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Puppy Socialisation- Can we do better?

BY RAELENE SCHAFER - EVANSAUGUST 14, 2020 - BEHAVIOUR

 

Most vets and nurses know that the key to a dog which is a valued family member and a good community citizen is socialising them as a puppy. The best time for puppy socialisation is during their sensitive socialisation period between 3-14 weeks of age (give or take).

What is socialisation?

A continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behaviour, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position1

During their socialisation period, puppies develop a draft of the master plan of how they will interact with people, other pets, novel stimuli and, more importantly, how they will respond in different environments. They will learn how to respond in both positive and threatening situations and the responses that are reinforced (intended or not) will help develop their responses as adults.

So how is optimum puppy socialisation achieved?

For good socialisation, puppies should be exposed to different people and to other dogs in a variety of environments in a non-threatening manner. Acceptable behaviours should be consistently and positively reinforced using reward based training  to increase the likelihood of the desired response being repeated.
 

Well run and controlled puppy classes can have a really positive impact on a puppy’s social development. So can reassuring visits to a friend’s house, a visit to the park or going out for a coffee with mum. Positive experiences during the critical socialisation period will build positive associations, and can significantly reduce fearfulness later in life.

Are all puppy socialisation experiences beneficial for a puppy?

Image of a 6 years old girl training her Labrador retriever puppy in backyard.

All puppy socialisation experiences are not necessarily effective.  In fact, puppies can feel threatened by poorly managed negative experiences or interactions during the critical socialisation period.  A threatened puppy is a scared puppy, and this fear may set them up for increased anxiety later in life. Aggression can be the result.
 

For some time now we have been educating owners about the importance of early socialisation, attending puppy classes, and providing puppies with as many different experiences as possible.
 

These outings can bring big immediate and future rewards for the puppies and their families if carried out carefully. I do wonder, however, whether we have been giving new puppy parents enough education and the necessary skills to manage these social interactions effectively.Have puppies been getting the “right” socialisation experiences?

Puppy socialisation pitfalls and opportunities

Not all puppy owners have owned a dog before, and while most new pet parents want to do the right thing by their puppy, many are not able to read a puppy’s body language beyond a happily wagging tail. Puppy classes provide owners with a better understanding about appropriate socialisation. Unfortunately, not all new puppy owners attend puppy classes and not all puppy classes are well controlled. In addition, warning signs that a puppy is uncomfortable often go ignored.

 

Owners can be unaware that having strange dogs bound up to meet their new puppy, loud trucks going by on the street, or having a group of children pet their puppy all at once, can be quite stressful. Sadly it is ill-managed interactions like this and/ or overwhelming a puppy with too many stimuli can be more detrimental than beneficial in shaping the puppy’s behaviour.  

 

Puppies do need well managed socialisation with a variety of experiences, but have we previously been putting too much focus on socialisation, been too enthusiastic, and inadvertently created negative experiences?

 

With many people spending more time at home in recent times, they may have been prompted to acquire the puppy they have been thinking about for so long.  If new puppy owners have been unable to attend puppy classes, or visit friend’s houses with their puppy, have a latte on the side walk, or visit the busy market where there are masses of people and other dogs, they will have missed many of the natural socialisation opportunities that we take for granted. It will be interesting to see whether this impacts puppies that are currently at the sensitive socialisation age.

Now is an opportunity to reflect on existing puppy socialisation norms

  • Will the absence of natural socialisation opportunities benefit puppies that may otherwise have been forced out of their comfort zone to play with other dogs? 
  • Will puppies actually benefit from less, more controlled exposure?
  • Will fewer fearful moments and reduced anxiety ultimately lead  to better behaved dogs in the future?

Finding effective socialisation opportunities

There are many alternative and effective socialisation opportunities for puppies and their owners in the absence of puppy classes.  

 

Remember puppy socialisation isn’t just about dog- dog interactions or meeting new people. It is also about experiences that a puppy will have throughout his or her life.

The following an some examples of experiences that can be provided at home:

  • Nail trimming or filing
  • Visiting the vet or groomer
  • Being handled
  • A bath
  • Being picked up
  • Walking on grass and dirt
  • Watching people go by
  • Doors opening and banging

 

Walking the street or park are other great options. In fact there will be fewer distractions at home, which will make learning easier and faster.  It’s all about the puppy learning how to respond in the different scenarios that are presented to them. Learning commands such as stay and come, and walking on a leash, remain important lessons for puppies. They provide dogs a focus and security, and give owners better control. This is especially important as puppies grow to adulthood and opportunities for interacting with other dogs and their owners increase. These too can be practised at home, while slowly introducing distractions.

 

So if you have been spending more time at home with a new puppy of late, it could be a unique opportunity to train him or her into a well-socialised, well-adjusted adult dog. 

 

1. Socialisation definition-  Dictionary.com

Rae Schafer-Evans, Cert VN, Acc Delta Trainer, Cert IV Bus, Professional Engagement Executive, Hill’s Pet Nutrition Australia

Rae started her working life as a Veterinary Nurse and worked in Small Animal practice. She has had various roles whilst employed with Hill’s Pet Nutrition and has always had a passion for behaviour. Rae’s passion is not only pets but veterinary nurses, she has developed the Hill’s National Veterinary Nurse Programme and coordinates Hill’s Australia vet nurse CE programmes both online and offline with many being replicated throughout Hill’s globally. She is currently working with industry partners to encourage more nurses into the consult room to enhance client and patient care, vet nurse job satisfaction and to free up the veterinarian’s time.

Rae Schafer-Evans