Socialisation – a word you will hear a million times even before a puppy arrives in your home. An insanely important matter, as it greatly influences the dog’s further development. You can hear or read a lot of advice on puppy socialisation, yet it’s easy to get lost in the thick of it. Here are the 6 most common mistakes in puppy socialisation and how you can avoid them.
WHAT IS SOCIALISATION?
The first several weeks of a dog’s life is the so-called socialisation window. During this time, puppies show great curiosity and are eager to learn about all new stimuli. It’s worth using this time to build up a pleasant experience of interacting with the environment. It is important to ensure that the puppy has the opportunity for appropriate contact with other dogs and people (proper socialisation) and to familiarise him with the various sounds, places and situations that he will encounter in later stages of development (habituation). Anything that the puppy becomes familiar with during the socialisation period and that causes positive or neutral associations will later become a natural part of the puppy’s environment. After about four months of age, a puppy’s curiosity is no longer as strong and more avoidance behaviour occurs. Sensitivity to socialisation ends irrevocably, and neglect in this area is often impossible to make up for.
1. TOO MUCH, TOO SOON
Adequate socialisation is nothing more than balancing on the fine line between anxiety and fear and curiosity and pleasure. If you want to ensure that your dog will not be afraid of other people, dogs, street noises or fireworks in the future, it is not enough just to be in contact with such stimuli. It is important to make sure that such situations are only a positive experience for your dog. And I don’t mean shoving pâté into your dog’s mouth in every new situation. Food is a great tool to help build positive associations, but if your dog’s stress level is too high, even the best treat will be of no use. Everything must be handled with care so as not to achieve a completely different effect than intended and thus make your dog wary of new stimuli. While taking a 10-week puppy for a walk in Warsaw Old Town on a Sunday afternoon or on a crowded dog run is not the best idea, a visit to a quiet pub for a quick coffee with a puppy in your arms or a walk with a friend, a balanced dog will be a good solution.
It’s also worth practising your assertiveness and not allowing every passer-by to rub your puppy, even if they have the best of intentions. It is difficult to cope with this given that puppies arouse great interest in public places, and owners often like this popularity too. For a more sensitive dog such pushy stroking by strangers can be very unpleasant and cause reluctance to such contacts in the future, and for a rocket puppy it can be a signal that it is worth approaching every stranger, because you can always count on attention and gratuitous stroking. While at the sight of a running puppy almost every passer-by will be delighted, a rushing adult dog which „loves all people” and necessarily „just wants to say hello” is often a reason for a row. We cannot forget that a several-week-old dog is still a dog’s child and needs a lot of rest, peace and sleep, also during the day.
2. ABSOLUTE RESPECT OF QUARANTINE
At this point, a real dilemma arises. Should I keep the recommended vaccination quarantine and isolate the puppy at home for a few weeks, or should I allow contact with the outside world with a view to its psychological development? I asked veterinary surgeon Anna Misiak from Animal Center about why quarantine is important and how it can be reconciled with socialisation:
In puppies, vaccination against infectious diseases is performed three times, at 3-4 week intervals, usually beginning at 6 weeks of age. This is due to the phenomenon of the 'immune gap’, the point at which maternal antibodies are so low that they will not interfere with the development of post-vaccinal immunity. The timing of the immune gap varies between animals (even within the same litter). Some puppies may already have reduced levels of maternal antibodies at 6 weeks of age, predisposing them to infection, while in others passive immunity may persist until 12 weeks of age. It is therefore likely that some animals vaccinated twice before 12 weeks of age will have their post-vaccination immunity compromised by persistently high levels of maternal antibodies. This is because the time to develop active (post-vaccinal) immunity is 7 to 14 days, and because there is a transient, short-term loss of immunity after each vaccination.
The need for quarantine after vaccination is a major detriment to the socialisation of the pups, so a compromise must be made between isolating the animal from the source of infection and the need to socialise and learn about the environment. Above all, contact with sick animals and those whose vaccination status is unknown to us should be avoided. For the first walks we should choose places less frequented, where our little one will not have many opportunities to come into contact with other dogs.
We don’t encourage anyone to underestimate medical recommendations, but imagine several years of life with a dog, which due to lack of socialization shows fear of traffic or aggression against strange dogs or people. In this case it is worth to keep the golden mean and allow the dog to develop properly, for example by taking part in a good doggy daycare, where only healthy and vaccinated dogs are allowed.
3. NO RESTRICTIONS
A dog’s life, especially in the city, is connected with many restrictions. Walking on a leash, passing many familiar and unfamiliar dogs and people he cannot approach freely, unpleasant grooming and veterinary treatments are just some of the challenges dogs face every day. The puppyhood period is the best time to teach your dog appropriate strategies for dealing with his emotions in difficult situations. This aspect of socialization is often overlooked, and in my opinion it is one of the most important skills. If we don’t want to bring up a dog that gets nervous or panics when being held by its owner, or howls and barks terribly when we want to end its playtime with another dog, it is worth introducing appropriate exercises from the very beginning. It doesn’t take much to show a dog that holding his paw or looking into his ear isn’t so scary, and that ignoring a passing dog or human is the desired reaction by the carer. Maybe it is not so obvious when a sweet, fluffy ball appears in the house, but introducing certain rules from the first days pays off enormously in the future.
4. TOO MUCH CONTACT WITH STRANGE DOGS
Socialisation with other dogs is only a fraction of what every dog should learn during puppyhood. At the same time, almost every puppy owner knows that they should allow the little one to interact with other dogs so that he can learn to communicate properly with his own kind. However, it is not enough to carelessly allow the puppy to run up to every dog he meets. You must learn to recognise what his temperament is and what strategies he manifests in play. If it is particularly pushy or, on the contrary, timid, it is necessary to choose companions quite carefully and know when to react (stop playing) and when to allow the dogs to continue contact. It should be remembered that every interaction with another dog is a lesson for the puppy – if a young, intrusive puppy learns that chasing other dogs is enjoyable, this behaviour will very quickly become established and cause problems in the future. Furthermore, encounters with random dogs on leads are not always a pleasant experience for dogs and if possible it is better to allow dogs to play in a larger space and without being restricted by a lead. You can read more about dog play in our text – Intrusive dogs, shy dogs.
It is worth mentioning that approaching every encountered dog is not a good idea also for another reason. If we will allow the puppy to greet every dog, he will probably learn that such contact is very exciting and we will raise a dog of type „he only wants to greet”, that is, stimulating at the sight of all met dogs. From this it is only one step to aggressive behaviour caused by frustration, in situations when at some point we do not want to let another dog approach us (a classic example of a dog that barks at other dogs when it is on a leash). It is a good idea to maintain a good balance between direct contact with other dogs and learning to ignore their presence.
6. FALLING INTO PATTERNS
Puppies vary greatly in temperament and character, both by genetics and by the environment that has influenced them during those first few weeks of life. Therefore, in my opinion, there is no such thing as a universal socialisation programme that will be suitable for every dog. It is necessary to take into account what a puppy presents with its behaviour from the very beginning – whether it is curious or shy, whether it is eager to meet new people, whether it calms down easily after energetic play, whether it reacts with barking and squeaking in difficult situations, whether it is intrusive or withdrawn in play with other dogs. No less important are breed predispositions, which also have a great influence on a dog’s temperament. For example, to the owner of a self-confident and eager-to-contact Labrador puppy, I will not offer additional socialisation with people and I will not especially encourage the dog to contact strangers. Such a dog will in all probability treat strangers with friendliness at a later age and there is no need to additionally reinforce this behaviour. This is completely different in the case of a withdrawn Belgian Shepherd puppy taken from a cage kennel. If such a dog is to live with the family in the city, then taking into account the breed and environmental predispositions, it will be very important to work on changing its emotions and getting the dog used to reacting calmly to the appearance of strangers.
Proper puppy socialisation is not difficult, and its greatest limitation is time. Use it as best you can. I wish you that your puppies grow up to be well-balanced, happy dogs just as you dreamed.