Is There a Wrong way to Socialise a Puppy?

Is There a Wrong way to Socialise a Puppy?

Most people know that when they get a puppy, it is very important to socialise them. However, although most people believe they understand this term, in my experience, many do not. There is a wrong way to socialise a puppy and, far from reducing risks of behaviour problems, the wrong kind of socialisation can elicit reactive behaviour and lead to long term behaviour problems, such as loss of confidence and increasing fear based behaviours.

So what is puppy socialisation?

Socialisation is the process of experiencing both social and non social stimuli in a way then enables a puppy to adapt to their environment with an appropriate sense of what is safe and what is not safe. Learning these important lessons ensures that, as an adult, the dog will display appropriate responses to whatever they experience. Ideally, dogs should learn that all humans and animals are safe (except for potentially dangerous animals such as venomous snakes).

Whose responsibility is it to socialise a puppy?

It is both the breeder and the new owner who are responsible for socialising a puppy because there are different socialisation periods and appropriate experiences must be maintained during this entire period. In fact, you could argue that socialisation occurs throughout a dog’s life.

Socialisation periods

Primary socialisation period:

The primary socialisation period is 2 to 6 weeks. This is said to be the most important socialisation period with 5 weeks of age being the most sensitive.

During the first part of this period it’s important that the puppies are handled daily for short periods and studies have found that gentle handling during the period from 3 to 21 days can increase confidence and resilience. What is perhaps more important than this is the maternal care that is provided to the puppy when they returned to her after separation. Recent studies are indicating that maternal interactions with the puppies after being separated from her litter can significantly increase emotional resilience.

From around 2.5-3 weeks puppies should be starting to be exposed to social and non-social stimuli whilst in the presence of their mother. Maternal care during this time nurtures the confidence of the puppies, as well as producing a pheromone ( Dog appeasing pheromone ) from her body that illicits feelings of safety for the litter as they start to explore their environment. It is the breeder's responsibility to ensure that puppies are being exposed to gentle, calm and safe-feeling social, and non-social encounters to help prepare them for their future lives. This should ideally include children, different ethnicities, elderly people, different heights, gender, clothing, glasses, facial hair, crash helmets, different types of noises etc.)

Secondary socialisation period:

The secondary socialisation period starts around 7 weeks to 14 weeks old.  It is the experiences during this period that are most likely to be carried over into adulthood. In the United Kingdom, it is not legal to home a puppy before eight weeks old. This second socialisation window is largely aligned with the period in which the puppy arrives at their new home and is experiencing all of the social and non-social stimuli they are likely to experience during their life. This stage is predominantly the responsibility of the new owner. As you can imagine, if puppies remain with a breeder during this time, it is the responsibility of the breeder to ensure they take out the puppy into the world to ensure they do not lose critical socialisation experiences during this very short period.

How do I socialise my puppy properly?

There is a wrong way to socialise puppies so it’s very important to get this right. Good quality puppy socialisation involves a selection of experiences with both living and non living stimuli. For example, people of different ages, sizes, ethnicity, as well as dogs of a variety of different breeds and cross breeds as well as other domesticated animals. Furthermore, puppies should be exposed to the distant sights, sounds and smells of livestock such as ponies, cattle and sheep. It is not appropriate to encourage close encounters with livestock but important that puppies “ habituate “ to them. This just means that they become aware of livestock and accept their existence without fear or excessive interest. However, puppies also need to learn about non-social stimuli such as traffic, refuse bins, utility vehicles, aeroplanes, as well as noises, such as fireworks, crow scarers and gunshots. 
During these exposure sessions, puppies should feel safe and secure. If your puppy is showing ongoing signs of fear during these exposures, you will need to get the support of an experienced and qualified dog trainer or behaviourist to help. It is perfectly natural for a puppy to be a little uncertain in the first instance, but this should not be maintained, and they should be able to recover from their initial concerns fairly quickly. Do not continue to expose them to the stimuli if your puppy continues to show signs of fear because this is likely to lead to a deepening of their concern rather than acceptance. You will need professional support. Ask your vet to recommend a suitably qualiied behaviourist to help you as soon as possible.

Is there a wrong way to socialise a puppy?

Yes! If you are exposing your puppy to new stimuli, and they are fearful or showing signs of aggression, it is likely that you will be helping them to learn that these stimuli are scary and threatening. It is not uncommon to be told by well-meaning dog walkers that you should just allow your puppy to be beaten up by their dog as they will get used to it, and this is what dogs do! This is not what well socialised dogs do, and if you allow your puppy to be terrorised by other dogs at the local dog park, you will almost certainly end up with an adult dog who is fearful of other dogs and may go on to use aggressive behaviour towards dogs.

In my experience, there has been a significant increase in the incidence of dog to dog reactivity in recent years and this is probably because dog owners are not aware of what behaviour is appropriate or inappropriate. Less than 40% of dog owners attend any form of dog training (where guided socialisation should also take place) and this figure could even be as low as 5% depending on who collects the statistics. Whilst it is not essential for your puppy to attend puppy training classes to be socialised, it can be an easy way to gain access to social experiences that are under control. Unfortunately, not all puppy classes are made equal and there are a fair few puppy trainers who still allow chaos and bullying in their classes, and this can lead to traumatisation of your puppy. I strongly recommend that you observe puppy training classes before attending with your puppy.

You do not need to attend puppy training classes as long as you understand how to socialise your puppy safely. This will not be possible without an extremely good understanding of canine body language and how puppies and dogs communicate. Failure to have an in-depth understanding of canine communication will almost certainly result in a puppy who is not socialised appropriately with long term detrimental consequences.

Whether you attend puppy classes or not, it is very important to learn HOW to socialise your puppy in a way that enables them to gain in confidence and learn how to interact appropriately with a wide variety of different dogs breeds. You must be there to support your puppy and step in to be their advocate when necessary. 





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