Puppy Socialisation and Familiarisation – the most critical training in a dog’s life

Socialisation and familiarisation involves getting the young puppy used to everything it is likely to encounter later in life, now, while fearless and trusting, and ensuring that the encounter is a positive one.

The most critical period for socialisation and familiarisation in the puppy starts from 3 weeks of age and closes when the puppy is aged around 14 -16 weeks, depending on the breed and individual makeup of the puppy. During this ‘golden age’ they are inquisitive, fearless and learn very quickly. However, as we cannot take ownership of our puppies until they are about 8 weeks of age, and since their vaccination cover is not completed until 10-12 weeks of age, the opportunity for truly effective socialisation is invariably delayed and compacted into a mere 4 to 8 weeks. This need not be the case!

In fact, the importance of adequate socialisation in the young puppy is becoming so highly understood, increasing numbers of leading trainers around the world are questioning the need to balance this socialisation imperative against disease avoidance in young puppies (that is, they challenge the risks of catching a contagious disease against the need for intensive socialisation at this critical age). This is an interesting concept, but one that I do not intend to debate here. Nevertheless, this debate proves the importance of socialisation and familiarisation in the young puppy cannot be overstated.

We therefore need to carefully and sensitively expose our new puppies to as many controlled social experiences as possible, as soon as they come into our care, and certainly before the socialisation window closes. These experiences should be positive – reinforced with food treats and play – definitely nothing scary, and, to be effective, not even neutral. They should include being patted, handled and fed by a wide variety of humans, as well as and seeing, hearing, sniffing and touching of all sorts of objects and experiences.

Controlled ‘heavy’ socialisation is now recommended by all the world-renowned dog psychologists and trainers. They believe the more puppyhood experiences a dog has to draw on, the more resilient the dog’s character becomes. The mild stress of regular novelty in early life are like ‘inoculations’ to stress in adult life. Furthermore, if a puppy is exposed to a multitude of new experiences when fearless, they develop great ‘bounce-back’ recovery aptitude, so specific experiences missed in puppyhood socialisation will be handled more easily by the adult animal.

Effective socialisation doesn’t just involve taking the puppy to the local shopping centre a few times, or just letting the puppy experience life as you experience it. Rather, it involves actively instigating a systematic and continuous controlled ‘assault-style’ program of exposure to new things – to absolutely everything you can introduce your puppy to. If done correctly and thoughtfully, this pumped-up sort of socialisation not only hugely reduces the risk of a dog becoming prone to fearfulness, defensive aggression and biting, but creates one who is much less at risk of stress and anxiety as an adult, in the face of something new.

Actively increasing the number of strongly positive experiences a young puppy has greatly improves the odds of creating a dog with a confident, relaxed, solid temperament, so socialisation is like putting money in the bank, or buying insurance! It is imperative to remember a negative experience on the first exposure to something can create a phobia, so this must be done carefully, to ensure the experience is a positive one.

The best way to achieve this is to hand feed a tasty food treat at the time of exposure. This means socialising the puppy to an assortment of people can be relatively simple – the stranger can be the one to hand feed the puppy, so a good experience easily achieved! Another helpful method is to arrange for strangers to play games with the puppy’s favourite tug toy or ball to create a positive experience. In the case of familiarisation with objects, the owner can hand feed tasty treats and reassure the puppy as he explores the strange object, such as a vacuum cleaner or lawn mower (initially switched off) or play games near the object with the puppy.

While negative experiences are bad, neutral experiences are useless. The experience MUST be a positive one and it must be repeated as often as possible. Allowing the puppy to merely see someone unfamiliar walking, cycling or driving by is a waste of time, as that is merely a neutral experience. The puppy needs to actively interact with that person or item in a very positive way, so stop the stranger, give them some delicious treats and ask them to pat and feed your puppy. They are usually very obliging, but if not, don’t proceed, lest it becomes a negative encounter. Instead, tee up someone you know to help you out. Both the range of people and objects, as well as the number and extent of positive experiences must be high to be effective.

This program of socialisation and famailiarisation should not stop at 16 weeks. It should remain intensive for 12 months and continue in older dogs throughout their life, because even if this is adequately done as a puppy, the effect of the desensitisation dwindles over time, and especially if years go by between encounters.

There are also really good reasons to carefully choose who you obtain your puppy from, since five precious weeks (between the ages of 3 and 8 weeks) of the puppy’s critical socialisation period is spent in the breeder’s environment. You might be surprised what I mean by this point – see ##, below.

Studies have shown that some dogs need more socialisation than others, including:
• Puppies of anxiety-prone breeds (e.g. Staffies, German Shepherds, Border Collies, some terriers etc)
• Puppies who have a more timid, reserved, reactive or sensitive disposition
• Puppies bred by breeders who whelp their litters in quiet sheds, barns, purpose-built kennels that are rarely visited by anyone but the breeder or see any degree of normal household activity
• Dogs belonging to owners in rural or quiet suburban areas (yes, this is a common socialisation negative)
• Puppies belonging to owners with securely fenced back yards (they tend to be left to self-exercise and they get out less, so, ditto!)
• Puppies with over-protective owners, usually small breeds (being overprotective of a puppy is a negative management practice)
• Puppies of large or traditionally ‘scary’ breeds (which strangers may avoid, so they get less spontaneous socialisation)
• Puppies of multi-dog households (they are frequently left to self-exercise together so rarely get out)
• Dogs with unknown backgrounds eg. obtained from rescue shelters or those re-homed privately

## Ideal breeders are those with human and children-infested busy, noisy homes that will expose the puppy to all sorts of adults, children, machines, toys, equipment, visitors, noise and activity since birth (I hope this puts a new light onto the selection of your next puppy! Select a breeder with a large, noisy family!

Remember: you cannot overdo socialisation! Now that we know so much more about the psychology of animals, there is no excuse for an emotionally crippled adult dog to be placed at risk of being ‘executed’ after they bit someone due to inadequate socialisation. Heavy socialisation is the single smartest investment you can make in your dog. It may take a bit of extra time, but it is absolutely great fun taking a puppy out!

In the veterinary world, we are frequently required to euthanase perfectly wonderful happy, friendly family dogs because of one serious lapse in their behaviour – usually they have bitten someone or another dog, and their owners are absolutely shocked and devastated. They can’t believe their trusted Fido, who has never showed a mean bone in his body, has bitten. They have subsequently been told he is now a dangerous dog and must be hidden away from society with big signs, high fences and muzzles, or executed. He may never have shown any aggression, but many owners do not notice anxiety in their dogs, and anxiety and stress easily leads to aggression. Indeed, Fido was the perfect family dog in the small world of his family’s environment – but just one slip when at the park or when someone visited or when a family member did something to which he wasn’t socialised as a puppy, and now his future is looking very bleak. There are many, many time-bombs like Fido in our community and it just takes the wrong sequence of events to bring out the (very normal dog) stress response of biting a feared object, and in that moment, the life of an unsuspecting owner is shattered. This can be avoided through adequate socialisation and familiarisation!

THE OPTIMAL SOCIALISATION AND FAMILIARISATION CHECKLIST:

Here are some specific suggestions on the different sorts of people and things to which your puppy should be carefully and repeatedly exposed, ideally between the ages of 3 and 16 weeks, then regularly until a year old, and then periodically for the rest of his life. Some of these examples may appear similar, but dogs are very discerning about their encounters, so, take careful notice of the subtleties. For example, while a dog may be well socialised to high school-aged children, they may react very differently to toddlers or even primary school-aged children. Note that there are examples of two categories of experiences – neutral (in brown) and positive (in green) – in this list. Remember that a neutral experience is a useless experience, so ensure it becomes a positive experience through the use of food treats and other positive reinforcement, like affection or games.

KEY: Category   Example of Neutral (useless) encounter  Example of Positive (effective) encounter

Strange adult men, with and without beards: Visits house Hand-fed by/play with
Strange adult women: Patted in park Hand-fed by/play with
High school aged children teenagers: Sees on street Hand-fed by/play with
Older primary aged children (8-12 yrs): Patted at local oval Hand-fed near or by (supervised), play with
Younger primary aged children (4 – 7 yrs): Sees in school yard Hand-fed near or play with (supervised)
Toddlers: Visit house Hand-fed near
Babies: Sees on street Hand-fed near
People with different hair styles (frizzy afro): Sees passing by Hand-fed by
People with hats/sunglasses/helmets: Sees on pedestrians Wear while playing with/feeding dog
Children on bicycles: Sees on street Hand-fed near
Adults on bicycles: Sees on street Hand-fed by
People with odd gaits/people dancing, exercising on park gym equipment: Might see by chance Hand-fed by, fed at dance studio/gym park/physio
People of different races/skin colour: Sees occasionally Hand-fed by
People in uniform: Meets serviceman on street Hand-fed by
People using umbrellas: Sees on street Hand-fed by, play near
People in wheelchairs: Meets and sniffs one Hand-fed/play near
People on skate boards/roller blades: Sees on street Hand-fed by/play near
People on crutches/walking frames: Encounters at shops Hand-fed by
Noisy, busy streets/traffic: Walks near Walks to fun place
Traffic lights (with pedestrian noise): Standing near Hand-fed near
Crowds of people at shops, community event: Walks through crowd Hand-fed at event/near
Riding in the car/different cars: Dropping kids to school (neutral) [Only to vet = -ve] To fun places (eg. to off-leash park/beach to play)
Motorcycles – moving: Sees on street Hand-fed by owner
Motorcycle – stationary: Stands nearby Hand-fed by rider
Prams/strollers: Passes on street Hand-fed near
Lawnmowers – push and ride-on: Sees in own backyard Hand-fed near
Whipper-snippers/lawn trimmers: Sees in own backyard Hand-fed near
Vacuum cleaners/dust busters: Sees/hears in own home Hand-fed near
Kitchen appliances Sees/hears in own home Hand-fed near
Power tools Sees/hears in own home Hand-fed near
Sudden bangs (chair tips over, balloon bursts, fireworks, dropped pan, hammering) Hears in own home or nearby Hand-fed near and following
Statues: Sees on street/in park Hand-fed near
Street signs/displays/clothing racks: Sees on street Hand-fed near
Flapping banners/awnings/café shades: Sees on street Hand-fed near
Shop window reflections/mirrors Sees in shopping centre Hand-fed near
Large bodies of water/waves at the beach: Sees from distance Off-leash play / treats
Immersion in water (bath or lake):  Visiting lake/beach Treats when voluntarily approaches/sniffs/touches & on immersion (voluntarily)
Livestock: Sees from distance Treats from owner after sniff
Cats: Sees and sniffs Treats from owner after sniff
Other dogs – on/off leash, at home/in public: Sees in park/on street, sniff and greets Off-leash play
Visits to veterinarian: Only for treatments (negative), health/weight checks (neutral), No treatments – just visits to be hand fed by staff
Visits to grooming parlour: Only for grooming (negative) No grooming – just visits to be hand fed by staff
Visits to boarding kennels: Only for overnight boarding (neutral, possibly negative) Not staying – just off-leash play session

 

The above checklist is by no means exhaustive, but it might prompt you to actively seek out these categories of people and things to which you should expose your puppy. It might also highlight how few of these experiences your puppy might be exposed to in his routine day-to-day life, yet which could happen quite suddenly one day and cause great stress, with possible fatal consequences, such as the dog running across a road and being run-over if a car backfires, or a dog biting a toddler due to lack of familiarisation with children and being put down – these tragedies happen every day in our society. Be sure to control the experience so it can’t go wrong and result in a phobia. Increase the exposure gently: start from a distance and gradually get closer, or start with machinery switched off and stationery, and never ramp it up until the puppy is confident.

If your puppy is showing fear/stress/anxiety during any encounter with someone or something, DO NOT REINFORCE THAT BEHAVIOUR. Importantly, this includes not trying to reassure the puppy, which is actually a form of reinforcement. Say nothing – just stop the encounter immediately and move away, or you will reinforce and exacerbate the anxious, fearful behaviour. Take a break, reduce the intensity and try it all again, but learn from your mistake. This time, take it more slowly, to prevent anxiety in the first instance. This is absolutely essential, or you can actually create an anxious dog!

Awful outcomes of anxiety can so easily be prevented by adequate socialisation and familiarisation while the dog is young and fearless, so please start your program now! Remember to do it gently, in small steps, with loads of positive reinforcement (food treats, games and affection) to make every experience a good one.

One critically important aspect of socialisation in the puppy is to familiarise him with how to interact with other dogs. The best innovation in socialisation with other dogs and prevent aggressive encounters later in life is the introduction, over the past twenty five years, of quality puppy kindergarten classes. By quality, I refer to those run by trainers up-to-date with the concept of positive reinforcement. Sadly, there are still a few old-style ‘yank and yell’ obedience training classes out there, some who even still condone the use of choker chains and other punishment-based methods of training. Positive reinforcement achieves much better results!

These days, we understand that there is no limit to what puppies are capable of learning. Gentle guidance and positive reinforcement is the best method to teach compliance, and while this can all be done at home, there is no better way to provide good quality complete early training than at puppy kindy classes. Socialisation with other puppies is an integral part of puppy kindy so enrol today (if you haven’t already).
Good luck and have FUN with your puppy!

Comments are closed.