We all know that socialisation is one of the most important jobs of any new puppy parent. The best way to have a happy, confident dog who can go anywhere and do anything is to get those first few months right. And yet so many dogs end up having fears, phobias and troubles when they reach adulthood. Why is that?
Well, it’s because socialisation is so often misunderstood. When you think about socialising a puppy, what’s the first thing which springs to mind? Is it taking your young dog to meet as many people and dogs as you can? If it is, there’s a good chance you’ve been doing it wrong. But don’t worry - I’m here to bust some myths and clear up some misconceptions so that you and your puppy can get back on track!
Myth 1: Your puppy needs to meet as many people and dogs as possible.
When I ask new puppy parents ‘How is socialisation going?’ I normally get answered with a long list of people and dogs that they have met. As wonderful as it is that your young puppy loves Brian and his boisterous Boxer from around the corner, if you’ve been focusing on lots of meet and greets, you might be missing the point of socialisation.
I mean, this one is an understandable misconception; you hear the word ‘socialisation’ and you think ‘sociable’. Whilst this is definitely a part of the process, according to the Miriam Webster dictionary, socialisation is also ‘the process ... by which individuals acquire the values, habits, and attitudes of a society’.
When we are raising children, we don’t teach them to run up to every single human that they encounter and jump all over them, because if they did that when they were older, it would be considered weird and a little bit rude. Yet with puppies, many of us do just that. We let every stranger on the street put their hands all over our young dog, and shove puppies into the path of adult dogs with an over-enthusiastic ‘say hello then’ without a second thought for the consequences. At best, you’ll end up with an adult dog who pulls you over to meet everyone and everything. At worst, you might end up with an adult dog who finds the world overwhelming and scary.
So what should we be doing instead? Well, these helpful charts from iPupster show us that we should be focusing much more of our efforts on new experiences, sights, sounds, and most importantly, still being able to focus on you when around other people and dogs.
Myth 2: Your puppy can’t start socialisation until they are fully vaccinated.
Hold on. Stop right there. Step away from the lead!
I’m not saying that you should ignore veterinary advice and take your dog out for a walk before they are fully vaccinated. Please, before you take your puppy out, always ask your vet about safe practices and how best to keep your puppy healthy.
That said, if you bring your puppy home at 8 weeks old and you don’t take them out of the house again until they are 12 weeks old, you’ve managed to miss four whole vital weeks of socialisation. That’s why I carry my puppies everywhere until they are fully vaccinated. Trips to the garden centre, beachside benches, supermarket car parks, cafes, building sites, and the countryside are an essential part of those first few weeks of puppy ownership for me. They are safe from disease in my arms, but they are still having a wide variety of experiences which will help set them up for adulthood.
However, if you are extremely risk averse and you’d prefer to keep your puppy at home, that doesn’t mean you are let off of the hook. In fact, quite the opposite. You are going to have to get quite inventive. A great starting point is to raid your cupboards and make an obstacle course like this one. You can also pull out some of the more weird and wonderful things you’ve got in your wardrobe: a high vis jacket and a motorbike helmet anyone? Whatever you do, don’t forget those all important sounds. The Dogs Trust have put together a really helpful collection of booklets and playlists with various sounds, with everything from fireworks to babies crying, which you should expose your puppy to in those early weeks.
Myth 3: Your puppy needs to be told off by some older dogs to ‘learn their place’.
Can your puppy learn a lot from another dog? Absolutely! Does that mean we should be letting unknown pooches down at the park tell our new dog off at the park so they learn some manners? Definitely not!
I know I already did the child-puppy comparison once, but bare with me. Imagine you were on a day out at the theatre with a toddler and they started shouting just a bit louder than was appropriate during the first Act. Whose job is it to deal with that? Should Barbara in J17 and her family be the ones who decide how to resolve the problem? Or is that maybe your responsibility? Hint: if you said Barbara, I really hope we don’t ever end up watching the same play.
Your puppy is yours to look after, guide, and raise. It isn’t the job of any other dog or person. In those first few months and years, you aren’t going to be able to head to the local beach and let your dog off lead with a perfect recall, glorious manners, and the time to catch up with your favourite Auntie whilst your puppy entertains themselves. As some wonderful puppy parents of mine recently said, “it’s short term pain for long term gain”. If they are bothering someone, be that human or canine, you have to go over and remove them from that situation before things escalate. I’m sure the last thing you want is for another dog or person to get cross with your pup and traumatise them for life, so you have to be present and guide your new four-legged friend to make good choices.
If your puppy is going to be spending time with another dog, make sure they are calm, sociable and tolerant. Because if your puppy is going to learn lessons from another pup, you are going to want to make sure it’s a dog you can trust to teach them good habits.
Myth 4: Your puppy understands the word no.
I want you to try something for me: the next time you are about to say ‘no’ to your puppy, I want you to try ‘abracadabra’ instead. It won’t make any difference to their behaviour, but it will make me laugh.
Seriously, though, your puppy doesn’t understand you when you say ‘no’. Has the word ‘no’ miraculously cured your puppy of jumping up yet? Or has it magically stopped them weeing on your favourite rug? How about running off with your favourite trainers? I didn’t think so.
I’m going to help you make a really important shift in your thinking now: instead of focusing on how your puppy is getting things wrong, start focusing on when they are getting it right. There are about 100 different ways your puppy could mess up being in a cafe, and only a couple of ways they can get it right. That means it’s much easier to reward them (and yes, I do mean some tasty treats) when they are making good choices then it is to chase around after them telling them off all the time. Not to mention, it’s much more fun!
If your puppy toilets in the garden, celebrate with them. If they sit patiently in front of you, give them a fuss. If they chew on one of their toys instead of your skirting board, tell them they are a good dog.
‘That’s all well and good, but what about when they are running off with my favourite trainers?’ I hear you cry in exasperation. That’s fair. There’s two things to consider here:
Why did they make a mistake in the first place? Could you have been managing the situation better so that they were less likely to do the thing you’d rather they didn’t?
Do you want to give that behaviour your attention? We’ve bred dogs for thousands of years to thrive off of human attention, so often when we think we are asking our puppy to stop doing something, we are actually egging them on.
Instead, you are going to want to ignore bad decisions, or redirect away from them. Is your puppy jumping up relentlessly? Ignore them until they have four paws on the floor, and then give them a fuss. Is your puppy running off with your cushions? Redirect onto a toy and then make sure they aren’t left alone in the lounge again until they know the rules of the house.
Myth 5: Your puppy will be happy, confident, and love everyone as long as you get socialisation right.
We often look at reactive, fearful and antisocial dogs and think ‘I blame the owner’. I’ve no doubt that sometimes, that is the truth. But for those of us living with dogs who find the world a little bit tricky, we know that isn’t always the case.
The thing is, how a dog feels about the world depends on much more than just what their human did in the first few months of their life. First up, we have to consider a dog’s breed and genetics. The Labrador was created to be an ultra-friendly work colleague to country folk. By comparison, the Cane Corso has been bred to work as a security guard. The Collie is to be Type A and high maintenance and the Cavalier King Charles is built to snuggle up on someone’s lap. The point I’m making here is that not all dogs will have the same response to the world around them.
After genetics and breed, a dog’s capacity for resilience and confidence can actually be decided before they are even conceived by their mother, because behavioural traits can be passed down along generations through epigenetics. Then there’s the role of the breeder and what decisions they made during pregnancy and the first eight weeks. Finally, each dog is an individual; some have health issues; some had traumatic experiences; and some are just happier in the company of their favourite human, and that’s okay.
Society needs to normalise some dogs needing space, and we need to do a better job of understanding key breed differences and the importance of responsible breeding.
If you are about to embark on the journey of puppy parenting, our Welcome Home Package can help set you and your new addition up for success. If you have a young puppy and you want to make sure they get off to the best start in life, our unique Puppy Academy group classes or One-to-One Puppy Training will hold your hand through those early months and make sure you understand how to socialise your pup - you even get a free e-book with even more advice about how to smash socialisation. And if you have an adult dog who struggles with the world around them, our personalised Behaviour Modification plans can help you and your dog become more confident and feel in control when out and about.
If you have any questions about socialisation, puppy parenting, reactivity, or anything else dog, you can always get in touch with us for a no-obligation chat about how we can help.
Head Trainer, Kit's Canine Academy