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Society is complex: pups deserve ‘proper’ preparation for the future

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01 December 2015, at 12:00am

FRANCESCA RICCOMINI looks at the factors owners, breeders and veterinary practices should consider when moving rural raised dogs to environments which they may find overwhelming

THE beginning of university life is tough for parents as their chicks fly the nest. Naturally it’s equally challenging, despite the exciting adventure, for their youngsters.

New sights, sounds, subjects, environments and friends loom on the horizon – thrilling maybe, but often very different from everything that went before and not a little scary. And when recently talking to a friend, whose son was just settling into his new university in one of our major cities, an unanticipated issue came to light.

This young man is no shrinking violet. Well-adjusted, sociable, successful in school, sports, and amateur dramatics, he is a valued member of his local church, and also adventurous, regularly travelling with various groups and consistently making a new friend or two. He therefore seemed the last person who would have any problems adjusting to his next life phase and in many ways this was proving to be true.

However, one aspect of his new environment in the heart of a big city had apparently hit this fledgling student like the proverbial ton of bricks. Not surprising considering that he was brought up solely in a rural area in a fairly remote part of the country.

There, despite the multicultural nature of the United Kingdom, anyone whose appearance is dissimilar from the local norm is still a rarity. Thankfully, the profound difference in the social environment is in no way a problem, rather just a significant change that the student is rapidly adjusting to and embracing.

What is interesting, however, is that amid all the pre-enrolment excitement, preparation and received advice, no one had thought to mention the potential impact upon someone raised in relative rural isolation of encountering in significant numbers members of the many and varied communities that now make up our general population.

Obviously those of us who live in cities take for granted the fact that every day we will meet people who look different from us, dress differently, enjoy different foods, favour different scents (with accompanying olfactory implications) and perhaps view companion animals differently too. They are our neighbours, friends and shopkeepers, just part of the general social scene. It therefore comes as a bit of a shock when someone, otherwise relatively worldly and sophisticated for his age, finds life in a multicultural society so novel and is taken aback by it, if only momentarily.

The connection with companion animal behaviour? Well, simply this – if a young man, outgoing and selfconfident but with limited experience in this area of life, is taken aback by such a radical change in his “human environment”, what is a similar experience like for many of our pet dogs, especially those from the large guarding or reactive terrier breeds? The very breeds that are often born and raised in the country then either sold by breeders, or transported by their owners, into busy multicultural metropolitan areas.

Oblivious to upheaval and stress of change

A further obvious complication is that those responsible for the care, welfare and acceptable behaviour of these dogs are frequently oblivious to this particular aspect of the upheaval and stress that inevitably accompanies such a radical change in location.

And the reason this conversation struck me so forcefully? Not long ago, I was living in south-west London: an area where people jostle cheek by jowl, traffic is dense and homes, due to economic pressures, are often smaller than their inhabitants would like, where noise pollution is a common feature and life for everyone and their pets is pretty stressful.

On the plus side, it is also a vibrant community with a markedly international flavour naturally reflected in the faces encountered daily. One day this same friend telephoned with a request. Could I recommend a trainer for a mastiff that her neighbour had just sold to someone resident in my area?

Indeed I could but what, I enquired, knowing the location where the dog was raised, had been done to prepare the pup, now nearing the end of the socialisation period, for the radical change he/she was about to encounter?

Unsurprisingly, considering that the breeder rarely travels far and never to the UK capital, the issue had not even been considered; this despite recognition of the need to appropriately expose puppies to a wide range of environmental experiences as well as providing good socialisation in their early weeks.

But anyway how, when the human social group upon which someone can call is so limited, could this be adequately achieved? “Dressing up”, eating exotic foods and using novel cosmetic lotions is one possibility but requires awareness of the need and also dedicated effort.

As a consequence, in circumstances where this is lacking and a dog has such a major experiential gap, can this “product” really be considered “fit for purpose” as a family pet expected to live comfortably and safely in a busy, over-populated and stressful city?

Fate can sometimes smile

If new owners are sensible, sensitive and aware and have the support of a well-educated, responsible trainer plus a behavioursavvy veterinary practice, the new canine companion may well make a success of its destined role.

Many dogs are not so fortunate. And given that this is a not uncommon scenario, is it any wonder that so many behaviourists are called upon to deal with otherwise delightful pet dogs that show aggression towards anyone who does not fit in with their earlylearned experience of normal?

Obviously any case of canine aggression is complex and frequently multifactorial, but one thing is certain: whatever the breed, good socialisation, while crucial, is not on its own enough.

We need breeders to fully understand just how complicated the UK’s human landscape now is. They should be willing and able to appropriately prepare their pups for life anywhere in the country and also to ensure they can cope with the myriad of environmental stressors daily encountered in any of our cities. Otherwise, in my opinion, placing country-bred dogs in rural homes is the only responsible thing to do.

And surely, if we are going to make any dent in the depressingly high canine aggression statistics, this is a point that we need to get across to the admirable, caring breeders who try hard “to do the right thing” by both pups and purchasers.

For the rest, no doubt as ever, the best we can do is simply to help unwary owners pick up the pieces; sadly this often comes after someone has been hurt and the dog may well have paid for its unacceptable behaviour with its life.