Socialising is the process by which puppies learn to relate to other animals and people. Each year, tens of thousands of puppies are not adequately socialised, causing many serious behaviour problems – including shyness and even aggression – that are difficult to address later on.
The most impressionable age for a puppy – and where the temperament is mainly formed – is between five and 12 weeks of age. Some experts believe that it can be up to 16 weeks of age. If you socialise your puppy when they’re young, then your pet will become a confident, friendly and well-rounded member of your family. Puppies under the age of 12 weeks have not yet learned how to approach people, situations or objects and the older they get, the more cautious they become when faced with new situations.
At eight weeks, we start to introduce the idea of ‘socialising’ your puppy with the big wide world. This is an exciting part of your puppy’s development for both of you. Everything is new and this is your opportunity to help your puppy understand what’s going on in their surroundings.
It’s important that your puppy learns about the places and things they will normally see: your house, the local park, local shops and all the people and other animals they will meet regularly. At the same time, it’s also important to expose your puppy to any more unusual sights, smells, sounds and experiences that they will need to cope with. These might involve different people, dogs, animals and situations.
Here are some top tips for getting your puppy prepared to socialise well with others and make plenty of friends.
Even before your puppy is allowed to physically be around other dogs, there are things you can do to ease them into being in the presence of others. Unless your vet states otherwise, and depending on the area in which you live, take your puppy out in the car and in your arms before they are vaccinated. Speak to your vet, who will be able to advise of any potential disease risk in your area. Puppies need environmental stimuli and – depending on breed, type and individual characteristics – keeping some puppies at home until they are 12 weeks of age may cause behavioural problems.
Park in busy areas and keep your puppy in a travel cage, so they can see the hustle and bustle, but not physically touch, unknown dogs. Your puppy can listen to the various sounds and watch the traffic, children playing in the park and other dogs passing by. This sort of conditioning is critical in helping a young dog to learn about the human-made landscape, which is unnatural for dogs.
As soon as your puppy is fully vaccinated, it’s important to socialise with as many good-tempered dogs as possible. Some dogs are more social and gregarious than others, so keep in mind what’s best for your particular puppy.
If you choose a puppy class, it must be a well-run one. If possible, visit the class before you get your puppy. Observe the training and talk to the other puppy owners there so you can make an informed choice about whether to attend or not. If you can see that a puppy class is working, then that’s a good sign.
Puppy class is a great option but it should just be a small part of your dog’s weekly social development. Find ways for your puppy to mix with mild-tempered, pleasant dogs in public places as well. Control these meetings as much as possible, since negative encounters may have a serious detrimental effect on your puppy as they mature. Other dog owners are an invaluable source of information on appropriate dogs (and their owners) for you to meet and play with.
Practise your recall and training on every excursion, whether you’re in the park, the garden or the house. Get it right in the first days and weeks and you will have a well-mannered and sensibly behaved dog for a lifelong friendship.
Puppy parties are another common method of socialising puppies and they are often organised by vet practices. If you do plan to go to one, visit without your puppy first. These ‘parties’ should not be a free-for-all with puppies all loose together – in these situations some dogs become fearful and learn to defend themselves, and some dogs are boisterous and pushy and learn to bully. Socialisation in these environments should be between two appropriate puppies (based on size and temperament) and no more. Do not allow your puppy to be bullied, or to bully.
Socialising with older dogs
Try to introduce your puppy to other dogs in the outdoors and on neutral territory. Ensure that both dogs are kept on their leads so they can easily be removed from any potentially uncomfortable circumstances.
Let the dogs see each other from a distance and allow them to approach each other at their own pace and keep a close eye on the body language of both pets. If it looks like either dog is uncomfortable, then simply remove your puppy from the situation and attempt to reintroduce them later.
If you are introducing your puppy to a new dog in your home then you should also start slowly. Use a baby gate to separate your pet from the new acquaintance and see how they react to each other through the bars. Give them treats when they react well to each other.
Once you are confident they can be introduced properly, then remove the gate and any treats or toys they could potentially fight over. Keep a close eye on them until you are confident they are comfortable and keep rewarding them for good behaviour.
Puppies, as with humans, also need to learn respect for their elders. Older dogs may not like your puppy putting their teeth and paws all over them unless invited to do so, and will let your puppy know when they have crossed the line by ‘telling them off’. Let them do this, but make sure that it does not go too far. Stop your puppy from trying to go back for more when the older dog has had enough.
When socialising your puppy, understand the breed you have and the reason that breed was originally developed. The guarding breeds need more early and appropriate socialisation with people, the shepherding breeds need help to get them used to lots of different types of environments, the bull breeds need much more socialisation and fun with other dogs and so on.
Within each breed, dogs are individuals and so you need to constantly evaluate the temperament and behaviour of your puppy and adjust your socialisation plan accordingly. It’s important to start slowly to avoid the risk of overloading your puppy with too many things at once. Gradually increase the number of interactions as they get older and becomes more confident.
Your puppy may be shy so you should watch carefully when socialising and make sure that they don’t become overwhelmed. Signs of this include the ears going back, the tail being low, or trying to look smaller and avoiding eye contact. If this occurs, take your puppy out of the encounter.
The natural and normal environment in which you live is the most important place for socialisation: public parks, woodland, town or city. They provide all that you need, but you have to do it at the right time and in the right way for your puppy.
It’s also important that your puppy experiences lots of other situations and feels confident in them.
Below are some basics to remember before taking your puppy out exploring, and some suggestions on new experiences to try if circumstances permit.
Remember to encourage inventive thinking and make sure your puppy feels safe and secure. Socialisation should be fun and not overwhelming. If your pup seems overwhelmed by a particular situation, stop and try again another time, approaching the situation from a lower-stress point of view, such as a different time of the week.
- Make sure you have a correctly fitted harness or collar.
- Before your puppy’s vaccinations, don’t allow contact with other animals.
- Teach basic recall and sit commands.
- Remember to let your puppy explore the new person or surroundings in their own time. Try not to push your puppy into a situation where they feel unsure.
Let your puppy experience…
- Adults and children of both sexes
- Elderly people or those with a disability
- Other dogs of various breeds
- Cats, squirrels, birds and other pets
- The post and milk man/woman
- Traffic, a rubbish truck, bus and train
- Doorbell, phone, washing machine, hair dryer, the shower and other household noises
- Loud music
Places to visit
- Children’s playgrounds
- A bus stop and train station
- Local shopping area
- The beach
- A country fair
- Friends’ houses
- Local sports match
- A dog-friendly pub
- A large car park