How to Socialise your Puppy & Set them up for Success
We all want to socialise our puppy or dog to the best of our abilities. Like children, one of the most important parts of puppy life is socialisation and meeting others. Learning how to play and interact with other dogs to develop manners, stress-coping skills helps them become reliable, good citizens at home and in public.
It’s a huge part of any dog’s life, and safe to say we all hope to own a dog who will get on with everyone. A chilled out, fun friend who can take life in their stride.
Well, I have a secret for you.
Socialisation is not about meeting other dogs.
In fact, that is only a very small part of it.
Socialisation is about meeting the whole world and everything in it!
New people, squirrel-watching, walking near heavy traffic, learning to swim, sharing toys, meeting children, scooters and bicycles, spending time in cafe’s and pubs, being professionally groomed – the list goes on and on.
Getting on well with other dogs is just a small part of their emotional development.
So how can we encourage our dogs to be well-rounded?
Each skill you’d like your puppy to have needs to be learnt (just like general obedience and manners). Some skills are hereditary, like retrieving, herding or heeling, but they still need encouragement in the right places. Much of your puppy or dog’s behaviour and obedience levels will centre around crucial steps in socialisation that parallel with postivie reward-based training.
Guide dogs are a great example – they spend hours and hours performing different duties in all kinds of environments – crossing the road, avoiding dropped sandwiches on the pavement, and the hustle and bustle of urban living to name a few.
Socialising puppies is about shaping their experiences to be a confident listener as an adult.
Here’s a breakdown of what it would look like for the average family.
What can you do to socialise your puppy early on?
- Start small. Gradually build up to different experiences
- Watch traffic from a distance to get used to it
- Visit your groomer for baths and practice before the first big trim
- Go for more urban walks around your neighbourhood as well as parks and woodland
- Provide a paddling pool with tennis balls – let your puppy explore water at their own pace
- Go to the seaside for a walk
- Enrol at a dog day care
- Go to puppy training classes
- Visit dog-friendly garden centres, cafes and pubs
- Encourage friends and family to handle and train your puppy
- Meet other animals from a distance
- Hire a dog walker
- Go travelling in the car
- Try walking next to wheelchairs or scooters
- Ask other walkers to give treats in exchange for a “sit”
In all these areas, reward your puppy with happy voice and strokes for ignoring stimulus and watching you.
Try these exercises for building confidence with your dog. Enrolling with a dog walker or doggy day care will also allow your dog to build confidence with a different handler. This experience is worth it’s weight in gold provided to find the right fit.
- Ask a friend with a calm, balanced dog to join you for a walk.
- Speak to your local vet about puppy parties
- Enrol in dog day care
- Hire a dog walker
Puppies Can be Unsure & That’s Okay
Puppies can be nervous or unsure at first in new situations.
The key here is to encourage them and be a good role model and emotional leader (you’re as cool as cucumber).
People will often pick a puppy up, cradle them and reassure them to say “it’s alright, don’t be scared” very much like we would with a human child. This reassurance does not help dogs, in fact it can do the complete opposite.
Love and affection is a reward. During new experiences we ought to communicate it at the right place and the right time for best results in training.
Providing physical affection in times of fear or uncertainty tells your dog “well done for being worried – you should react like this next time too.” And so a reactive or anxious behaviour can develop despite your compassion.
The truth is, we all want a confident dog that is unafraid of the world. The best way to get there is through kind training and being a good leader. Reassure them via your energy. You are not scared, so they shouldn’t be either.
The trap many of us fall into is this; we see our dogs being spooked by something and immediately panic for their emotional wellbeing. We pick them up to cradle like a baby. We pet them better and behave in a way that cries out to our dogs “crikey, it’s a good job you were scared because I am too!”
Dogs need reassurance of a different kind. Instead, say “it’s okay” in a soft but strong voice. Be calm for them. Be their emotional leader – centred, balanced and in control of the situation on their behalf.
Techniques for Meeting Other Dogs
Meeting other dogs scares a lot of owners – mainly because other people and their animals can be unpredictable.
Here’s a formula that works well for socialised animals and may be beneficial to your puppy on walks.
- Ask if your dogs can meet. If yes, lead your dog to say hello (don’t be dragged by your pet).
- Allow for a slack lead.
- Encourage a nose-to-tail sniff for 3 seconds.
- Move on “let’s go!”
Brief encounters allow for quick, positive meetings
Some dogs can begin to feel intense during new meetings. A three second sniff is all you need for practice. If both dogs are happy to play, let them have a 5 minute zoom before continuing with your walk.
Always consider your dog’s behaviour. While puppies are learning, it is your responsibility to correct them if they are rude to another dog or too excitable (you’ll be able to see if the other dog is unhappy about being batted on the nose, lunged at or jumped on), the new dog may even growl or snap at your puppy to educate them about personal space. This is normal. Encourage calm at all times. If you feel things are getting out of hand – get everyone back on a lead to regain calm and physical control.
How Can We Nurture Good Experiences?
Aim to try a 10 minute experience each day of the week. Walks are a great opportunity to train your pup to sit patiently while cyclists, pigeons or cars go by (it’s also a great excuse to take them to your favourite dog-friendly pub or cafe).
If you have a breed that will need continual grooming, stripping or clipping throughout their lifetime, ensuring they trust their groomer is paramount. Book at least 3 – 6 visits for baths, paw-touching, brushing and general desensitization to the noise, handling and new sensations before they experience their first full groom.
Groomers are often bitten by frightened dogs who were exposed to the experience far too late in life. Avoid this by strategically introducing your puppy to grooming life during their formative months.
My Puppy was Bitten!
Puppies will be told off from time to time by other dogs. This is part and parcel of learning manners during play. You will notice that during play dogs will often ask for space if it all becomes a bit much.
Occasionally however, dogs can come into contact with reactive that bite, causing bolidly harm. This is something that often frightens owners and knocks our confidence.
Do not despair.
Training dogs can be nerve-wracking and feel like a bit of a minefield. It’s easy to humanise them too. We often worry that if their puppy is seriously injured by another dog, that they will immediately develop a phobia or aggressive tendencies – like a person might do. This is not necessarily the case. Here’s why.
A dog’s mental state relies heavily on family and pack behaviour
They are very sensitive and intuitive to how you feel. Your relationship is so strong, energy and mood is absorbed throughout the day. How the pack feels is an enormous part of behaviour.
For many of us, fear is fed down the lead when we see another dog after a negative experience. We want the meeting to go well but we are scared of what might go wrong. If the mood and energy of the pack is fear or anxiety when seeing another dog, reactivity can develop over time.
Feeling scared literally tells our dogs “it’s time to be afraid”. This unfortunately can cause all sorts of reactions in animals, aggression being one of them.
Here are steps you can take
- Administer first aid if required or see a vet.
- Let it go. Dogs live in the moment, we should too.
- Confide in someone about how you feel. A conversation with a close friend or even a mental health professional can be very helpful in resolving anxious thoughts.
- The next day (if unscathed) get back on the horse! Go to visit a dog you and your puppy know very well.
- Ask your day care or dog sitter to help your puppy gain confidence again in a calm pack.
- Visit a behaviourist for one to one guidance on rehabilitating aggressive or fearful behaviour.
The sooner you take action after a negative experience, the better. The common misconception is that once traumatised, dogs cannot be rehabilitated.
This is untrue, but the myth persists.
It can be very frightening to try and help an aggressive or petrified animal. The quick fix is to say “this dog doesn’t like other dogs because…” and avoid nose to nose encounters for ever more. Dogs are social animals and love to be with each other as well as people. Give them a shot at a second chance with the professional assistance of a dog training professional. They might just surprise you!
What Happens When Socialisation Is Missed?
Socialisation in short, is both desensitization to life’s little surprises and confidence building. Without it, some dogs can develop behavioural issues. They miss out on the life-lessons or experience that builds internal stress coping mechanisms. Some dogs will fill the void with trying to handle the situation with fear-based responses such as aggression.
Such cases tend to be rescue dogs with unknown or very traumatic past lives. We all know someone with a dog who had a poor start in life.
Is under-socialisation fixable?
Yes. For 99.9% of dogs, it is, however the rehabilitation of under-socialised dogs can take an enormous amount of time and training and requires time, commitment and dedication.
Make Socialisation Fun!
While you’re in the treat-reward phase with your new dog or puppy, make sure you always have something they like on your person to tell them they are doing a great job at being calm and listening. This includes on the bus, in the park, at the pub, at the vet and so on.
Your dog will want to work for you and enjoy the attention. You can phase these treats out later. Don’t rush the treat/praise/toy phase, it is crucial your dog understands that:
- if they perform the correct behaviour they will be rewarded
- you will always uphold your side of the bargain to reward them (calm + attentive = reward).
Phasing out treats or positive reinforcers too soon or too quickly (usually before the dog is 10 months old) can cause dogs to lose interest. Keep up your side of the bargain and keep high-value treats or a really amazing toy about your person when training in high-distraction areas.
Rewards are there to enable deep psychological conditioning. Your puppy will be developing mentally and physically at a rapid pace until their 2 years old, so keep up with them until adulthood.
Your dog will absolutely love to train with you and try new experiences with rewards and good timing. Give it a go and tell us how you get on in the comments!
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