Updated: Jun 30
The perils of socialisation
We are all told about the importance of early socialisation but less is said about the dangers of improper socialisation. Socialisation should be interactive, it’s not a case of letting the puppy get on with it, or blindly carrying him around assuming he’s taking it all in, nor is it a case of throwing him into every possible situation, exposing him to everything and everyone as quickly as possible!
Socialisation should involve careful consideration of your puppy’s feelings, emotions and responses to experiences. You should interact with him and support your puppy through each experience, there is a careful balance between being supportive while also allowing a puppy to explore and learn.
Understanding your puppy’s personality is important. Do you have a puppy who is sensitive and takes time to choose to explore? Does he need time to adjust after being spooked or startled? Does your puppy bound enthusiastically into everything? Do they quickly bounce back after being startled?
A more sensitive puppy will benefit from more support, not overbearing, anxious mothering, but for you to step in when needed. Use plenty of rewards and prioritise gentle, gradual exposure to novelty. A bolder puppy will be able to explore a little more independently, have more freedom to figure everything out but will still require a vigilant human to support them and remain interactive throughout the process.
By leaving a puppy to figure it out himself and face his fears will likely only increase his fears and remove any security or trust he feels from you. It’s perfectly possible to support your puppy while also allowing him to explore and learn about his surroundings without causing any harm.
Remember, a quiet puppy isn’t always a good sign, just because he isn’t obviously scared doesn’t mean he’s having a good time, he may be shut down, overwhelmed and flooded by the whole experience. Some puppies may express their uncertainty very clearly with barking or running away, whereas some may shut down, freeze or act sleepy.
Upon reaching adolescence, a puppy who used to be quiet, shy and uninterested may now start to display ‘aggression’, because he’s now developed enough to choose to take action and protect himself, perhaps with barking, growling, lunging or snapping. This can be most shocking because the quiet puppy was always perceived to be so well behaved and has now turned into something quite scary!
Take, for example, a puppy who shies away and hides when a guest enters the house, but they desperately want to meet your puppy, so you pick him up and place him into the stranger’s arms, maybe your puppy wriggles to get away or maybe he trembles or falls asleep. In your eyes it was a good experience so you repeat the same process lots and lots with new people. Then, your puppy grows up and suddenly when someone comes into the house he explodes into barking and growling, he runs and hides, continuing to bark and eventually settles down. Where did that come from?!
This time you don’t let him meet the new person, everyone leaves him alone, shocked by his embarrassing behaviour. But guess what? It worked … you finally listened to him, you didn’t force him to meet anyone, you left him alone and he could hide where he felt safe. Next time, he will most likely go straight to the barking and growling … it worked well last time so it will work again.
You could put that scenario into countless other situations and suddenly it starts to become clearer why the ‘sweet, innocent puppy’ became the ‘nasty, aggressive adult’. Dogs do what works. If you ignore the subtle signs, they will escalate until they find something which works, in most cases barking, lunging and making a big show will be pretty effective but ignore this and you’re edging down the path towards a dog with a bite history.
This is why it’s vital that socialisation is done carefully. If your puppy is showing signs of fear or stress then take a break from the situation, give him space and time to relax. Next time you enter that situation, approach it in a different way, for example, if you’re taking him to meet new people, make sure you allow him to choose to interact with people and reward him while doing so, if he shows no interest then don’t force the issue, puppies learn a huge amount from simply watching and observing!
Make sure you pair new experiences with good things. Food rewards are usually the best option and if your puppy is refusing food then it could be a sign that he’s feeling stressed or anxious. For some puppies, play or fuss from you will be a good reward and create a more positive experience. Keep new experiences short and fun, don’t push your puppy past the point he can handle and ensure he has plenty of rest and sleep time so he’s not feeling too tired. A tired puppy cannot process information effectively, sleep is essential in ensuring he’s in the right mindset to learn and take in information.
Meeting new people
It’s all about choices – does he really want to approach the person or is he being forced, bribed and tempted towards them
If he doesn’t choose to approach or he moves away, respect that and give him more space and time
Take regular breaks and encourage him to keep checking in with you during greetings
Keep all rewards coming from you. Allowing unfamiliar people to give your puppy treats may put him in difficult situations. He may approach people because they have food, when actually he’s feeling anxious about the person … so what’s he really learning? People are scary but they also have food … but when they don’t have food? They’re still really scary!
If your puppy is less confident around people, take a more hands-off approach and see if he wants to engage in a game with a toy or basic obedience training and once he’s relaxed then they can offer him a fuss
If he just wants to observe from a distance or briefly sniff people then don’t push him any further, taking it slow is much better!
Meeting other dogs
Choose calm, friendly dogs; puppies learn huge amounts from other dogs so choose good role models
Don’t allow older dogs to ‘teach your puppy a lesson’, if you see your puppy being inappropriate or the other dog is getting frustrated with your puppy, step in and move your puppy away. Some dogs can discipline younger dogs very appropriately but that’s not always the case, so unless you fully trust the other dog, step in before they feel the need to act
Puppies can be pests, they don’t always know when to stop and most dogs will get fed up at some point, so keep interactions short and positive. This will teach your puppy to be respectful of dogs and to keep checking in with yo
It’s not all about dogs and people though. Remember that your puppy will grow up to face all manner of challenges, things which we perceive as normal can be novel and scary for our dogs. It’s impossible to introduce your puppy to everything he may encounter as he grows up, but a puppy who has had good, positive exposure to numerous events and items will have a much more positive outlook on life.
Think about a puppy who has spent their first 10 weeks in the same room, they’ve not seen new people, objects or sounds, all they’ve known is the same routine and surroundings. When they first venture outside, they hear a bang *scary*, a car goes past *scary*, they see a tree *scary*. Everything is new. It’s all scary. They will naturally have a pessimistic view on life and everything novel which happens will initially induce fear.
Compare this to a puppy who spent 10 weeks being introduced to random sounds, objects, people, dogs … a whole world of new experiences. If done carefully and positively, the puppy should now feel very optimistic about novelty and new experiences. They’ve spent weeks enjoying exploring and gaining information about new things, so when they step into a new place and see novel objects, they should be more curious than fearful. They will still feel fearful to some extent, but they will be much better prepared to overcome this. They are OPTIMISTIC, not pessimistic.
Find the Novelty
A puppy who has positive experiences in novel situations will develop a more optimistic view of life and be better able to confidently handle new things.
This can easily be done at home, gather together some household objects (e.g. pots and pans, cardboard boxes, chairs or anything else safe for your puppy to explore around), scatter them around in an open space and let your puppy explore and investigate.
Support him with verbal feedback and food rewards, but make sure you don’t use these to entice him into a situation he’s unsure of. Give him plenty of time and space to make the choice to interact with the novel items, and if he chooses to move away then don’t force him to go back – teaching him that he has a choice is hugely important too!
Novelty can be created in your own home by moving your furniture around or dressing up in different clothes and accessories to change your appearance. Changing how your furniture looks will create a whole new room for your puppy to explore and essentially give him a novel environment to experience. Wearing different clothes or accessories will allow your puppy to experience things he will encounter as he grows up.
Always watch his body language and don’t push him if he’s finding the situation difficult. If he spooks at you wearing certain items (e.g. a hat) then calmly leave the room and return in your normal clothes, then introduce the new items more gradually, perhaps putting the hat on while in the same room so your puppy can see the change.
Other items you can play with at home could include riding a bike or skateboard in the garden, or showing him the hoover or lawnmower. Moving items can be scary or exciting for dogs, so carefully introduce these at a pace your puppy is comfortable with. For example, push the bike before riding it, let him explore the Hoover before it’s turned on or move it around without turning it on.
Use lots of rewards with these items, ideally tossing the treat away from the moving item so your puppy is always encouraged to stay back while building a positive association… remember you don’t want him running up to bikes or getting under the Hoover in the future so toss the reward away and teach him to keep his distance.
Let Him Listen
There are some excellent sound CD’s available which are designed to gradually desensitise dogs and puppies to different noises. Find one which will play the sound of things your puppy will encounter in daily life, for example, people talking, dogs barking, fireworks and traffic noises.
Start at a low volume and gradually increase it if he remains calm and relaxed. Ideally you want him to notice slightly but quickly carry on with what he’s doing, so play the CD while he’s playing with a toy or engaged in an enrichment activity. If he spooks or can’t ignore the sound then it’s too much and you need to reduce the volume until he’s barely noticing it.
Set up some mock vet visits and work through handling your puppy. Watch for signs of discomfort, for example, wriggling, running away, cowering or becoming excessively bitey. Watch how your puppy behaves and combine each exercise with food rewards.
Start by briefly touching different parts of his body and make note of where he is less comfortable, these areas will need slower, more careful work. Never force handling exercises, this will only create more fear, so always take it slowly and keep it really positive and relaxed!
Socialisation is not just a few weeks of your puppy’s life, it’s a lifetime of experiences. It may be more crucial during the early months, but you can build on it forever so a slow and steady approach is not always a bad thing. The idea of socialisation can be overwhelming for us as well as our puppy. It can feel like there is so much pressure on these early weeks and so much potential for things to go wrong. What puppies learn during the crucial socialisation weeks can stay with them forever.
Bringing up a puppy is no easy task, even for people who have owned dogs for years, every puppy is different and they all bring their own challenges. Anyone planning to bring a new puppy home, should seek help from a knowledgeable trainer before they’ve even picked the puppy up. Being prepared and planning ahead can ensure you get your puppy off to the best start. Working through socialisation with a trainer will give you peace of mind that you’re setting your puppy up for success and they can support you through any difficulties or set-backs.
At Adolescent Dogs, we are well-practiced at working with dogs and puppies who didn’t get the best out of their early socialisation. We understand the challenges socialisation brings and the perils that our puppies face during this time. We have a specially designed puppy socialisation programme which focuses on building positive experiences around everything your puppy may encounter as they grow up.
Written by Advanced Senior Trainer Naomi White
Call: 0800 222 9007