How Regulation Develops in Dogs

As you will have read in the previous post, regulation is not a unitary, singular thing. There are many separate aspects of what we think of as regulation and they are usually dependent on developmental processes.

This week, a few people have shared their thoughts on the previous post and it’s clear that their view of regulation is lots more narrow than regulatoray skills probably are.

Being able to control your behaviour is one facet of regulation, but using your own body to control the behaviour of others is another. We can’t say regulation is simply this or that, and anyone trying to give a 50-word explanation on social media really hasn’t got a very thorough understanding of just how complicated it can be.

Another reason I wanted to write this series of posts is that a lot of trainers talk about regulation in adult dogs, forgetting that we don’t know enough yet about it in adult dogs, let alone the processes involved as puppies develop. Trainers who talk this way, as if dogs are born adults and all have adult levels of regulatory skills, are missing the point.

These skills are developmental.

That’s to say puppies are not born with these skills; they acquire them through life just as children do.

Also, as you’ll see, that process is long and can be complicated. Some trainers in the dog training world seem to see puppy development as complete at 12 weeks, as if to say there aren’t complex, connected biological and social processes at work through adolescence as dogs reach sexual maturity and move on to social maturity.

As you’ll see today, even one single developmental aspect of behaviour underpinning regulation can be much longer than we consider.

Even though the single developmental process we’ll look at might not seem to be very connected to regulation at first glance, the ability that dogs have to regulate certain aspects of their physiology, emotions and behaviour very much depends on their age; understanding the processes behind this one single behaviour help us understand how other regulatory processes might also develop.

Let’s take a look at one simple developmental process, that of object permanence.

What is object permanence?

Object permanence is the idea that a physical object still exists even if you can’t see it. For instance, I know my mum still exists even though I can’t see her. I know the coffee in my fridge exists even if I can’t see it. I know that nail in my car tyre threatening to become a puncture still exists even though I’m not looking at it right now and I can’t see my car.

Object permanence sounds like a really, really trivial thing that we just take for granted, but it’s actually a fairly complex cognitive process that has some clear developmental stages. Also, as you can see, it can tie in to anxiety. I’m worrying about my car tyre even though I can’t see it. It would be quite nice if I could come away from the tyre and forget all about it.

Understanding how dogs acquire a sense of object permanence is especially vital if you train or live with working dogs. It’s also vital if you do any kind of enrichment activities with dogs, from scentwork to using food toys. It’s essential for understanding issues of stranger anxiety and separation anxiety too, so it’s a useful thing for trainers, breeders, puppy fosterers and guardians to understand.

Object permanence is a developmental process. It’s not something that puppies (or babies!) are born with. In humans, object permanence occurs for some learners by the age of 3 months, and in others by around the age of 2. As with all developmental processes, there are norms that define how likely it is that the population will have acquired that skill by a certain age, but these norms shouldn’t imply that these skills are ‘normal’. All individuals are different. It’s the same with puppies as it is with humans.

Object permanence is actually a critical developmental skill in human infants. What’s interesting about it is that it often happens around about the same time that children typically develop anxieties related to separation from their caregivers and also anxieties related to strangers.

The same three behaviours develop in puppies in the same developmental windows.

Why is it important to understand object permanence?

If we understand that puppies develop a sense of object permanence, we can understand other behaviours better, like why and when young puppies might whine or howl if separated from their mother or from human caregivers, and why they might struggle to be left with strangers.

When we understand when these are likely to occur, we can take steps to mitigate the potential damage they might cause.

Sadly, these are developmental problems that we often just expect puppies to get over.

I know, for instance, when Heston was small, I didn’t even really consider how challenging it might have been for him as a 7-week-old puppy to be left without me or why he might panic if he couldn’t see me. As it is, we managed just fine, but it was more by accident than on purpose.

When we understand when puppies develop object permanence and when they might therefore be likely to develop separation anxiety and stranger anxiety, it helps us understand why some puppies really struggle in their first few weeks as they move from their first home with their breeder or foster carer.

It also helps us understand why it’s so important to help structure puppies’ experiences with strangers.

We can also understand ways we can help them cope better with these experiences during this developmental window.

In other words, it’s normal for puppies to struggle with anxiety when left alone and it’s normal for puppies to struggle to cope with strangers. We need to understand ways that we can help puppies cope with these very normal experiences other than leaving them to cry it out which can cause lasting trauma. When I read “trainers” recommending guardians leave 8-week-old puppies to “cry it out” or crating puppies for long periods, this is nothing short of abuse. This is a critical developmental period for object permanence and separation anxiety, and it is likely to cause lasting damage if you do this. It reveals nothing more than wilful ignorance about canine development.

How do we know when puppies are developing object permanence?

To develop a sense of object permanence, you need to be able to see things. That goes without saying. So object permanence can’t truly develop when the puppy’s sensory system is not developed. However, what we know about object permanence isn’t always really understood in other species, as most of the work done on it is with humans. We don’t know, for example, about the way odour works to affect puppies’ sense of object permanence.

We do know that dogs don’t adapt to smells as humans do. For instance, if there’s a bad smell (or a good one!) you get used to it. Your nose adapts until you can’t smell it anymore. I used to wear a lot of perfume. Now, because of my dogs, I don’t wear perfume at all. Even the smell of fabric freshener or washing powder can be really strong to me these days. I’m no longer habituated to the perfumes I wear.

Dogs don’t adapt to odours. Their nose works differently than ours does. For our noses, it’s almost as if smelly things cease to exist over time. That’s not true for dogs. They don’t adapt to odours in the same way because of the way their nose is designed.

Thus, just because they can’t see an object doesn’t mean they think it’s ceased to exist. Indeed, one theory of separation anxiety in dogs is that as the humans’ smell fades over time, the dog becomes increasingly panicked or distressed. This is evidenced by the fact that some dogs seem to find things that smell very strongly of us like our beds or couches or clothes to be comforting during prolonged absence. Some dogs collect socks, underwear or shoes belonging to us and make a nest of the things that smell most strongly of us. This behaviour might be explained by the fact these things smell strongly of us as the rest of our residual odour fades.

Of course, work with dogs and young puppies has often focused on visual object permanence, not olfactory object permanence. We still have a way to go in order to truly understand developmental processes in dogs.

Why is this important?

Young puppies (less than eight weeks) might not be able to find things that are covered up or out of view, for example.

That has implications for how we raise them in the home and also for what kind of enrichment activities we give them. Unless, for instance, we give them very strongly smelling food, we may find that they’re not interested in finding hidden objects before they’ve developed a sense of object permanence. Hiding biscuits in ball pits may not be an easy thing for young puppies to find because what we know about when puppies develop skills to know that things are still there even if they can’t see them hasn’t fully developed yet.

It may also mean they might panic if they are separated from their mother or from caregivers even by a blanket covering a whelping pen or a puppy pen, for example.

The importance of object permanence

We shouldn’t expect puppies to be able to cope if their mother, siblings or caregivers go out of view, especially if the odour of those individuals is also blocked off. It’s perhaps one reason why breeders and fosterers find it useful to include a cloth item that smells of their family as the puppies move to their new home. Even so, separating puppies from their caregivers and their mother too early may cause the puppy to suffer lasting damage if it’s not handled properly.

Understanding object permanence can also help us understand what is difficult for puppies and what might cause them to panic.

One form of recall training I’ve seen is where the guardian goes out of view when on a walk. This causes the young dog to panic. When they find their human or their human reappears, it causes relief. Some trainers use this method to teach the dog to keep their eye on their guardian at all times and keep following the guardian.

If we don’t understand that our puppies aren’t developmentally mature enough not to panic when we go out of view, we may be causing them a high degree of emotional panic and causing long-lasting trauma. It may absolutely work to keep dogs close to us on walks but the consequences to our relationship and also to our wider life can be devastating. Do we really want our dogs to panic every time we go out of view?

Forgetting, attention and object permanence

Losing things is not related to object permanence. Not being able to pay attention to objects or tasks for long periods of time is also unrelated to object permanence.

There’s a myth out there that people with ADHD don’t have a sense of object permanence. This really is a huge myth. It’s really important as we begin to understand canine cognition and how dogs’ attention works that we don’t confuse all these terms, labelling a dog as an ADHD dog because items don’t keep their attention for very long or they are easily distracted.

Object permanence and forgetting are two entirely different things.

Just because a dog forgets where they left their favourite toy does not mean they think their toy ceased to exist. You’ll see shortly a video in which my spaniel Tilly shows she has object permanence. She forgot where the object was for a while (3 days!), but even though she couldn’t see it, she still knew it existed.

It sounds completely trivial to us humans who don’t even really think about what a complex cognitive skill object permanence is, but we should remember it’s actually pretty amazing.

It takes a lot of brain stuff to happen to even have a sense that things still exist even if you can’t smell, hear or see them. It involves having symbolic thoughts and all kinds of complex cognitive processes that are pretty mindblowing when you really think about it. We couldn’t have search and rescue dogs or detection dogs without dogs having a sense of object permanence and understanding that intensity of odour relates to the closeness of the object, for example. That’s some heavy duty cognition.

Just to be able to understand that objects that have historically been hidden in one place and compensate for that is a complex skill. Sometimes, we have literally no idea how hard the things we are asking of our dogs actually are. To be able to compensate for the various different places in which objects have previously been hidden and overcome your past learning history, ignoring where you previously had success, is a high level skill and one we ask of all dogs in detection and rescue work, for example.

When does object permanence develop?

As you’ve read, object permanence in children develops anywhere between 3 months and 2 years.

Here’s a man torturing his young child in the name of science.

As you can see, the baby has no idea where the cucumber is, and will probably grow up with some trauma about his cruel father who has made a YouTube video instead of helping him get his needs met. I’m only kidding. Luckily young children’s brains are inoculated to traumas such as these and we can certainly appreciate the child’s surprise that the cucumber appears as if by magic.

Object permanence is difficult to truly understand in dogs because of the fact humans don’t have particularly good olfactory skills. However, you can understand why it’d be important for a wolf to know that a deer that’s just hiding is still there, or a beaver that’s gone into his den is still there. It’s not magically disappeared because it’s out of view. Literally all your dinner would be able to trick you simply by disappearing out of sight.

Kind of, ‘Oh no! I was chasing a deer and now it’s gone! No dinner for me tonight!’

Of course, wolves, like dogs, can still smell prey so they know it’s still there. That makes it harder for humans to understand object permanence in dogs and when it truly develops. We need to make our science experiments harder because even very young dogs are are more skilled than the baby simply because of their more complex olfactory skills. You couldn’t fake out a dog in the same way because the dog can still smell the cucumber even though its hidden under the coconut. Even so, unless we understand canine cognition better, we still might be giving frustrating and even impossible ‘enrichment’ tasks to our puppies who don’t understand that the food or toy is still there.

I’ve seen a lot of videos on social media where puppies are given food enrichment tasks, for example, that requires them to understand that hidden things still exist. Of course, the puppies aren’t very interested in the task then. They also don’t know what to do. We need to be careful even with tasks like this that we are not making it too hard and that we scaffold such activities to support development.

When does object permanence develop in dogs?

Object permanence develops in stages.

Visual tracking of objects is one part of this. Search skills are also a part of it.

Visual tracking develops first and there is some evidence that this differs between different breeds and also between wolves and dogs.

After a puppy learns to visually track an item, they will then be able to begin searching for it as their bodies develop.

Next, they’ll learn to track partially hidden objects when they’d begun the tracking before the object was hidden.

For instance, if you’d begun to move away from a very young puppy, the next stage of development of object permanence would be that they could find you as long as they had already begun tracking you before you disappeared and hid.

The next developmental stage of object permanence is when the dog could find you even though you’d disappeared from view when they weren’t tracking you in the first place.

The next stage of development is in being able to find you when they expect to find you where you left.

You can see that a lot of dogs in this video are at that stage. It violates their expectations that their guardian is not in the same place they were when they left. Perhaps they understand their guardian didn’t cease to exist, so they understand that objects are permanent. Even so, not all of them have reached the next developmental milestone of going to investigate other places their guardian might be. I did this to my dogs. They didn’t care a single bit. Perhaps this is simply because they have a sense that I’m permanent even if I disappeared.

The Frenchie at a minute in has object permanence but hasn’t moved on developmentally, where the Golden retriever at 1.15 isn’t that surprised and goes to check out where their guardian has gone. In fact, the Frenchie actually investigates the blanket, not the doorway. The Golden is surprised but then investigates alternatives.

Sometimes, when I’m at the park and Lidy is on the far side, she’ll look up and look for me. If I stand really still, I know she can’t see me especially if I’m upwind of her. 600m is a stretch when things aren’t moving and the air currents are not in your favour. However, I can see her looking for me. That she’s even looking for me when she can’t see me depends on her skills of understanding that there’s something permanent about me even if she can’t see or hear me. I bet most of us haven’t even thought about what a big chunk of advanced cognition that is. We might expect, though, that a younger dog would panic if they couldn’t see us.

The Golden in the video is a good example of the development of object permanence. Looking for the guardian is a step up from simple object permanence. That’s also understanding that the human hasn’t simply disappeared and they’re not hidden under the blanket, but that they might actually be somewhere else you can’t see. Clever golden retriever!

You’ll also see a bemused cat in the video too. This actually highlights an interesting finding in Gagnon and Doré (1994) which is that dogs may have slightly more developed cognitive processes than cats where object permanence is concerned.

However, no research exists exploring heritability of object permanence as a trait, comparing it to behaviour of wolves and studying behaviour across breeds.

It may be that understanding things you can’t see are still there and that they might not be where you last saw them, able to make a cognitive leap and predict where they now might reasonably be may have had importance in human selection for canine behaviour in certain types of dog.

This is not an unreasonable thing to think since puppies’ eyes open at different points on average.

Of the five breeds studied by Scott and Fuller, 94% of the beagles and the cocker spaniels had their eyes open at 14 days, compared to only 31% of shelties and 11% of terriers.

They found the day on which eyes opened was heritable, meaning that some spaniels and beagles had their eyes open a full week longer than terriers. The opening of the eyes is the first developmental change as puppies move into the critical development period, and clearly that it earlier in some breeds than in others, giving them a developmental head-start.

I’m sure it seems completely trivial to most of us that dogs have this skill. Every morning, I hide one of Heston’s toys and ask him to find it while I get dressed and prepare to take him out. The fact that he can do this shows he has the cognitive ability to understand object permanence: just because he can’t see it doesn’t mean that it has ceased to exist. The fact that he continues looking for his toy shows a high level of skill, not just in the development of his object permanence processes. It also shows other regulatory processes including resilience, persistence and an ability to work productively through frustration.

These are all critical developmental skills.

If you’re interested, by the way, in your dog’s cognitive skills, if you find Triana and Pasnak (1981), you can easily follow their simple tests and find out what level of development your dog’s object permanence is at.

Gagnon and Doré (1994) looked at when these skills emerged, since earlier research had simply looked at skills in adult dogs. What they found was that between eyes opening and 28 days, puppies behaved like the baby with the cucumber: out of sight meant the object had ceased to exist. Objects were not permanent for 4-week-old puppies.

At 5 weeks, puppies could track and find partially hidden items though if something distracted them in that process, they couldn’t find the item.

Puppies could only find completely hidden items at 6 weeks, but only if they started looking before the item was completely hidden.

By 8 weeks, puppies could find completely hidden items that had been hidden while they were distracted. From here, their development was relatively stable and most dogs, like the ones in the video where people disappear from behind the sheet, don’t understand that an item or person hidden in one place might actually be somewhere else.

However, at 12 months, research showed that dogs could manage to find hidden items that were in unexpectedly surprising locations (ie they weren’t using odour to track it) as long as they’d had experience doing so. Maybe the golden retriever in the video has just had an environment where he’d been asked to solve problems and work things out?

What the research showed about the way that object permanence develops in dogs is that there wasn’t much change between what they knew at 8 weeks and what they knew at 7 months. Around 8 months to a year, in the right environment, dogs began to pick up more complex cognitive skills.

It’s as if a final block of development comes online during adolescence. The foundations were established by 8 weeks, but the final blocks came into play much later. This has profound implications about the complexity of tasks we ask young dogs to complete.

The significance of these skills

The significance of these skills is simply to serve as a great example of just how much we expect of young puppies; I was hiding relatively odourless things for Heston and asking him to find them way before he hit a year old and really that was too complex for him. I could have caused him a lot of frustration. I was expecting a 10-week-old puppy to do things that were beyond the grasp of 10-month-old human babies with their enormous cognitive brains.

We ask a lot of young dogs.

We also see that there is a hiatus between 8 weeks, when they’ve got the rudimentary big blocks of learning and their understanding by a year. Wolves, of course, stay with the family group to this age and this makes sense because they perhaps wouldn’t yet have the cognitive skills to help them survive and thrive where predation is concerned. Puppies, of course, generally rely on humans to feed them.

This has very important implications for the kind of food enrichment tasks we give to dogs younger than a year. Of course, food is smelly and we make it easy enough, but if you’re putting biscuits that don’t smell much of anything in a ball pit that smells hugely of plastic, don’t expect the puppy to be able to cope easily.

It also has implications for why we shouldn’t be teaching recall by hiding from our young dogs.

Object permanence also has relevance for puppies in terms of separation anxiety and also stranger anxiety. From 5 weeks onwards, puppies understand that you are absent when they can’t see you and may struggle to cope with that. Since the evidence about the development of object permanence in puppies suggests they’re fully ‘online’ by a year, it may be that we need to approach our puppy programmes for separation much more cautiously. Any trainer that tells you to leave a crying puppy simply does not understand that you are likely to cause permanent trauma. We need to be working on helping young dogs cope with separation on a gradual, safe and progressive programme, not freaking them out. Expecting them to cope is to completely misunderstand puppy development and capacity.

This is also going to be true from 5 weeks onwards to a year where puppies are going to need support to help them cope with their anxiety about strangers. Since object permanence is linked to separation and stranger anxiety in human infants, and since object permanence in puppies develops in the same way as it does in human infants, we should expect that, since dogs are also social mammals, these three regulatory processes no doubt echo each other. However, Gagnon and Doré’s work suggests that development is quicker for puppies at the beginning, as they reach milestones at 8 weeks that human infants only reach at 8 months, and then it is slower, where puppies only reach milestones at a year that human children reach proportionately more quickly. Perhaps the most important stage in which puppies develop coping skills to handle both separation and strangers will be the 5-8 week one. This, of course, has profound implications for breeders and puppy fosterers.

It’s also important to point out that these processes of object permanence are also tied up in attention, salience and motivation. It’s delicately and finely nuanced, beautifully complex in its finesse.

We fail to appreciate just how complex puppy development of regulatory skills can be. The information we have on puppy development is clear evidence of that. The first developmental period of object permanence in puppies between 5 and 8 weeks coincides with the emergence of the first fear period, and then the second developmental period of these skills between 9-12 months coincides with what tentative evidence we have about the emergence of the secondary fear period.

This supports the notion that we need to approach canine adolescence more thoughtfully as well as being gentler with our young puppies. We need to be more realistic in our expectations and more careful in how we scaffold activities to help puppies cope with the absence of their social group.

Expecting young dogs to have the skills to cope with what you’re asking may well go against their cognitive capacity for their age and developmental stage.

It also gives us a good insight into just how smart some of our dogs are. This my little cocker Tilly, a dog I’d always considered to be of very little brain.

She would quite often guard bones and the likes. I would distract her and hide the offending item, often putting it on the mantlepiece and then moving it when she wasn’t looking. Sometimes, she would see me put it on the mantlepiece. Here, I’d put something on the mantlepiece days before and then thrown it away. There can’t have been much residual smell, if any.

Yet not only is she telling me quite categorically that she’s recalled after 3 days where her bone went to, but she also enlists my help in getting it because she can’t. That’s some advanced cognition! At 0.58 and 1.01, she looks right to where she thinks the hidden object is (3 days after it had been removed and forgotten about!)

Worse still is her anxious glances towards the bigger dogs who a big part of me thinks she suspects might steal it. Sometimes, when we’re working with dogs who guard resources, as Tilly did before she arrived with me, it can be tempting to think there was ‘nothing there’ – what if there *had* been something there, just days earlier?! Our beliefs that dogs don’t have the cognitive skills to do this may very well get in the way of understanding the problem. What if, when dogs seem to be guarding the invisible, they’re really guarding what they think is a hidden item obscured from view?

We write off canine cognitive processes as more simple than ours, but Tilly clearly believed the missing bone really was on the mantlepiece. If that’s not object permanence at work, I don’t know what is. I always had to lift her up and physically put her on the mantlepiece. Even so, Tilly is no Lassie: her behaviour is still egocentric. That’s her bone up there she wants. I’m not sure she’d come and tell me a boy was down a well. That’s a cognitive leap too far. Also, she hadn’t got the next level of development that humans often go on to reach but dogs usually do not: the idea that things that disappear in one place might be somewhere else instead.

We’re only at the beginning of our journey to understand when and how and why these skills develop in humans, let alone in dogs. What we do know is that they’re intricately entwined in other developmental processes and we need to remember that our young dogs might not have the cognitive capacity to do what we’re asking yet.

As their caregivers, we need to support our puppy’s development in a consistent, calm, kind and gentle way, understanding what they are capable of, what they need support to learn and what is beyond their grasp.

We also need to support them and scaffold their learning, understanding their limitations and their capabilities, remembering that cognitive development is taught not caught. Dogs don’t learn by accident or genes: they learn because they’re in the right environment with the right support to do so.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at other aspects of physiological, behavioural, emotional, social and cognitive regulation in dogs as we work towards considering ways in which we can support dogs in their development.

In short, given what studies like that of Gagnon and Doré tell us, a little bit of consideration of what puppies and juvenile dogs are actually capable of wouldn’t go amiss. Dialling back our expectations and being realistic about dogs’ learning will certainly help. If you wouldn’t expect a toddler to help you solve mysteries fit for Sherlock Holmes, don’t expect your young dog to either.

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