Learning Social Skills

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Learning Social Skills Occurs Early In Life

At around three weeks of age the young begin to socially interact with their siblings, with other household pets and with us. During the next month for cats and two months for dogs, when a kitten is between three and seven weeks and a pup is between three and 12 weeks old, its eventual personality is formed. Behaviourists call this interval the “socialization period”. Part of that time, very often most of it, is spent at the breeder’s. It is during this critical time in a pet’s life that its relationships evolve from total dependence upon its mother to more complex relationships both with its mother, with other pets and with us.

Pupsand Kits Transfer Their Relationship To Us

Think of it this way. At three weeks of age, a pup or kit simply seeks care from its care-giver, its mother. At first it does this by rooting around her, crawling towards her like a furry slug, using its heat and scent receptors to seek out warmth and a teat to suckle on. By eight weeks of age a pup’s or kitten’s repertoire of care-seeking behaviours has become far more sophisticated. A pup wags its tail to get attention and may yelp a demand. It can jump up, especially at faces, nose and lips. It paws people for attention and follows us like glue. We think our dogs are showing happiness when they behave in these ways. It’s easy to forget that these are dependent behaviours that through selective breeding we intentionally perpetuated into canine adulthood.

While still at the breeders the “care-dependency” relationship with mother evolves. To most mothers, puppy and kitten demands to be fed or to play become increasingly annoying and they have a variety of responses including growling or hissing, mouth threats, inhibited bites or simply walking away. (They also have positive responses including gently nibbling their young, licking them and feeding them.) One or more “punishments” is used to assert authority, to let the young know that mother is in charge, that she’s the decision-maker and they’re the followers. This is one of the first lessons a pup learns about leadership and following. Swedish studies showed that mothers that use lots of punishment to control their pups produce individuals that grow up to be less gregarious than pups raised by mothers that use less aggression. They even perform worse at fetching a tennis ball! Even when you get a pup at eight weeks of age some of its behaviours are already in the process of being written in stone.

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