What Is Socialisation and How To Get It Right?
So you have just had a puppy. As wonderful and exciting as this time is, its’ also very tiring. You may have been overwhelmed with advice about how to train your puppy and you don’t know what to prioritise, particularly since training is somewhat limited during this pandemic.
If you’ve been to puppy classes, researched puppy training or just chatted with other puppy/dog owners, you have likely heard the term socialisation. You may have heard the following:
“Make sure you socialise your puppy”
“Your puppy will be aggressive with other dogs if he’s not socialised.”
“My puppy is naughty because he wasn’t socialised with other dogs”.
“You need to let your puppy play off lead, in order to fully socialise them”
“Your puppy has issues because you didn’t let him meet enough dogs.”
Socialisation has become the favourite buzz word amongst new puppy owners and many feel that so many behavioural issues in dogs are due to a lack of socialisation. In fact, you may have already heard this statement from other dog owners. However ironic it may seem, the opposite is usually true. It is seldom a lack of interacting with other dogs that causes behavioural issues.
Although it’s true that your puppy does need to be socialised with other dogs, exposure to other dogs is not enough. Also, dog interactions are only a small facet of socialisation. So in order to understand socialisation in its entirety, lets firstly consider what it involves.
What does socialisation involve?
Dogs spend majority of their lives with us humans, rather than other dogs and there is a lot of things in our world that is alien to them. Puppies have a critical socialisation period from around 3 weeks of age up until 14-16 weeks. It is crucial that your puppy has lots of positive interactions and experiences during this period, in order to prevent fears and phobias developing in the future. Now you may have heard of socialisation but not habituation. Habituation is a facet of socialisation and is simply the process of helping your puppy to become accustomed to certain sights and noises, especially those found in the home. This can include:
· The hoover
· The washing machine
· The lawn mower
· The television
· Traffic sounds
· Baby crying
· Doorbell/ door knocking
· Car sounds
The list goes on! When you bring your puppy home at 8 weeks, your puppy will go through their first fear impact period. Don’t panic! This just means that your puppy will be very alert and cautious about things in the environment and early experiences will have a large influence on their emotional and behavioural development at this stage.
One scary experience is enough to cause your puppy to develop a phobia. Therefore, this is a very influential period and experiences need to be as positive as possible. If your puppy does show fear, continuing to expose them to the scary thing will only make their fear worse, thus you must reduce the exposure to an intensity your puppy can handle. The goal of habituation is for your puppy to be so accustomed to the sound, it doesn’t cause any behavioural response.
It may sound strange, but socialisation also involves your puppy becoming confident walking on different surfaces so that they feel comfortable in different environments. This includes grass, gravel, sand, tiled floor, wooden floor, bark, soil, carpet and water. It also involves them becoming confident in different weather. I know walking in the dark in and in the rain is not enticing but it is beneficial to get your puppy accustomed to the weather.
Think about this, you may go out on a walking trip one day when its lovely and sunny and then suddenly a storm rolls in and your miles from the car.
Do you really want to be dragging or even carrying your adult wet dog? No didn’t think so. Even if you won’t walk in the snow or rain on a regular basis, just getting your puppy accustomed to this weather at this stage of their development is important. My tutor used to say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. So get your wellies out and wrap up warm!
When your puppy starts exploring the outdoor world, they are going to come across a variety of animals. If you live near the woods or farmland, your dog will likely see squirrels, rabbits, horses, cows and sheep. You may also have lots of cats wandering around your own street. Your puppy needs to be accustomed to these animals. (If you have a breed with a particularly high prey drive, you may need to do more focus training but that’s a topic for another day.)
Your puppy also needs to experience different places, such as the vets, groomers, coffee shops, the local town and near roads and road works. Many dogs that I have worked with, have developed a fear of the vets and/or groomers and/or fear of certain vehicles like motor bikes and buses. Therefore, its worth introducing your puppy to these things to prevent a fear developing, however, make sure you are a safe distance away and watch your puppy’s body language to ensure they are feeling comfortable.
If you notice the ears go back, lip licking and attempts to pull away, your puppy is likely frightened. If this is the case consider how you can make your puppy feel safer and try again another day with some tasty treats ready.
If you are going to be using a groomer, why not take them to meet them and just let your puppy explore. The same can be done at the vets. You don’t really want your puppy’s first vet experience to be a needle and a thermometer up the butt! Would you want to go back? Taking them to explore and to have lots of treats creates a great first experience and they will feel much more confident when they return. The key is to create positive experiences from the very start.
Another facet of this socialisation is getting your puppy accustomed to being touched and examined. Paws are one of the most sensitive parts of a puppy’s body because they have a lot of touch receptors located there, so this is good place to start. Practice lightly touching your puppy’s paws and if they pull away or bite, try introducing a reward after you touch each paw. Move on to touching and lifting the ears and looking in the eyes and mouth. If you do use treats, these can be easily phased out when your puppy becomes comfortable with being examined. This is important to practice in order for you to check your puppy’s health and to keep them well groomed.
Before we discuss dog interactions there is one more part of socialisation to consider and that’s other people. You may have noticed that puppies can develop unusual fears regarding people and their appearance. This can be people wearing hats, men with beards, people in florescent clothing, people in uniform, people using mobility equipment, children playing, people jogging/cycling and people from other cultures.
Its important for your puppy to grow accustomed to seeing people from different walks of life, so try to provide opportunities for your puppy to see a variety of people and interact if possible. Your puppy should also meet people of different ages, particularly children to help them get used to the noise and movement of them. Letting everyone hold your puppy can be quite intimidating and stressful for them, so let your puppy choose to approach other people instead and reward them with lots of tasty treats.
Continue to read your puppy’s body language to ensure they are comfortable during any interactions. If you wish to know more about your puppy’s body language and what it means, there is an excellent canine body language app called the dog decoder. This can help you determine if your puppy is showing any subtle signs of stress or if they are feeling comfortable.
Who knew there was so much involved in socialisation!? Hopefully you can see how each area contributes to your puppy developing into a confident and balanced adult. Finally we’ll move onto dog interactions.
Now you are right that puppies need socialisation with other dogs, however, it is important to have quality over quantity. What do I mean? Off lead play is great for your puppy, it wears them out and gives them some freedom, however, unsupervised off-lead play can ruin the quality of the interaction. Sadly, some socialisation classes or/and those than are not run by a dog training professional, can actually weaken your puppy’s social skills. These classes can be a free for all and some puppies may experience bullying that goes unrecognized. Since there is usually a large group of puppies at these classes, some puppies can become overwhelmed and may not enjoy the experience.
On the other hand, you may have a puppy that is really confident and maybe they love socialisation classes but they are the one being too rough with the other puppies. If that’s the case your puppy will still not be developing critical social skills. Rather, their future interactions with other dogs will be seen as rude and invasive and this can lead to dog fights. A puppy that is permitted to be rough, will grow up to be boisterous and they will likely have poor impulse control, making life very difficult for you.
Having negative experiences of other puppies/dogs during the socialisation period and the fear impact period, is often the cause of many behavioural issues seen later in life, particularly reactivity. You are probably thinking that socialising your puppy in a positive way seems to be more complicated than you originally thought, so how can you get it right?
To begin with, you need to choose your puppy’s playmates carefully and ensure play is safe and fair for all involved. You can do this by doing a content test. This involves giving each puppy a break from play and then seeing if both want to continue. If one of the puppies tries to move away from the other puppy, then you know that its time to end play. If both make a beeline for each other, then you know they are happy with the play.
If both puppies are comfortable, they will derive lots of social skills from the interaction. Just ensure you carry on supervising and giving each puppy a short break during the play session. This one to one socialisation can be far more beneficial than a room full of over excited puppies. Its quality over quantity.
If you choose to go to a socialisation class, choose wisely as dog training is not a regulated industry. It’s important that it is run by a qualified trainer and he/she closely supervises play and intervenes when necessary. As well as socialisation classes, also consider puppy training classes, as this provides opportunities to teach your puppy to have impulse control and to focus on you in distracting environments and around other dogs, which are critical socialisation skills for your puppy to learn.
While play with other puppies has it benefits, its also great for your puppy to interact with dogs of different ages. This helps to teach your puppy that not all dogs are willing to play and to respect the other dog’s communication. Sadly, your puppy won’t be a puppy forever and they need to learn now, how to interact calmly with other dogs of different ages and breeds.
Although opportunities to socialise are limited during this lockdown, meeting up with a friend that has an older dog that is calm, is an excellent opportunity to socialise. Going out for a walk together is a great opportunity for your puppy to practice greeting other dogs on walks in a calm manner.
It is also vital to teach your puppy, that they won’t always get to interact or play with every dog they see. If your puppy always gets to play with the dogs they see, that’s what they are always going to expect. This expectation is not realistic and it can lead to high arousal and reactivity, particularly on dog walks. This is the reason some puppies may display leash reactivity towards dogs after socialisation classes, if they were always permitted to roughhouse. In order to prevent your puppy from becoming a frustrated greeter, keep your puppy’s socialisation experiences varied.
Include off lead play dates and walks with other dog walkers and choose playmates that are calm to ensure the socialisation remains positive. Also practice walking your puppy with other dogs on lead. A mix of breeds also helps your puppy to become accustomed to different appearances, especially those whose body language is harder to read like pugs. So try and socialise with different ages and breeds as much as you can whilst ensuring each experience is positive.
So that may sound like a lot of work, but it reminds us that our dogs are always taking in information. When they look at and interact with people, animals and other things in the environment, they are always learning and creating memories and those memories will determine their emotional and behavioural response next time they are in that situation/environment.
Therefore, it is our responsibility to make these experiences as positive as possible to get your puppy’s socialisation skills off to the best start!