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Is puppy socialisation important?

Puppies playing

Your new puppy is settling in nicely, but by now, you are sagging under the responsibility.

Conflictingadvice.com tells you that you should be getting out there socialising the socks off your puppy, but the vet says no going out until his vaccinations have taken. Everyone tells you what not to do, but nobody tells you what to do, only that it will be a disaster of epic proportions if you get it wrong, whatever ‘it’ is. So let’s break things down into manageable portions.

Everything is new

Socialising is very important, and you have a lot to manage in the short time that is the puppy’s most receptive period for new experiences. This doesn’t mean a whistle-stop tour of the world, but instead arranging things so that everything new is a pleasant happening. You may have a bold puppy, you may have a shy puppy, so let puppy set the pace. ‘Less is more’ should be your mantra.

You do not need to wait for training classes to socialise your puppy, and, indeed, it is far better done just as a family, because then you can go at your puppy’s pace. Take him for very short drives to different places, such as the shops, the school, the park, the woods, the beach, and anywhere he might need to go in the future.

Aim to visit a new place every day, and go back to one or more previously visited places each day too. You don’t have to stay for more than five or 10 minutes: puppy is there to take in the sights, sounds, and smells so that when you go back, he finds everything familiar and unremarkable.

If puppy isn’t allowed to meet other dogs yet because of his vaccination schedule, you can carry him if small enough, or else choose your places carefully and let him potter about on safe ground. This is a matter for your judgement and common sense as well as your vet’s advice on actual local risk, remembering that far more dogs in the UK are put to sleep because of poor socialising nowadays than contract killer diseases. This isn’t to underestimate the risks of those diseases, but do not overestimate them either. If your vet hasn’t seen evidence of these diseases within the last year, then as long as you avoid obvious risk areas, you can let puppy have a run about. Steer clear of places where there are a lot of other dogs, such as the vet’s or groomer’s waiting rooms, but you still need puppy to be familiar with these areas and their scents, so save your visits here for after the vaccinations have taken effect.

Keep calm and carry on

Puppies have several developmental fear periods where their attitude to new experiences is defensive. This is nature’s way of keeping puppies safe when they are mobile and curious enough to get into trouble (no puppy sniffs a tiger twice). This doesn’t mean that you should pause in the socialising, but rather that you commit to making each new experience calm and positive. Puppies do not have to accept strangers touching them, nor should they be expected to tolerate impolite advances from socially inept dogs. Instead, their experiences should consist of meeting all sorts of different people, remembering that, to a puppy, small things make big differences.

They need to meet people with hats, bare-headed, bearded, clean-shaven, carrying umbrellas and bags, tall, short, male, female — every difference possible. Cars, motorbikes, pushbikes, pushchairs, mobility buggies — each needs to be encountered in a way that gives puppy plenty of time to signal when he has had enough and needs some thinking space. There is a mental process called latent learning where experiences are processed from the immediate to the longer-term memory, and it cannot be rushed. Puppy needs time to assimilate everything he comes across, which is why very short (10 minutes is plenty) exposure to new things works far better than being tempted to think that he is ‘all right’ so we might as well stay longer.

Close encounters

If you have a friendly puppy who adores people, then he can be stroked by other people he meets — gently on the chest and sides please, never on the head, which is scary (you don’t care for casual acquaintances touching your head either), and no patting, which is uncomfortable, although well meant. But you don’t want your puppy to grow into one of those dogs who charges up to everyone and jumps all over them, particularly if he is going to be big when he’s an adult, so he shouldn’t see strangers as a source of entertainment. Never let strangers give your puppy titbits, because some very food-orientated dogs will start to mug everyone for treats.

Right from the start, puppy can learn to keep ‘four on the floor’ when greeted; it is nice if he will sit but at certain ages this is a bridge too far with a lot of puppies, and stresses them so that in fact they become more excited rather than learning to be calm. You control every interaction, including when it stops, not in an overtly sergeant-majorish way, but quietly and positively. If people try to wind him up do not allow the greeting. You can explain to people that you are teaching him manners; unfortunately a minority of people play power games with dogs (and especially puppies) by getting them excited, using squeaky voices, and jumping about as if they are on children’s TV. These are not the people who then have to cope with your razzed-up puppy, who will rapidly enter the tears-before-bedtime zone. Although it is not maliciously meant, and such people would be dismayed at the interpretation of their actions as power play, it gives your puppy the wrong messages about people and how to behave around them.

Every day you should remind yourself that your puppy is only a puppy for a short time, but he will be an adult for years. Therefore, always keep the adult he will become in your mind when you permit or forbid certain interactions. If you don’t want the big dog doing that, then don’t let the puppy do it. Utter consistency makes a contented puppy because he knows exactly what you expect from him in any given situation.

Watch the other dog

Other dogs can prove tricky, because not all dogs are as well raised as this one, and some dogs are quite scared of puppies. This might mean that they run away, and therefore seem to our puppy to be inviting a chase, or they snarl and air-snap (which is OK) or bite and flatten (which isn’t). So before any interaction with other dogs, watch how they appear to be reacting to the puppy — if they don’t like him, they will show their feelings from quite some way off.

Always trust what the approaching dog is saying rather than the owner, as most people assume their dogs love the world, and think that theirs is bound to adore the puppy because he is so cute. Meanwhile, the other dog may well be saying ‘Back off, small fry’. It only takes one bad incident for puppy to be fearful of that type of dog for evermore, and as fear has many faces — it can mean ‘attack’ to as many dogs as it means ‘run for your life’ — it is best avoided. Don’t underestimate this as a challenge, because far too many people let their dogs jump all over other dogs.

Remember the adult

At home, the same rules apply. Puppies are excitable enough without being egged on by humans, who find those puppy bounces and yips endearing. This doesn’t mean no playing with your puppy — that’s half the fun of him — but keep in mind the adult dog. Play should be gently controlled rather than wild and reckless, and stopped as soon as a tooth touches your skin, or paws rake at your body. There should be no tugging at clothing, barking, or snapping at things you hold. Puppies need to learn that humans are delicate beings, easily hurt, and the moment they tip over into frenzy, the game stops, and either puppy will have a short time out, or you leave the room for 10 seconds. Longer than that is counterproductive, as puppy will have forgotten, and moved on to some other amusement.

As with human youngsters, you can ‘change the subject’ when puppy is about to have a tantrum, distracting him with a toy or something that offers quiet occupation, such as a cardboard box full of crumpled balls of newspaper. When you are near the end of a little training or play session — remembering that puppies have a very short attention span — wind down the interaction with something soothing, such as a gentle massage or brushing with a soft brush, as long as neither results in excitement. You can sing him a lullaby if you like — I promise not to tell anyone.

Calm and controlled

If you have children, engage them in keeping puppy calm, because you absolutely don’t want to risk him thinking that all children should be run after, jumped at, or mouthed. Older children can be marvellous at taking on this responsibility, perhaps by making puzzle games for puppy, reading to him, and creating and maintaining a star chart where he can be awarded stars for good behaviour. Children can devise a reward system where so many stars equal a treat, which they can give the puppy at a suitable time.

Younger children, who are not yet able to manage their own excitement levels, never mind a puppy’s, are better kept involved with short, well-supervised interaction only, such as going for a short walk with you and puppy.

Walk the line

Ah yes, walking — how much, how soon, how often? The rough guide is five minutes for every month of puppy’s life, but some puppies need more or less, according to breed and size. Aim for two or three outings to different places daily, with puppy being allowed to sniff and bumble about for 10 to 15 minutes, because in the early days it is about mental exercise rather than physical. Brain work is tiring, and this will usually be enough. You can train lead walking and the beginnings of recall in the house and garden, and then build on this when you are out. Up until about five months old, puppies love to be with and follow you, and this is the time to start off-lead work because he wants to be with you anyway. Then pre-adolescent independence starts to cut in, and you might have to go back to using a lead or long line for a while, although many puppies do stay true to that early training.

If puppy is carsick, and some are dreadfully queasy, take heart that most grow out of it. Rather than driving him to places, play with and feed him in the back of your stationary car so that he does not build unpleasant associations with it.

Beware the zoomies!

Even though you have the patience of several saints, this time is far from easy. After each day of what seems to be constantly outmanoeuvring your puppy in his desire to do dangerous things, and fending off shark attacks, you find out about evening zoomies. No one warns you about zoomies. Generally occurring when you’re at your lowest ebb and probably having fantasies about chocolate and alcohol, the puppy will have an energy burst that involves Wall-of-Deathing around the room, the house, the garden, or all of them. This is natural and normal — it’s all part of puppyhood. Luckily it is usually over in a matter of minutes, and they grow out of it quite quickly.

You are allowed to be human — he is allowed to be a puppy. Just assume the foetal position, preferably where he can’t get at you, and sob quietly. It isn’t forever, and we have all been there.

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