How exactly do we socialise a puppy?

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:

  1. Your puppy notices the novel person/dog/place/thing/sound/texture/feeling 
  2. You immediately start happy-talking (try not to use their name – just happy-talk)
  3. 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
  • whining
  • yelping
  • jumping up on your leg
  • pinning their ears back
  • wide-eyed and frozen
  • yawning
  • scratching at themselves
  • avoiding the interaction
  • crouching or cowering
  • refusing the food treats

If yes, your puppy needs space! Get some distance from the novel person/dog/place/thing/sound/texture/feeling 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 that you 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. 

Here is a fantastic example of one of our students socialising their new puppy with ducks at the waterfront. 

Dad leaves enough space; he lets Emma move at her pace, and when he sees her spook, he doesn’t do anything but add something fabulous (cheese) to create a fantastic association. There’s no coaxing her to move closer, there’s no preventing her from getting away, there’s just patience, observation, kindness, and classical counterconditioning. 

Unbelievable job. This is one for the textbooks.

You’re going to get a full socialisation roadmap as part of this course but there’s some foundation to explore first, to set you and your puppy up for success. Come back to this course regularly to brush up. 

Remember: we have a group in the Community where you can discuss all things puppy – come share your thoughts!

For humans, “socialising” means to get together and be social – talk, laugh, dance, play, create, connect. 

For dogs, it is a different definition. Socialisation is a deliberate activity that is done between the ages of 5 weeks and 5 months (loosely) and beyond that, we are simply training tolerance. It is creating a positive association with novelty, in essence. It is NOT simply getting them together with other dogs and letting them play. 

Sure. That’s part of it, but it’s not everything. 

image: pie chart of socialisation – people, dogs, sounds, etc

Let’s learn how to do this properly and safely.

First, arm yourself with high-value, small, soft, stinky treats. Get some ideas here. 

When your dog notices the stimulus, whether they see it, hear it, or feel it, start some gentle happy-talk and then a treat-party so that they start to make a connection between these two events.

Novel stimulus leads to happy-talk leads to delicious food. 

Therefore novel stimulus is safe and exciting! 

The order of events is paramount here! The dog must notice the stimulus first, THEN the happy-talk starts and then meatballs rain from the sky. 

DO watch your dog’s body language and behaviour; if they are fearful, avoidant, hesitant, apprehensive, move away a few feet to help them feel safer.DO let your dog dictate their comfort level by “voting with their feet”; if they want to move away, allow them to move away until they are safe. DO work on this consistently so that your dog has a 1:1 ratio of novel stimuli : fabulous associations

DO NOT lure the dog toward the stimulus – simply feed where your dog is already stationed.DO NOT ask your dog to sit first before you feed – the food must be non-contingent on behaviour.DO NOT force your dog to get closer or allow the stimulus to get closer to your dog.DO NOT punish or scold your dog if they begin to bark or avoid the stimulus.

We want the dog looking to us with happy anticipation when they notice a novel stimulus, and then investigating with confident curiosity if it’s safe to do so.