The first few weeks
Socialising a new puppy is the most important thing you can do to create a wonderful dog. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s important!
From 0 – 16 weeks, the foundation is set for the rest of your pup’s life. What they learn before 16 weeks will affect them forever. Our role is to provide our puppies with a wide range of positive experiences giving them a strong start that will build confidence in order to experience enjoyment in their social relationships and daily life as an adult. A confident pup is in a good position to develop a good understanding of the world.
It seems to be a common misunderstanding that socialisation refers to interactions with other puppies or dogs. It doesn’t! Socialisation is about providing your dog with many pleasant experiences so they can learn and gain an understanding about the world.
Why Socialisation Matters
0 - 8 Weeks
Very few people are lucky enough to know their puppy from birth onward. The important thing to remember about this period is this: They are the most critical weeks of life for a puppy and experiences during those weeks form the foundation of the adult dog that the puppy will become. Which is why it is important to purchase a puppy for a responsible breeder.
8 - 16 Weeks
This is the critical “socialisation period” as well as a “sensitive” period where experiences both good and bad can have lasting lifelong effects. We often hear this period as incorrectly referred to as the “fear period”. While it is true that puppies start to become increasingly fearful of NOVEL things and situations from around 4 weeks of age (with a peak around 9 weeks of age) this does not mean puppies automatically become fearful. They can be fearful of new people, objects, surfaces, sights, sounds, experiences and environments.
The Process of Socialisation
Socialisation is providing puppies with pleasant experiences, so they have the information they need to thrive in the world. Hopefully before you got your pup the breeder was actually a puppy raiser and has invested much time and effort into making sure that your puppy has the most up to date version of the information he needs for his age. Now it’s your job to continue to build on those experiences and provide the information he needs. Your puppy can’t read a book, search google, watch the TV or have a discussion with you to learn about places, people and things he’s never seen. The only way your puppy gets this knowledge is through the information that they acquire/understand/know/learn directly through their own experience. This requires a lot from you to ensure that your pup gets a wide range of experiences as they grow.
Every puppy is different and responds to situations differently; watch your puppy’s response to situations to make sure the experiences are enjoyable, educational and appropriate for their age and personality. When socialising a puppy, the quality of the experience counts not the quantity. In fact, the quality of the experience is the entire goal of proper socialisation.
It’s not only other dogs that puppies need to experience; they also need to experience people, places, events, things and other animals. This includes exposure to people of various ages and races, they should be introduced to a variety of sights, sounds (including fireworks), smells, animals, environments, and walking surfaces. I recommend introducing puppies to people wearing hats and sunglasses, people carrying bags and boxes, as well as people in uniforms, and people of different sizes, shapes and stature, including men, women, and children. If possible, puppies should see people using walkers, walking sticks and wheelchairs. In addition to wheelchairs, they should see skateboards, bicycles, baby strollers and motorcycles – and don’t forget vacuum cleaners, brooms, and umbrellas! Basically, anything a dog might encounter in life should be included in the socialisation process, and then some. But the important thing is that all these experiences need to be enjoyable ones. Puppies should never be forced into a new situation. Allow puppies to approach, in their own time and allow their puppies to retreat if they choose to do so.
It’s important to make time in your puppy’s socialisation plan for rest and sleep. Without enough rest and sleep, puppies become irritable, anxious, overwhelmed or fearful. There is also increasing evidence that sleep is needed for the brain to effectively process and learn from experiences. Adult dogs sleep 13-14 hours a day! That’s about 5 hours more that the average human. Puppies need more than this. A good rule of thumb for a balance between socialisation and the need for sleep is that a puppy takes a nap after an outing and if he wakes up alert and his bright self you have a good balance. If he wakes up tired he is! Slow down. If your puppy needs a day or more to recover that is a sure sign that it was too much.
Women, men, teenagers, children, toddlers, babies, people of all nationalities and race, people with peculiar gaits, handicapped individuals, uniforms, bearded men, people with hats, people acting weird. All the experiences with these people should be positive, using play or treats. A good suggestion is to have a “stranger treat bag” that you carry. Every time you meet someone new, ask that person to give your puppy a treat.
Crowds (initially from a distance), kids on bikes, traffic, car rides, soccer games, floor textures, etc.
Especially other dogs, but also cats, squirrels, or livestock.
Umbrellas, furniture that moves (such as reclining chairs, and be cautious with these, please; them can injure your pup!), wheelchairs, walkers, the vacuum cleaner, etc.
Shaking open a trash bag, the vacuum cleaner, doorbells, door knocks, the lawn mower (from a safe distance), trucks backing up, fire engines, loud voices, etc.
1. Begin to introduce your puppy to the new experience from a distance, making it positive and fun for your dog using treats and/or toys.
If your puppy seems relaxed, gradually move closer, continuing to make it fun with treats and/or toys.
2. Allow your puppy the chance to investigate new objects, smells, noises, surfaces, and textures. Don’t drag them up to the new experience.
3. Seek out new people and ask them to give your puppy a treat. Try and have only one person at a time approaching your puppy initially. Puppies can often draw a crowd, and being surrounded by a lot of people, no matter how friendly, can be overwhelming to a dog.
4. Give your puppy a treat for investigating new things on his own.
If at any time during socialisation your puppy is frightened (tries to run away, tucks his tail underneath flat against his belly, hides behind you, or snaps at you) you are creating an unpleasant experience for you puppy.
Back away from the experience that is frightening him and work at a place where your dog can be comfortable. Once the puppy is far enough away from the experience to be relaxed, start from this point to build up your pup’s confidence. The goal is for your puppy to be comfortable and confident around things that were previously scary to him.
Again, make positive associations with all of these experiences using food treats or play. Allow your pup to tell you when he is uncomfortable and needs to escape from fearful items.
Although the list of things you’d like to introduce your dog to is long, socialisation sessions should be short. Resist the temptation to take your puppy out for hours at a time exposing him to everything you can find. You want to slowly expand your puppy’s exposure to the environment and all the world has to offer. One or two short sessions a day is a good way to manage it.
Puppies experience fear of novel things as they develop into adults. These periods are most noted by the pup’s fearful reaction to novel noises and other novel items and people. Items which frighten a pup during these times can make a permanent impression, so please be gentle with your pup should you see this behaviour arise; allow the pup to escape from what is frightening them, and give them lots of space and time to approach the novel situation in their own time provide them with a lot of rewards for confident behaviour.
Adolescence is also a critical stage. Learn more about this critcal stage in your dog’s life