Socialisation

There are a multitude of websites on why and how to socialise your puppy, some good, some bad.

The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors probably has one of the most detailed (here), though it is a bit, well, long, so I thought I’d give you my take on what it’s all about.

Puppies, like children, learn fastest when they’re young.  And puppies, like children, tend to be at their most fearless when they’re young. This doesn’t mean that they’re all gung ho when they’re puppies – far from it – but that, for each individual dog, puppyhood is the time when they are at their least fearful.

So that’s the first reason for good socialisation: teaching your puppy to be confident and calm when he’s a grown up dog in the big wide world.

The second reason is that your puppy really is a dog, honest guv’nor (the jury’s out on whether or not dogs are really descended from wolves – look here for an interesting article on the most recent research), yet what we want is for our dog to share our human lives.

Border collie herding sheep
Border collie herding sheep

What exactly does that mean?  Although some dogs are acquired for specific purposes such as guarding, herding or drug detection, they all need to be able to live with their people.

Each dog owner will have different requirements for her dog, but most people want their dog to be clean in the house, to be confident, to accept visitors to the house, to let the children play without biting, barking or growling, and so on.

You may have more specific requirements than that – such as needing your dog to travel on the underground with you, or to walk down a busy high street on your way to the park.

Socialisation – beginner level

The first level of socialisation is to make sure that your puppy can cope with your life.  Think about what you’re likely to do with your puppy, and make sure that you get your puppy exposed to as much of that as possible while he’s still young.  So if you regularly travel by public transport, get the puppy on to the bus or metro with you.  If he hasn’t had his vaccinations yet, carry him, or stick him in a rucksack – get him out as often as you can, and as young as  you can.

Golden retriever sitting calmly beside a wheelchair
Golden retriever sitting calmly beside a wheelchair

You also need to think about the people you’re likely to meet – do you have a friend who uses a wheelchair? Take puppy to meet her – now, before he thinks that wheelchairs are something to be feared.  What about friends who have beards? Or who wear hats? Puppy needs to meet them all.

Remember that socialisation is not just about what puppy does, but also about what people do with puppy.  So your puppy needs to get used to being handled, because there will come a day when you, or the vet, or the groomer, or the show judge, need to look at your puppy in all of his most intimate places.  And the last thing you want is for your lovely pet to take a chunk out of someone’s hand when they’re trying to look after him.

Socialisation – advanced level

The second level of socialisation is to extend this to situations which you don’t normally encounter.  So if you always travel by car, make the effort and get on the bus.  If you live in a quiet country village, get yourself into town and take your puppy up the high street.

If, like me, most of your friends and family are women, get your puppy handled by as many men as possible – big men, small men, men with beards, men smelling of engine oil.

Why is this second level so important?

Specs near Grey's Monument
Specs near Grey’s Monument

Firstly, because you can’t predict the future.  Just because you live in a village now doesn’t mean to say you won’t move to central Newcastle in a couple of years.  And just because you drive everywhere now doesn’t mean to say you always will.  So you need your dog to be able to cope with anything you throw at him.

The second reason is to do with something called generalisation (an extension of a concept (or behaviour) from a familiar situation to a less familiar situation).  Dogs are notoriously bad at generalisation, so just because they’ve met a man with a bowler hat on, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll accept all types of hats.  Far from it – if you only ever introduce puppy to men with bowler hats, don’t be surprised if he freaks out when he sees a man wearing a sombrero.

The same goes with crowded places.  Constantly walking puppy up and down Northumberland Street is great for getting him used to that street, but it could all fall apart when you go on holiday to a different city.

It’s clearly not possible to walk puppy up and down every busy street in the world, but the more you can cover in your local area, the more likely pup is to just shrug his shoulders and calmly keep walking when he encounters a brand new one a year or two down the line.

And how many busy streets?  A good start would be to aim for between 7 and 9 to start you off, but you really can’t do too many.

How long does this socialisation period last?

Again, the jury’s out, but consensus seems to be that you need to do as much as possible before 16 weeks, hence the need to get puppy out and about even before vaccinations are complete.  Keep going after this by all means, it’s never wasted effort.

But don’t wait!  If you have a puppy, start now.  If you’re a breeder, or you can chat to your chosen breeder, check out what can be done with pups even before the 6 to 8 weeks before pup comes home.  Exploring textures, substrates (that means floors), a variety of human handling, again looking for a minimum of between 7 and 9.

A word of warning

As far as possible we don’t want anything really nasty to happen to pup.  A little bit of stress is a good thing: it teaches pup that the world doesn’t end simply because somebody’s dropped a tea tray in the next room.

Specs out for a socialisation walk, safe and warm in my coat
Specs out for a socialisation walk, safe and warm in my coat

But you don’t want your pup terrified to death either, because that learning has a horrible tendency to stick and cause long term fear.  So make sure that you supervise all socialisation and that you provide a safe refuge for puppy if he’s starting to look unhappy.

What about other dogs?  An awful lot of dog to dog aggression has its roots in pups being under-socialised with other dogs and/or badly socialised with other dogs.  You don’t want your pup bullied by other dogs, conversely you don’t want him to learn to bully other dogs.  And you sure don’t want him to be attacked by another dog.

My rule is that my puppies (and dogs) play only with dogs I know and trust, and even then I’m watching very carefully to try to make sure nothing goes wrong.  If I see things getting a little out of hand, we call a time-out and do something else for a while.

Specs’ socialisation

So what about Specs?  What have we done with her so far? And what’s left to do?

I’m sure you can tell from the blog where Specs has been and who she has met.  She’s been to town, to the station, to the supermarket, to the pet store, to the groomer (and the hairdresser), she even had a wander around Wetherby Service Station at the tender age of just 6 1/2 weeks.

She’s met my work colleagues, the man who fixes my car, my hairdresser and my groomer, all my doggy friends, my disabled neighbour, the boys next door, my plumber.  And all of them got to hold her and play with her and check her ears and teeth and feet and tail.

She’s also been to puppy party, which is a puppy kindergarten class for pre-vaccinated puppies hosted at the vet’s.  She got lots more handling there (the pass-the-puppy game is excellent for that), and met other puppies too.

Specs on a robot hoover
Specs on a robot hoover

I’ve been perfectly happy to leave Specs with people without me there so that she gets used to being independent.  And I really don’t mind when they dress her up as a bumble bee, sit her on a robot hoover, or stick her in the front pocket of their sweatshirt.  It all adds to her socialisation – the more handling she gets, the more weird things that happen to her, the better.

And I can already see how it’s paying off.  Nothing bothers her, she’s bold and friendly, loves to explore, loves to learn new things.

What’s left to do?

More of the same, but I’m missing a few key things.  She hasn’t met many children, especially young children, so I need to take her to the school gate a few times.  Nor has she been on public transport.  She’s just over nine weeks old as I write this, so I still have six or seven weeks left.  I’m sure I’ll think of more places to take her yet.

And next week she gets her second vaccination, so a week after that she’ll be off to puppy class, where she can learn to behave well with not only people but other puppies too.

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