What do we really mean by ‘socialisation’?
By Laura Travis, May 12 2020 11:03AM
Anyone who has had the pleasure of a puppy in their life will no doubt have heard of the importance of socialisation. This month, I thought we’d take a look at what good socialisation looks like and how to prevent problems later on…
All puppies go through a ‘sensitive period’ between the ages of 4 and 14 weeks of age (approximately). During this time, the puppy learns how to interact with people and other dogs, how to cope with a variety of situations and it learns what it should and should not be afraid of. Any lack of social or environmental experience, or indeed a bad experience, during this time can lead to a puppy being fearful later in life. By law, a puppy must stay with its mother until 8 weeks of age so it’s important that new owners are primed and ready to start the socialisation process as soon as the new puppy gets home. It’s important to keep your puppy safe, but some socialisation can begin before vaccination. For example you can carry your puppy to make sure they start getting used to sights and smells out and about. A good breeder will have already started the socialisation process and it’s a good idea to discuss with them what the puppy has already experienced, for example were there children or other dogs in the household? Has the puppy been exposed to common household noises such as the vacuum cleaner? Has it had plenty of time outside in a safe garden? Ideally you will have this conversation before you choose the breeder as it will give you a good idea of how seriously they take their responsibilities.
Socialisation is not simply making sure your puppy meets as many other dogs and people as possible. Good socialisation means ensuring your puppy has positive experiences with other dogs, people and situations. The key to this is monitoring your puppy’s behaviour and looking out for signs that they are anxious. If your puppy seems unsure, let them approach in their own time, give plenty of verbal praise and treats and allow them to gain their confidence. Never rush or force a puppy to have a social encounter and if your puppy looks fearful then remove them from the situation. The effects of a scary experience at this age can last a lifetime. However, it does not have to be all-or-nothing. If your puppy does not want to approach the man in the hat, he can still have a positive experience watching the man in the hat walk past while you feed him treats (the puppy that is, not the man). Because he has had a positive experience, next time he might be brave enough to approach.
Similarly, you want your puppy to have positive experiences with dogs of different breeds and ages. Puppy classes can be a great way to teach your puppy social skills, as well as how to focus on you while there are distractions all around. Puppies do need to learn how to interact with adult dogs as well as puppies, however I wouldn’t recommend letting your puppy run up to strange dogs on walks. Many adult dogs are not very tolerant of puppies and your puppy could well get a good telling off. Contrary to popular belief, this is not always ‘what puppies need’ and could lead to your puppy being scared of strange dogs. Rather arrange for your puppy to meet dogs that you know, so arrange walks with friends who have confident and sociable adult dogs. Learning to walk past strange dogs without saying hello is also an important life skill and can avoid problems with frustration later on.
Take your puppy to different places, always with a pocket full of treats. Let them have positive encounters with children, postmen, people in wheelchairs and on bikes. Let them see horses and other livestock, chickens and cats- always keeping them on a lead and rewarding them for calm behaviour. If you intend on using kennels in the future, pop in for your puppy to meet the staff. The same applies to groomers- let your puppy have some treats on the grooming table as a nice introduction to being groomed. After vaccination, pop into your vets every couple of weeks so your puppy can have a few treats and cuddles with the receptionists. If your puppy shows signs of fear in any of these situations, then you know you will have to pay particular attention to making sure you set up situations in which the puppy can have a positive experience. Watch his body language for signs of fear; lip licking, yawning, avoiding eye contact and trying to escape or hide are all signs that the puppy is not having a good experience and you need to take action. If your puppy starts to show aggression, this is a sign that he is not coping with the situation. Behavioural concerns are always better addressed sooner rather than later and I would always recommend speaking to an ABTC registered behaviourist or dog trainer if you have any concerns.
Copyright Laura Travis 2020.