The key time for puppy socialisation is in their first 12 weeks of life. During this period they’re much more malleable to their environment, and learning what’s what in the world. For the first 8 weeks of your new puppy’s life, they were (in most circumstances) under the care of the breeder, and so socialisation in a way actually starts long before your puppy is even born – it starts the day you begin to research breeders and find out what they do to help socialise your potential puppy whilst they’re in their care.
Breeders can do plenty to help you with socialisation – maybe there are other dogs living in the house, maybe the breeder has children for your puppy to get used to, the breeder must take them on their first car journey for their first vet visit for their first vaccinations, maybe your breeder can give your puppy safe access outside etc. So understanding how your breeder approaches these milestones is really key in setting your new puppy up for the best start in life.
Once you’ve got your new puppy (if you picked them up at 8 weeks) you have 4 weeks left of this key socialisation period – that’s not to say 5 weeks later you’ve lost all hope of carrying on socialisation – it’s important to keep it up, but concentrating your efforts for those 4 weeks is a good idea. Recently the way vaccinations are given has changed, and the new way means if you’re on the ball, your puppy will be allowed on the floor at 11 weeks, leaving you only one week left! So, be prepared to carry your pup around to experience lots of new things for 3 weeks! This will be drastically harder with the giant breeds than the miniature breeds…
The biggest mistake many owners make with socialisation, is to force their puppy into uncomfortable situations – just because your puppy is in its socialisation period doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be happy with everything it sees, and forcing them to do things won’t make them suddenly change their mind about it. The key is to read your puppy, and if it’s not in a positive state of mind about a situation, don’t force it. Let them escape the situation and analyse what might have been the cause later on when puppy’s happy again.
An example of this might be traffic at the road side – large trucks and buses going past could be really scary for some puppies. Although now is a good time to get used to it, that doesn’t mean you need to force them to stay next to it. On the Dog’s Trust website you can download for free, several audio files to play to your dog. Sounds Scary would be a useful audio file to download here as it has lots of noises on it that your puppy can get used to including traffic noises. So pop this on your speakers at a quiet volume, and give your puppy something really great to do – maybe a high-value chew. After a few days of slowly increasing the volume, if your puppy is happy with the noise, you can try again outside, but if they’re not happy with the speaker noise, simply keep it on a low level and take the process much slower until they are happy. Once outside with your puppy, stand a while away from traffic, and choose a road with slow moving traffic such as a residential area. You can give treats and fuss to ensure it’s a positive experience for them, and slowly move closer to the traffic over the coming days and weeks. Eventually buses and trucks should all be well within their comfort zone.
It’s a similar situation with dogs – sometimes puppies are nervous of dogs, especially large ones, and forcing them into situations with other dogs can actually make them more worried, rather than help them. So avoiding puppy parties and face to face greetings with dogs, and instead opting to do some parallel walking, or allowing your puppy to follow other dogs would be a much better approach for them. Any time, in any situation, if you’re puppy’s telling you they don’t like something, move away with them, evaluate what it might be, and set out a plan for how to turn it into a positive experience.
There’s also a difficulty for puppies in that we as humans all want to say hello – who wouldn’t?! From a puppy’s view, a big scary person is coming over directly towards them, they’re in their owners arms so can’t escape, and they have no idea what the person wants from them. Often (and men admittedly are probably worse) we will rub the sides of their face and ears with both hands, which can be quite scary for a puppy. So, as their new owner, it’s up to us to ask the person who would like to say hello, to say hello in an appropriate way – whilst they’re in your arms this could be giving them a gentle stroke on the chest. Once they’re on the floor, this could be waiting for them to sit, and then crouching down for a chest stroke instead of leaning right over them. Even other dog owners will have no idea how you want your dog to behave for other people – some people want their dog to sit, others to simply not jump up – letting people know your goal for greetings will let them help you to train your puppy rather than un-do your hard work.
One of the most common and notorious negative things for a dog is going to the vets. It’s not surprising – on their first visit they get a large, wide but hollow needle inject a microchip into them, plus some vaccinations which can sting a bit. Their gums and eyes are examined, hearts listened to, weighed and possibly wormed – so they might feel a bit in the wars after their first experience. Their second experience is often their next set of vaccinations, so this can compound their negative feelings towards going to the vets. It’s a good idea to counter this by taking them to the vets frequently during their socialisation period and making it a really great and positive place to go! Most vet practices are more than happy for you to take your puppy to the waiting room, where you can give them lots of treats etc, and then leave a few minutes later with only positive memories of that vet visit.
So what else do you need to think about for socialisation? Well the Sounds Scary, Sounds Sociable and Sounds Soothing audio files are all a good thing for all new puppies to be listening to, even if they’re happy in every situation so far. If it’s February for example, they’re likely to not hear fireworks until November, so playing these audio tracks which include sounds such as fireworks is a great idea, and it’s so easy to do, you can even enjoy a glass of wine whilst doing it!
Other things to think about:
- Cars and other forms of travel – will they be catching the bus or train with you?
- Uniforms and novel clothing – has your puppy seen high-visibility jackets, a policeman, a sun hut or sun glasses before? Even long hair, beards and differences in skin colouration can all be things for your puppy to get used to.
- Odd activities (as far as your puppy’s concerned) – your puppy might be used to people walking past, but what about cyclists, kids on scooters, a football game, joggers, loud screams or shouts, lawn mowers etc.
- The postman and other visitors to your door can be very difficult for dogs - can you establish a routine for this such as being rewarded for running to their bed when the doorbell goes
- Visitors coming into your home may well be frequent when they know you have a new puppy! So utilise willing volunteers to help your puppy get used to strangers coming into your house.
- Hoovers, mops, ironing boards etc. can all be a cause for concern for puppies, so take your time and let them get used to things – if the first time they see a hoover is when it’s turned on, that will be much scarier than if the hoover is motionless and quiet for example.
- Collars, harnesses etc are often overlooked, but getting your puppy used to these items in a positive way is essential – don’t wait until the first day they’re allowed out of the house to put their harness or collar on.
- A great one to get them used to are other animals – this could be cats, especially if you live near other people who own cats as your dog will likely see them regularly on its future walks. Or it could be bigger animals such as sheep, cattle, pigs and horses. Even if you live in the city centre, you might still want to holiday in the countryside and getting your puppy used to farm animals will really help you.
- There’s then the more odd things that you might not have thought about, but it’s still a great idea to introduce them to different textures and sensations around them. Sand, gravel, pavement, grass both long and short, mud, leaves, wet, dry, windy, ice, flat ground, steep ground, high-up places, even open-floors such as the mesh floor often seen at boat docks where you can see through to the water below – you never know later on when you might need to walk up a set of stairs that has open spaces between each step them with your dog.
- Finally, exercising your dog mentally at a young age can really help them with frustration tolerance, problem solving and a whole lot more! So introducing your puppy to puzzle feeders and brain games is also a brilliant activity to do, and you may even find you get a bit more quiet time!
Another great point to make is to consider puppy class options – avoiding classes with large numbers of other puppies, avoiding classes that essentially have a “free-for-all” where puppies are all let off lead to play, and avoiding classes that use punitive methods are all key. Less obvious is what to look for in particularly good classes, for example does the trainer do sessions specifically aimed at socialisation by getting puppies used to high visibility jackets, do they offer one to one sessions for puppies a bit too nervous to be in a class setting? Essentially, do they go above and beyond teaching a sit, stay and wait, and set you and your puppy up with some more well-rounded life skills?
Puppy socialisation is long and difficult, and doesn’t literally turn off at the end of that 12 week period, but maximising your input during those 12 weeks in a positive way is vital. The key to the whole process is to read your puppy, and conduct the whole learning curve with your puppy in a positive frame of mind, and to adapt your approach to any situation that’s a bit too much for them. If you simply introduce them to every single dog, person, and situation whether they’re worried or not, you might just make them even more worried and embed a negative association instead of a positive one.
That might all sound a bit daunting, but if you make a list of everything you want to get them used to, take it one day at a time, and keep re-evaluating, the work you put in during this period can really set you and your puppy up for a fantastic future!