Getting a new puppy is such an exciting time! Teaching them to be a part of your household and the world around is very important for their life long happiness, and yours. This is why puppy socialisation is so important.
What is Socialisation? Why is it Important?
Like human children, puppies are not automatically born with social skills, or the skills that they need to live successfully with their family. We know most families want a dog who is well socialised – in other words, can cope with the situations that go hand in hand when living with a human family – for example, going for walks, visiting parks, meeting/living with children, greeting visitors to the home, meeting other dogs, other species (e.g cats), and being OK with sounds and activities around the home and in other environments.
The term “socialisation” means the learning process that a puppy must undergo to learn key life skills to ensure that they are happy and confident in the environments and situations they may encounter throughout their life.
Your puppy needs pleasant experiences, so they learn how to cope in the world.
The optimum age to socialise your puppy is between 3 and 14 weeks. This means that you should NOT wait until your puppy has completed its entire puppy vaccination series before starting socialisation efforts (Haug 2007).
A study of three breeds finds differences in the sensitive period and shows socialisation should begin before you even take your puppy home (Companion Animal Psychology 2015).
Read the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) Position Statement on Puppy Socialisation HERE
How do you Socialise a Puppy? The Quality of the Exposure Makes a Difference!
According to Suzanne Hetts and Dan Estep from The Applied Animal Behaviour Academy, we know too little about socialisation in dogs.
“We do know that puppies and kittens need pleasant exposure to people, animals, places and things. If they show fear, they will need careful exposure. If they are from impoverished environments, they will need careful exposure. Adolescents need continual pleasant experiences. We don’t know what the optimal socialisation program is. All dogs are different and there is interplay between experiences and genetics.”
Socialisation involves having pleasant social interactions with adults, children, adult dogs and other animals. As well as careful exposure to different situations in the environment like traffic, crowds, travelling in the car, and any sights and sounds your puppy will have to cope with in life. It is so important that this is done thoroughly and correctly when your puppy is still young and happy to accept new things.
Socialisation should be safe, sensible, positive and pleasant for the puppy. For example, an appropriate puppy class where they can meet other puppies their own age, some friendly people, calm adult dogs, different places, different types of weather, all kinds of inanimate objects, kids, noises, bicycles, different kinds of surfaces, smells, sounds, being handled and groomed and the list goes on….
Let your puppy see, hear and smell things from a safe position (your arms, or a pram), and pair it with something great (e.g., treats).
How do you know if you’re on the right track?
When your puppy is exposed to new things, what is their reaction?
- Are they calm and relaxed?
- Do they explore the object or the environment with relaxed body language (soft body, tail neutral, moving at a normal pace)?
- Are they able to take treats?
Keep your sessions short and finish while your puppy is still enthusiastic.
Not on the right track? Seek help now.
- Do they freeze, move slowly, perhaps not take food?
- Do they try to struggle, get away or hide? Maybe they are hesitant to approach?
- Or do they lunge, growl/bark, and maybe try to bite?
If your puppy shows fearful behaviours (also refer to our Canine Body Language Guide), contact a canine behavioural expert to assist you.
You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing
Be careful to not go overboard. Sometimes, with all good intentions, we inadvertently can cause our puppies to feel overwhelmed, or even scared. Examples are having too many people crowd your puppy while patting them or taking your new puppy to a crowded park. Don’t let your puppy just “deal with it”. Be your puppy’s advocate and let them have some space and time to get used to the world.
Gentle, positive experiences in shorter bursts are much more effective.
Studies study show that attending puppy class is important for socialisation with other puppies and people and particularly improving the positive response of the dog to strangers (Companion Animal Psychology 2014).
We recommend a good positive puppy class with small numbers and experienced qualified trainers. It shouldn’t matter if you have had a puppy before that has gone to puppy class – all new puppies to the family need age-appropriate socialisation. The class shouldn’t be just about puppy play, but learning manners, positive interactions with people and other puppies, confidence building, learning about canine body language, force free husbandry and more.
Safety before they are fully vaccinated
In terms of getting your puppy out and about before their final vaccination, there are some simple guidelines:
- Don’t let your puppy walk where other unknown dogs frequent (dog parks, public parks, walking tracks)
- Carry your puppy in public areas, or use a pram or trolley
Prams are a great idea. They keep your puppy off the ground; you don’t have to carry them (especially for large breed puppies). It can also help prevent people ‘crowding’ your puppy but gets them out and about to experience the world. Be careful to observe your puppy closely to ensure it isn’t overwhelmed.
Fear periods are when your young dog may suddenly be afraid of people, objects or places they used to be comfortable with. Some dogs may become shy or timid of things and some may show more active “go away” behaviours such as growling or lunging.
Dogs go through many different fear periods throughout their early lives. Some dogs can sail through these periods with no problems, others may develop unexpected fears.
These periods will depend on individual puppies. According to Lindsay (2000), a particularly sensitive period for fear imprints around 8-10 weeks of age. A fear of strangers can appear between 5-7 weeks of age and quickly develops over several weeks. There are more fear periods throughout the first 2 years of a dog’s life.
Training your puppy through their first or even second fear period is not always enough to get them comfortable for life for the myriad of things they will need to accept. Unfortunately, this is the time that many people stop socialising their puppy! So, keep training through adolescence.
If your puppy is experiencing any fear, regardless of age, please get in contact with us so we can help.
Socialisation is much more than letting your puppy meet other dogs. It is so much more. Careful, effective socialisation involves sights, sounds, smells, humans and other species in a positive manner.
Although we still have much to learn about socialisation, the implication is very clear – it needs to start early.
References and Further Reading…
Appleby, D (2016) Puppy Socialization, Vetstream Ltd
Dennison, P (2006) Early Doesn’t Mean Only
Hetts and Estep – webinar (BEN – Applied Animal Behaviour Academy- Socialisation Science webinar)
Haug LI, (2007) Socialization in Puppies Texas Veterinary Behaviour Services US
Lindsay, S R (2000) Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour and Training, Volume One, Adaptation and Learning, Blackwell Publishing
Summerfield, J (2016) Socialising Your Puppy: Why Later is Too Late, Dr Jen’s Dog Blog
Todd, Z (2015) Different Dog Breeds, Different Sensitive Period? Companion Animal Psychology
Todd, Z (2014) Is it Important to Attend Puppy Class? Companion Animal Psychology
The Sound Proof Puppy Training App
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