Socialisation: Setting your pup up for success
Many dogs that develop behavioural issues in their adult lives (such as an aversion to certain floor surfaces, fear of strange men etc) do so because of inadequte socialisation during puppyhood. My own dog’s reactivity towards strange dogs is likely due to insufficient and/or negative interactions with dogs while she was a puppy.
So, how do we socialise puppies correctly?
Socialisation at its core is exposing your puppy to the various stimuli/events that it is likely to encounter over the course of its life. The emphasis here should be to ensure that your dog’s experiences with these stimuli are POSITIVE, i.e. good things are associated with them.
It’s also important to expose your dog to these things gradually and to allow them to escape and approach things at their own pace. Forcing a dog to approach something it’s afraid of will likely create strong negative associations, which can build to extreme fearfulness and anxiety in adulthood. Your puppy should also be exposed to the same stimuli in new contexts (e.g. meeting new people in the house as well as out on walks) to their confidence in new things can easily generalise.
Some examples of key things your puppy should be exposed to are discussed below. Again, these things should be introduced at a low intensity and give the dog an opportunity to avoid or escape if he/she chooses. Exposures should be paired with something of value (such as treats, praise and or stroking) to ensure they are mainly a positive experience.
I’ve heard a few stories about dog owners who have moved house and noticed their dogs have a distinct problem with the flooring or stairs in the new house. Helping your puppy to be comfortable on concrete, carpet, tiles etc etc will save you a lot of time and worry in the long run. Also, make sure your puppy is used to walking (and more importantly, toileting) on wet grass. You’ll thank yourself in the rainy season!
Gentle early experiences with examination (by you and a stranger) will make things like vet and groomer visits a lot more simple. Regularly touching your dog’s mouth/gums, ears, tail and paws (especially when paired with a yummy treat) will decrease your dog’s sensitivity to these areas.
We all know that us humans come in all shapes and sizes. However, that might not always be clear to our dogs! Familiarising your dog with people of different ages, sizes and ethinicities is a great way to avoid distrust down the line. Of particular importance is exposure to children. Children can behave quite differently (erratically) than adults and are also physically closer to a dog’s level. Bearing this in mind, it is no surprise that dog attacks on children are so common. Positive exposure to children (not just the children of the household) can make these little humans more predictable and less likely to induce fear related responses.
Puppy socialisation classes are offered by most vets are invaluable. They expose your dog to other breeds and temperaments in a controlled environment. Not only does this do wonders to reduce fear of new dogs, it teaches puppies how to play correctly with other dogs and other essential social behaviours. Once they have received their final vaccinations, puppies should also be exposed to (friendly and social) adult dogs, even ones that might tell them to knock it off every once in a while- the ability to recognise and respect another dog’s ‘please leave me alone signal’ is sorely lacking in many adult dogs!