Puppies aren't born knowing how to live with humans! Socialisation is the process during which puppies develop positive relationships with other living beings. The most sensitive period for successful socialisation is during the first 3 – 4 months of life.
This is when sociability outweighs fear and is the most important time for adapting to new people, places, animals and experiences. Puppies that receive insufficient socialisation during this time are more likely to develop behaviour problems later in life, including fear, avoidance and/or aggression, commonly seen as barking and growling at visitors and lunging at other dogs on walks.
To develop into normal, friendly and confident adults, puppies need regular handling and exposure to new and novel situations during this period. Most importantly, the exposure needs to be controlled so that it is a positive experience for the puppy, not threatening. For example, exposure to other dogs should be with well-mannered dogs rather than those who play in an overly aroused manner or cause fear.
When should I get my puppy?
While you want to start handling and socialising your pup as soon as possible, a puppy also needs interaction with its mother and litter mates to learn social skills and appropriate play behaviour, so the best age to obtain a pup is around 8-10 weeks of age.
Pick a reputable breeder where the pup has already had early handling, which means that they tend to be more confident, social, exploratory, faster maturing and better able to handle stress as they develop. If you have cats, it would be advantageous to choose a breeder that has already exposed the puppies to cats. It would also be wise to pick a breeder who rears the pups in the home so they are already exposed to normal household noises and a variety of people.
Genetics also influences a puppy’s behaviour – some breeds are more outgoing than others, and behavioural traits are also inherited from its parents, so observing the puppy’s parents interacting with their owners, and with you as strangers, is also recommended. Then the individual puppies in a litter will all have different personalities – choose one that is sociable, affectionate, and playful, avoiding overly shy or aggressive puppies.
Introducing your puppy to new experiences
Once your puppy comes home, you can continue the socialisation process by:
- Exposure to a wide range of people, including children, toddlers, babies, women and men, including men with beards, caps, sunglasses, hoodies, boots, etc.
- Exposure to household noises e.g. vacuum cleaners, radios, TV, blenders, banging, kids running around, bikes, skateboards, rollerblades, prams, microwaves etc.
- Gentle handling of the ears, feet, tail, mouth, and collar daily
- Travelling in the car
- Spending time in a crate and being left for short periods of time
- Walking on a lead
- Getting used to walking on different surfaces like concrete paths, the beach, grass and wet grass (so the pup will still toilet outside in the rain)
- Introducing to different vaccinated dogs and exposure to other animals e.g. cats in a positive way
- Eating meals from food puzzle toys
- Playing with toys, with you and alone
- Commencing house-training
- Learning to sit for greetings instead of jumping up
- Attending puppy preschool
To facilitate this process, provide a reward such as a food treat when then puppy is exposed to a new stimulus, so that it associates the experience with a reward. Otherwise, positive reinforcement in the form of a pat or praise is effective. Control the exposure so that is gradual and non-threatening, and reward all calm behaviour shown by the puppy.
For example, have someone turn the vacuum cleaner on briefly and far away, feeding the puppy treats continuously. If the puppy does react, the vacuum cleaner is too close or too loud. Try again further away and reward the pup for calmness. Gradually move the vacuum closer over a period of time as indicated by your pup’s reaction.
Supervise children, starting with one at a time, then the neighbours’ children, then progress to parties with balloons, music and games. Teach the children to interact calmly and offer the pup tasty treats or toys to play with. This will teach the puppy to look forward to meeting them.
Similarly, invite a variety of people over (one or two at a time) and have them offer the pup treats (or its daily kibble), get the postman to offer the pup treats and take your pup out with you to meet new people in safe places or while the pup is small enough to carry. Many short car trips will help reduce travel anxiety.
If the puppy is initially fearful or shy in any situation, let it retreat to somewhere that it feels safe, do not force it to confront the situation.
Puppies should be encouraged to have naps in safe places like a crate or pen so they are less stressed if they need to be hospitalised or confined for travel. Their crate can be taught to be a safe place by feeding the pup there and providing favourite toys, for short periods initially so that it doesn’t show distress or fear. Leave the crate open to start with so the pup can come and go. Pups that can amuse themselves and tolerate being left alone for short periods may be less likely to develop over-attachment to owners and anxiety when the owner leaves.
There is a compromise with opening up the world to puppies, in that they will not yet be fully covered by vaccination. However, the benefits of socialisation outweigh the health risks, and there are low risk environments such as friends’ houses with vaccinated dogs, and puppy classes.
Puppy classes are highly recommended to help teach basic commands, to socialise with other puppies and their owners outside of their familiar home, and to learn some basic health points. They usually consist of 3 or 4 sessions at your vet clinic, starting at 6-8 weeks of age, after your pup has had its first vaccination. Pups up to 16 weeks of age can attend. Older pups and adult dogs can attend age or size-appropriate classes or training schools.
Socialising doesn’t stop there! Continued positive exposure to a variety of people and other animals, new environments and stimuli, as the pet grows and develops, is also an essential part of maintaining good social skills.