We often think that “socialising our puppy” means to bring them to a dog park and let them play with other dogs, but it’s not that simple. Socialisation in humans looks like that – dinner parties, clubs and bars, concerts, meetups, etc. For puppies, it’s not just something they do on the weekends or around the water cooler at work, it’s more of a behavioural vaccine.
A vaccine works by training the immune system to recognise and combat pathogens, either viruses or bacteria. Consider fear and aggression as “pathogens” and the “vaccine” is safe and properly executed socialisation. While vaccines are not 100% effective, they are certainly better than 0% effective, right? Let’s build your puppy’s emotional immune system.
The Primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing overstimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior.
-American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Position Statement on Puppy Socialization.
Click here to read.
We have a tiny window in which to work, so let’s throw the book at it.
A puppy’s critical socialisation period is from 5 weeks to 14 weeks (some might argue 12 weeks, even!) and in that time, we have a lot of work to do to fill their brain with positive associations.
Once your puppy is past 14 weeks, that doesn’t mean that the work is done, it simply means the easy part of the work is done. (Did you just fall off your chair? I know…) From this point forward,you’re going to have to work harder to create positive associations and watch closely for signs of fear, apprehension, anxiety, hesitation, whatever you want to call it.
Because I specialise in aggression, I do have a bias because of what I see on a daily basis. Fear and aggression are common in dogs, unfortunately…and they are mostly preventable with the right socialisation and early intervention. As a result, I suggest that you continue to “socialise” your puppy for the first year and a half of life and keep a close watch on their behaviour changes as they pass through adolescence and approach adulthood.
Every developmental stage presents different challenges and these challenges are often amplified versions of what we see in puppyhood.
You can change the future. Now is your chance. Don’t waste the opportunity!
What about training?Forget it. Seriously. You have your dog’s whole life to train them to sit, lie down, come when called, and do tricks. Right now, your dog needs urgent care in this department and it’s going to pay off tenfold down the road when you see the fruits of your labour and have a stable, social dog.
But my puppy isn’t afraid of anything!Awesome! That’s great news. We never want to see fear at a young age, but this doesn’t mean it won’t develop over time. You have a lot of prevention to do, so don’t get suckered into thinking just because Fido isn’t freaking out at the vacuum now, that he never will. Just because Fluffy Loves all people and dogs now doesn’t mean she won’t be barking and lunging at them when she gets through adolescence.
How does it look?
The process of socialising a puppy is simple but not easy. It takes preparation, dedication, observation, advocacy, creativity, and compassion.
You’re going to start by preparing, starting Day One. Have a loose plan in mind and have the tools you need to make this happen;
- tiny healthy treats (the size of a green pea)
- an easily accessible treat pouch
- a non-retractable leash and harness OR a safe carrier that allows your dog to see clearly and allows you to feed easily
How we do this:
- Your puppy notices the novel person, dog, place, thing, sound, texture, feeling
- You immediately start happy-talking (try not to use their name – just happy-talk)
- Grab a few small treats from your pouch and feed 3 in a row
Be sure to observe your puppy’s body language. Are they:
- trying to escape barking
- jumping up on your leg pinning their ears back
- wide-eyed and frozen
- scratching at themselves
- avoiding the interaction
- crouching or cowering
- refusing the food treats
If yes, your needs space! Get some distance from the novel people, dogs, places, things, sounds. textures, feelings and even pick them up if you need to.
Comfort is NOT coddling and you will not reinforce fear this way – you will teach your puppy thatyou are the source of comfort and safety when they are afraid.
If your puppy is loose and comfortable and accepting treats, fantastic! You’ve done a great job! Move on.
Socialisation can be done right and it can be done wrong. It’s important to understand the difference so that you can avoid long-term trauma resulting in behaviour challenges later.If you’re doing it right, you’ll see that your puppy is gaining confidence, not showing signs of fear and anxiety when faced with novel people, dogs, places, things, sounds, textures, feelings. You might even see that your puppy anticipates food when faced with something or someone novel. That is pure gold right there!! Feed them! Trust me.
Do not misunderstand this, however! If your puppy is not showing signs of fear, you must continue this process in its entirety. It’s a prevention process, not a treatment process.
Just because your dog is “fine” now, doesn’t mean they will retain this sociability as an adolescent or adult dog. It can be very misleading if you have a naturally confident puppy.
Doing it wrong looks like this:
- simply exposing our puppy to novel people/dogs/places/things/sounds/textures/feelings without associating food and happy-talk
- pushing them to interact with people when they are feeling uncertain
- letting them interact with dogs who are bullies, too rough, or otherwise inappropriate
- allowing another dog to “teach your puppy a lesson” by over-correcting and frightening them keeping your puppy indoors or away from novel people/dogs/places/things/sounds/textures/feelings until they’ve had all their shots
Tread carefully with this prevention-based process and try not to see it as a treatment for a problem.