The Puppy Socialisation Period
The socialisation period lasts until your puppy is about sixteen weeks old, so it’s really important to think about the socialisation period as early as possible!
More about the puppy socialisation period
The socialisation period is the early time in a puppy’s life where they learn how the things, noises, people and animals around them ‘fit’ into their life. This means learning which are safe and friendly, and which they should be scared of, and how to relate to these encounters.
Puppies are very open-minded during this period, and if they have a positive experience with something, they are much less likely to develop any phobias or issues regarding that encounter in the future. This makes the socialisation period the perfect time to get your puppy used to a wide range of experiences, including hearing lots of noises, meeting other animals and people, meeting children, and travel. The wider the range of events, environments and situations you can expose your puppy to the better, so long as your puppy always feels safe, happy and not overwhelmed. There is some debate about the length of the socialisation period, but most specialists agree that it lasts from birth to between 12 and 16 weeks of age. This doesn’t mean that you should stop teaching your puppy new experiences after this age, it just means that they may be a little more wary.
In fact, you should continue helping your puppy have positive new experiences throughout their life, and especially within their first year. Well socialised puppies adapt well to new situations, are happy in the company of other pets and people, are much easier to exercise and travel with, and generally make easier and successful pets. Poor socialisation can sadly result in puppies which grow up fearful, shy and even aggressive.
As the socialisation period starts before you being your new puppy home, it’s important to understand how critical this early period can be for a puppy. Puppies should stay with their mum and siblings for eight weeks after birth and during this time they will learn about social interaction between dogs, how to play, and bite inhibition – although puppy biting can still need addressing when they transfer those skills to people!
The environment they are in for this early period of their life is also really important. They are learning all the time, and puppies brought up in a busy household, and who are handled regularly, will learn much more about living in a family environment. Our article on choosing a puppy is a great place to look for advice on how to choose a puppy that has had good socialisation, and even has a puppy contract that can help you speak with a breeder about the socialisation your puppy will receive before you bring them home.
Once you have brought your puppy home, you have only a short window to finalise their socialisation period – at maximum a mere eight weeks! It’s really important to use this time wisely to get your puppy used to lots of different situations, especially those they will be encountering regularly within your home and lifestyle.
Don’t forget that you cannot walk your puppy in parks or on pavements, or take them anywhere unvaccinated dogs may have been, until they have had their second vaccination and this has had time to take effect. This also limits the time you have available, and may mean you have to be creative in some of the ways you socialise your puppy.
Some suggestions include:
- Playing noises such as thunder/train/traffic on the internet so your puppy has heard them. You can also buy specific sound CDs for this purpose always start quietly and work your way up with the volume.
- Taking your puppy for exciting car rides make sure they are appropriately restrained, and keep an eye out for any signs of car sickness.
- Meeting vaccinated dogs Your puppy can meet fully vaccinated dogs in a safe area, such as their garden or yours. This is a great way to learn social skills.
- Meeting lots of people. The more people your puppy meets the better, so long as they enjoy themselves. Think about all the variety where people are concerned, and try and introduce your puppy to everyone. Things like age, race, body shape and headwear can make someone look very different to a puppy!
- Don't forget about children. Even if you don't have children of your own, children are likely to show interest in your dog throughout their life. Children often interact with dogs very differently to adults and can be much less predictable. Helping dogs get used to children during the socialisation period will make it much easier for them to be around children as they grow up.
- Visiting the vet - Early vet visits often come with a needle, and this can set dogs and vets off on the wrong foot for life. Popping into your local Vets4Pets with your new puppy for a cuddle with the team and some treats (and no needles!) is a great way to teach your puppy that the vets isn't a place to be scared of.
If your puppy looks nervous about an experience, don’t comfort them or give them praise. They will look to you for how to respond to a cue, and will see reassurance from you as a sign that there is something to be worried about! Instead, distract them with play, and act perfectly normally until they are no longer looking worried.
Once they are relaxed, give them praise and treats. Socialisation only works if your puppy is having fun! Other people can be unsure about how to go about interacting with your puppy, so don’t be afraid to give them guidance, arm them with some of your puppy’s favourite treats, and stop them picking up your puppy or looming over them. This is the same for children, although they may need more help to interact calmly with your puppy. If you think any social interaction is too much for your puppy, don’t be afraid to calmly and politely take them out of the situation.
Puppies have short attention spans and tire easily, so keep encounters short and make sure your puppy has plenty of time to rest. Let your puppy bring themselves into an encounter, if you can. Let them approach people or situations in their own time, and never force them into an encounter.
Good puppy parties can be a really great way to supplement your training, but should never be a replacement. Poor puppy parties however can be detrimental, so it’s important to understand what is being offered.
Puppy parties are designed to teach your dog how to interact with other dogs and with people, as well as giving you the chance to get some great hints and tips too. What is important is that the puppies are kept under control – the ‘free for all’ approach to puppy parties can actually be damaging, as fearful puppies become more fearful as other puppies run around or at them. The charging around puppies that may appear confident are also often at risk, as they may be trying to mask a lack of confidence with pushy and controlling behaviours. This can develop into behaviours such as nipping and growling, which can perpetuate further poor behaviour as other dogs react badly to these interactions. Although watching a room full of puppies run around can seem great, it’s best to avoid puppy parties that offer this – controlled introductions are a much better way to help your puppy get used to making new friends.
Ideally puppy parties are:
- On lead except in certain cases, where more fearful puppies might benefit from being unrestricted.
- Informative you should feel that it is a place to ask questions and get them answered.
- Fairly quiet. If puppies are barking, they may be getting distressed or distressing others. Trainers should be stepping in to help with vocal puppies, and keeping the environment calm.
- Age restricted - puppies should be around the same developmental stage, which will help them.
- Not overcrowded, a crowded puppy party will mean the trainer cannot give individual advice as puppies meet, and also may create an environment that is just too intimidating for a shy puppy.
Don’t be afraid to ask what happens at your local puppy party, or go along ahead of time to visit one and see if you feel it would benefit your puppy. Good puppy parties can be really helpful, and a great way to support your puppy’s socialisation.
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