The pressure’s on; you’ve collected your new puppy and everyone you meet is full of advice on what to do next. How to house train, what to do about puppy biting, where they should sleep (and the answer is discussed here), what they should eat and how often, the list goes on. And top of the list is socialisation. You know it’s crucial; you know there’s a time limit; you know what you’re going to do to ensure your puppy gets out there and meets lots of dogs and people so they’re well socialised. You’re going to take them to puppy parties and puppy classes.
But, let’s look again at what we’re aiming to do by ‘socialising’ our puppies, what socialisation means, and what are the dos and don’ts of good socialisation. The aim of socialisation, and really the aim of everything we do with our puppies, should be to enable them to grow up in to well-mannered, well-rounded adult dogs with the confidence to take everything they meet in their stride and the resilience to bounce back from unpleasant experiences. Strictly speaking socialisation is the process by which an animal learns how to recognise and interact with members of its own species, or those with which it lives. As dogs share their lives so closely with us humans, as well as often with cats, rabbits, horses, sheep, cattle and other animals, we tend to extend the definition of socialisation to include learning about any animal with which the puppy may need to come in to contact on a regular basis. This means it is unique to each dog, and their family circumstances. Only you can determine your individual puppy’s needs for socialisation.
Equally as essential for building confidence as socialisation, and often included when talking about it although it deserves (and will get) a blog of its own, is habituation. By taking your puppy out and about in the world, and introducing them to a range of sights, smells, noises, and experiences what you are aiming to do is habituate your puppy so that the next time they encounter something similar they can do so without (or with a reduced) response. The converse of habituation is sensitisation, when an encounter serves only to heighten the puppy’s response next time – which is why it is so crucial to avoid a fear reaction from your puppy wherever possible. Through good socialisation and habituation you are helping your puppy develop a store of reference material that will guide the way they respond to new dogs, people and situations throughout their lives.
For socialisation (and habituation) the first encounters are key. Imagine you are a small puppy. You’ve left your mum and siblings and are settling in to a new home, learning the new rules. You are a little anxious, which means that you will be more likely to view new things you meet as potentially scary. You are taken to a room, with lots of new smells, new people and other puppies and put on the floor. Another puppy runs up to you and bowls you over. All you want to do is run away, and hide. The puppy doesn’t leave you alone, and you don’t know how to get him to go away. Eventually, you snap at him and he finally gets the message and leaves you alone. What have you learned? Lots of things. That sometimes your new family take you places that are scary and don’t protect you. That other puppies / dogs are scary. And you’ve learned that using aggressive behaviour gets them to go away. This is not socialisation. Or at least, this is not what you want your puppy to learn when meeting other dogs.
I remember seeing a dog walker on Wimbledon Common let her group of 10 adult dogs (this was before the Common introduced a maximum number of dogs per person rule) overwhelm a small schnauzer puppy. She, and the owners, stood by while the puppy lay on its back, peeing with fear, as the dogs sniffed, licked and nosed at the puppy. Throughout the encounter, the dog walker was enthusing about what wonderful socialisation the puppy was getting from interacting with her dogs. And the owners, believing she must know what she was talking about because she’s a ‘professional’, let it happen. Who can blame them – it takes confidence to interrupt on your dog’s behalf, and to challenge the opinion of someone who appears to be authoritative. I still regret the time a vet made my dog poo themselves in fear and I was too dumbstruck by what had happened to step in. This is why in our Developing Puppy Life Skills classes we practice saying no to people and moving our puppies out of harms way in a calm and relaxed manner.
All too often I am told about puppy parties or classes taking place in tiny rooms where the puppies are off lead ‘playing’ with little or no consideration of temperament, size, confidence or experience, and nowhere to escape or for a nervous puppy to simply observe while they gain confidence to approach one of the calmer puppies. Worse still are the parties or classes where over-confident or ill-mannered puppies are physically pinned, rolled, scruffed or smacked for their thuggish behaviour. Two lessons in one there – humans are scary and bad things happen to me when I’m around other dogs.
So when you’re considering your puppy’s needs for socialisation take the time to think about how it happens. Look for calm, friendly adult dogs and let your puppy choose if they want to interact or not. Give them time and space to observe if they are nervous. It is potentially far more damaging to a puppy’s confidence to be forced in to a situation where they are not comfortable and to have a bad experience than to approach at their own pace, even if that means they spend their first meeting sniffing the floor several feet away from another dog, or only approaching when the dog is looking away from them. If your puppy is rather more confident or downright rude around other dogs then ensure the adult dog is capable of calmly disengaging from the puppy, or to discipline them appropriately. Adult dogs who snap at puppies may be doing so because they are fearful, not because they are ‘teaching them manners’ and should not be placed in that position in the first place.
Off lead puppy play should be well managed – with small groups of temperamentally and physically matched puppies together. The humans present should have a pre-agreed plan as to what will happen before, during and after the puppies are off lead, and play should be calmly interrupted before it becomes too aroused. It’s absolutely fine for shy puppies to watch from a distance; there are ways in a good puppy class to give them positive experiences without overwhelming them.
Socialisation is not just about getting your puppy to meet as many dogs as possible. It should be done in a controlled and thoughtful manner. Equally, we should not be overly- protective of our puppies. Keeping a puppy on lead, away from other dogs as it grows up is another way of creating problems for the future. There is a happy middle ground, where we respect our puppies and what they are telling us through their body language and we provide appropriate dogs, people and other animals for them to meet in a safe environment.
To find out more about the Life Skills approach to puppy and beginner adult classes see our Classes and Workshops page. All photos courtesy of Life Skills for Puppies classes I taught at the University of Lincoln.
Developing Dogs May 2014