What is socialisation?
Socialisation is the process by which puppies learn to relate appropriately to people and other animals. It involves meeting and having pleasant encounters with as many adults, children, dogs and other animals as possible. It also involves becoming used to a wide range of events, environments and situations.
The importance of being sociable
Experiences during the first year of a dog’s life can make all the difference to their future temperament and character. Taking the time to socialise your puppy can result in a friendly, well-adjusted adult dog who enjoys the company of people, can be taken anywhere and lives life to the full!
A puppy who lacks experience with the world will find many things that we take for granted scary and is very likely to grow up to be a worried dog. A frightened and anxious dog is more likely to develop behaviour problems than a dog who has had a rich, varied and positive puppyhood.
The sooner the better
The younger your puppy, the easier it will be to socialise them. This is because, as puppies get older, they become more cautious when faced with new experiences. The early weeks are particularly important because most puppies will approach anything or anybody willingly and without fear.
By the time your puppy reaches about 12 weeks of age, anything not yet encountered is likely to be approached with caution.
Therefore it is vital that, between three and 12 weeks of age, a puppy meets a wide variety of people, situations and other animals.
How much socialisation is done at this early age will often determine how confident your puppy is around people, other dogs and new environments later in life.
Puppies usually go to new homes at the age of about eight weeks. This is a perfect time to introduce your new puppy to the world as they will be particularly receptive to new experiences. It’s important to build on and continue this as your puppy gets older as if socialisation stops, they may become worried or fearful. Continue to make a real effort, especially in the first year and you should be rewarded with a friendly and steady dog that can be taken anywhere!
All you have to do is take your puppy out and about as much as possible as soon as they have settled in, taking care not to overwhelm them. You’ll have to balance this with protecting them from infectious diseases but this shouldn’t be difficult if you take a few sensible precautions (see later).
Begin slowly at first, gradually increasing the number of positive encounters as your puppy becomes older and gains confidence. It’s really is easy to socialise your puppy – but you will need to put a bit of thought into how best to fit your puppy’s education into your daily schedule, especially for this first year of their life.
Adults and children
Meeting adults and children should be the most important item on your socialisation programme as it’s especially important that pet dogs enjoy their company. The more people your puppy meets and plays with, the more friendly and sociable your puppy will become. Take your puppy to your friend’s houses and invite friends to your house! Once your puppy has grown a little in confidence, try to take them everywhere with you if possible.
If you live in a household without children, try and make sure that your puppy gets to meet a variety of sensible children of different ages. Young children can behave very differently to adults, so if your puppy doesn’t meet them whilst young, they are likely to be worried by them when inevitably meeting them in later life.
If your postman, delivery driver or local builder is willing, then don’t forget to include them too. Being introduced at an early age will help create a positive association with these people who might otherwise be seen as a threat.
Most puppies will enjoy meeting new people, and most people will enjoy meeting a puppy! However, it’s important that your puppy is not overwhelmed, so ask people to crouch down to meet them. It’s much better for your puppy if they are able to approach a new person, rather than the other way round – this way you can be sure that they are feeling confident enough to meet somebody unfamiliar. It’s tempting for people to pick up puppies and hug them, but it might frighten your puppy (especially if they are shy), so best avoided until you know that your puppy enjoys this sort of interaction.
Observe your puppy constantly for signs of anxiety or being overwhelmed and, if things get too much, remove them from the situation or give your dog more space and freedom to approach. Remember young puppies tire easily, so keep encounters short with enough time inbetween for resting. During all encounters, protect your puppy from bad experiences. Young puppies are inexperienced and get themselves into trouble easily, so think ahead and try to prevent any unpleasant events from occurring. Try to engineer encounters that will be successful and rewarding – if all early life is pleasant and positive, your puppy will grow up to feel safe and confident enough to deal with whatever life may have in store.
• Never pick up your puppy and pass them to someone or pull your puppy towards them. Puppies should always be able to make an approach in their own time and retreat if they want to.
• An anxious puppy will try to look smaller, avoid eye contact, hold their tail low, put their ears back and keep away. They may also lick their lips or yawn. Make sure you pay attention to these signs and take action as soon as possible, usually by taking your puppy away from whatever is causing them to be worried.
• A happy, relaxed puppy will stand up straight with their tail (or whole body) wagging and be keen to investigate
• Avoid using food when introducing your puppy to strangers as this may teach them that all people carry food on them, which is not ideal. You’ll want your puppy to approach people because they want to say hello politely, not to receive treats!
Other dogs and puppies
Your puppy should be carefully introduced to a variety of adult dogs as well as other puppies. Ensure these dogs are safe around puppies as a bad experience is often worse than none at all. Dogs come in all shapes and sizes due to the diversity of breeds, so it’s important that they meet a good mix to ensure that they are not frightened of certain dogs when older.
A puppy learns to interact appropriately with well-socialised adult dogs by spending time with them. They will learn important skills such as not putting teeth and paws all over them (unless invited to do so), and how to communicate effectively. Most adult dogs will tell a puppy off if they are too exuberant; however some are extremely tolerant and may allow your puppy to play too roughly.
Monitor your puppy playing with other dogs carefully and think about how you’ll want your puppy to behave with unfamiliar dogs that it will meet when out and about, especially when they get bigger. Dogs that play very physical games when young (either with another puppy or a tolerant adult dog) often learn to expect these sorts of games from all dogs which is likely to get them into trouble. If games become too boisterous, then intervene by encouraging your puppy away and get them to focus on you instead.
Equally protect your puppy from the exuberant play of a bigger dog, especially if your puppy is shy. Crouch down to provide a safe haven and do not allow an older dog or another puppy to frighten or bully yours. Since your puppy is not protected from major diseases until after vaccinations have taken effect, special care should be taken to ensure that the dogs and puppies encountered are fully vaccinated and healthy (see later).
Cats, livestock and horses
Puppies should observe or meet a variety of other animals, but should be kept under control to prevent them learning to enjoy chasing. Reward your puppy verbally and with treats if they are calm and relaxed in these situations. If they become a little excitable (which is only natural at first), then create a bit of distance until they get used to staying calm in these situations.
As well as meeting other animals, puppies need to encounter a variety of different environments and situations. This provides an opportunity to become familiar with a wide range of different scents, sights and sounds. If your dog is socialising well with humans, familiarisation with different environments should happen naturally. However, it is worth making an effort to check that your puppy is gradually becoming accustomed to car travel, traffic, the countryside and towns. Remember to ’think puppy’ by imagining how it feels to be that small, vulnerable and inexperienced, and try to make sure your puppy is enjoying the experience and not feeling overwhelmed.
Shy puppies need more help
Different puppies have different sensitivities – some are easy to socialise and some take a little more effort. Genetics plays a large part here, through what the puppy has inherited from their parents (nervous mums are more likely to have nervous puppies) and breed type. Puppies from herding breeds, such as collies and German shepherd dogs, tend to be more prone to fearfulness and need more and earlier socialisation than other breeds. You may also have an older puppy that missed out on a lot of early experiences. Whatever the reason, shy or nervous puppies are likely to need a lot more extra support during this really important time in their lives.
Let shy puppies take their time as forcing them into many situations is counterproductive. It’s good to let shy puppies ‘watch the world’ from a distance at first and as you begin to see them relax you’ll be able to gradually increase their level of exposure.
Introducing shy puppies to new people
Allow your shy puppy the freedom and time to make friends at their own speed. Never pull your puppy towards a stranger, or pick your puppy up and hand them over to someone. It’s best not to overly encourage a shy puppy to creep forward to take food from a stranger’s hand; some dogs will take food even when scared and it may bring them ‘closer’ to very thing they are scared of. They may then panic once there, which is not a good learning experience.
If the unfamiliar person crouches down, avoids strong eye contact and after a while throws a few titbits gently on the floor around the puppy, they may soon become comfortable enough to explore and venture closer. Even if the puppy sniffs the stranger, it’s best they don’t touch at first – instead ask them to talk gently and wait for the puppy to make all the first moves. Stroking should only take place once the puppy is showing confident and relaxed behaviour and always take regular breaks to allow the puppy to move away should it want to.
Shy puppies need to be handled with care to ensure they gain adequate experience and make up for lost time, but do not become overwhelmed in the process. It is worth making a special effort to help them overcome fears while still young and adaptable enough to change.
Vaccination versus socialisation
Young animals are susceptible to disease before their immune systems have a chance to become effective. Puppies acquire some immunity from their mothers (if they were vaccinated), which protects them during the early weeks. This is why the first vaccination is not given until the puppy is six to nine weeks of age. The second is given three weeks later and the puppy is fully protected after a further one week.
Since keeping a puppy isolated until 13 weeks old is likely to have a devastating effect on their ability to cope with life in general, a compromise must be reached between the need to protect against disease, and the need to ensure good mental health. As most of the socialisation process will involve humans rather than other dogs, such a compromise is feasible and, if the following guidelines are kept to to, it is possible to socialise your puppy and avoid the risk of infection.
Until your puppy is fully protected by vaccination:
• don’t allow them to mix with dogs of unknown vaccination status
• don’t take them to parks or walk in other areas that other dogs have fouled
• do take them out as much as possible in non-doggy areas. Carry your puppy when necessary to avoid unwanted contact from other dogs or soiled areas. It’s so important to let them experience the world, just do it safely and sensibly!
Visits to the vet
It’s very likely that at some point your puppy or adult dog will have to go to the vet’s if they are unwell or have hurt themselves. Being handled when you’re not well or in pain is unpleasant and this may in itself cause a dog to feel scared enough to behave defensively. One way you can help prepare your dog for this is to provide them with lots of positive experiences at the vet’s before a trip is needed for more serious reasons. Pleasant experiences will help build up a bank of positives which will in some way help offset the negative experiences that your dog may encounter if unwell or in pain at a later date.
• Choose a practice that is happy for you to visit several times with your puppy where they only receive some gentle handling and treats
• Help prepare your puppy for the more formal handling that will occur in the consulting room (eg looking inside the mouth, touching the paws). Practice this at home first (read the ‘handling and restraint’ section in ‘Educating your puppy’) and you’ll be helping your puppy out enormously by managing their expectations during a veterinary examination
• It’s a good idea to muzzle train your puppy. You never know when you might need one as all dogs have the potential to bite when scared. Better to prepare your dog in advance so that should they need to wear one for any reason, they are very comfortable doing so. We have a great YouTube tutorial called ‘How to muzzle train your dog’ that will give you lots of tips on how to do this in a fun and positive way.
A good puppy class can help with socialisation and get you started with your training, but remember that a weekly session won’t be enough and the majority of the work should be done by you away from the class. Puppies are usually admitted between the ages of 12 and 20 weeks and the entire family is encouraged to attend so that all the puppies present get to meet a wide variety of adults and children.
Finding a good class is essential as a bad one can do more harm than good – your vet may be able to recommend one. Ask to observe a class in progress before taking your puppy along. If there is a lot of uncontrolled play between puppies with little intervention, look elsewhere. Puppy classes should teach more about how to enjoy the company of humans rather than how to have a good time playing with other puppies.
Sign up if:
• the sessions are well controlled and planned, and the class size is small. More than 10 is likely to be a bit chaotic!
• they are only run for young puppies - rather than for older dogs too
• positive reward based training is used - avoid trainers that use punitive methods as the damage caused to your puppy can be irreversible
• the puppies and their owners look happy and relaxed. Training classes should be fun and enjoyable for everyone!
Important points about socialisation
• It involves lots of pleasant encounters with adults, children, other animals and different environments
• It is easy, but does take regular effort
• It makes the difference between a fearful dog that may develop behaviour problems, and a happy, outgoing dog that loves life
• It should happen early and intensively between three and 12 weeks, and continue until the puppy is a year old. Careful work may be needed for older puppies to make up for lost time.
• During socialisation, a puppy should be protected from fearful encounters and from contagious diseases, and never overwhelmed with too much at once
• Although the first year is the most essential in terms of your dog’s socialisation, it’s important to ensure that you continue your dog’s education for the rest of their life