We all get told to do it, but just how do we do it correctly?
What am I talking about? Socialising your puppy of course.
With having a new puppy myself, I’m back to going through this process with my puppy. So let’s take a look at what socialisation is all about. Basically, it means exposing your puppy to everything that it is likely to meet as an adult, so that your puppy isn’t frightened by those things in later life. Sounds all fine so far, and we’ve all seen those checklists where we tick off that our puppy has met x number of people this week and x number of dogs and heard x number of sounds and so on.
Checklists are great as a basic, but they do tend to shift your focus onto completing the checklist rather than the actual process of socialisation and what it means to the puppy. Socialisation is the process of allowing a puppy to become familiar with something, whether that is a person, and object, a sound or another animal. It is a process of habituation (becoming familiar with) and it should be a positive experience (nice things happen) or neutral (nothing pleasant or scary happens). Given a choice, I prefer to make every experience that a pup has, a pleasant one. It sets the pup up for being a well rounded, confident dog that can take a few emotional knock-backs because it has a host of positive experiences to fall back onto.
If we become focused on just ticking the boxes on a checklist, we can forget to make these experiences pleasant or neutral for the pup. What can happen is that a pup is put into a situation and then feels overwhelmed. This is not a positive association for the pup, nor is it neutral; it is a negative (scary) situation for the pup and continual experiences like this will create a pup that doesn’t like certain people, dogs or situations or could even become a nervous dog altogether.
If someone wants to say hello to your puppy, ask them to ask the puppy if it wants to say hello. If the puppy puts its tail done, turns its head away or moves away from that person, then the puppy is quite clearly saying that it doesn’t want to say hello. Respect the puppy’s decision and just ask the person to stand there and leave the pup alone. What you don’t want to do is pick the puppy up and thrust it into that person’s arms as now you have just taught your puppy that you won’t protect it when it is frightened (you are no longer a safe place) and you have just made that person and that experience (other people approaching) a very scary thing. You also don’t want to drag the puppy by the lead to ‘say hello’ or allow the person to keep approaching until the puppy can’t escape and has to submit to being touched. These situations will end up being very scary for the puppy and they can learn quite quickly, to be scared of people (or even a specific type of person, such as men, women, children, babies, etc.) and try to run away or to drive the scary person away by barking and lunging. What we have just done is the direct opposite of socialisation! We actually made people scary!
The same can happen when your puppy meets another dog or puppy. Allow them the chance to decide whether they want to interact or not. There is little point is pushing your pup into interacting with another dog or puppy that is going to be aggressive or bullying with them. A poorly run puppy play session, whether it is at a training class or a dog creche, can do untold damage to your pup and make them worried by other dogs approaching, so that they react by barking and lunging or these play sessions can teach your puppy to be a bully. Neither of these scenarios are good or appropriate socialisation.
Pups do not need to play with every dog they meet or every person they meet in order to become sociable around them. All they need to do is be able to see them and have wonderful things happen whilst dogs, people, vehicles etc. are present. If the puppy wants to approach closer, then fine, but do be guided by your pup’s body language, not by an arbitrary check list that says your puppy MUST meet 10 people this week. Yes to the meet, and be prepared to say no to the interact.
Of course, depending on your pup’s innate personality, it is entirely possible to over-socialise your pup. What do I mean by this? Well, your pup can have so much fun saying hello to other people and dogs that it has little interest in you and all that it wants to do is drag you over to say hello to other dogs and people or it clears off to see them as soon as the lead comes off and has little interest in being with you. You’ve basically become your pup’s social manager and little else. Your puppy needs controlled exposure so that it learns that responding to you is still important and you should most certainly work on teaching your puppy to come away from another dog (not all dogs are friendly) and from people (not everyone likes dogs)
Being able to take your dog anywhere and have your dog continue to do as it is told, is just fabulous and opens up so many opportunities for you and your pup to go on social walks with your dog. Socialisation is something that every pups needs to experience in a positive way. Note that I say it is something that the pup needs to experience; their choice. It is not something that we just expose a pup to, as that it when it is likely to go wrong and we end up turning what was a confident pup into a shrinking violet that finds the World a very scary place.
If you are not too sure that you are reading your pup’s body langauge correctly, then please seek help and advice from a reward based dogs training (avoid anyone that tells you that your pup needs to ‘face up to its fears’). You could also take an online course in Canine Communication.
Have aread of our other article on socialising dogs. Sociable or Socialised?