Most people want the best for their dog, work hard to provide enriching experiences throughout the dog's life and include as a part of their everyday life as much as possible. What about the dogs who do not get a good start in life and who don't end up with a loving family after leaving their mother (or who do, but then suffer from a traumatic experience)?
Canine Social Deprivation Syndrome results from a stressful prenatal or neonatal environment, insufficient early socialization, or a particularly traumatic environmental event in a dog’s life. Social Deprivation Syndrome will occur when the social needs of a dog are not met, especially in the crucial socialization period between approximately 4 and 12 weeks of age. This is when the brain and nervous system are developing, the capacity for learning develops and positive experiences are crucial in contributing to the development of a healthy and well-balanced dog.
Puppies who have been removed from their mother at too early of an age, kept separate from their litter mates, or who have not experienced contact with humans during these weeks all may find communicating with others more challenging. There can be serious and long-lasting consequences on the behavioural and physiological development of the dog. Social and non-social stimulation is important for normal puppy development…puppies learn how to interact with and play other dogs appropriately, they require exposure to sounds, textures, handling, and experiences that are presented in a positive way. At this early age, and for dogs of all ages really, the absence of one negative experience can far outweigh the effects of many positive ones – so ensuring that experiences with novelty are done gently and positively is important. Dogs who lack experiences, positive or negative, can be at risk of developing canine social deprivation syndrome as they get older.
A dog who is suffering from canine deprivation syndrome may show a variety of different behavioural signs. These can include aggression towards humans or others of their species and intense stress and fear reactions to other animals, people, objects and/or situations. We may see inappropriate play with other dogs and people, and some forms of barking, destructive behaviors, and house-soiling. Because the dog’s brain is developing during this early time, the psychological difficulties experienced by the dog can have a physical effect on its brain structure. Neural pathways that are formed at this time and then reinforced can be difficult to change as the dog ages. Puppies are often taught by their mother, and through play with their litter mates, the ‘rules’ of good dog-dog communication and behaviour…dogs denied this learning experience may show inappropriate greeting behaviours when meeting dogs, rough play, the inability to pick up on cut-off signals from other dogs and possible fear-based behaviours such as barking, lunging, or shutting down upon seeing other dogs. Play fights between litter mates can also help develop a puppy’s motor skills, so a dog who has not experienced this may show limitations in this area and appear ‘clumsy’.
These social deficits can negatively impact the life of a dog. If afraid of other dogs and people, the dog may be kept at home more often than not and so is denied chances to interact with the environment (which can lead to more fears and anxiety). Not being able to pick up on the social cues of other dogs can lead to fights and stressful encounters that could result in physical harm. Dogs living in fear of noises, of being left along, or in a home where there is conflict between themselves and another animal will experience higher levels of stress hormones in their body on a daily basis. This can lead to health issues such as digestion issues, sleep interruptions, skin irritations and further perpetuate the behavioural issues they already have. Many dogs ending up in shelters are between the ages of one and two years of age…a time when, for most people, the signs of inadequate socialization really become apparent as a ‘problem’ that is too much to deal with. This can further add to the stress the dog is experiencing and make things even worse for them.
Ideally, no dog would experience canine social deprivation…mother dogs would be well taken care of and be in a stress-less environment, puppies would have litter mates and would learn necessary skills from them and their mother, and breeders would be well-informed as to how to provide a positive and enriching environment right up until the puppies are ready to go to their new homes. New homes would be ‘forever homes’ where owners are educated as to how to best expose their new dog to the world, and nothing negative would ever happen to the dog. However, that is not likely to happen for every dog any time soon.
Thankfully, the central nervous system remains plastic throughout life, and dogs who are suffering from canine social deprivation can be helped and new neural pathways in the brain that lead to different behavioural choices can be created with time and patience. We can help dogs work through their fears and anxieties towards people, other dogs, and situations. We can work to build their confidence when faced with novelty and help them by exposing them to new objects, experiences, and situations in a slow and positive way. By understanding social cues and how dogs communicate (both with humans and other animals), we can help them to have positive experiences with people and other well-balanced dogs.
On the flip side of things, because the central nervous system is plastic throughout life dogs who have been raised in the best way possible can experience social regression if placed in isolation as a growing or adult dog. When the ability to interact with others of its species, or with humans, is taken away a dog may lose some of its social capacity and we can see the same behaviours as seen in dogs with canine social deprivation syndrome begin to emerge.
Socialization and exposure are not periods in a dog’s life that begin and end at set times and if done correctly will results in a balanced dog for life. Genetics, prenatal experiences, and early up-bringing are important in reducing canine social deprivation, but ensuring that a dog has continual exposure to situations, other animals and people in a positive way needs to happen in order to maintain a healthy and balanced state of mind.
If you have a dog struggling with fear, anxiety and/or reactivity...take a look at some of the online courses available (some free!) at the link below, or get in touch to book a session where we can create a plan to help your dog live its best life.
“The Importance of Early Life Experience for the Development of Behavioural Disorders in Domestic Dogs” (Dietz et al, 2019) Behaviour, vol 155: issue 2-3:
“The Effects of Early Experience on the Development of Inter and Intraspecies Social Relationships in the Dog.” (Fox et al, 1967) Animal Behaviour, vol 15: issue 2-3: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0003347267900243