Puppy socialisation – what it is, why it is essential, and how to do it

What is socialisation?

Socialisation is the training technique of introducing and familiarising a dog to new experiences, including people, places, objects, and other animals in ways that help the dog learn how to respond to and interact with these experiences appropriately and without fear.

The list of aspects that puppies should be socialised to include umbrellas, walking sticks, wheelchairs, bikes, keys, men with beards, people in hats, young children, passing trucks, odd sounds, sudden loud noises, and other animals (of as many shapes and sizes as possible). Other important experiences include handling of paws, ears, and tails as well as allowing you to look into their mouths. These situations can be scary for your pup if the first time it experiences this type of handling is at its first vet visit.

Why is it so important?

From 8 to 12 weeks of age, puppies go through a fear imprinting stage. In nature, this is the age when puppies are getting out of the den and starting to explore the world around them. During this fear imprinting stage, the puppy may be more susceptible to perceiving certain stimuli as threatening. In this timeframe, it is crucial to carefully introduce a pup to a variety of stimuli daily and to ensure that the experiences are positive. This is also a good time to start training the pup in basic behaviours using positive reinforcement techniques.

These socialisation efforts are what will make the difference in your dog’s outlook on life. Instead of reacting fearfully to new experiences, your dog will be comfortable when encountering new objects, animals, people, and situations. This helps your dog and everyone else since the most common cause of unprovoked dog aggression is fear.

The puppy brain is most inclined to accept new experiences between the age of 4 and 12 weeks. This is called the critical learning phase. Missing the window after 14 weeks of age can socially handicap the pup. Of course, dogs can still learn at any age, but it is more difficult. The main reason being due to the need to guide the pup to unlearn unproductive and inappropriate responses. Prevention is far better than rehabilitation. Therefore, if you can work within a puppy’s critical learning window, you and the pup have an immense advantage.

Where can I go for socialisation classes?

Most puppy socialisation classes consist of a weekly lesson for about six weeks. Refer to Teva Veterinary Clinic’s web page here for puppy socialisation trainers in the Somerset West, Cape Town area.

Joining a group has many benefits but if you find yourself unable to join a class or the class date does not fall within your pup’s critical learning phase, click here for an extremely useful resource to use at home.

Socialisation does not end at puppyhood. While the foundation for good behaviour is laid during the first few months, encourage and reinforce social skills and responsiveness to commands throughout your dog’s life.

Socialisation principles

Introduce your pup to new people, places, objects, and situations only when you can control the experience.

It’s your job to protect your puppy from situations that may frighten it. Something as simple as letting someone get too close too soon can cause a setback in socialisation. This may cause the pup to hide behind you or adopt a fear-aggressive posture and growl at the offending person. In such a situation, correct the human, not the dog. Tell the person to back away, which will show the dog that you can protect the pack and that it does not have to.

When working on socialising your pup or dog, warn the people that your pup will be interacting with and ask for their help. Most people will oblige.

Taking a pup on walks on a leash offers effective opportunities for socialisation. However, avoid dog parks and other areas where there is a higher risk of exposure to disease and uncontrolled experiences. Do not allow your dog to sniff faeces or play with any dogs who might be unhealthy, aggressive, or overbearing.

Introduce a puppy into a large group only after having successfully socialised it to smaller groups.

Use treats, praise, touch, or even play to reward your puppy, thus reinforcing that appropriate behaviour results in positive responses.

Reward the behaviours that you want to be repeated and ignore or signal the behaviours that you do not like. The signal could simply be a calmly spoken, “uh, uh”. If the signal does not discourage undesired behaviour, try a time out – a brief separation period from the fun interactive environment. Never shout at, pull, or smack your puppy as this will only make it fearful.

Be aware of the signals that you transmit. Make it obvious to your pup that you enjoy encountering other people, animals, objects, and situations. Even puppies will be able to observe and sense their handlers’ reactions and body language (both positive and negative).

You should always be thinking about what you are teaching your dog in each situation. Your dog is aware of your actions and reactions, your attention or lack of attention, even if you don’t realise it.

Understand when and why your dog shows fear but do not reinforce it. Cooing, coddling, and cuddling a pup or dog when it is showing fear will not help it to lose that fear. Help your pup to realise that you are not worried and have total control of the situation and that it does not have to be afraid, or take matters into its own paws (or jaws). You are in charge, and you want your dog to trust that you will protect it.

Be careful about the people you choose to help care for your dog, be it your spouse, roommate, children, or pet sitter. You need to explain that you are trying to socialise your pup and that they must reinforce good behaviours in the same way you do for the pup to learn. Otherwise, the person can undermine and undo the progress you make with your pup.

One reason that puppies should ideally not be separated from their mother and littermates before 8 weeks of age is that they learn core behaviours from the mother dog and siblings. These include proper social play and bite inhibition.

Encouraging good habits in puppies

Condition your pup to accept gentle touching and petting. When your pup is in a calm state, practice examining it from head to toe, gently, and patiently. This exercise will pay off later when you need to check your dog for ticks, clip its nails, or when the pup goes to the vet or groomer. A useful technique is something called Tellington TTouch® to relax your dog and help to alleviate some of the uncertainty or fear.

Teach your dog its name and that its name means “pay attention and look at me”. Begin teaching your pup to come by calling it to you enthusiastically and rewarding the action with a petting stroke, a “good dog” praise, and a tasty treat. Never use your dog’s name in an angry tone, to call your dog for a reprimand, or for anything it finds unpleasant. You want the pup to associate its name as well as coming to you with good things.

Get your pup used to a leash early on by using it every time you take your dog outside for toilet breaks and walks. Never yank or pull your pup on its lead.

You can stop your puppy from developing the habit of jumping up on to people. Do not let anyone pet the puppy when it is standing on its hind legs. Put the puppy back on the ground before it gets attention and petting every single time.

If your pup has your favourite slipper in its mouth, resist the urge to chase after it as your pup will either see this as a game or it will run away due to fear. Rather call the pup in a calm and friendly tone and offer it a tasty treat in exchange for your precious item.

When the pup mouths/play bites you, make a “yip” sound to let the pup know “stop it, that hurts”. Stop playtime immediately when the pup nips, since play will reinforce the unwanted behaviour. The pup needs to learn that fun stops when it bites. You can go back to play after a brief but intentional pause. Give the pup a toy to chomp on instead of your hands or clothing. If the puppy does not take the toy and instead nips again, stop interacting. Turn away, cross your arms, do not look back, even walk away.  After some time has passed, face your pup again and offer your hand. If it tries to bite, repeat the process.

When playing with your puppy, use chew toys to redirect its sharp teeth from your hands, clothing, and furniture. Encourage gentle play instead of roughhousing, play-fighting, and teasing which can all lead to behavioural problems caused by confusion or frustration. Remember, little puppies grow into strong, active dogs and they will not understand that they cannot do the same things they were allowed to do at 3kg when they are 30kg.

Proactively condition your dog not to protect its food and toys. Remove its food dish at least once during feeding. Put an extra treat in the bowl before setting it back down so that your pup has a positive association with someone removing its bowl. With toys, gently take the toy away and say, “out” or “drop it”.  Reward the pup with a “good dog” praise and a treat, then give the toy back or replace it with another favourite toy.

Crate training your puppy

Crate training is an incredibly valuable skill to teach your puppy. The list of benefits of crate training include:

  • It’s a tremendous aid in house training your puppy.
  • It makes travelling with your dog much easier as it has a familiar place to sleep and rest wherever it goes.
  • It helps your pup to mentally relax (chill time).
  • When your dog is older, it will be a place of its own to get some peace and quiet, especially in times of chaos (like visitors or boisterous dogs).
  • Proper crate training can help reduce the dog’s anxiety when it is left at home alone.
  • It helps to prevent unwanted behaviours, such as chewing household objects when you cannot be with your pup.

Click here to watch this informative video on how to crate train your dog.

Introducing your pup to your other pets

If you currently have other pets, let them get used to the smell and sound of the new pup from across a door or through a crate. If you are worried about the reaction of your other pets, get the animals to meet on neutral territory first (like a nearby park). Closely supervise all initial interactions and don’t leave the new pup alone with other pets until you are sure they are safe together. Do not yell, raise your voice, pull tightly on leads, or tense up as your pets will sense your tension and assume there is something to be afraid or nervous of. Help reassure resident pets that the new arrival is not a threat to their position in the family by maintaining the same feeding, playing, and walking routines. Make sure the resident pets are getting as much attention as before. Be sensitive to elderly pets who may feel harassed by the younger newcomer’s rambunctious playing. Use the crate to give the puppy a rest and the other pets a break.

Raising a puppy can be both wonderful and challenging. The good news is that your hard work and patience will not go unrewarded. The effort that you put in now will help build the foundation for a long and happy partnership with your new best friend.

Authored by Dr Karin Wilson (not a SAFREA member)

Proofread and Copyedited by Delilah Sao Joao (SAFREA member)

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