Socialising your puppy

The sensitive socialisation phase is during 5-16 weeks of age, but this window starts to ‘close’ 12 weeks onwards. Robust individuals may be relatively unaffected by delayed social opportunities, but for many puppies it’s crucial to start exposing them to the world you want them to occupy as soon as possible, after an initial settling in period in their new home (2-7 days depending on how settled they seem, and how much exploring is to be done at your home).

Ensure socialisation is at an intensity and frequency your puppy can cope with. This means tentatively exposing your puppy to the world and assessing whether it’s a good experience or not- whether they can cope with more or whether they need things to slow down a little more.

Dissmiss the out of date notion that immersing a dog in a stimulus or stimulii will help ‘them get use to it’- because our pups are primed by nature to store negative events. Some individuals may respond as hoped to flooding, but this is likely influenced by genetics and timing of the experience. Hormone fluctuations can stimulate increased interest in the outside world or trigger what is termed ‘the fear period’- so things can swing either way very, very quickly.

Never take your pup’s confidence for granted. For a challenging experience to be a potential good learning opportunity we are looking for ‘bounce back’. Where a pup goes, ‘oooooooh, I don’t like that’ and moves away. Then going ‘Hmmmm, actually that wasn’t too bad’ and recovers quickly or even opts to move towards the challenge again for more information. If a puppy is terrified and unable to move away- it is unlikely going to help them learn anything of benefit and they may escalate to behaviours considered by us as problematic.

Here’s some tips on socialising puppies.

1) Get your puppies out and about as soon as you can. Carry them (quiet places first!), park the car up and sit and watch the world go by together from the boot. Sit in your front garden with them (allowing easy retreat inside), visit people in your support bubble or have them visit you.

Get your puppy out for walks 7 days after their second DHP vaccine, (unless of course they have a medical reason not to!). Sadly, there are some owners being advised by some vets (thankfully, not all!) to not walk their puppy until after their last L4 vaccine, this vaccine is often not given until 14 weeks of age (or later)- depending on when the puppy started their vaccination course. The advise to wait despite being covered by DHP is, in my opinion, potentially risky for dog welfare- as a delay in socialisation for some pups may result in behaviour problems. It seems to be quite recent advise (at least it is in Bristol) and not given by all vets- many continue to thankfully suggest socialising puppies as soon as they are vaccinated.
Bear in mind some vets don’t even do L4, and many people don’t opt to give their dogs this vaccine- so this is not routine protocol for every dog.

Prior to 3rd vaccine (if you choose L4) pups could be taken to low-risk areas (avoiding stagnant/still water) to ensure they do not miss the main bulk of their sensaitive social window.

If you are getting a pup from a different area to you, check with your chosen vet that they do the same vaccine your pup has been given (by the breeder) prior to coming to you. If they don’t, ask them to buy it in. If they wont, find another vet who will. Re-vaccination is considered by some to be dangerous (huge assault on the immune system) and unnecessery. But also, it delays socialisation and involves more trips to the vets that result in injections (a potentially aversive experience that can lead to feeling ‘off’ for a few days, which can also affect behaviour and increase sensitivity to social opportunities).

2) Getting your puppy used to vet visits can be tough at present. Some vets aren’t letting owners in with their dogs. However some vets do, so ask around! If your chosen practise won’t let you in, talk the vet through on how to be with your puppy. Sadly, when under pressure, some may not behave with your puppy as hoped and may be a little rushed or not be too forthcoming using treats. Puppies may struggle with this if they need more time.

Ask vets to lead or carry your puppy away from you using super tasty treats (give these to the vet) and ask them to feed treats during vaccination. If you’re there with them you can do this!. Call ahead and ask the receptionists if all of this this is possible. If this isn’t or you feel dismissed/not taken seriously- find another practise.

Try and get your puppy to the vet for non-invasive experiences too, where they just turn up, get fed treats and leave again. More and more vets are doing this now.
The above applies to adult dogs too. It’s in a vet’s best interested to keep dogs calm and happy- as it results in less bites. But some may need some specific direction on how to be with your dog. It’s better to act proactively rather than reactively, encourage your vet to avoid your dog becoming scared by going slow and using food from the get go.

3) Visitors
If you’re in a tier where people cannot meet indoors, then your puppy may not be use to visitors. Any time you get a delivery or trades person round- work hard to make it a positive experience.
You can scatter treats when the door bell goes to create a positive association, especially if your puppy seems startled. If your puppy is quiet, don’t take this for granted as barking often starts 16 weeks onwards.
If you have anyone coming into your house, be sure to talk them through how visitors should behave towards your puppy. They should be calm, avoid stroking on the head, not over excite the puppy with pats and tickles (calm strokes on chest is best) and to let the pup greet them on their terms first. If your pup becomes over excited, redirect them onto a kong or food activity, including when your visitor arrives.

4) People on the street
Social distancing sadly doesn’t seem to stop strangers to swoop in wanting to stroke a puppy- and who can blame them! I tend to encourage my class attendees to avoid this as much as possible or politely coach people on how to interact to make this a positive experience. Quite simply because many people can overwhelm puppies with their enthusiasm- causing the puppy to jump and become over excited. They tickle, giggle, go ‘EEEEEEEE PUPPY!!!’, stroke on the head. Social puppies get over stimulated which triggers pulling on the lead, rolling over, urination (also a sign of anxiety/fear during greetings) or jumping. Owners then often correct or try to discourage these behaviours. It all becomes a bit messy and the reality is- if people behaved more appropriately, the puppy wouldn’t likely behave like that.

Alternatively, cautious puppys are often pressured to interact. Outstretched hands with food try to persuade them to be friends, accompanied with direct eye contact and the dreaded phrase…. ‘oh, dog’s love me’. If the puppies avoidance behaviour is not noted or responded to (by allowing retreat to a safe distance), some may jump/flip on lead, freeze or begin to bark. If these work as increasing-distance (owner moves puppy away or person backs off) then the pup may learn to repeat them. This, my friends, is how over reactivity can start in some dogs- with different underpinning emotional responses and feelings.

POSITIVE ANTICIPATION (Excitement/seeking): I see some dogs who are so overstimulated by street walks they pull and bark towards people or sit down, appearing to insist on greeting the oncoming person. May seem cute when your puppy is 12 weeks, but the novelty soon wears off.
FEAR: Barking to increase distance- will sound more growly/ deep. Try to avoid initially by slowing down, trying to change direction.
ANXIETY: Or alternatively, pups may start to refuse to go on walks and hide in presence of pre-walk cues. On walks they may stand a lot, try and retreat home.
FRUSTRATION: If you start to pull your dog away from a person, because it’s no longer cute for a 30 kilo dog to jump over a person this can trigger a frustrated outburst.
OVER AROUSAL: Where the context of the walk has become so over stimulating the dog rapid-fire barks at the slightest thing or appears manic (wide eyes, heavy panting and constant pulling on leash, vigilant behaviour).

TOP TIP FOR HUMAN INTERACTIONS: Any time a dog rolls over outside- it’s likely NOT for a belly rub and is more likely a sign of anxiety or low confidence. Genuine belly rub requests are often done when a dog is in a state of relaxation- usually indoors.

See my blog on this for more info:…/dog-really-want…/

5) Traffic
I see a huge correlation between pups who are frequently walked alongside a busy road and sound sensitivity, refusal to walk, pulling on the lead and over reactivity. It’s better to introduce exposure to traffic carefully. If you live on a busy road and have a front garden, build up experience via time in the front garden- allowing easily retreat to the house. Walk quiet streets first, dip towards or onto a busy road for short durations before retreating again.

I encourage my puppy attendees to do street walks and walks in busy parks at a ratio of 1 out of 4 initially (1 busier walk to 3 quiet, big green space walks). This ensures pups build up gradual exposure without being overwhelmed (also, trying to loose lead train on every walk is setting yourself up for failure, I wouldn’t want to do it that much).

6) Car trips
Try and drive to vast, green walk locations as often as possible. Short journeys with a positive outcome can build positive associations with the car. Pups do well to travel up front in the car, as they do not yet have the core strength or balance system to be stable in the boot. I find they slide around crates too, unless these are padded with donut beds. I recommend Kurgo booster seats or a seat belt clip attached to a harness for travel on the back or front seats. You need your pup secure in the car by law.

6) Other dogs
Quality not quantity- slow and steady wins the race.
In the absence of puppy classes or limited socialisation opportunities resulting from goverment restrictions- puppy social meet up requests online appear to be more frequently instigated or arranged than ever before. Arranging meet ups with other pups or dogs can provide great oportunities for socialisation. However, encounters can easily go wrong if not well managed. For more sensitive pups, this can have a lasting impact.

Please note, this advise is not based on what to do now, but what to do generally. Please do not think I am encouraging breaking lockdown or tier related guidelines. Please make choices based on guidelines in your area and relevant to your individual situation.

-Ensure they are good with puppies (by asking how they are, have they ever reacted etc)
– Be mindful they are not too old or do not suffer from an ailment like arthritis if your puppy is lively. Old dogs can understandably get grumpy if jumped on (because it may hurt them).
– Try and arrange to meet with quiet dogs first, as barking can be scary for some puppies at first.
– Be cautious of running meet ups with juvenile dogs (6-9 months) and adolescents (2.5/3 years and young) as these dogs may behave like a ‘teenage babysitter’. Basically, ‘I’m now the biggest, strongest, oldest, in charge etc’ and throw their weight around or act a little like a bully. Not all young dogs are like this as different individuals mature at different rates (breed/type may also have an influence).
Try and set up your pup’s first dog meeting since acquirement to be a calm, disinterested dog- as your puppy may be initially very cautious and being pulled at, barked at or bowled over may be a scary experience.
– Be careful of meetings with toy obsessed dogs- as they may guard. But also sudden movement or over aroused behaviour can be concerning for some puppies.Once you get an idea of your pup’s confidence levels you can then broaden who they meet. Many pups seem confident in their home, only to be quite cautious when the set foot out of this bubble.

MEETING IN GARDENS- If you’re meeting in someone elses garden, ensure the dog is not territorial.
**Be mindful to ensure a dog visiting your garden is great with puppies and calm. If your puppy has a bad experience in their safe place (home!) this could cause anxiety and associated behaviour problems**

– Have the visiting dog go into the garden first to explore and get bearings. Then leave again…..
– Have the resident dog (your puppy or the dog whose house you are visiting) outside in the garden ready for the meeting but ensure they can easily retreat indoors.
– Have both dogs on lead (short lead for adult dog and 3-5m lead for puppy) and try and set up the adult to be calm, by using food to recall focus on the handler after looking, or use treat searches to get their noses down (avoid doing this within greeting distance to avoid food aggression).
– The puppy may just want to watch the adult dog…..give them time to look
– If all seems calm and the puppy looks happy to approach, move the adult dog away from the area they’ve had treats and allow them to meet the puppy
– After a greet, start them moving around
– Keep the puppy on lead to ensure the adult dog can move away for a break if they want one.If you take the greeting inside then remove food bowls and toys at first.

– Avoid street encounters if you can. Head on greetings may result in tension due to lack of space and equipment compromising normal greeting behaviour (weeing, sniffing, curving, circling). I tend to cross the road in good time with my dogs so they avoid head on encounters in tight spaces. I keep them focused on me until the dog passes- and doing this in good time sets them up to respond.
The same goes for car parks, wait until the coast is clear before getting your pup out (why don’t more people do this anyway?!). The last thing they need when their paws touch the floor in an unfamiliar place is an off lead dog rushing up followed by an owner shouting at it when trying to bring it under control.
– Use a long line on green walks and 1.5-2m for street walks. Short leads result in pulling- especially in green spaces where dogs will often move faster or change direction to explore more. Tight leads can negatively affect play behaviour (less able to move around as they would off lead) which can lead to frustration and increased arousal. Never a good thing.

Long lines are great at allowing movement during play and providing more freedom gradually- but there’s a knack to using them well.

Check out this video and info on how:

Things go wrong when avoidance is overlooked. This can go both ways.
– Pups failing to see another dog trying to move away, being allowed to relentlessly follow and then the other dog snaps at them to tell them to go away. May be a good learning opportunity, or it could be a bad experience! You can help your pup notice dog’s trying to move away by gently holding back the long line.
– Look for your pup trying to move away out of social interactions (dogs and people) and allow them to do so. Often dogs will try and sniff things, or turn away from a situation- and these can easily be overlooked- leading to pups being trapped in situations they aren’t comfortable with. This opens them up to using more overt signals to move away (barking etc).

– Should be low intensity
– Should have pauses
– Dogs shouldn’t pin others to the ground (watch for the peddling back leg or tucked tail, these are not positive signs for the dog being pinned)- Create a break and opportunity for calming down when you see signs of increasing arousal (more slamming, more teeth showing, more whites of eyes, more vocal, more banging into stuff, less response to you, less pauses).

Avoid leaving dogs ‘to sort it out themselves’. They’re a incredibly diverse species with hugely varied sizes, weight, structure, movement style, breed specific behaviours and play type – so leaving them to sort it out (unless all seems well) maybe somewhat risky. Help moderate with tense or over the top interactions.

I am seeing more and more owners become anxious or confused by all of the advise out there, with increasing pressure to have a well behaved dog. Get on board with a qualified and accreditted trainer (ABTC, APBC, IAABC, APDT, CCAB- are all great organisations) and follow their advise. If you contradict your attempts by fluctuating between approaches it’s hard for you to gage success. But, it’s also easy to adopt the wrong approach for your pup by following generic advise- often given by unqualfied individuals or well meaning owners. Asking for help on forums often leads to confusion and anxiety- due to the numerous, varied responses. Choose a great trainer and subscribe to their methods. If they don’t seem to work then ask them for further problem solving or consider a new trainer.