Whether you already have a puppy, are looking to bring one into your home or even if you have an older dog, you have probably heard about the importance of socialisation. So today, I'm dedicating this entire issue to the complex topic of socialisation. We will cover what it means, why you need to do it and how.
For those of you who have older dogs, please keep reading as this is not just for puppies. Socialisation shouldn't stop once your dog is out of the puppy stage and should be continued throughout your dog's life. Plus you can use many of these same techniques and scenarios with older dogs too.
Let's begin with what socialisation actually means. The definition is the development of social relationships with other animals, including humans. Most of us want a dog who is sociable, likes meeting new people and dogs. Puppies start to learn these skills very early in life with their mother, litter mates and hopefully the humans overseeing their care. Once they leave their mother and join your household you then take on the duty of continuing this socialisation.
OK, so is socialisation only about meeting other dogs and humans? Technically, yes, however, in recent times the subject has expanded to include other areas of life like different sounds, moving objects, environments, different types of animals etc. pretty much anything that your puppy can expect to encounter in daily life. Socialisation now includes habituation (learning to accept different stimuli in their environment) and desensitisation (the process of reducing a response to a particular stimulus or set of stimuli).
Basically, we are trying to teach and prepare our puppy for the world in which they live and the different types of things, activities, environments and sounds they will encounter during their life with you.
How do I socialise my puppy?
There are many different ways to positively expose your puppy to a variety of different people, dogs, objects and environments. The thing that holds most people back is that for most of the socialisation critical period your puppy is not fully vaccinated. That means that they could contract a disease from infected public areas that can have disastrous consequences.
Luckily, there are plenty of activities you can do while still keeping your puppy safe from harm. It's probably a good time to mention that although we all do our best to minimise risk, nothing is ever 100% effective. More dogs are put down due to behavioural issues than disease (RSPCA annual report 2015/16 - sorry the numbers are too devastating to include here) so you need to decide what level of risk you are willing to take.
Here are ways to socialise your puppy:
1. Attend a reputable puppy preschool class.
The venue should be cleaned with vet grade disinfectant, the trainers should be knowledgeable in dog training and behaviour and there should be a multitude of different socialisation activities and time for the puppies to interact with each other. Unfortunately, not all puppy preschool classes are created equal and the person facilitating the class is not always a qualified dog trainer. Again, do your research, find out their philosophy on socialisation, ask what socialisation activities they offer and what training basics they teach.
For those of you in the Rockingham area, I recommend the Rockingham Dog Club puppy preschool program. I have been a trainer there myself and know they take socialisation seriously, provide a number of different socialisation activities, allow supervised puppy play time, have experienced and qualified trainers facilitating the class and they have great cleaning protocols.
2. Invite people and fully vaccinated dogs to your home.
A leading dog behaviourist and vet, Dr Sophia Yin, suggests that a puppy should meet 100 new people during their first 3 months of age. Not all of these 100 people should traipse through your home, but inviting friends and family over to meet your new puppy is a great way to introduce them to people in a familiar environment. And if any of these people have a fully vaccinated and well-socialised dog, then invite the dog too!
3. Take your puppy for a ride in the car.
It is more than likely that your puppy is going to need to go somewhere in the car at some point in their lives so getting them used to it early on is essential. Plus it's good to set them up with no expectations that the car ride is anything other than a car ride as they will soon learn that car rides often lead to fun things like the beach or park.
4. Carry your puppy outside.
Unless you have a Great Dane puppy this is easy enough for most people! Carry your puppy with you to the letterbox and let them experience cars driving past, kids playing on the street, dogs walking by or the postie delivering mail etc. If your arms are up to it, carry your puppy around your local streets to introduce them to their local area and of course the people. Once people see you with a puppy they will likely want to come and meet them, I mean, who can resist a puppy!
5. Experience different environments.
Whether in the car or in your arms or lap, try to take your puppy to a variety of different places, especially places you would like to spend time with your puppy once they are fully vaccinated. Think the beach, park, local cafe etc. Just because your puppy can't be put down on the ground in public, doesn't mean they should miss out on the experience of being out with you. Be prepared, maybe take a thick blanket that the puppy could sit and play on (just make sure they don't escape the edges) so they can experience the outside world.
Ok so you are doing all these things but how do you make it positive or at the very least a neutral experience rather than a negative one? Again great question! You're really on fire today . . .
There are many ways to do this too.
1. Use distance to your advantage.
Rather than taking your puppy right into the thick of things first off, try sitting on the sidelines and gradually moving closer. You can do this in a variety of scenarios like starting off in a quiet car park or at the edge of one before moving to a busier one or closer to the action. Same at the park, watch from the edge first rather than taking your puppy right into the middle where all the other dogs (or kids) are running around.
2. Low intensity.
Similar to the distance point above, starting with lower intensity experiences then building up will help keep your puppy from becoming overwhelmed. This is especially important for sound based activities, think lawnmower, garbage truck etc. and high energy activities like the dog park, cafes and kids sporting events. Attend these events at quieter times to start or use some distance so that these activities seem less intense to begin.
3. Use rewards.
Rewards can include treats, pats, praise and toys and you use these to bring a positive association to new things. When your puppy sees a dog in the distance (or any other stimulus) and just looks at it then you can reward that action. Next when your puppy notices a dog then looks at you, give a reward for that. Your puppy then associates seeing other dogs (etc.) as a rewarding and positive experience, not a negative scary one.
We also use food rewards to lure puppies through different obstacles and activities, again helping them to complete the activity, building up their confidence and making it a fun, positive experience.
4. Play with your puppy.
This is an especially good strategy for potentially scary things like bad weather or really intense situations like when the lawnmower is on - moving and making a racket. Distracting your puppy with play will help take their focus off the stimulus but will also create a positive association. When the next storm arrives they will remember playing with you and that happy memory or won't even notice the storm at all.
5. Go slow.
Take it easy and go slowly. Don't rush your puppy and put them in situations where they can become overwhelmed or they are not ready for. Some puppies are more resilient and confident than others, so work at YOUR puppies pace. I've seen it many times through puppy preschool where a new puppy arrives and will go straight into play mode and other puppies who keep their distance and take longer to become accustomed to the new environment. Whatever the case with your puppy, take note and work from their current level.
Even though a puppies critical period for socialisation is until 14 weeks of age, that doesn't mean you should stop there. Your puppy will have learned the basics of how to react to new things during that time and hopefully, you have taught your puppy that new things can be fun and not scary. But it is very unlikely that you have been able to expose your puppy to every single thing that they will experience in their life. So just keep going. Keep introducing them to new activities and experiences. Keep meeting new people and dogs. Show them over and over and over again that new things or even things they have already encountered can be fun or at least not scary.
Once a puppy is fully vaccinated (which usually coincides with the end of the 14 weeks) it makes going out and experiencing the world a whole lot easier.
As a dog owner, dog trainer and pet sitter I have learnt many different tips and tricks over the years and I thought this would be a great way to share them with you. Enjoy!