New research shows that puppies that come from a background of poor socialisation (particularly from pet shops and puppy farms) end up with long lasting behavioural effects. Socialisation is the most misunderstood part of puppy raising and has a huge impact on the happiness of your family later on.
WHEN TO SOCIALISE
The critical socialisation period starts at 3 weeks of age and ends at 12 weeks of age, so if your puppy was 8 weeks old when you took him home, you only have a month to expose your puppy to the variety of people, places, noises, activities and things that he will need to know about in order to be happy and well behaved.
Dogs are incredibly attentive, sensitive and love to communicate. They learn so much in their early formative weeks about their environment and the people they will be living with. Up until 12 weeks of age they approach new situations, animals and things with an adventurous, open mind. During this time they learn about body language, what noises, activities and places are normal and they learn to bond with other dogs and people. Poor socialisation is the leading cause of behavioural problems, euthanasia and surrender to a shelter for behavioural problems.
WHAT HAPPENS IF A PUPPY IS POORLY SOCIALISED?
We all know those dogs that are aggressive towards men, other dogs or are simply nervous little highly-strung things that are absolutely fixated on just one person in their life. These dogs are often terrible in crowds or noisy environments but also don’t like to be left alone. Dogs with phobias, fears and anxieties are usually dogs that were not properly socialised. Many people assume that the dog that is anxious was abused at some stage in its life, but the reality is that poor socialisation has exactly the same effect on temperament.
The sad reality is that dogs that do not receive proper socialisation are often very unhappy and difficult to live with. No amount of training later on will compensate for missing out on this critical part of their development.
So now that we know how important socialisation is, let’s develop some strategies to help your dog be the best he can be.
Puppy preschool classes are a great basis for early, safe socialisation. Typically puppy school courses run at once weekly for 4 weeks. Although they are an excellent tool and great fun, you will need to do some extra homework and socialisation on your own if you are to get the best out of your puppy.
Make sure you choose a puppy preschool that has a good reputation and involve all members of your family in the training process. Many vets, pet shops and private training organisations run puppy schools. Ideally you want a class with a variety of dogs of different sizes attending and plenty of time for supervised play.
MAKE A PLAN
The socialisation period offers a great opportunity to get your dog comfortable with new experiences. But the socialisation window of opportunity is very brief, so to ensure that you cover all the things you need to it is useful to have a plan.
For a great review of puppy socialisation visit Dr. Sophia Yin’s blog, and download her free checklist here. Broadly, you want to expose your dog to the following things:
- Dogs of various sizes and shapes.
- Children (make sure all interactions are supervised!).
- People with hats, beards and deep voices.
- Elderly people, men, women, dark-skinned people etc.
- Loud noises like alarms, storms and fireworks.
- Traffic, bikes, skateboards, motorcycles and things with wheels.
- Vacuum cleaners and noises in the home (fire alarm, doorbell etc)
- Balloons, umbrellas, plastic bags and
- Touching, putting on a harness, looking in ears and mouth, touching nails and general handling.
Your puppy’s socialisation period will begin and end before your puppy has completed the initial course of vaccination. However, this does not prevent socialisation, there are just a few things you need to watch out for.
- Avoid places like public dog parks or other areas that might be frequented by dogs of questionable or unknown health status.
- Puppy school is fine to attend after the first vaccination.
- If you aren’t sure whether a friend’s house could have been home to an unvaccinated dog in the past 2 years, avoid letting your dog sniff around on the grass or soil.
- Parvovirus does not survive well on concrete footpaths, in direct sunlight and is easily cleaned away by bleaching. So a concrete footpath in direct sunlight is very unlikely to be a source of disease, while a park full of grass, dirt and shade is.
- If you aren’t sure if the place is safe, carry your dog.
- Beaches are generally okay, just carry your dog across any park areas frequented by dogs and stick to the sand.
Puppies are more accepting of new experiences during the socialisation period. They are more likely to be inquisitive than frightened during this time of their lives. However, if something does occur during early developmental stages, this bad experience can lead to life-long problems.
Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your puppy’s socialisation period:
- Keep a close eye on your puppy’s reactions and body language. If your puppy seems frightened, tone down the activity or take a break. If your puppy is cowering, hiding or you can see the whites of his eyes, he is scared and needs to be removed from the situation. Removing a fearful pup is not rewarding the fearful behaviour, it is simply being a considerate parent.
- If you have friends with dogs that are healthy, well behaved and vaccinated, take your puppy to meet them. Ensure all interactions are safe for your puppy.
- If you have friends with children, allow your puppy to meet them and watch that interactions are gentle.
- Take your puppy with you when you go out. If your puppy is carried, he is unlikely to pick up diseases that he is not fully vaccinated against and he will feel safe if he is closely supervised.
- There are pre-prepared recordings you can use to expose your dog to noises such as storms, fireworks, balloons popping and noises that can lead to fear responses. Playing a CD like this while your puppy is eating and gradually increasing the volume can help avoid the extremely common development of a noise phobia.
- Get your pet used to being touched all over, cut his nails (just the tips, so you don’t hurt him!), brush his teeth and hair, check his ears and ensure that he is used to being handled.
- Whenever you see good behaviour in your puppy, or you are training acceptance of handling and socialisation, use lots of treats and praise. Ignore all the bad attention-seeking behaviour (like play-biting, barking and jumping up) and only give your dog attention when he is calm and well-behaved.
A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
Some breeds are more accepting of new experiences than others, even during the socialisation period. But regardless of the breed of your dog, early socialisation is the best opportunity you have to help your dog be comfortable with sharing your life fully.
Make the most of those precious few weeks, and make life better both for you and your dog for years to come.