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How to socialise your puppy well.



What is puppy socialisation?


Socialisation starts before you bring your puppy home. It starts with the breeder (at roughly 3 weeks), which is why it is so important if you are to have a well-rounded puppy, that you pick the right breeder (that's for another blog). One that does all they can with both genetics and environment to ensure that your puppy has got off to the best start. Then it is over to you for the rest . . .


What does it mean to socialise your puppy?

Striking the right balance between doing too much too soon (and potentially sensitising your puppy to the thing were trying to prevent) and not doing enough and therefore not helping your puppy reach their full potential is not easy. Nowadays, we want our pups to be able to join us in all manner of environments. We have high expectations on how they should behave when in these situations, higher often than our expectations on how human children should behave! In order to enable our puppy to feel comfortable and even confident in these situations we need to make sure they feel safe with careful exposure by creating positive associations. By doing this we prepare our pups for the big wide world and all the situations they are likely to face. We also enable them to reach their full potential and raise the likelihood that they will feel safe and happy in their relationship with you and the big wide world. The more you do now to help them, the better you set your puppy up for a happy life.


We have a tendency to focus on training and as a dog trainer I agree that training is hugely important, however ensuring your puppy is well socialised is critical. They want to feel safe and loved before all else (don’t we all?). What is the point in your dog having a reliable sit if they’re terrified of men with beards? Or umbrellas? or any number of other scenarios.


As mentioned earlier the socialisation window of opportunity is narrow. It starts before you collect your puppy and continues until roughly 14-16 weeks (it may be even less than this), after this period you can definitely still make a difference but you have less return on investment than if you had exposed your puppy to a positive experience during the socialisation window.


How to socialise your puppy?

Socialisation is complicated by the fact that our pups have to be immunised prior to being allowed to walk on the ground. It would be a mistake to wait until all the immunisations are over before socialising your puppy. Either in your arms or in a puppy sling (yes these are a thing!) take your puppy out and about with you from the first few days you have the puppy home. You have precious little time and need to use it wisely.

However, you do need to take care when you take them out and about, you need to ensure the pups experiences are positive, this means exposure should be at the pups pace. Distance is your friend. Sitting on a bench and watching the world go by from a safe distance can work really well.


  • Learn to read your pups body language (see my tips below) – this is important longer term too if you are to understand your dog and build a strong relationship with them. If they are shaking or hiding, pushing into your neck to escape hands which reach for them then you need to go at a slower pace. Let them see, hear and smell from a safe distance and repeat the exposure again gradually getting closer until they are comfortable. This may take several sessions.

  • Socialisation is not single event learning, just like when our children learn to read or write in school, it is not done in one session. Rather it is a learning process which needs revisiting and repeating and covers all manner of environments, situations, items, smells, sights, noises etc.

  • Do not allow everyone to crowd around and touch your puppy, this is a sure way to ensure your puppy is frightened of hands. I can see a picture in my mind of many hands touching a puppy hiding in its human’s arms, tail tucked between its legs, shaking like a leaf. This exposure will do nothing to help socialise your puppy. Instead calm, gently exposure from a distance gradually working up to one person engaging with puppy gently so puppy can cope.  

  • Socialisation should be done with careful consideration of the individual pups needs and with as few negative experiences as possible.


Top Tips:

  • Don’t meet and play or greet every single dog and person you meet. Choose specific interactions where your puppy gets a positive outcome, you don’t want puppy to have a negative experience in this sensitive period nor do you want them to learn to run up to and interact with every dog and person in the park. Think about what they are learning!

  • Don’t allow puppy to have a ‘free for all’ in the name of socialisation. Allowing young puppies to run around doing whatever they like, without any clear boundaries, with other puppies who have not learnt any social manners. What do you think they are learning? It would be similar to allowing a group of 2 or 3 years olds do whatever they wanted to do without any guidelines – there would likely be a lot of tears and also safety would be an issue. Puppies like children need good supervision and clear boundaries.

  • Do comfort your puppy if they need it. This will not make them more fearful. No need to mollycoddle, instead gently encourage and reward brave behaviour. Do this at your pups pace. You might think the school run is a great idea, and longer term it could work well, however taking a young puppy on a school run, letting many kids crowd around, probably squealing with excitement and then touching and crowding the puppy is likely to cause the puppy more harm than good. Even the bravest of pups might struggle in this situation. Again, what is your puppy learning here? Probably that children are noisy and scary and poke and pick you up, they are unpredictable! This is not the association you want your puppy to have. Instead, perhaps practice some gentle exposure from a distance, with puppy in your arms, no touching, just let puppy hear, see and smell everything from his place of safety. Look at your pups body language, what is he telling you? Is he yawning and licking his lips (stress signals), is he shaking or whining? Learn to read his signals and expose him gently.

  • Do not force your puppy into scary situations. Pushing them forward, carrying them towards, or pulling them on their lead towards things they are worried about will only cause harm. Allow them to approach in their own time, rewarding their brave steps towards anything they have concerns about with warm praise and high-value rewards.

  • Be your puppies safe place. If your puppy is worried, they will often run to you and probably jump on you trying to say ‘get me out of here’ or ‘I need help’. If you notice this don’t just ignore their cries for help, give them more space, offer some encouragement and reward them for any brave moves. I always want my dogs to come to me and let me take over when things are too much for them. You might need to leave and try again another day but at a greater distance.

 

 Socialisation Chart

This is a guide, each puppy is an individual and your family will be slightly different to other families, so you will need to prioritise and adjust according to your family needs.


This list is by no means exhaustive – have a good think about what you might need to expose your puppy to and how you will do it to create positive associations.


Remember for a dog to be well socialised it’s important to consider the experiences from their perspective. Dogs use Smell, Sight and Sound alongside sensory processing for Touch/Texture.




Body Language – how do you know if something is too much?

There are lots of wonderful resources and courses online to learn about your dogs’ body language. I like Lili Chin’s book ‘Doggie Language’ for some useful illustrations and interpretations.

Context is key when looking at body language. For example, a yawn when a puppy is tired may simply be a yawn, but if puppy is well rested and perhaps meeting people and you notice yawning then this is likely a stress signal. This tells you your puppy is worried and you need to take things slowly in order to reduce the stress exposure and creating that important positive association.

 

Some signs to look out for:

  • Lip licking

  • Yawning, noisy yawning

  • Head turned away from stimulus

  • Backing off, avoiding, hiding, jumping up your legs

  • Barking, whining, whimpering

  • Shaking

  • Tucked tail

  • Ears pinned against head with inside of ears not showing

  • Wide eyes, staring

  • Body weight at the back as though leaning away

  • Panting, especially with big heavy tongue

 


What to do when you see these signals?

Listen to your puppy. This is how they communicate so do not ignore them!

Act – remove your puppy from the situation, or reduce the distance and exposure so he is more able to cope.

Note the reaction and work on this in a more gradual way next time.


Example:

You may need to build a positive association with the stimuli (people, animal, situation, object) – this means working at the pups’ pace, and rewarding calm behaviour with food so that we have paired something they have concerns about with something they like. A good example of this might be with vet visits. Many dogs have negative associations with the vet for obvious reasons. By doing several quick trips to the vet with your puppy at quiet times and rewarding them with treats as you sit in the waiting room or weigh them on the scales whilst the vet staff coo over your new addition should help create much more positive associations with the vets. Always take care to ensure you check the waiting room is quiet and there aren’t any dogs who are likely to have issues with your puppy before you walk straight in.


Socialisation is critical to your pups future, so if you have a young puppy get out there and do it now.


Happy training and waggy tails,




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