Why is it important?
Early socialisation between 5 and 18 weeks of age is vital to the healthy mental development of a young dog. In this post I am going to outline four situations which I would choose to socialise a puppy with, though there are many more which would be covered in a comprehensive puppy socialisation plan. In each instance it is important to provide the dog with a wide variety of exposure to the stimulus (eg children, other dogs, etc), but always in a gradual, calm and positive way. This can take careful planning and patience.
Dogs and children can live happily side by side, but if dogs get off to a bad start with children, they can be the source of many problems. Young children move quickly and unpredictably and they can be noisy, some will tease and taunt a dog, others will want to play and cuddle it – all potentially terrifying to a young dog, who may try to flee, or who may become aggressive in response. This could lead to a dog who runs off and endangers itself in the process, or, every dog owners worst nightmare, a dog who displays aggression (whether out of fear or dominance) towards children.
In order to socialise a puppy with children it may be necessary to seek out the children of family members or neighbours – obviously having cleared it with their parents first! Even where the dog lives in a house with children it is beneficial to socialise it with children of a wide variety of ages, as they will present differing challenges to the dog at different stages of childhood.
To begin with, find some children who are used to dogs and who are old enough to follow simple instructions. Arm each with a handful of small treats and ask them to allow the dog to go up to them without them speaking to the dog or reaching out to it. Allow the dog to approach them at its own speed, taking its time to sniff and look around as it does so. All the while, the owner should be relaxed and calm, and giving the dog encouraging verbal feedback. Once the dog is happy with the children they can, one at a time, give the dog a treat and, if the dog is still comfortable with the situation, hold out a hand and give a gentle stroke. Over a period of time this can be extended to the children moving around, slowly at first, and interacting more with the dog, make sure some sessions are indoors, others outside. This is probably best done over a couple of short sessions, as both children and dog need to keep interested.
Once this kind of interaction has been achieved with children of varying age groups you are ready to move on and seek out children making more noise and behaving more erratically. Again, it is best to ‘borrow’ the children of neighbours or family members and stage the meetings, with the children and yourself armed with treats. To begin with you might want to go to a playground where children might be running around and making a lot of noise. As you approach them you are giving the dog calm verbal encouragement, and stopping every so often to give a reward for the dog remaining calm. What you don’t want is for the dog to be scared of the children, nor to be too excited and want to join in their play. No matter what the dogs playful intentions, few parents will thank you for an over boisterous dog charging around chasing their children. Gauge the dog’s reactions, as long as they are calm and relaxed keep moving forward and rewarding them, but don’t push them too far too fast. Again, this is best done in a number of short, frequent sessions.
Cars, trucks and buses are all a part of normal life for most dogs, wherever they live. They can be very noisy, appear from what seems like nowhere and provide endless opportunities for the dog to exercise its natural desire to chase. Dogs need to learn that traffic is not something to be feared, however neither it is something to be chased and good road sense is essential. As part of general obedience training the young dog should be trained to stop and sit at a roadside and to wait for its owner’s command to continue forward across the road. However, before this can be tackled, the dog needs to learn to be close to traffic whilst remaining calm and under control.
To begin with, arm yourself with plenty of treats, and take the dog, on a short lead, to a relatively quiet street where there will be occasional, slow traffic, but not a steady stream of noisy, fast vehicles. As you approach the street, look out for traffic, and when you see the first car, stop, speak calmly to the dog, place it in a sit if it has already learned one, and give it a food and verbal reward as the car passes. Continue walking, and repeat this each time a car approaches. Only get as close to the traffic as the dog is comfortable with, if you get too close and he reacts then back off a little and go at his pace. This exercise needs to last for only a few minutes, but to be repeated as frequently as possible. Once the dog is confident in this environment you can move on to a slightly busier road, again gauging his reaction and only moving on as he is comfortable, if you push him too fast and he reacts just go back one step to rebuild his confidence before moving on again. This training should progress until you can walk down a busy high street with cars, delivery trucks and buses all whooshing noisily past, whilst the dog remains calm and under the owner’s control.
Puppies need to learn to interact with other dogs if they are to lead an enjoyable life where they can play with other dogs out on walks, meet other dogs in a calm manner when on lead, and if the owner decides at a later stage to take part in any dog activities, eg obedience classes, agility, tracking, etc. There is no greater fun for a young dog than to cavort around a park with another dog having a great game, but this can only be achieved once they are both sufficiently under control to ensure that they will come back when called, and that their high spirits will not overspill into aggression.
Meeting other dogs can start as soon as the puppy has had its vaccinations, and it is important to do this as early as possible thereafter. In many areas you will find puppy socialisation classes, which will cater for many of the socialisation needs of a young dog, including meeting other dogs of a similar age. However it is important to meet a wide variety of other dogs, in terms of age, breed and temperament. If you only introduce the pup to dogs who are pleasant to it there is a danger that the pup thinks that all dogs are easy going and that he can jump on them, play with them, etc, without reprimand. An older dog who chastises the pup for pushing their luck a little too far can be an equally good learning experience, though care must be taken not to allow the pup to experience anything too unpleasant, as early negative experiences can make a long-lasting impression on the dog, and could even result in a longstanding fear of other dogs, which is exactly the opposite of what socialisation is trying to achieve.
Again, as with children, it can be beneficial to enlist the help of family members and neighbours who have dogs. Arrange to meet at a neutral place, eg the local park and allow the dogs to meet one another, whilst both are on short leads so that they can sniff one another whilst remaining under their owners’ control. Once they are happy together they may progress to being off lead, though this should be taken slowly and not until you are confident that each has a reliable recall once off lead.
Each dog’s interaction with other animals will vary, depending on where they live, however it is important to introduce the young dog to a variety of different animals to ensure that it does not develop a fear of them, nor does it think that it is acceptable to chase them. An owner should seek out the animals which the dog might reasonably experience in his lifetime, eg cats, horses, sheep, cows, and particularly those with which he does not live close to, and go out and seek them out – this might require a visit to a farm or a day out in the countryside. Use a similar approach to that described above for socialisation with traffic, ie lots of treats at the ready and approach gradually, rewarding verbally and with food as you go.
As I said at the start, I have focussed on four of the most popular areas for socialisation in this post, however you will want to cover other stuff once the basics are ticked off.