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The things you NEED to know about puppy socialisation

06/04/2022 - Puppy & Dog Training Advice

Socialisation is one of the biggest priorities for many new puppy owners – and for good reason! A puppy’s socialisation can impact the rest of their lives – both a lack of socialisation or poor socialisation can result in anxiety and behavioural issues which can be incredibly difficult to overcome and severely affect their quality of life. As anyone with a fearful or reactive dog can tell you, our dogs’ behavioural issues can even be emotionally draining and limiting for us humans. It’s therefore not surprising that new dog owners are often very keen to get their new puppy socialised – but what is good socialisation? There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, so we’re here to help.

What is Socialisation?
Socialisation is the process by which an individual learns how to behave appropriately in society. Notice that this definition doesn’t dictate that the individual has to be exposed to loads of things or even that they have to learn to like any of those things. Socialisation is not as simple as just taking our dogs everywhere and introducing them to everyone – it’s about ensuring they have good experiences so they can feel calm and confident around a variety of things, as well as teaching them how to respond and cope with these things. A vital part of appropriate socialisation of our dogs that often gets neglected is teaching them to simply ignore other people and dogs.

What is Good Socialisation?
Good socialisation should focus on:
  • Ensuring the dog has good experiences.
  • Carefully introducing the dog to a variety of different things.
  • Allowing the dog to learn at their own pace.
  • Building the dog’s confidence.
  • Teaching the dog how to cope in different situations and around different things.
  • How to be calm around people and dogs and how to ignore them.
Why Should Dogs Learn to Ignore Other Dogs?
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not normal for dogs to greet every dog they see. Dogs are social in a similar manner to humans – they enjoy building solid, reliable relationships with a group of friends and, ideally, they are calm and well-behaved in the presence of strangers. Running over to enthusiastically greet every stranger they see is as odd for dogs as it would be for us humans, and can result in even our outgoing dogs feeling less comfortable around strangers. Imagine how it would feel if you knew every stranger you saw on your walk was going to run over and give you a big hug – even as an extrovert, that could get pretty exhausting and anxiety-inducing. Teaching our dogs to calmly ignore other dogs is no different to humans learning to simply offer a polite smile or quick “good morning!” as they pass a stranger.

How Should we Introduce our Dogs to New Things?
It’s really important that we introduce our dogs to new things carefully, without overwhelming them. Pushing our dogs past their comfort zone can lead to them having a scary experience and this can lead to anxiety, phobias and reactivity. Some key things to remember when introducing your dog to new places and things include:

Rewarding your dog AWAY from the new thing.
            This may sound counter-intuitive at first, but luring our dogs towards something they are unsure about can lead to conflict. If our dogs really want a tasty treat we are offering or they want to be close to us, they may push themselves to approach something they are worried about. If something unexpected happens, such as a sudden noise, a gust of wind or the item moves etc. and they become startled, suddenly our dogs have had a bad experience. So, keep yourself and your treats at a healthy distance where you know your dog feels comfortable and, if your dog chooses to approach the new thing, reward them for their bravery back in the “safe zone!”

Keeping exposure sessions short.
            Being brave is tiring and can be stressful! While life is full of stressors and our puppies are bound to experience low levels of stress when encountering new things, we still need to ensure we aren’t asking for too much, too soon. Don’t assume that your puppy should or can go from cautious and uncertain to happy and confident in one go – sometimes this may well be the case, but if all your puppy does is have a careful sniff from a few feet away, accept it and move on. We can often cause more anxiety if we make a big thing about it. Next time you come across that thing, your puppy will remember that nothing scary happened and feel more confident!

Teaching them how to ignore exciting things.
            When it comes to socialising our dogs around exciting things like other humans and dogs, a huge element of this should be teaching them how to be calm and engaged with you. We recommend dogs meet no more than 1 in 10 of the people/dogs they see on their walks, and the rest are great training opportunities to learn how to behave in public. Rather than focusing on your puppy meeting everyone, work on training your puppy and in places where they can see other humans and dogs at a distance. Group classes are the perfect way to teach your dog to be a model citizen around others!

How Does Socialisation Impact Our Dogs’ Social Skills?
As we’ve mentioned, it isn’t actually all that normal for our dogs to greet and interact with EVERY dog they see. This common belief that dogs should be social butterflies who want to play with everyone they meet has led to some pretty problematic behaviours – both from our introvert and our extrovert dogs! Learning to be calm around other dogs will help our dogs to approach them in a relaxed and polite way when they DO say hello – so not greeting every dog is actually an important part of our dogs learning how to greet appropriately.

Introvert Dogs
            Introverted puppies are likely to find meeting lots of strange dogs quite stressful. This can quickly lead to reactivity – fearful dogs will often start to bark, growl and lunge to warn other dogs away before they invade their space. It can be really hard to teach these dogs that they don’t need to worry when they see other dogs, because they’ve learned that whenever a strange dog appears they have a bad experience. This can make it really difficult for our nervous pups to make ANY canine friends, because they’re unable to meet other dogs without feeling distressed.
            Imagine your introvert dog has a “bucket,” and each interaction with a strange dog (even if it goes well!) adds a cup of water to the bucket. If they interact with every dog they see, their bucket will quickly become full and overflow – this is when they are no longer able to cope with the stress. This is why it’s important that we stick to the 1-in-10 rule, so that we know our dogs have space left in the bucket and are able to cope well each time they DO interact with another dog. This way, we can make sure our dogs both learn how to be relaxed in the presence of other dogs and have positive experiences with the dogs they do meet. 

Extrovert Dogs
            Even our extrovert dogs, who seem to enjoy all these interactions, are often not behaving appropriately. Many of these dogs will greet other dogs in a rude manner – invading their space and ignoring subtle (or not so subtle!) signals from the other dog asking for space. This isn’t because they are bad dogs, it’s because they have learned that seeing another dog means it’s PARTY TIME! They’re just too excited to greet them in a calm and polite manner and it’s possible they’ve never actually learned how to do this in the first place!
This isn’t just unfair on the other dog who has to deal with them, but can get our social dogs into trouble. When they inevitably bother a dog too much and get told off, it can be traumatic – this is an absolute tragedy for our once bubbly, confident dogs and it can be heart-breaking to see them suddenly become fearful.
            Even if we carefully avoid this kind of negative interaction by putting our excitable dogs back on a lead when we see strange dogs, we can often then find ourselves dealing with similar reactivity to those with fearful dogs. This is because our dogs feel frustrated – they are used to being able to greet every dog and leap all over them and they feel really upset when they’re suddenly denied this. This frustration shows up as barking, growling and lunging on the lead; not much fun for anyone.

Bad Socialisation
Bad socialisation can lead to numerous unwanted behaviours which can be difficult to manage, as well as complex behavioural issues such as anxiety and reactivity in our dogs. Bad socialisation looks like:
  • Luring the dog towards scary things.
  • Forcing the dog to interact with new people/things.
  • Ignoring signs that our dogs are worried.
  • Allowing our dogs to behave inappropriately, such as leaping all over every dog they meet.
  • Introducing the dog to things too quickly, without giving them a chance to build their confidence.
Top Tips
Socialisation can feel daunting to many new puppy owners – a lot of us haven’t had a puppy before or haven’t had one for a long time, and raising this new little life is a huge responsibility. How we socialise them will have a lasting effect on the rest of their lives! So, we thought we’d summarise with our top tips for you to take away from this.

Enjoy It
            Don’t think of socialisation as a chore – they are so many ways to great creative and have fun introducing your puppy to new textures, sights, sounds etc. Watching a new puppy grow in confidence and interact with something they’ve never interacted with before is absolutely incredible and something every new puppy owner is privileged to witness. So, rather than just thinking of this as something you have to do, look around your home and neighbourhood at all the different and varied things your puppy can be introduced to and enjoy watching them experience the world for the first time!

Don’t Rush
            While it is important to get started as soon as possible, we don’t need to rush to tick as many boxes as we can in the shortest timeframe. Remember the bucket analogy from earlier, when we discussed introvert dogs? You can use this when thinking about any puppy’s quota for discovering new things each day. Our puppies need to sleep for 18+ hours in a 24-hour period, so there’s really only so much they can take in! It’s also impossible for us to introduce our dogs to every unique thing they will ever come across in the first few weeks they’re with us. Ensuring they have good, varied experiences is the most important thing.

Remember to Train
            Remember, socialisation isn’t just about your dog being exposed to things – it is about them learning how to behave appropriately. Training is a vital part of that, as it allows us to show our dogs what we would like them to do and reward them for doing so. We can provide our dogs with lots of different ways to respond to new things, so they can manage new situations themselves. We can also cue our dogs to offer learned behaviours and reward them for it! Not only that, but group training classes are a great way for us to help our dogs learn to be calm, relaxed and engaged when in the presence of other people and dogs. Studies show that attending group classes from puppyhood and throughout adolescence, reduces aggressive behaviour – even towards other dogs in the same household! Coupled with the many other benefits for you and your dog of ongoing, progressive training – we highly recommend booking a class with a qualified, accredited trainer as a priority for any dog owner. For puppy classes click here
 

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