What is puppy ‘socialisation’?
There are plenty of books, websites, blog posts etc. all on how to socialise your puppy and drumming it in to new puppy guardians that they must complete an intense plan of exposing their puppy to everything they can think of within a finite period. If you don’t then you can be sure to be told further down the line, particularly when your puppy hits adolescence, that the reason they are now scared of certain dogs or people is that you didn’t expose them enough to these things early on. WOW! Talk about piling on the guilt.
So this post is all about helping new guardians understand these phrases and giving you more manageable goals for both yourself and your puppy. Let’s be honest, it is exhausting bringing a puppy home, the build-up, the anticipation, the shopping (yes we all do it), then finally you bring this bundle of love home, and you are hit, and I mean HIT hard with guilt, worry, overthinking everything you are doing.
You want to get this right, you may well have blamed yourself for a previous dog’s fear of something, lack of recall, pulling on the lead, cleaning itself in front of Grandma every time she visited. It could be any number of things, for first-time pup parents, it is often sheer panic that you won’t do the right thing by your puppy. This goes for newly re-homed dogs of any age, the guilt and worry seems universal.
So what is this ‘socialisation’ that everyone with a dog seems to know about and tell you that you must do?
Socialisation is a term bandied about a lot in the dog world.
So here is the straightforward DICTIONARY DEFINITION of socialisation.
“The activity of mixing socially with others.”
“The process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society.”
So when we look at this from a puppy’s point of view what does this mean? Simply that your puppy is leaving its litter and mother, where it has been mixing socially with its genetic family members and the humans that care for the puppy’s mother. It will have learnt body language from its mother and litter mates and determined how to gain attention from the humans caring for it too. It may well have had visitors of differing ages and possibly dogs of different ages too if they lived in the same house and the mother dog. So from 3-8 weeks old your puppy will have already started this mystical socialisation journey without you involved at all.
If this is done in a supportive manner, looking after each individual puppy’s needs, then they will be gaining confidence and growing their trust in humans who care for them.
However, if they are flooded with handling, noises, smells etc. then it is also just as likely they can form some negative associations too.
You can’t predict this, you will go and see your puppy, choose the one you feel you like the most based on a relatively short space of time with them, or if you are lucky with the help and guidance of an experienced breeder. But you are still going to be bringing your puppy home to a new home, new smells, new noises.
Some incredible breeders make sure their puppies are set up for the changes, they ask about your lifestyle, whether it is noisy, quiet, whether your puppy will be your only dog and pet or with other animals too. All these things are part of its socialisation picture. However. if your puppy is scared of things and needs more support it really isn’t anyones fault, and trying to fit more into this key developmental window known as the ‘critical period’ open until around 14 weeks old, really doesn’t prevent problems in the future. Instead listening to your puppy and providing gradual exposure is far better than rushing or flooding.
There are so many factors that play a part in the sociability of a puppy that all you can actually do is be supportive, avoiding your puppy being overwhelmed by the extra human attention they will undoubtedly attract and ensure that they can always move away if they choose. Enrolling in a suitable Puppy Class in which puppies are taught to be calm around each other and social interactions are carefully monitored by a suitably qualified and experienced practitioner can be very helpful. Puppy parties, where it is essentially a ‘free-for-all’ with uninterrupted, high-arousal play should be avoided, your puppy will either feel overwhelmed and become scared or if your puppy is the confident boisterous one it is very likely they will learn that play like this is ok and sadly learn a very different lesson when in local parks with less tolerant well-socialised dogs, who won’t tolerate a pushy puppy.
They can’t greet everyone
It’s also really important to teach your puppy that they cannot always greet every dog (or person) that they see. There will be times when it is not appropriate to allow your dog to approach others (for example if the other dog is on a lead due to age, injury or fear) so it is essential that they learn to accept this. Try to strike a balance between teaching your puppy to stay focused on you (instead of allowing them to greet) and allowing suitable interactions. If their expectations are not managed from an early age, this can lead to behaviour issues in the future, due to frustration.