The emotional self-regulation (homeostasis) phase
Homeostasis is the ability of an organism to maintain an equilibrium in a variable environment. Just as we have thermo-regulation (thermal homeostasis), we can also speak of emotional and relational homeostasis (Vincent, 1986). And we could even stretch the analogy somewhat: the organism has a thermostat for heat regulation, and a ‘ponderostat’ to maintain an ideal weight (Vincent, 1986). Likewise for emotional and relational homeostasis we could also envisage the existence of a “sensoriostat“, “thymostat” or “sociostat“ respectively measuring a being’s sensorial perception, and emotional and social equilibrium.
Living in a group and adapting to varied environments calls for a certain degree of emotional equilibrium (with minor fluctuations). This adaptation is possible only through habituation (disappearance of reactions) to certain stimuli. That this process is essentially learned, rather than genetically acquired is a sign of the species’ ability to conquer – and adapt to – varied and new environments. This ability is an opportunity, but also a cause for risk.
Among animals, innate fears do exist, although in dogs they remain to be demonstrated: for example the fear of “beating” or “gunshots” is not innate, despite various writings along these lines. Nonetheless, you can talk about acoustic sensitivity in individuals or breeds. This has been demonstrated in rodents: certain strains of mice (DBJ/2J) have shown an innate hypersensitivity to certain sound frequencies which give them convulsions (Dantzer, 1988).
A large number of fears arise from an individual’s development. Is there a sensitive phase during which it would be easier to establish emotional homeostasis, enabling the individual to develop frames of reference (referential, thymostat) and long-term habituation? The answer is “yes”.
Here are a few examples:
Dog’s typical reaction to an unfamiliar situation is fear: starting, fleeing or inhibition. In a semi-open milieu, the dog tends to flee (and is impossible to catch after the age of 4 months) (Scott and Fuller, 1965). w w When it is raised in isolation in a closed environment (0.2 m² cage) the flight reaction does not develop; instead only inhibition or fear-provoked aggression develop (Fisher, 1955; Fuller, Clark, Walker, 1960 in Scott and Fuller, 1965).
If guide dogs for the blind are placed in a foster family at 12 weeks, they generally adapt well, but placement at 14 weeks can prove to hinder performance in later training (Scott and Fuller, 1965).
Fox (1975) experimented with puppies placed in contact with increasingly complex stimuli (enrichment) at 5, 8, 12 and 16 weeks: as they grow the puppies tended to seek out complex environments. Puppies raised in surroundings poor in stimuli (“stimulus-poor puppies”) and placed for the first time in a highly stimulating environment at 12 or 16 weeks are inhibited (fear) and search less complex environments. Enriched puppies are systematically dominant in the presence of stimulus-poor dogs.
Male dogs are raised in normally lightened cages for the 10 first months of their life, but without any contact with the outside world (restricted sensorial situation). They are tested at 10 months old. Their activity level is 6 times higher than average dogs raised in normal surroundings (motor hyperexcitement). They learn slowly and forget easily (every trial is like a new experience). When they have learned some behavior, they reproduce it even when the rewarding factor has been removed (lack of the extinction process). Put in the presence of a bitch in oestrus, they show a state of increased excitement but they direct it towards stereotyped habitual behaviors and not towards the stimuli coming from the bitch. (Caston: 1993). For Caston, sensorial and social deprivation has impeached the maturation of the brain: it can not exert an inhibitory influence on the mesencephalic reticular formation (MRF) anymore; MRF is becoming hyperactive, and produces unfocalised and unadaptative behaviors. This has been verified by EEG recordings (in rabbits). In rhesus monkeys, this deprivation syndrome leads to high level of blood cortisol. *
Stimulus-poor primates show a greater degree of attachment to their mother (pathological hyper-attachment), which led Bobbitt (1968, in Fox 1975) to propose that detachment from the mother is a continual process linked to a young being’s attachment to the environment. This conclusion can most likely also be applied to dogs.
In clinical practice we have observed dogs acquired at 3 or 4 months that had phobic behavior, whereas their siblings, acquired at 2 months, were emotionally balanced.
I also participated in a study on the effects of a serotoninergic psychotropic drug on the behavior of beagles raised in a kennel. The beagles were chosen for their anxious-inhibited (depressive) behavior. In exactly identical conditions, with limited human contact (kennel staff) it was easy to choose 16 dogs of 8 – 13 months in which the following symptomatic behavior towards the presence of humans could be observed:
- expectancy posture (Pageat, 1986) (locomotor inhibition, almost crouching, tail between the legs, head extended towards the stimulus presented),
- refusing, or cringing from, hand contact,
- lack of interest or catatonic immobility in the presence of a colored moving object,
- -inhibited movements outside the kennel (limited city noise).
In this single-breed kennel (little variation in genotype) in a relatively deprived sensorial environment, there was a high degree of phenotype variation with, nevertheless, a large percentage (more than 50%) of dogs displaying inhibited behavior (more than 75% of the dogs were anxious). An overall inhibition index was established (4 tests each rated from 1 to 6, for a total ranging from 4 to 24 points, with 24 being the value for a normal dog).
-At the start of the experiment, all the dogs tested between 4 to 10 points.
-After 2 months they ranged from 8 to 21.
-As the effects of the psychotropic drug were not significantly demonstrated compared to that of a placebo, the evolution towards ‘normal’ behavior could be imputed to the effects of the experiment itself, since the dogs were tested every other week (5 minutes maximum per dog) and given medicine twice a day.
In conclusion: “industrial” kennel conditions suffice to cause anxiety and inhibition (undoubtedly favored in this case by the breed and enclosure in a 9m² cage). Nevertheless a mere daily contact, and handling every other week were enough to lower the level of inhibition and anxiety in this group of young adult dogs significantly.
Indeed, the process of organizing stimuli from the outside world, classifying them as known or unknown, agreeable, disagreeable or indifferent (their “significance”, meaning, socialization) is similar to the process of interspecific socialization. Eventually, this is merely one element in the acquisition of self-regulation as regards particular stimuli because they are interactive.
We thus have a phase of facilitated spontaneous learning that begins with a dog’s sensorial opening and investigation of stimuli (3 ± ½ weeks) and ends when it develops fear of the unknown (12 ± 2 weeks).
The characteristics of this learning phase are the same as those of interspecific socialization (facilitated but requiring reinforcement, low level of generalization, etc.).
The result is frames of reference acquired for each isolated or grouped sense (multi-sensorialreferential, or tolerance level (according to Fox, 1975), or even “thymostat“), since each referential is probably a “mental object” identified by an activated assembly of neurons, according to Changeux, 1983).
This referential determines the stimulation level at which the individual must begin to adjust by activating the appropriate emotion (fear, wariness, etc.) and adopting the most appropriate adaptive behavior (investigation, avoidance, flight, aggression, inhibition, etc.).
The referentials that come into play are level of noise, visual agitation, intensity of olfactory stimulation, number of vibrations, occupation of three-dimensional space, flexibility or rigidity of movements, etc. Here we can directly see the overall differences between a city and rural environment of development.
The corollary to the development of a puppy’s attachment to its surroundings is its detachment from its parent(s).
A puppy’s malleability enables it to rapidly adapt to almost all human environments without undo stress.
Differences in the quality and amount of stimuli a puppy receives in its environment of development as compared to its adult surroundings determine the degree of risk it may not be able to adapt its sensorial referential (thymostat) and thus achieve emotional homeostasis (this includes development of phobias and anxieties). Clinical observation has also confirmed that it is easier to transfer from an environment with a high level of stimulation (city) to an environment with a low level (rural) than the contrary. A puppy raised in a deprived environment may be tempted to compensate for this lack of sensorial stimulation by self-stimulation: this is how certain stereotyped behavior develops, as well as self-centered behavior (Fox, 1975), such as self-induced dermatoses.
Lastly, stimulus-poor puppies run the risk of developing hyper-attachments to their biological or adoptive parents (transposition of hyper-attachment to its new human masters), which is a source of intolerance to isolation, attention-seeking behavior, reutilization of behavior acquired during illnesses, etc.
The precocious learning-conditioning phase
This is another variant of the phase sensitive to emotional development that occurs between 3 ± ½ and 12 ± 2 weeks. Three behavioral situations are of particular interest in precocious learning: elimination, eating, and vocalization.
Elimination is a reflex present at birth (it is provoked when the mother licks the puppy’s perineum) and becomes spontaneous around 2-3 weeks. From 3 weeks on, the elimination reflex disappears and the puppy tends to leave its bedding to eliminate. At 8½ weeks it defecates in specific spots, usually at a distance from its eating and sleeping area.
Elimination behavior (1) is preceded by sniffing around, probably in search of typical odors (urine, feces, chlorine, ammonia, etc.) that will spark the elimination reflex, (2) occurs almost every waking hour, (3) is not activated for several hours during sleep.
It is thus the dog breeder who conditions the location and medium favored for elimination. The acquirer (when he receives the 7-9 week old puppy) must then respect these socio-ecological conditions – he must limit the space available when the puppy is not under human control and provide the adequate elimination medium (why not a large litter box in an apartment?) placed at the right location (at least 2-3 meters from where the puppy eats and sleeps).
Clinical observation shows that when some puppies are limited to one spot and medium until the age of 15 weeks (puppies kept in the house and elimination on newspapers, for example) it becomes almost impossible for them to learn to use other media and locations (conditioning) and they retain themselves for hours when walking outside until they can eliminate on their preferred medium and spot.
This ease of conditioning can be put to an advantage in teaching dogs to eliminate in gutters and other sewer outlets.
Food conditioning studies have been conducted on cats that became vegetarian or imitated their mother who ate bananas. This type of conditioning is also well-known in humans: preferences or aversions for certain odors or tastes are already determined before birth (preference-aversion experiments with a rubber teat dipped in garlic sauce) (Cyrulnik, 1989). We can postulate an intra-uterine and post-natal food acculturation. To my knowledge, no experiments have been made to determine the duration of the food imprinting phase. It is possible that this phase is similar to the self-regulation phase, both in its duration and characteristics, since it engenders a food or feeding preference that is persistent but changeable over time.
Feeding a puppy solely on standardized food, invariable in taste and appearance (dry or moist) can lead to long-term preferences and rejection of other types of food (this has been clinically proven in cats). This problem can be avoided by giving the puppy a variety of food.
Barking from distress when left alone in an unknown place increases from 3 to 6-8 weeks (maximum) then decreases until 12 weeks. The rising curve reflects a progressive attachment to a familiar place (attachment location) while the descending curve after 7-8 weeks is a sign of emotional maturing (more than habituation) and motivation to explore the unknown.
When a puppy is acquired at 7 weeks and left alone at night it will bark in distress. This barking disappears spontaneously after a few days as it becomes familiar with its new home (with reassuring significance), unless its behavior receives positive reinforcement from its new masters (who come to pet, calm or scold the distressed puppy, or take it into their room, all signs of attention – thus positive reinforcement).
The intensity and frequency of this vocalization normally diminish, to be replaced by intraspecific communication such as postures and rituals. Vocalization is used to ward off strangers (‘territorial’ defense) from the age of 11-15 weeks (see below). Some breeds have a greater tendency to bark than others (Hounds, Poodles, Yorkshires, etc.). Barking is easy to condition.
Interspecific communication with humans, also a vocal and verbal animal, reinforces the vocal element (learning by imitation), which then becomes preponderant, even disruptive.
Play-fighting and learning to control biting
Play-fighting, which begins at 3 weeks, can sometimes be painful when a puppy begins cutting teeth, especially when its ears are bitten. A bitten puppy whimpers or squeals. In a one-on-one or one-on-two fight the bitten puppy is able to turn the tide of the ‘battle’ and bite its adversary(ies). And this is precisely one of the “rules of the game”: to change roles, with the biter becoming the bitten and vice versa.
- The puppy learns to make an empathetic link between the opponent’s squeal and the pain invoked.
- Reciprocal biting negatively reinforces its intensity.
- Biting is thus stopped, inhibited and controlled.
These play-fights also lead to a certain hierarchization of relations (less than 25% among litter-mates at 5 weeks of age)
The intensity of the bite is (congenitally) variable depending on the individual, line and breed, and can be modified considerably by training.
From 7 weeks on puppies of a litter occasionally form groups to gang up on a lone puppy. In these cases biting is uncontrolled and the attacked puppy can be wounded (sometimes fatally). This phenomenon is more prominent in certain breeds or lines (Fox terriers, according to Scott and Fuller, 1965; Schnauzers, Huskies, and Malamutes among others, in my experience).
From 11 to 15 weeks play-fighting recedes; it becomes less aggressive and more controlled. The fights become ritualized, a sign that stable hierarchical relations are being established. Agonistic co-operation is directed towards outsiders who are investigated and attacked in a manner more “serious” than play-fighting.
Learning to control the intensity of its bite is actually part of a puppy’s growing general control of its movements, enabling it to adopt postures and facial mimics which become the prevalent form of communication in animals having highly developed brains.
If the puppy’s owners fail to reproduce play-fighting postures and allow it to bite their hands, arms and legs, this can lead to:
- the puppy’s hierarchical dominance that can induce relational problems later on (competitive aggressivity, sociopathy).
- failure to control the intensity of biting and risk of serious (wounding) biting in minor confrontations.
Human skin is more fragile than a dogs. Dogs that are family pets must be given more thorough training in controlling the intensity of their bite.
A dog encouraged to pull at objects it holds in its jaws reinforces the biting reaction, which is undesirable in a family pet (although it may be useful for police and guard dogs).
And lastly, failure to develop a dog’s general motor control encourages hyperkinetic forms of behavior.
Weaning-detachment and (food) hierarchization
A mother’s care and attachment towards her puppies
are strongest during the first 3 weeks of life,
and after that progressively recede.
The first phase of weaning begins around 5 ± ½ weeks; the mother growls and bares her teeth when puppies attempt to nurse (painful when the puppies cut their teeth); the puppy yaps and rolls over on its back and then learns to keep away from its mother’s teats (Scott and Fuller, 1965). An aggression-inhibition relationship – a dominant-submissive hierarchization – is then established between the mother and puppy for access to the mother’s teats.
This attitude is extended towards other mother-young conflicts and adopted in the presence of other adults, as shown by the following personal observation. In a husky breeding station the presence of the mother beyond the 5th week led to her puppies’ spontaneous submission to the adults of the pack. In another station the mother was taken from the breeding kennel when her puppies were 5 weeks old; these puppies were not submissive to adults when they were first placed with the rest of the group at 12 to 16 weeks. They did not use the submissive posture (rolling over); the ritual was not acquired.
The presence of the mother is thus favorable, even necessary, for the development of appeasement-submission rituals and for the puppy’s hierarchization in the adult pack.
Lactation wanes around 7 to 10 weeks.
From the age of 5 weeks the puppies begin to growl to gain possession of their food. At the mother’s arrival the puppies assemble in the attempt to nurse and wait for their mother to regurgitate pre-digested food: they wag their tails, lick and bite at the mother’s chops and try to take regurgitated food directly from her mouth.
The mother does not compete with her young (7 weeks of age) and allows them full access to the food (even if it is a bone) (Scott and Fuller, 1965). This free access ends as the puppy becomes autonomous and takes its place in the adult hierarchy (Pageat). At about 16 weeks the puppies must take their place in line for food, i.e. after the dominant and sub-dominant members, almost last. The puppies share and fight over what is left, and gobble it up rapidly, to the complete indifference of the dominant members who return to other activities. Puppies attempting to snitch food while the dominant members are eating are snapped at, growled at and threatened with being bitten. Some puppies nonetheless manage through appeasement rituals to grab some food and escape with it to a corner. Hierarchization for food privileges thus occurs around 16 weeks.
When a pair of puppies not competing for maternal attention are given a bone there is aggressive competition ending with a winner and a looser. The fight is rarely traumatic since adult fighting capacities are as yet undeveloped. Hierarchization between litter-mates varies with age and breed (Scott and Fuller, 1965):
- – 25% at 5 weeks,
- – 50% at 11 weeks,
- – 75% at 15 weeks in terriers,
- – 75% at 1 year in basenjis and shelties,
- – 50% maximum in cockers and beagles.
Food hierarchization varies by race and age. According to Scott and Fuller (1965), it is predominant in short-haired fox terriers and basenjis (the male dominates the female); and rare in shelties at 11 and even 15 weeks (less than 50% of couples although this figure increases to 75% around 1 year). This breed has been shown to “respect” (accept) the female’s priority to food. Food hierarchization is average in cockers and beagles with no predominance of either sex. The sheltie, on the other hand, develops a strong hierarchy in defending the nest (spatial-territorial) and submissive members (females) are pushed inside the nest.
The more “aggressive” the litter (line, breed), the greater the tendency for linear hierarchization.
All puppies that are correctly socialized will “leap” towards humans who enter their area (bed, cage,…). The boldest ones are generally the most dominant; they push back their submissive pack-mates, barring access. Choosing a bold puppy (to avoid adopting a seemingly unsociable one who stays at the back of the cage) may thus mean selecting a dog that will be more aggressive to other dogs.
In conclusion: this period leads to food hierarchization among litter-mates from 5 to 15 weeks (occasionally later), between puppies and adults from 4 ± ½ months, and reutilization of submissive postures (dorsal-lateral decubitus) towards adults (from 5 weeks) and appeasement postures (nibbling the chop and extending the paw) from 8 weeks.
There can be several risks involved in acquiring a puppy as a pet:
- The human desire to give and receive attention is opposed to the normal (agonistic) parental behavior to wean the puppy, detach oneself and encourage autonomy. The result can be attachment, even hyper-attachment, later engendering a separation anxiety syndrome.
- The human tends to fear for the puppy’s health and thus pays particular attention to its appetite, watching it while it eats, indulging it when it begs, worrying about finicky appetites or loss of appetite, varying food, and hand-feeding, which become invested with the social symbol of dominance.
- The anthropomorphic tendency of a human-dog relationship to develop into that of parent-child, or parent-baby postpones the puppy’s training towards adulthood at 5-10 months as well as the order-obedience relationship that is part of hierarchization. This delay can foster sociopathy and certainly does not facilitate obedience.
- Furthermore the lack of rituals lead to their malfunction, and even changes in their significance: if a dog in a submissive posture is petted (positive reinforcement) it will adopt this posture more often in the search for attention. The master then obeys by petting it. The relationship risks reverting to one with a demanding-dominant dog and a obedient-submissive owner.
- Dogs have a cynomorphic approach to the human-dog relationship, seeing it first as one between puppy-adult dog, then as an interaction between pack-mates (pre-adult-adult). A dog views human behavior through the social lens of its own species and attempts to gain privileges as high as possible on the hierarchical scale.
These risks are avoided when dog owners behave in a way that can be assimilated to the parent-dog relationship. It is clear how the Western world’s custom of acquiring pets favors the emergence of hyper-attachment and sociopathies (dog as a toy, an object (a live teddy bear), a substitute for children, a catalyser for social reactions, spoiled dog, etc.).