I bet if you have a new puppy, you hear this term being thrown around all the time… So today we are going to help explain it to you and simplify it as much as possible to help set you and your new puppy up for a beautiful successful life together.
What is it?
Socialisation is the developmental process whereby puppies and adolescent dogs familiarise themselves with their constantly changing surroundings. It is how they work out what is safe and good as opposed to what is dangerous and not-so-good.
Anything you want your puppy to cheerfully accept as an adult—people of all kinds, animals, things, and situations—you should aim to introduce him/her to often and in a positive manner. Then you have to make sure your dog stays comfortable with all these new things.
The aim of socialisation is to help make the world and everything in it “normal” for our dogs. Learning about the world and having positive experiences with things for the first time in a stress free, gradual way can help to build a pup’s confidence and set them up to be happy, well-adjusted adult dogs. We can use food not only to teach behaviours, but also to build positive associations with the world, by pairing each new experience with a delicious piece of food!
Think about your life and what this will look like for your pup. It is a good idea to get your pup comfortable with things they will be experiencing regularly. Different sounds, textures, experiences, people, dogs, any sort of novel item they might come across in life.
Socialisation is not about letting your dog meet every dog they come across and play with them like crazy. It is more important that your dog learns to see new dogs and people and is able to be calm, focus on you, ignore them. Not every dog or person in life will want to play!
When should this happen?
The socialisation sensitive period begins at around 3 weeks until around 14-16 weeks. During this period, pups are often more accepting of novel stimuli (new things), however their learning about the world will continue well beyond this period.
This means the early days of a pup’s upbringing are important, however they are not everything.
How should it be done?
1. Use food!
We want to build a history of positive experiences around new things – to do this USE FOOD!!! All pups are born needing and wanting food. We can use this to our advantage by providing food around novel stimuli, as pups will begin to think new things = food = great!
When using food in this way, you don’t need to ask your pup to do anything at all, simply looking at the new thing is enough. Eg. Pup watches a garbage truck goes by – give a piece of food, pup sees a rubbish bin falls over- give a piece of food, pup sees a man in a hat walk by – give a piece of food, pup hears a dog bark in the distance – give a piece of food.
Pats and praise won’t help a young pup create positive associations in the same way, as these are learned reinforcers – like a “thumbs up” to a human, this doesn’t mean anything initially. So stick with food as your go to, don’t leave the house without it!
2. Start simple! Start slow!
Socialisation does not mean going here, there and everywhere. Think – quality over quantity! Socialisation begins at home. There are many novel household items your pup may not have experienced yet, eg. Vacuum cleaner, lawn mower, kids toys, noises. Let your pup explore these things if he chooses, as always, provide food.
From here, begin walks on your quiet residential street, avoid any busy environments initially. Even in these quiet areas there is so many new things to experience; new smells, bikes, scooters, skateboards, dogs, children, wind, rain, the list goes on. Let your pup sniff and explore the world around him and take it at his own pace.
3. Tune into your pup’s body language.
A dog’s body language is the only way they can communicate with us, as they cannot speak to tell us how they’re feeling. It is common for pups to feel uncomfortable with certain things, as they are experiencing the world for the first time, so it is important we don’t push them into these situations. It’s really important that a pup feels he is able to react to a “scary thing”. Allow him to move away and/or investigate it as he wants to – let him decide what he wants to do. Knowing you’re not going to force him into situations he is uncomfortable with will help him to build trust in you. If in doubt, leave the situation, don’t push it.
4. Use distance.
You don’t need to get right up close and personal to allow your pup to investigate and experience the world. In fact, stopping and watching new things from a distance can allow your pup to take in his environment while remaining comfortable. Some examples where keeping distance is very useful for initial introductions is around other dogs on walks and traffic.
5. Avoid off leash dog parks.
When many people think of socialisation, they think only of dog to dog interactions. In fact this is only one tiny piece of the socialisation puzzle. Off leash dog parks are unpredictable, uncontrolled environments, where young pups will have more negative experiences than positive. One negative experience can have a lasting impact, so it is best to avoid these areas.Instead, simply watching dogs passing on the street at a comfortable distance (from across the street), and, you guessed it – providing food, will help a young pup. Puppy classes are also a good way to safely enable pups to socialise with dogs of a similar age. They are moderated environments where pups can safely meet other dogs and practice appropriate body language, with the support of their adults. Do your research when choosing a puppy class, ensure the instructor has recognised qualifications and uses positive reinforcement based techniques only.
Tip: The quality of a pup’s experiences is far more important than the quantity and exposure alone is not enough. Meaning it is better for pups to have gradual positive experiences, than many rushed, overwhelming and scary experiences.
Tip: NEVER drag a pup towards something they aren’t sure of. Imagine you are walking towards the edge of a cliff, if someone started pushing you from behind, how would this make you feel? Calmer? Or more stressed? This is exactly what happens when we put tension on a leash and pull our dogs. Always keep your leash loose and allow your pup to choose whether it approaches something or moves away. The same goes for luring a pup towards something they are unsure of using food or cajoling. If a pup is reluctant to move closer to something, never bribe/force them.