Puppy Start Right: What You Need to Know about Puppy Socialisation

Who can resist a puppy face? Not many. So we bring home a puppy, we foster puppies and find them homes, we volunteer at a shelter to play with puppies, we may be a puppy trainer. We think we know all about puppies. Do we?

By Dr Kang Nee, cheerfuldogs.com
Ph.D., CPDT-KA, Low Stress Handling Certified Silver, Pet First Aid Certified, Puppy Start Right Instructor

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Whether you’re a puppy guardian, fosterer, trainer, here’s what you need to do to help that adorable puppy grow up into a calm and confident dog.

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The period from 3 to 16 weeks of age is a critical stage in a puppy’s life.

Puppies have a “ticking clock”

The period from 3 to 16 weeks of age is a critical stage in a puppy’s life – what he experiences during this time can form life-long impressions that impact his cognitive and emotional development. This period is called the socialisation period.

  1. What exactly do we need to socialise our puppy to?
  2. How do we do it?
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Choose a good puppy class where your puppy learns to be happy, confident & calm around different situations – great social skills that will guide him well through life.

stay home or socialise?

Some vets advise you to keep your puppy home until he has completed his vaccinations or until he is 5 to 6 months old. This is outdated advice. The risk of your puppy developing into a socially unskilled and/or fearful dog, outweighs that of him contracting an infectious disease by being out and about.

Find a good middle ground by taking your pup only to places where he’s less likely to catch something infectious, or get injured by the environment, people or other dogs. Avoid dog runs, animal shelters, adoption drives and places frequented by unfamiliar dogs.

But you can certainly:

  • bring your puppy to well-run puppy training classes
  • arrange small-group play dates with other puppies or dogs known to be in good health, up-to-date with their vaccinations and are friendly to other dogs
  • meet people and other dogs in calm settings and clean locations

Is it as simple as taking your puppy to all kinds of places, meeting all kinds of people and continually exposing him to things that may be new and scary to him, so that he can “get used to them”?

EXPOSURE ALONE ISN’T SOCIALISATION

A common mistake we make is to assume that just because we’ve exposed our puppy to lots of situations, he’s well socialised. For instance, if a puppy is afraid of dogs, we bring him to the dog run to meet other dogs there. If he avoids walking on grass, we keep putting him on grass. If he’s shy of children, we ask as many children as possible to pet, kiss and cuddle the puppy. Please stop!

Socialisation is NOT just about exposing your puppy to something, and letting him “work it out” on his own.

Would you let your child out into the street to “work it out” that crossing in front of an oncoming car is a bad choice? Would you let your child be exposed to frightening situations to “work out” how to be brave? I hope not.

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This is NOT appropriate socialisation: the puppies are not comfortable being so close to each other. They’re looking away from each other, their mouths are closed, their bodies are still.

Socialisation is about making an exposure to something (e.g. another dog, a child, garbage truck, vacuum cleaner, staircase) an enjoyable and calm experience for your puppy.

To achieve this “enjoyable and calm” element, you need to understand what your puppy is telling you by the behaviours he displays:

  • If he turns his head away as a child reaches out to pet his head, your puppy is not enjoying the interaction with that child.
  • If he’s running away with his tail tucked under his body when another dog (puppy or adult) chases him in the dog run, he’s not having fun making doggy friends.
  • If he’s barking and lunging at the vacuum cleaner and is unable to calm down, your puppy’s not having a calm experience.
  • If he’s pulling back and resisting strongly as you try to lead him down the stairs on a collar and leash, he’s not enjoying that experience at all.
This is also NOT appropriate socialisation: the puppy shows it’s uncomfortable by pulling its ears back, closing its mouth and keeping still. You can see the stress lines under its eyes and that “sleepy” look is another possible sign of stress. This puppy is not enjoying being carried by the girl.

This is NOT appropriate socialisation: the puppy shows it’s uncomfortable by pulling its ears back, closing its mouth & keeping still. You can see stress lines under the eyes & that “sleepy” look is another possible sign of stress. This puppy is not enjoying being carried by the girl.

In contrast, this interaction is more enjoyable for the puppy. Its mouth is open in a relaxed manner, its eyes are soft, the girl is not staring directly at it.

In contrast, this interaction is more enjoyable for the puppy. Its mouth is open in a relaxed manner, its eyes are soft, the girl is not staring directly at it.

To turn the tables around and make the above situations enjoyable for your puppy, creating distance is your primary force-free tool.

  • Instead of letting the child approach your puppy, let the puppy approach at his own pace. We all need our personal space, so does your puppy.
  • If the puppy is only comfortable enough to stay a distance of 5 feet from the child, that is your puppy’s threshold at that moment. Stay at that distance.

Use something that your puppy already loves as your second force-free tool to help create enjoyable, safe and positive associations with the child. If your puppy loves steamed chicken:

  • Feed your puppy small pieces of steamed chicken as he hangs out with you, 5 feet away from the child.
  • Watch your puppy for signs of stress: not eating, licking his lips, yawning, turning away, sniffing a lot etc. If you see these signals of help from your puppy, you need to take him even further away.
  • But if you see him relaxing, his body becomes loose, wriggly and he moves forward calmly and happily on his own, while still being able to pay attention to you, you’ve given your puppy an enjoyable head-start to making friends with that child.
  • At that point, you can either see if your puppy is ready to meet that child or you could keep that sweet experience for another time (remember, the patient child who’s helping you with your puppy must enjoy the encounter too!).
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Instead of just restraining your puppy for a bath, feed him bits of yummy food as you bathe him. Keep the first bath-time short & sweet & your puppy can grow to love bath-time!

Your role as a puppy guardian now, is to replicate that safe and enjoyable experience for each child, object, animal, person, situation, that he encounters in his life with you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your puppy would naturally love to be touched or handled by you.

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There’s a long list of “To Socialise” items: visits to the vet, cleaning his ears, brushing his teeth, handling his paws for nail trims, bathing, brushing etc. Your puppy also needs to learn to be comfortable walking on different kinds of surfaces, hearing different sounds, experiencing new things. Only when a puppy has learnt that the world around him is safe, would he gain that confidence to navigate it calmly & happily with you.

If you’ve socialised your puppy appropriately in his first four months of life (as described in the preceeding sections), the lessons serve to vaccinate your puppy against behavioural challenges that tend to crop up later in his life.

If you’ve socialised your puppy inappropriately (e.g. by only exposing your puppy repeatedly to something without making it fun and enjoyable), behavioural challenges such as fearfulness and reactivity may get worse over time.

If you’ve already missed that 3 to 16 week socialisation window, it doesn’t mean you cannot address behavioural challenges. Find a qualified, certified force-free trainer who has the knowledge and skills to help you.

Remember, start your puppy right with this rule, “keep it short, keep it safe, keep it enjoyable!”, and have a wonderful life-long learning journey with your family dog!


Read more: Kenneth M Martin, DVM & Debbie Martin, RVT, VTS (Behavior), CPDT-KA, KPA CTP (2011): Puppy Start Right. Foundation Training for the Companion Dog. A Karen Pryor Clicker Book

Dr Kang is a behavioural ecologist and certified professional dog trainer. Even whilst busy training dogs, she writes articles on dog behaviour modification and training for local and international magazines.

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