; there’s no species so adaptable as the dog after all, but we have to ask ourselves if that’s fair to them. The dog’s brain develops as he grows. That little blob of jelly present in his tiny head when he was born starts to form pathways, ideas and beliefs about the world. Imagine it like a blank (ish – because some behaviours are genetic) state that is developing electrical charges through it that will be strong enough to dictate how the dog feels, acts, and reacts for the fifteen or so years they are on this earth with us. There are a couple of surges in development as the puppy grows and these are even more important for social learning. If learning doesn’t take place on one subject during the first few months of a puppy’s life, the dog is likely to struggle with it later.
Some common examples of this are the couple who get a puppy and never introduce their dog to children, but five years later have a baby. Or the well- meaning dog owner that picks their puppy up to keep him safe and doesn’t understand why at six months old the puppy can’t suddenly be relaxed around other dogs. If a dog misses crucial social learning we can usually help them through systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning, which is a case of undoing learning or lack of it then adding in new learning to make them more comfortable in their life. The best option though is to ensure the dog learns to be relaxed socially – as they grow, through positive, carefully managed social situations.