Understanding the Principles of Puppy Socialisation
Problem: My puppy is over sociable and excitable!
Taking ownership of a new puppy can be an overwhelming experience. Alongside the change in family dynamics and lifestyle comes the realisation that this new little ball of fluff requires a whole new level of understanding and the learning curve can be steep and costly for some.
Most new dog owners will seek professional help from a variety of resources: the vet, local dog trainers, the internet and other dog owners and the first problem encountered is the diverse and mostly conflicting advice given. This is not necessarily because it is incorrect advice but merely the result of people having different experiences with dogs and/or gaining knowledge from one single source themselves.
To truly understand your puppy, it is essential that you observe their body language and recognise the consistent behaviour patterns they perform and how they respond to you. Use your instinct to gauge whether your puppy is comfortable in a situation or not and if not then don’t be afraid to remove them.
Puppy management comes down to a common sense approach and often I find owners get themselves into trouble trying to fix problems using a variety of different approaches as a result of listening to the experiences of others, instead of keeping things simple. Recognising that dogs communicate primarily with body language and scent should encourage you to use your voice less. Shouting at your puppy is pointless and often adds energy to a poor behaviour inadvertently re-enforcing it!
Keep it simple and be mindful that:
"The quieter you become, the more you can hear."
This article focuses on socialisation. One of the most common errors owners are making when raising their puppy is to ‘over socialise’ them. Every book you read, person you speak to and internet site you find, will advocate the positive aspect of early social exposure and I absolutely agree this is an essential part of your puppy’s development. However, it is important to consider how to properly socialise your puppy to avoid a negative experience or poor behaviours developing.
Taking your puppy to the local park and teaching them to focus on you, receive rewards from you only and sit and wait while dogs and people are encouraged to walk past should be your focus. Your puppy is working with, and for you while they are out, they are not there to make a best friend of every other dog they see. This is a human, emotional perception and if you make this the goal you can rest assured your puppy will very quickly begin to have more fun with other dogs than you, your recall will suffer and you will annoy other dog walkers by having no control of your puppy.
Over excitable behaviour in a young puppy is overlooked, as the ‘cute factor’ takes over, within a few months when your puppy isn’t so cute you will be the dog and owner to avoid, as people walk in the opposite direction in anticipation of your Tasmanian devil!
If there is one piece of solid advice, I would ever give a new puppy owner it would be to never allow another person to offer your puppy treats when out walking.
This provides a platform for poor behaviour (e.g.: jumping up, mouthing, hyper-excitability) to be rewarded, dilutes your recall making it ineffective and teaches your puppy that everyone is more exciting than you. Food rewards should be delivered by the handler only.
Poor socialisation, a negative social experience or over socialisation is responsible for a huge percentage of my work and I am always frustrated that I didn’t get to advise an owner earlier about the pitfalls of introducing their young puppy to the big wide world.
Follow these simple rules for effective social experiences:
- Take things slowly and observe your puppy’s body language for stress indicators.
- Adopt a ‘little and often’ approach (short 5-10 min periods, remove and re-introduce).
- Teach them to sit and wait while people approach and pass, reward for the self-control (the positive experience occurs naturally if you do this).
- USE A LONGLINE (this is an essential training tool for your puppy’s first 6 months) facilitating recall and preventing poor behaviour.
- If your puppy is playing and it looks unbalanced it probably is, remove the most boisterous puppy and see if the other one continues play.
- If your puppy is hiding or being reactive put more distance between them and the situation until they relax and then reward them (a reward can be praise, food or just removal from the situation once they have calmed).
- Don’t keep picking your puppy up, you will put them at a disadvantage and create more of a problem.
- Fear phases: be mindful that your puppy may suddenly become fearful at different stages of their development, their social skills may deteriorate and they will need leadership in abundance!
- Consider the walk from your dog’s perspective… a ‘hunting experience’. You lead the hunt and you end the hunt, your dog will want to work so if you don’t entertain them then they will entertain themselves. Cue squirrel chasing, charging at other dogs, stealing kids footballs and generally being the park nuisance! Put your mobile phone in your pocket, pick a point on the horizon and power walk towards it, your puppy will soon want to know what’s got your interest.
- Don’t spend time stopping to chat to others, this creates an intense situation for a young dog and may result in hyperactivity and running off. Keep your walk progressive and ask others to join you if they wish to have a conversation!
- Change the direction of your walk frequently and don’t keep calling your puppy, they need to learn to keep an eye on you not the other way around.
Socialisation is about creating a calm balanced adult dog who is polite and accepting of social experiences whether they are with humans or other dogs. You wouldn’t ask a child to accept a reward from a stranger so don’t encourage your dog to. Control your puppy’s energy, manage your environment and keep the praise and positivity from you only.
Socialising your puppy with other animals
- Remember many puppies will ‘shut-down’ in hugely busy environments, giving a false positive perception. If they are unusually quiet this is probably what is happening and you will need to give your puppy regular breaks from the social experience. High streets, dog shows and anywhere with large groups of people and or dogs and noise are classic situations where this will occur.
- If you are visiting a café or pub, always “switch your puppy off’ by placing them on a blanket/towel in a secure corner and tethering them, encouraging calm. If a member of the public approaches and wishes to greet your puppy, then you should invite the puppy out and manage the greeting positively. Don’t allow them to pick your puppy up.
Finally keep it fun, and entertaining by choosing different places to walk, taking a ball or frisbee, changing direction and building short periods of training into every outdoor situation.