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The most important thing you can do for your puppy
The critical socialisation period is the most important and influential period of a puppy’s life. This period is during the first 3-4 months of age (approximately 3 to 20 weeks – depending on breed and genetic make-up). During this time puppies are most accepting of new experiences and relationships so learning that occurs during this time can leave lasting impressions on your dog (positive and negative impressions). The experiences your puppy has during this time are a major influence on your puppy’s developing personality and how well your puppy will get along with people and other animals as an adult dog. Whilst it is important to continue to positively socialise your dog into adulthood, this early period is of vital importance.
It makes sense that a puppy’s fear of novelty would increase once he is of an age to easily move away from the maternal nest (into potentially unsafe situations). If a puppy has safely and comfortably met varied people, animals and situations early in life then they will not be perceived in a fearful way once the natural canine safety guard of fear of novelty develops. “Although the central nervous system retains some level of plasticity into adult life, its capacity for adjustments based on experiences is substantially greater during the sensitive period for socialisation (Knudsen, 2004)”.
What is socialisation?
Socialisation is the carefully planned act of introducing a puppy (child, kitten, rat etc. etc.) to their world in a way that ensures that people, places and events of their world do not become feared. It’s more than just introducing your puppy to many people and situations: it is introducing your puppy to many people and situations in a way that your puppy does not find frightening – your puppy is calm and comfortable around introduced environments. Not only does positive socialisation help to ensure that your puppy grows to feel confident in their world, it also helps to provide resilience around new and novel situations – your dog will be better equipped to readily accept the unexpected.
What should we do to ensure our puppy is socialised?
It is very important for puppies to have frequent, positive, social experiences during these early months in order to prevent potential anti-social behaviour (fear, aggression or timidity) from developing. Continued positive socialisation to a variety of people, environments and other animals as your dog grows and develops into an adult is an essential part of maintaining the good social skills your puppy learned during their puppy-hood.
Before you get your puppy
When choosing a breeder, ask them about how they socialise their puppies – what steps will they be taking in order to begin the important work of socialisation? If possible, obtain your puppy from a breeder that is knowledgeable about socialisation and is working to gently and positively introduce their puppies to their world. If you have the opportunity then visit your puppy regularly before you collect him – this way you can gently play with and stroke your puppy so that they become accustomed to your family. During this time you may also gently and gradually introduce your puppy to your car so that anxiety involved with the journey home is lessened. Here is a video showing how important early socialisation is when raising guide dogs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuH7_AICaio&feature=youtu.be. You can read more about this via this article: https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2017/11/extra-early-socialization-for-puppies.html. If you would l
ike more information on pre-puppy preparations, please contact us.
After you have collected your puppy
Once you have collected your puppy it is important that your puppy meets as many new people as possible (including babies, children, adults and the elderly) in a variety of situations in a positive way (be careful not to overwhelm your puppy). Begin with calm introductions to one or two people at a time. If your puppy handles this well, you can add more people, increased noise and more activity. It may be beneficial for you to feed your puppy tiny rewards whilst they are gently being introduced to new people and environments. The fear that could arise from the way a person looks, acts, sounds, moves or smells is likely to be prevented by positive introductions during the socialisation period so it’s important to try and meet many varieties of people too (different ages, ethnicity, props – walking stick, wheelchair, mobility scooter, umbrella, skateboard etc. etc).
Special consideration should be taken to ensure that puppie’s learn about young children. To a dog, children can seem like a completely different species than adults (they walk, act and talk very differently).
Running, squealing, bicycles, roller blades, scooters and skateboards are some of the unusual, fast moving things that are common when children are around. Puppies who grow up without meeting children when they are young may never feel comfortable around them as adult dogs. Lack of experience with a variety of people during puppy-hood is a common cause of social fear, avoidance and aggression in adult dogs. Don’t allow children to overwhelm or handle your puppy in a way that isn’t appreciated by your puppy.
Where to start?
1. Create a Socialisation Plan
Create a socialisation plan based on a checklist of general things, environments and people that your puppy will meet in life based around your local area. Add any additional environments or people that you envisage your particular puppy may meet in adult life – for example, if you are hoping that your puppy may develop into a therapy dog then introduce them calmly and positively to a hospital setting and the equipment that is commonly used there.
2. Have short and sweet daily outings based on your socialisation plan
Plan short, varied daily outings around your socialisation plan, gradually increasing the intensity (if your puppy is comfortable) as the weeks go by. For example – in week 1: invite one calm child to your home to gently meet your puppy, then gradually build the intensity (keeping things at your puppy’s own pace) until you are able to be near the play park with your puppy remaining calm and happy around the noise and movement of children playing in the park (possibly week 4/5/6 depending on your puppy). Take plenty of small rewards (that your puppy enjoys, such as frankfurters, ham etc.) with you to use during an introduction and around anything that your puppy meets for the first time.
3. Avoid unpleasant experiences
Remember that negative experiences can have a lasting impact as well as positive ones – if your puppy is scared by a child during this time, the impact may last into adult life, meaning that your dog may become fearful of children and act fearfully or aggressively around them. The aim is to ensure that your puppy’s interactions are pleasant (nothing happens to make your puppy afraid).
- Go slowly – Always allow your puppy to take things and introductions at their own pace – allow them to take in their enviornment from a distance to begin with and move away whenever they like. Go slowly and gently with introductions and new things so that your puppy is not anxious or worried. It takes ages to get anywhere with a puppy, I know! It will be worth it though.
- Remove and Soothe – Supervise your puppy’s interactions and act as your puppy’s safe haven by stepping in whenever you feel that your puppy is uncomfortable (remove your puppy from the situation and soothe him). Try the introduction again at a later date (from further away to begin with).
- Feed and praise – Many things make dogs feel good but the two that are easiest to use for socialisation are food rewards and praise. Use a little food and calm praise when making introductions. Monsters mean nice things happen (motorbike zooms by = several small rewards and soothing praise).
- Avoid all physical punishment – Harsh scolding or punishing will damage your puppy’s bond with you and weaken your puppy’s trust in people. Techniques such as a smack on the nose, rubbing a dog’s face in it’s mess or roughly forcing a puppy onto it’s back should never be used. Dogs that are raised using these methods are likely to grow up to display avoidance or aggression.
We need to wait until our puppy has had their full course of vaccinations though, right?
Veterinary professionals and behaviourists understand that there is a mismatch between full vaccination course completion and a puppy’s critical socialisation period. The advice of many veterinary organisations is that your puppy is at a lower risk of catching a disease (prior to full vaccination) than they are of developing a behaviour issue because of a lack of socialisation activities during the critical period. Here is an interesting article from a prominent US veterinary professional on the outcome of a study regarding the benefits vs the risks of early socialisation in puppies: https://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2014/01/06/puppy-socialization-class.aspx. EverydogLife Skills accepts puppies into class one week after their first vaccination.
It is advisable for you to discuss this with your veterinary professional. If your veterinary professional advises not to allow your puppy onto the ground prior to completion of the full vaccination cycle, there is still much you can do in order to begin the socialisation process; you can take your puppy out in the car and on your planned daily socialisation outings whilst holding puppy in your arms. You can play very low volume recordings of sounds such as children playing or city sounds to your puppy while calmly playing with or stroking your puppy.
You can introduce various environments and sounds via the TV at a low volume. Here is a link to some sounds provided by Dogs Trust https://soundcloud.com/dogstrust or you can buy a CD with a range of sounds.
Socialising takes time and patience but the benefits are hugely worthwhile; helping to ensure that your dog grows up to be a confident, enjoyable companion.
Behaviour Problems of the Dog and Cat. Saunders. Landsberg G, Hunthausen W, Ackerman L. 2013
The importance of early life experiences for the development of behavioural disorders in domestic dogs. Lisa Dietz, Anne-Marie K. Arnold, Vivian C. Goerlich-Jansson and Claudia M. Vinke. 2018
The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs: Emily J Blackwell, Caroline Twells, Anne Seawright, Rachel A Casey. 2008 – Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, University of Bristol, UK.
Socialisation: A Different Dog, St Albans.