Socialising Your Puppy
You have a new puppy, congratulations! A lot of fun lies ahead of you, but also a lot of hard work, to turn your puppy into a happy, confident and friendly adult dog. Chances are that one of the first things you will be told -whether it is by the puppy' breeder, by your vet, by your local dog trainer or anyone else -is that you must start to socialise your puppy as soon as only possible. So just HOW do you go about this?
The first question you will have to consider is when to start socialisation. Most puppies will have their first vaccination at 8 weeks of age and the second at 10, and then the vet will advise you to not get out and about until a week after the second vaccination. At times the vaccinations may be delayed. If you live in a quiet home with no other dogs, no children, few visitors etc, then you may want to consider taking your puppy out after the first vaccination rather than delay it. As long as it isn't a giant breed you can carry him or her around with you. Avoid meetings with dogs you don't know the vaccination status of, and avoid putting puppy down on the ground where lots of other dogs have been, but do let people say hello and let the puppy get used to different noises and sights. Just a few minutes a day will do until you are fully ready to get out and about. Puppies learn the most before the age of roughly 12 weeks.
I personally believe that you need to fit your puppy's socialisation around its individual needs, and also fit it to the breed. General advice seems to indicate that all puppies can be treated the same, and if you follow a few rules all will be well. I don't think it is as simple as that. Not all breeds are the same, and even puppies within the same breed can have very different temperaments to each other. If you spend too little time socialising a puppy, then that puppy may develop fears of situations it has not encountered before. But likewise, if you spend TOO much time exposing a young pup to new experiences, the puppy may become overwhelmed and instead develop fears that otherwise would never have occurred!
So, first of all consider your breed. Is it a breed known to be happy, outgoing and friendly towards everyone, one that rarely shows fearful behaviour or aggression? If this is the case (and many very popular breeds would fall into this category) then go ahead and have fun. This type of puppy will enjoy most experiences, and take everything in its stride. If however it is a breed that generally does get spooked easier, may not naturally trust strangers etc, then you need to take a LOT more care. Research your breed carefully, speak to breeders and owners. If it is a crossbreed or mongrel it will be harder, but it won't hurt to look into all the breeds included in the mixture, and then make an educated guess as to how to proceed, based on what you have seen from your puppy's behaviour. Watch the puppy's body language in new situations! A puppy wanting to go ahead, tail wagging, is fine. One that is more hesitant, is not wagging its tail and may even have the tail tucked between its legs will need more careful treatment.
It is often said that one ideal way to socialise your puppy is to walk it around car boot sales, or busy town centres. Again this may work for a happy pup who takes everything in its stride and enjoys whatever you do, but it certainly does not work for all. The key to good socialisation is NOT to ensure your puppy has as many new experiences as possible, it is to ensure that each new experience it has is ENJOYABLE. If your puppy loves meeting a huge crowd of people where many may want to say hello, then fine. However many puppies may find such a situation overwhelming, and the experience will then not be a good one, and may instead put them off meeting people and walking in crowds. If your puppy loves being made a fuss of by absolutely anyone, then being fussed will help. If it cringes away, not wanting to be accosted by total strangers wanting to pet its head (many dogs do not like to be stroked on the head by strangers), then that approach will not be enjoyable at all and will instead teach the pup that it is best to stay away from strangers.
So watch your puppy carefully, and see how it reacts. If it doesn't instantly run up to strangers to say hello, ask them to offer the puppy a treat, so that it learns that strangers mean something NICE. You can even start by offering the puppy a treat as soon as he or she sees a stranger (or a strange dog, a cat, a cow, a bus, anything) at a distance. It is far more important to have a few good experiences that the puppy enjoys, than to have several that the puppy does not enjoy. If your puppy is unsure, build things up gradually. Don't rush straight to the nearest large car boot sale, instead start off with walks that the puppy will enjoy, and gradually move to busier places. It's important that the pup first LIKES going for walks and exploring. Some people may argue that it is best to throw the puppy in at the deep end and that if you go straight to the busiest place possible, it will then HAVE to get used to it. This process is known as flooding, and it may well work for some dogs. On the other hand, it can give other dogs lifelong fears, so do tread carefully. I have made this mistake myself, I once took a puppy to a large car boot sale. He didn't yet really enjoy going for a walk, and when faced with the crowds at the car boot sale, he sat down, shaking with fear and refused to move. 3 years later he still runs away when he sees his collar and lead! He has learnt to enjoy quiet walks, but the memory of that day has never left him.
Getting used to different noises is an important part of training your puppy. You can often prevent fears of fireworks, thunderstorms etc by exposing the puppy to such noises at home early on in life, and not reacting to them at all yourself, just ignoring it, showing the puppy it's so common it doesn't even warrant a reaction. As you cannot always predict when there is going to be such noises about, buy a noise CD and start playing it in the background in your house from as early an age as possible. If needs be, set the volume to low initially and then increase it. Likewise, accidentally on purpose drop objects that will clatter and make a noise, so that the puppy gets used to sudden noises. TV is excellent as there you will have a lot of different noises, so leave it on within hearing of the pup on a regular basis. Being used to sudden strange noises at home, where the puppy will feel safe, will make it easier to cope with such noises when out and about.
Another exercise you can easily do at home is to get your puppy used to people looking different. If nobody in your family wears glasses, get a cheap pair of sunglasses and wear them at times. Put a hat on, a false beard (Santa beards are easy to come by at Christmas!), a scarf, a hoodie, a skirt. Think ahead to what your pup may encounter in life.
Do go to a good training class, but use your own common sense. Often it is best to not take part during the first session. Instead sit with your pup and just watch what goes on, offering the puppy treats. Indeed, if you each time you arrive at a new place bring out really special treats, of the kind he or she does not get at home (I'm not talking shop bought dog treats here, but things like sausage, liver, chicken etc) then the puppy will learn that new places are fun. I even tell my pups "This is one of these places where you get the special treats!" Once you are taking part in a class, if you are asked to meet and greet the other dogs, make sure you only allow your puppy to meet dogs that seem friendly. Don't be afraid to walk away if you want to avoid one particular dog. Yes it may seem rude, but you are laying down foundations for the rest of your puppy's life here. Some puppies love being jumped on by other puppies, others do not. Watch out for size also. If you have a very small pup, meeting a much larger dog can at first be overwhelming -and needless to say if you have a large puppy, be extra careful if you meet very small ones. Far too many toydogs are scared of bigger dogs (which often is mistaken for outright aggression, as it shows itself mainly by the dog barking at bigger dogs) but with careful and enjoyable introductions with friendly, sensible dogs from an early age, you will end up with a toydog that has no fear of bigger dogs.
Above all, remember that your puppy should have fun! (Photo shows a puppy being given treats in the presence of cows.)