But what does ‘Socialisation’ actually mean?
The time to socialise dogs – i.e. teaching them to cope with everything that they might experience in life is from around 3 weeks of age until around 12-16 weeks of age. Good breeders will have got your puppy off to a good start already in the first few weeks.
Many people assume that exposure to a thing is enough, regardless of whether the pup is ok with it or not. Actually, puppies need to have actively positive experiences of new things, be that other humans, animals or environments. Pups that are constantly exposed to things that frighten them will be unlikely to just ‘get used to them’ and are more likely to become more sensitive to them. Ways to ensure positive experiences include pairing new things with tasty treats, or favourite toys, but also relies on you knowing when to stop.
The key to getting socialisation right depends quite heavily on you being able to recognise how well your puppy is coping, by watching their body language. Scared puppies should never be forced to endure frightening situations, so you need to know when to make a judgement call on when to remove your puppy from a situation, or whether you allow them to remain and explore.
The best way to do this is to allow your puppy to have choices – if they choose to approach a person or dog, then they should be allowed to do so at their pace (assuming everyone else is happy with that). If they chose to back away (or hide their faces/wriggle away if being carried in arms), then they should be allowed distance from whatever is bothering them. Many people feel that it is their absolute right to pick up and fuss other people’s dogs, but a puppy (or any dog) can often feel very overwhelmed by too much unwanted attention when they aren’t ready.
On the flip side, very bold, uber-confident puppies need to learn polite behaviour in a variety of situations, as well as having those positive experiences. They shouldn’t be allowed to bully other dogs (young or old). They need to learn how to cope with frustration, and how to ‘switch off’ if they are very ‘busy’.
7 top tips for socialising your puppy
- It’s ok to reassure and offer comfort to your puppy if they need it – yes, really! Do try and stay calm yourself though while doing it.
- Take things at the puppy’s pace. You can encourage, but never force.
- Pair new experiences with good times.
- Always allow your puppy the choice to say ‘no thanks’ if he needs to. If your puppy is usually food or toy motivated, but in a particular situation refuses food/play then he may be feeling under pressure. Remove him calmly from the situation and try again at another time from a greater distance, or with less going on.
- Allow your puppy time to fully recover if frightened by something
- Manage interactions with other dogs carefully, and avoid ‘free for all’ puppy parties. Not all dogs like to play or tolerate puppies very well, so choose their friends carefully. Over-confident, rough playing puppies can learn terrible habits very quickly if not carefully supervised/managed.
- Ask for help. A good trainer can help you structure your puppy’s socialisation time to best effect, and teach you how to get the most out of this incredibly important window of opportunity.