The importance of socialising a puppy can never be over-emphasised, but what exactly does it mean? And how does one go about it? This article will explain to you what socialisation is and how to put it into practice to ensure your dog has few, if any behavioural problems later in life and is able to interact well with dogs and other species.
Socialisation is the process whereby a puppy learns to recognise and interact with other individuals of its own species, with people of different ages, races and genders, and with other animals that they are likely to come into contact with, such as cats and horses. The dog will learn the skills necessary to communicate with and interpret the other animals’ intentions, thus avoiding unnecessary hostilities. The dog will also learn to cope with stress and will suffer less as an adult in stressful situations.
When talking of socialisation, we often include habituation, that is, getting a puppy used to different places, sights and sounds so that they become confident in new situations and get used to as many different stimuli as possible. There are certain periods in a puppy’s development that are more important than others. The most sensitive socialisation period begins at around 3 weeks of age and begins to reduce by 12 weeks. Peak sensitivity is between 6 and 8 weeks of age. It is important to remember that many young dogs need continual social interaction to maintain their socialisation and failure to do so will mean that they regress or become fearful again. The 6-8-month period is another sensitive time for socialisation and owners and trainers can use this window to further habituate and socialise their puppy to different surroundings, people and animals.
So, now we know why and when socialisation should be carried out, we must look at how to undertake this. It is recommended that your puppy be introduced to new stimuli and other people and pets in a systematic and controlled way. Remember that these formative experiences will shape the behaviour of your pet for the rest of her life, so the idea is that they should be pleasurable and fun. They may well also be challenging, but if done in the right way, the puppy will learn that there is no threat and that they are safe to explore and meet new friends and situations without being fearful. This ensures the best chance of their developing a sound temperament and capacity to cope in all circumstances.
Early socialisation is, of course, in the hands of the breeder and if they are conscientious and responsible they will ensure that the puppies are handled frequently, as well being exposed to normal household stimuli such as the television, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, doorbell etc. Puppies who are raised in a quiet kennel or room will have trouble adapting to a normal family environment.
So once the puppy is at home with you, it is your job to continue carefully introducing her to different people, animals and stimuli. It is however important to introduce the puppy to new people, places, objects and situations only when you can completely control the experience. A frightening experience will be detrimental – avoid unfriendly dogs and adults and children who do not understand how to be kind and gentle with animals. Invite friends to your house soon after you bring your puppy home to teach her that guests are friendly and welcome in her new home. Give your friends treats to give to the puppy so it is rewarded. Introduce it to one or two other friendly, healthy, fully-vaccinated dogs. Once the puppy is full vaccinated they can join in with bigger groups. Always be ready to intervene if your puppy is scared, threatened or being bullied by another dog.
When socialising your puppy, you must evaluate your lifestyle and environment and assess what situations are lacking. For instance, if you live in the country, take your puppy to town and gradually and carefully let them become accustomed to crowds of people, noise and traffic. If, however, you live in a town and these things are no problem, take your puppy to the countryside so it can see and smell farm animals and become accustomed to them too. Make sure your dog meets some cats who are dog-friendly. Don’t let it chase them as this will start a life-long habit that will be difficult to change. If your household has no children, introduce your puppy to some children who can regularly play gently with it. Always supervise them to ensure the children are gentle and that your dog is responding well and not becoming nervous or aggressive.
Remember always to protect your puppy’s health, before it is fully vaccinated. Don’t put the puppy down on the ground where there may be dog urine or faeces, and don’t let it interact with other dogs that may carry disease. You can still socialise your puppy by carrying it into different situations and taking it in the car, allowing it to see many different things in a safe environment and get used to trips in the car at the same time. Use treats and praise to reinforce good behaviour. Do not comfort your puppy if it is fearful as this can be interpreted as praise for the wrong behaviour. Simply change the situation (i.e. ask an approaching person to step back or pick up your puppy to get it out of a difficult situation) until it feels safe and secure once more.
All interaction with your puppy at this age involves consistently rewarding desirable behaviour which will increase the likelihood the dog will repeat this behaviour. It will also help to prevent the development of undesirable behaviour.
Another helpful step would be to enrol in puppy socialisation and training class. This provides a great opportunity for puppies to socialise with other dogs, for puppies to learn obedience training in a playful environment with plenty of distractions and also for owners to learn training and communication techniques.