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Puppy Socialisation - How to Keep My Puppy Safe

Why is puppy socialisation important?
Because a very large number of dogs behave aggressively or are overly excitable and difficult to manage because there has been insufficient early socialisation and training.

What is it? Puppy socialisation is all about introducing your puppy to all the smells, sights, sounds, noises and things that they’ll need to be able to cope with in their lives. It’s about teaching your puppy to ignore the things they shouldn’t bother with, and about teaching them to behave politely with people and other pet animals.

It helps to think about socialisation in 2 distinct ways:
  • Firstly, habituating, or teaching your puppy to become accustomed to things, and to ignore them e.g. teaching them not to be scared of fireworks; not to chase cars and bicycles; not to chase animals; and not to bark at the hoover or play with the mop for instance. Generally, this is best done, simply by keeping them distracted with a wee game or toy whilst exposing them to the item.
  • And secondly, socialising, or teaching them to get on well with other dogs and puppies; to enjoy attention and pats from people without jumping up; and then to teach them to be calm around the other animals which you may have in your household and neighbourhood – or may have in the future.

When do I do it? Here’s the important part about socialisation: not only is (safe) exposure important, but timing is also crucial – it has to be done in the early weeks of the puppy’s life.

There are 2 crucial reasons why :
  • When your puppy is born, they don’t know what fear is – their body chemistry just doesn’t do “fear” - they may startle, and then look around to “learn” what to do from their litter mates, mother – or from you. Once the fear feeling start, the process becomes more difficult. This is why puppies who are brought up in a busy mixed household are generally less fearful than others.
  • During the early weeks of the puppy’s life, their brains are growing at a tremendous rate. By the time they reach 16 weeks of age, their brains are 90% grown! A huge opportunity to get lots of worldly knowledge packed in there.

The critical time frame to balance all this exposure is generally accepted to be 8-12 weeks: this is called the Critical Socialisation Period. This time period isn’t precise and varies from dog to dog and breed-type to breed type. It’s a good enough generalisation, but really the earlier things are done the better.

How do I do it? Well, obviously, we must ensure that the puppy is kept physically, medically, and emotionally safe and secure. We mustn’t expose them to possible diseases before the vet says it’s safe; we mustn’t over-whelm them with too much exposure; and we must ensure that they aren’t exposed to any traumatic events. A complex dilemma!

What’s sometimes difficult to comprehend is that the things we take for granted are just simply “alien” to puppies e.g. people are people, but put a motorbike helmet on someone – argh… ALIEN!!! All sorts of shapes, sizes, and ages of people, and children are quite different to puppies – as are all shapes and sizes of dogs.

How can you safely expose your puppy to the world? There are too many ideas to write down here. And the first safety step is to speak with your Veterinarian about incidence of local disease, and safety. One good tip is to take them out in the car, stopping somewhere generally dog free like the supermarket, carrying them, and letting people say hello. There will be lots of cars moving around, the noise of trolleys, carrier bags, and lots of different people etc. This also gets them used to car travel at an early age too. (Please obviously take care that your puppy is safe and secure in the car; and also safe and secure with a lead and collar on even when you are carrying them).

And how do you expose your puppy to other dogs and puppies? Generally, the best way to do this is to find a vet who runs good puppy parties. These should be safely set up to ensure that your puppy isn’t bullied and doesn’t bully other puppies, thus allowing safe and fun play with other puppies which help your puppy to start to learn how to “talk-dog”. If you have friends and family with vaccinated dogs then introductions at an early age is excellent experience too (the older dog should be well behaved and kept on lead to start with.)

And what about training? Training is also a crucial part of socialisation – how else can you teach your puppy to behave nicely with people and children, if they can’t sit and stay? Training methods have advanced tremendously in recent years, and there is absolutely no reason for delaying your start at training. And, if you consider the brain growth comment from earlier, then really, if you get the basics trained before your puppy is 16 weeks old – then you can imagine that you are almost “hard-wiring” the training! Some puppy parties may help you make a start at training, and there are many trainers and behaviourists around who can help with 1-1 training. Another reason for training early – it is so much easier to teach your dog not to pull if they haven’t already learned that bad habit – prevention is much, much easier than cure.

And so, taking this information on board what are the final tips and advice

Make sure you know where you puppy has come from, and how much socialisation they have had in their first few weeks
Start gentle training early
Think about safe ways to expose your puppy to lots of things, and get out there.
ALWAYS ask your vet about the safely of taking your puppy out and about – they will know whether there are any risky diseases going around, and be able to give you the best advice on your local area.

FREE Puppy Socialisation Checklist

This checklist suggests some things which you can introduce puppy to. Don’t worry if you can’t access all these items – don’t even try to, just use your imagination to add on new people, places and things. Variety is the key. The list doesn’t need to be exhaustive. Remember, don’t over expose your puppy. Short frequent exposures are better. If you think something is likely to be scary, then get someone to distract him/her with a toy and introduce at a distance, which is then gradually be reduced each time.
Tick off the items each time you add them into Pup’s diary.

Download your free puppy socialisation checklist here.

Read more help here for when you've just got your puppy