The first 20 weeks of a puppy’s life is a crucial time for socialisation, as during this time they are more accepting of new experiences. The socialisation ‘window’ is usually around 3-12 weeks. You won’t be able to get your puppy until they are at least eight weeks old, so the owner/breeder should have already started this important process.
But what does socialisation actually mean?
Socialisation means positive interaction with other dogs, but this is only one aspect of socialisation. Socialisation is also allowing your dog to explore new environments and have new experiences to help them grow in confidence and understand their place in the world. These include:
- New environments. This includes parks, beaches, vets, shops, restaurants and cafes, bridges, rivers, puddles, rain, different textured floorings inc. wood, tile, carpet, gravel, tarmac, mud and grass.
- Other animals. Dog to dog interactions are a big part of socialisation but also consider the size, breed and age of the dogs as well as other animals like ducks, birds, cats, chickens, squirrels, sheep and cows. All puppies need to learn early on what to expect, who they can interact with and who to leave alone.
- New people. Allow your dog to say hello to all different types of people including children of all ages, adults young and old in different types of clothing. You will be surprised how many dogs are weary of people in hats and glasses. Don’t forget different voices!
- Noises. There are so many noises out there for a puppy to experience from indoor sounds like hoovers, slamming doors and objects falling to outdoors noises like trucks, cars, horns, trains and farm vehicles. Even a baby crying can be scary to a dog that has never heard one before.
- Handling. It is important to allow your dog time to be handled from his nose to his tail. This will come in handy at vet visits and when he goes to the groomers but it also includes giving him time to get used to brushing, nail trimming, ear cleaning, baths, wearing a harnesses, collars & coats, lifting & carrying, and being tethered and restrained.
How do I socialise my dog correctly?
- Make sure every experience is a positive and rewarding one
- Exposure alone is not socialisation, interaction is key to socialisation
- Never force your puppy into an interaction if they are uncomfotable as this could stick with them as a negative experience
- Your puppy is the only one who will determine if the interaction was positive, so look out for signs of distress or anxiousness, remove the puppy and try again in a different way
What can affect socialisation?
Different dogs are sensitive to different things – some are easy to socialise and some may take longer to adjust.
- Genetics: what the puppy inherits from their parents plays a large part (nervous mums are more likely to have nervous puppies)
- Breed: puppies from herding breeds, like Collies and German shepherds, are sometimes more prone to fearfulness and need more and earlier socialisation compared to other breeds
- Missed out on early experiences: you may also have an older puppy that missed out on a lot of early experiences
- young puppies tire easily, so keep encounters short with lots of time in between for snoozing
- create encounters that will be successful and rewarding – if all of their early life is pleasant and positive, your puppy will grow up to feel safe and confident
Getting your puppy used to different sounds
You can desensitise your puppy to a sounds they will likely encounter in their everyday life, by using things like YouTube videos or specially designed apps. Good sounds to familiarise your dog with include:
- babies crying
- cars and trains
Getting your dog used to travelling in the car
If you need to drive somewhere, take your puppy with you. Start off with short distance journeys and build up to longer trips to get them used to be being in the car. Be sure to take another person your dog knows to stay in the car with them. This way, your puppy can experience all the new sights, smells and noises from a safe distance through an open window.
How to socialise a puppy out and about
Once your puppy is fully vaccinated, you’ll need to wait around two weeks before they can fully explore the outside world. Be careful not to give them more exercise than recommended for their age and breed. Start off gradually at first, slowly increasing the number of positive encounters as your puppy becomes older and gains confidence.
Getting puppies used to people you know
Meeting adults and children should be the most important item on your socialisation list as it’s especially important that dogs feel comfortable in their company.
The more people your puppy sees, the more relaxed and confident t they will become. Take your puppy to your friend’s houses and invite friends to your house! Once your puppy has grown a little in confidence, try to take them everywhere with you if possible.
If you live in a household with no children, try and ensure that your puppy gets to meet a variety of sensible children of different ages. Young children can behave very differently to adults, so if your puppy doesn’t meet them when they’re young, they are likely to be worried by them when meeting them in later life.
Stay relaxed and help your puppy to understand that you aren’t worried or concerned at all in the presence of unfamiliar people – in fact, let your puppy know that you like them! If it’s safe to do so say ‘hello’, and where you can, chat as you are passing people by.
If your postman, or a delivery driver is willing, you can include them too. Being introduced at an early age will help create a positive association with these people who might otherwise be seen as a threat.
How to introduce them to strangers
Most puppies will enjoy meeting new people, and most people will enjoy meeting a puppy! But it’s important that your puppy is not overwhelmed. You can help them out by:
- asking people to crouch down to meet your puppy
- allow your puppy to approach a new person, rather than the other way around – this way you can be sure that they are feeling confident enough to meet somebody unfamiliar
- don’t let strangers pick your puppy up to hug them. It may frighten your puppy (especially if they’re shy)
- avoid using food when introducing your puppy to strangers as this may teach them that all people carry food on them, which is not ideal. You’ll want your puppy to approach people because they want to say hello politely, not to receive treats!
Other dogs and puppies
Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s important that your puppy meets a good mix to ensure that they are not frightened of certain dogs as they get older. Ensure these dogs are safe around puppies as a bad experience is often worse than none at all.
A puppy learns to interact appropriately with well-socialised adult dogs by spending time with them. They will learn important skills such as:
- not putting teeth and paws all over them (unless invited to do so during play)
- how to communicate effectively
Most adult dogs will tell a puppy off if they are too excited; but some are extremely tolerant and may allow your puppy to play too roughly.
Monitor your puppy playing with other dogs carefully and think about how you’ll want your puppy to behave with unfamiliar dogs that they will meet when out and about, especially when they get bigger.
Visiting the vet
At some point your puppy or adult dog will have to go to the vet’s if they are unwell or have hurt themselves. Being handled when you’re not well or in pain is unpleasant and this may in itself cause a dog to feel scared enough to behave defensively.
One way you can help prepare your dog for this is to provide them with lots of positive experiences at the vet’s before a trip is needed for more serious reasons.
You will need to think about:
- choosing a practice that is happy for you to visit several times with your puppy where they only receive some gentle handling and treats
- helping prepare your puppy for the more formal handling that will occur in the consulting room – practice this at home first
Puppy training classes
A good puppy class can help with socialisation and get you started with your training, but remember that a weekly session won’t be enough and the majority of the work will need to be done by you away from the class. Puppies usually attend between the ages of 12 and 20 weeks and the entire family is encouraged to be there so that all the puppies present get to meet a wide variety of adults and children.
Signs that your puppy is worried
It’s important that you become familiar with the signs of stress in your dog and take action as soon as possible, usually by taking your puppy away from whatever is causing them to be worried.
A happy, relaxed puppy will stand up straight with their tail (or whole body) wagging and be keen to investigate.
How to help prevent your puppy worrying
- Keep an eye on your puppy for signs of anxiety or being overwhelmed. If things get too much, remove them from the situation or give them more space and freedom to approach
- Never pick up your puppy and pass them to someone
- Don’t pull your puppy towards whatever you’re trying to introduce them to – puppies should always be able to make an approach in their own time and retreat if they want to
How to help shy puppies socialise
Shy or nervous puppies are likely to need a lot more extra support during this really important time in their lives.
It’s good to let shy puppies observe goings on from a distance at first, and as you begin to see them relax you’ll be able to gradually increase their level of exposure.