There are only certain times during the development of your puppy’s brain when you can help them become a friendly and outgoing companion. This is how to manage their first encounters with adults, kids, dogs and anything else life throws at them.
Puppy socialisation is just one of the many things to think about when you get your puppy. You suddenly find you have a huge shopping list, you have to ensure your house and garden are ‘puppy safe’, and of course you will be thinking about how to ensure your new arrival grows up to be a happy, healthy, well-behaved dog. Too often however people forget about helping their puppy learn the most important thing – how to fit into our crazy lives.
This is where puppy socialisation comes in – and while most people know that puppies need to be socialised, few understand what that really means, when to do it and how to do it properly.
What is puppy socialisation?
Puppy socialisation is a training process that helps puppies learn how to behave properly when they interact with humans, other dogs and other animals. Puppy socialisation can also help puppies have a better relationship with their owners and become used to being in a range of environments and scenarios. Puppy socialisation is one of the best tools we have to prevent future behaviour problems in dogs, and it’s also how we can ensure we have a dog who we can take everywhere with us and share the bond that we dream of having when we bring our puppy home.
Puppy socialisation in lockdown
Between the ages of 3 – 14 weeks puppies are at a critical stage in their development when they learn to get used to people, other animals and objects (socialisation and habituation). This is so they can be more at ease with the world around them. It means that we have be to creative for puppies under lockdown to ensure they are having as many opportunities as possible to experience new things.
- Puppy looking at object calmly.
- Puppy choosing to go up and explore.
- Puppy choosing to disengage from new thing.
- Puppy able to be disengaged with food/toy/praise.
- Puppy able to play and interact normally after initial investigation.
- Puppy happy to interact.
- Soft, wiggly body language.
Help your puppy out if they're:
- Backing away.
- Turning away/not facing it.
- Scared of approaching.
- Becoming fixated.
Help them by encouraging them further away and giving distance.
Keep reading for more information on the different stages of puppy socialisation and what to teach and when...
While it all often gets lumped in together, there are two parts to puppy socialisation. The first bit involves introducing the puppy to all the things you want them to have a social relationship with – hence why it is called ‘socialisation’. This is going to be people (of all kinds and ages) and other dogs.
Puppy socialisation is important because all animals are hardwired to be scared of new things – this is the self-preservation instinct that ensures animals avoid things that could be dangerous. In a newly-born animal however everything is new – so nature gives them a narrow window of development where things they are introduced to are looked on as just being part of life and nothing to be scared of. After this period, new things will be regarded with fear or suspicion.
The other bit is habituation, and this teaches the puppy that there are lots of things in their new life that might feel potentially scary or wildly distracting, are just things to ignore and not get worried or excited about. This can be everything from vacuum cleaners to fireworks, joggers to livestock, traffic to cyclists, and so on.
Most behaviour problems come from fear – puppy aggression towards people is fear of strange people, aggression to dogs comes from fear of strange dogs, noise phobias come from fear of strange or loud noises, separation anxiety comes from fear of being alone, and so on.
Puppy socialisation and habituation is all about preventing these fears, lessening the likelihood of behaviour problems, and so creating a well-adjusted, happy, social dog.
In essence, socialisation means you can play with it, habituation means you can ignore it!
When to teach puppy socialisation and habituation
The tricky bit of puppy socialisation is that there are only certain times during the development of your puppy’s brain when these things can be learnt. All cells in the body have a time to grow and a time to stop growing, and the brain is no different. After that, the window of opportunity in your dog’s development responsible for the soft skills (communication, social interaction, conflict resolution) along with working out what is part of life and therefore ‘safe’, more or less closes.
This means that the way that dog will react to people, other dogs, situations, their social skills and their behavioural competencies are pretty much now set in stone. Additional learning can happen but when it comes to the way the dog reacts to the world around them – their personality – this is formed in these early weeks.
The puppy socialisation period begins when your puppy starts to become sentient at around 15 days old and finishes at about 14 weeks old, but this can vary in different breeds and types. During this time, they are learning who their social group is, who they feel safe around, and who they are happy to look on as part of their family.
The habituation part is far shorter – as all animals need to learn very quickly what is safe and what is dangerous if they want to survive - and this starts at sentience and largely finishes at around 7 weeks old – although reassessments (“is it really safe?”) and generalisations (“I know it was safe when I was at home with my mum but is it safe here too?”) are being made for a few more weeks. There are also other periods in a dog’s life (like adolescence) when they will go through another period of reassessment.
Things to avoid during puppy socialisation
Whilst you do want to take your puppy out and make sure they’ve seen all of these potential scary things and have met lots of new people and dogs – there are many ways in which people can get socialisation wrong, often forcing interactions or not giving puppies a choice to explore them in their own time – and they don’t make sure that the puppy is really having a good time.
Remember the puppy is making decisions about what is safe so all encounters have to be fun and positive because as well as learning what things are safe, they are also learning what things are scary or potentially dangerous – so when it comes to puppy socialisation it’s as much how you do it as it is about what you do. A scary encounter now will be stored in the puppy’s brain as something to avoid – or react to – in the future when they are bigger and stronger.
The other way people get puppy socialisation wrong is to assume that it is normal for a dog to want to socialise with every other dog they meet, and that is the goal for their socialisation. This is totally unrealistic, sets dogs up to fail, and is one of the reasons that canine encounters can go wrong. A well-socialised dog is one who has some doggie friends that they enjoy playing with, but that most of the time can be around other dogs with a calm and relaxed manner whilst still listening to their owner during these encounters.
Top Tips on how to socialise your puppy
- Be clear on what you are trying to achieve. Puppy socialisation is teaching your puppy that life is fun and safe. If anything is scary or frightening, that is not socialisation – in fact you are teaching your puppy entirely the opposite, and you are in danger of creating the very fears you are trying to prevent. Make it all about treats and games – and rewarding experiences.
- Make a list of all the things your puppy’s new life is going to entail. Include all the things they are going to see, hear, and experience – in the home and outside of it. Be as inventive as you can. Then give your puppy a chance to experience these things in a safe and positive way on several different occasions. Start at a long distance and reward them for ignoring these things, and slowly you can venture a bit nearer.
- The aim of puppy socialisation is to teach the puppy that people, other dogs, and different situations are safe and even fun. You can only do this by introducing them in a totally non-threatening way. Never let your puppy get overwhelmed or frightened – and let them keep their distance and approach in their own time only when they are ready.
- Never force interactions and always give the puppy an escape route.
- Introduce your puppy to lots of different people both in the house and outside of it, and also to other dogs that you know are friendly but remember the goal is that they are happy around other dogs, not that they run off to play with every other dog they see!
- Use a sound app or similar to play unexpected noises (fireworks, thunderstorms etc) at a low level while your dog is doing enjoyable things such as eating or playing to prevent noise sensitivities.
- Join a good puppy class so your puppy can learn how to pay attention to you when there are other dogs around – and also to give them more experience with different dogs and people.
- Socialise with other owners and dogs you know your puppy likes and will play with. Friendly adult dogs are great teachers for young puppies.
- Continue your puppy socialisation until your dog is an adult. They will go through periods where they seem much more confident and other times when they seem unusually wary or fearful. Be sensitive to these times as they correspond with other changes that are going on in your dog’s body and brain, and they need your help to support them through these fear periods.
- Make your puppy socialisation fun – for your dog and for you!
Learning to be around people and fellow dogs is as important as teaching your dog to deal with being alone. Find out how to recognise the first signs of puppy separation anxiety.