If you follow Activate on social media, then you know that I recently became the proud companion of a Golden Retriever puppy. His name is Atlas. We have just passed the critical socialisation period, a time when puppy brains are optimised for learning. Experiences, good and bad, have a long-lasting impact on the puppy’s developing behaviour. It is during this time that puppies decide what is safe verses unsafe.
So, knowing about how important this time is for puppies, and their families, I wanted to share tips based on my recent experiences and knowledge. There is so much to do with a new puppy. Teaching them the world is a safe and happy place to build confidence. While doing this you are also teaching them the appropriate behaviour and house rules.
What does socialisation mean?
Socialisation is more than just letting your puppy meet a lot of people and other dogs. It is about teaching them the world is a safe place. This means exposure to varied people, dogs, objects, sounds and places. It does not mean you flood them with a lot of new experiences in their first week. It should be careful exposure that allows them to build confidence. Remember they are young, constantly learning, so it is easy for them to become overwhelmed. Allow them time to rest and to play.
Socialisation is most effective when your puppy is between 8 and 16 weeks of age. This is known as the critical socialisation period. During this time a puppy’s brain is optimised for learning, experiences have the greatest significance.
How to start
For every family, person and puppy this will be different, but the basics will be the same. Allow your puppy to settle in at home first. Let them get used to you and the routine of their new home. It is after this that you can begin exposing them to something new. A puppy that feels safe and comfortable is in the best mindset to learn. Remember you are looking to build confidence, so forcing them into a scary situation or overwhelming them with a great deal of new information is not the best strategy.
Tips for Socialising your puppy
- Variety is key. Have your puppy experience a variety of places, people, sounds, objects and situations.
- Exposure alone is not enough. Create positive associations by making the experience fun and reinforcing with food and play.
- Calm observation is first. Calmly observing environments at a distance first before having them interact with the space, people or animals around.
- Quality over quantity. While it is important your puppy has a range of positive experiences it is equally important to protect him from stressful or frightening experiences.
- Go at your puppy’s pace. Each puppy is unique, and their plan needs to be just as unique.
- Ace the first encounter. First impressions matter, always have treats and a toy with you so can create positive associations.
- Socialise your puppy individually. A puppy who goes everywhere with another puppy or older canine does not learn to cope and investigate on their own.
- Keep records. Keep track of the places, types of people and animals, sounds and objects your puppy is exposed to. As well as how they respond.
Places to take puppy
There are a lot of options, first tip is to focus on the essentials. Take your puppy places and into situations he is likely to encounter in his life with you. I do recommend waiting 3 to 5 days before taking your puppy somewhere new. At this stage home is still new and this is the place he is adjusting to.
- Vet visit. Take your puppy to the vet just to say hi. Engaging in a puppy class, that utilises positive reinforcement techniques, at your vet is a great way to make it a positive experience.
- Visit to friends. Whether they have other animals or not it will still be a new experience for your puppy. If they do have other animals, ensure they fully vaccinated and friendly prior to the visit.
- Dog friendly shops. Stores like Bunnings allow dogs, only if in a trolley. This is perfect for first trips as it enforces safe space and observation. Pet stores should be visited cautiously, best for when pup has already had his first vaccinations.
- Café. Sit off to the side, even have your crate nearby. Remember this is not about meeting every person or dog. Best to have a high value chew for puppy to chomp away on.
- Groomer. Especially if you have a puppy who will need regular washing or clipping.
- Parks, sports fields, playgrounds and busy street traffic are all other places and situations. These can all be done by driving to the location and chilling out in the boot of the car with your puppy so they can observe. Have a picnic, keeping puppy on the blanket or in a crate is also a good option.
My puppy isn’t vaccinated, can I still take them out and about?
Better vaccinations have reduced the likelihood of your puppy contracting a disease but have not eliminated the risk altogether. For this reason, I say yes take them out but avoid heavily populated areas with dogs of unknown vaccination status. Early socialisation is like a behavioural vaccination for your puppy. When done successfully it will significantly reduce the likelihood of your puppy developing fear or aggression related behavioural problems. Waiting until your puppy is fully vaccinated, keeping them confined during this time can result in a range of issues down the line.
People, Animals, Places, Objects and Sounds
Remember, variety is key. This is true for all the socialisation you will do with your puppy and all you will expose them too.
When it comes to people, different genders and ages is a good start. Introducing them to men and women, children and seniors. Think also of introducing them to people on wheels, carrying something, wearing strange clothing (eg high vis, sunglasses, hoods and hats), people who are weird and making noises as well as people they watch and not interact with.
Socialising with other dogs is important. Dogs of all breeds, ages, sizes. From smooth coats to shaggy coats. Think also of other animals, big and small. The world is also full of cats, birds, horses, cows, hamsters. They make their own noises and movements.
TRAINING TIP: It is important your puppy not meet every dog and person they see as part of socialising. Calm observation is still important. You do not want to set up the expectation that your adolescent and adult dog can say hi to everybody.
Start with calm, quiet places where you can ensure your puppy has a positive experience. A visit to a friends place or a quiet outdoor space. From here you can tick off all those places listed above.
You have everyday objects such as vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, bikes and car rides as well as the more unusual with balloons and wobble boards. Think about what your puppy will come across and focus on those first.
The Sound Proof Puppy Ap on your phone has a great selection of sounds that you can use to desensitise your puppy. There are also a great many sounds around the house including the vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, pots and pans, things dropping, babies crying and car horns blaring. Go at your puppy’s pace and keep the experience positive.
What do I do if my puppy is scared?
Sometimes our puppies get scared, no matter how careful we are. A scared puppy might move away, avoid, make themselves smaller by ducking their head and tail, go very stiff. Here are some basic steps to follow;
- Make the situation/experience less scary. Move further away, turn down the volume or have the person/animal/object be still. If your puppy wont take treats or play, it is too scary or overwhelming
- Use the right rewards. Learn what your puppy loves and will respond to even around the scary trigger. Break out the best toys, cheese and chicken.
- Keep it short. When your puppy engages the scary, call away and reward him for being brave right away.
- Baby steps. Start by rewarding your puppy just for being around the trigger, then looking, then sniffing, then… etc It’s important not to ask for too much too soon.
They may also growl, snap or bark a great deal and not stop. If you observe these behaviours engage a professional trainer, the sooner this behaviour is addressed the better.
A note about training methods
Punishment is out. At a time when your puppy’s brain is optimised for learning what is safe and what is not, punishment will likely create negative associations and experiences. It will not help you socialise your puppy. Forcing puppy to interact with something that scares him is likely to make him more frightened and reduce trust in you.
Positive reinforcement training is designed to use that which the puppy loves to motivate them and make appropriate choices more likely. It will add value to your relationship and socialisation experiences by creating positive associations.