As soon as your puppy leaves his mother and comes to you, the socialisation clock is ticking. Up to about 14 weeks of age, however shy or outgoing your puppy is, he will be able to take new experiences in his stride. After this time however, puppies start to become more wary of things they aren’t familiar with and can easily become afraid. Once your puppy reaches about 6 months of age, those fears will surface and you may find your previously friendly dog is no longer happy to play with other puppies or be cuddled by strangers, for example. For many breeds of dog, socialising them consistently in the first month of their new lives with you will be enough to produce a balanced adult, but for some breeds it will take more varied and more careful socialisation experiences to produce the same results.
When you first adopt your new puppy there is so much to think about. What with house training, nipping, basic manners and the need for exercise, it’s not surprising that we might not give as much thought to socialisation as we should. Many of us will be imagining a future in which our pup is a fully-grown dog trotting obediently next to us when out and calmly accepting everything going on around him. However, that dream can only come true if we put in time, effort and patience when our pups first arrive and socialising puppies well is the most important thing we can do for them to help them grow up happily and safely.
Not only is it easier to train a puppy when he is young but during those first few weeks your challenge is to give your puppy enough good quality experiences of everything he needs to learn about so that he will stand a chance of growing up into a balanced and calm adult dog.
Socialisation is not just about letting your dog meet the dog next door and introducing him to your family; it’s about giving him a wide variety of different experiences that cover all manner of things that he is likely to encounter as he grows up.
If you are reading this, you may well already have your puppy but don’t panic! Socialisation is always possible, but it takes longer and has to be done more sensitively the older your dog is when you start.
COVID-19 has really made life difficult for dogs. It may seem fine to have a puppy in your home when you are in lockdown and indeed, the puppy knows no different so is likely to be perfectly happy. Life will change again though and we will all slowly return to at least a semblance of normal life. For your puppy that will mean going out and meeting people and dogs, seeing traffic, maybe spending time in other peoples’ houses and being exposed to sounds and smells he will never have experienced before. You may be returning to work and he will find himself alone for the first time. He is likely to be terrified!
So what can you do under the current constraints to make sure your puppy can cope with the real world when he gets out?
In our normal social world, it is recommended that your goal is to have your puppy meet 100 people and dogs before the 4 month date approaches. That may seem a huge task but if you live in a town or city this is quite easily manageable. In the countryside it is more of a challenge, but all of us face the difficulties of not being able to meet many people at the moment so we need to be creative.
Let’s look at the way dogs experience the world and find ways of expanding your puppy’s horizons safely and effectively during lockdown.
The majority of puppies find women less intimidating than men. Men are usually bigger, they have deeper voices and can appear more threatening than women. Your puppy may be living with only you or at the most, you and your immediate family. Allow your puppy to see the postman and any delivery people visiting your house. Male or female, they are all strangers and valuable experiences for him. If you are concerned about the risk of infection, have your puppy look at them through a window as they visit.
If you can’t yet walk on the streets with him, take your puppy out in the car to where he will see people and hear them as they pass. Park and open the window so he can smell them too.
Carry him in a papoose or in your arms when you go into the streets and even when you’re walking in the countryside, so he learns the sights, smells and sounds.
If you live in a town, take your puppy to a window or into the front garden in the evenings when people are passing on their way home and let him see and smell them.
Once he can safely walk outside, take him for short walks where he will see people and other dogs. Don’t force him to greet other dogs but encourage him to accept them and carry on walking. There is no reason why your puppy should greet and play with every dog he sees. If you allow this when he is young he will always expect to be permitted to pull you towards every passing dog, some of which may not be friendly.
The same rule applies to meeting people. Your puppy doesn’t have to touch them to meet them and it will help to instil good manners in him if he learns to be polite with people right from the start.
If you can’t invite people to your home, use your imagination and dress up! Put on a false beard, wear a high vis jacket, don a wetsuit and flippers, crawl across the floor. It’s not ideal, but it will teach your puppy that people don’t always look the same from meeting to meeting.
Pick up unusual and brightly coloured objects and wave them around. Balloons, shiny bowls, hats, whatever you can think of. Sweep the floor when your puppy is nearby.
Make noises with items you have at home. Switch on the vacuum cleaner, run the food processor, put the TV on louder than you would normally, have him with you when you are using your electric drill. If he tries to chase you or the object, don’t make a game of it – distract him with something preferable to chew and put him in his crate. If he is fearful, ignore him and walk further away. He will soon settle down and accept it.
Use the internet and/or your television to expose your puppy to noises he needs to learn about. Download and play gun shots, fireworks, thunder and lightning, children screaming and shouting, traffic noises. Think about all the noises he is likely to hear when you take him out and get him used to them now.
Some points to keep in mind
Some puppies are less confident than others so do watch your puppy and slowly increase the level of sound you play to him so he has the chance to get used to it over time. Similarly with new objects and clothing. The idea is to help him, not to terrify him, so introduce things one at a time and be sensitive to his reaction, removing things if he finds them frightening.
This kind of sensitisation could be considered stressful for your puppy and some people may object to it on that basis. However, a small amount of stress is not a bad thing for a young dog though and in fact limited stress makes learning quicker (Yerkes and Dodson 1908). Your puppy will handle unusual situations so much better as an adult if he has learned to accept them when very young.
One final, very important point to remember is actually not directly related to socialisation but extremely important. During lockdown your puppy will be enjoying your company a great deal of the time, perhaps even 24 hours a day. When you start to go out again it will be a dreadful shock to him and you can’t explain that you will soon be returning. You can help him to deal with your departure later by making sure he spends at least some time each day on his own, in a different room from the rest of the family so he learns that it isn’t a problem. Give him something really good to chew and start when he is very young and he will quickly learn to settle when on his own.
Socialisation is a lifetime process. Puppies process a vast amount of information in the first few months of their lives but they continue to learn for the rest of their days. Imagine how you would feel if you had been isolated from people since you left school and were suddenly forced to go to a crowded theatre or worse still, a rock concert. Your dog can feel the same way if he spends all of his time at home and then is unexpectedly taken to the park to meet people and strange dogs. Socialisation isn’t difficult to do, although a bit more demanding at the moment, so please dedicate yourself to it for the next few weeks and your dog will reward you a hundred-fold as he grows up.