Working in the animal care industry, I get the opportunity to see a wide range of personalities in the dog world, from the brand new enamored-by-life pups to the sweet old geriatric hounds that will happily lie by your feet all day and gaze lovingly into your eyes. One thing they all have in common, however, is that they were all puppies once upon a time.
In most cases, at around 8 weeks of age our little bundles of joy are collected from the breeder. The nervous, excited (and often first time) dog parents get to hold their new baby, take a deep whiff of that new puppy smell and begin their lives as a family. But what’s next?
What happens next, in fact, has the greatest baring on your dog’s life of all. Many people don’t know just how important the first few weeks at home with you can be for your pup. Neglect in this respect is often seen much later down the track in social and behavioural problems with your pooch.
As a vet nurse and the Manager at Happy Paws Fitness, one of the first questions I ask an owner that has concerns with their dog’s behaviour is, “did you socialise him or her early in life?” More often than not the answer is “no”. Both the owner and dog are often stressed and this tension can be detrimental to the family dynamic. Often owners are so overwhelmed that they see surrendering their pet as the only solution to the problem.
Sadly, the statistical rates of behavioural and mental health problems in dogs are as high as is the case in humans. Issues include anxiety, depression, phobias, aggression and compulsive disorders that may all be deeply linked to the first few weeks of life as well as ongoing problems like lack of environmental stimulation, lack of company and domestic stresses. Empowering yourself as an owner through education can help you dodge the bullet of many of these developed or “learned’ behaviours.
So what does “early socialisation” mean? It means exposing your puppy to as many new situations, places, people and animals as possible (safely of course and at the right age) in a positive way. Exposure, Exposure, Exposure.
Picture your ideal dog. Is he ready for any new adventure? Is she loving and open to friends visiting with your young children? Does he jump into the car at the mere suggestion of accompanying you on your errands? Does she play well with other dogs and approach other pets with curiosity?
If these are the things you visualise, expose your puppy to these kinds of new experiences from day one. In the simplest terms, let your puppy be part of a variety of the things you do every week and also the things you do just sometimes. This can extend even further to getting your pup accustomed to everyday noises, such as the vacuuming of the carpet, the kettle boiling, singing and traffic. Everyday objects can also surprise puppies, such as someone wearing a hat, a new item suddenly appearing in the house, or leaves blowing around in the wind. Try to make anything new and potentially scary “fun” for your puppy by taking the lead and showing them how harmless the object or situation is by approaching it yourself, touching or interacting with it.
As a general rule, the best period to socialise your puppy is as early as 3 weeks up until 12 weeks of age. Between 12 and 18 weeks you can still make up some ground, but by then puppies tend to approach new situations much more cautiously.
Of course, as with anything new, care must be taken with socialisation. In the case of outdoor recreation and especially play with other dogs, your vet will most likely ask you to wait until 10-14 days after your puppies second or even third vaccination before letting them loose on the world. This is to prevent your pup from coming into contact with communicable diseases that may be transferred by other dogs, animals, or even objects and surfaces in the environment (when their immunity hasn’t had a chance to prepare for them). This rule of thumb is also a good idea to protect your puppy from any unwanted experiences with more dominant adult dogs. You can, however, let your pup meet with other friendly dogs in a controlled environment, such as those of friends or neighbours in a private house or yard as long as all dogs are up-to-date with vaccinations and have had no contact with other unwell dogs.
It’s also good to remember that your puppy is experiencing so many new things for the first time, so he or she can easily become tired or over stimulated by new experiences. Much like a traveler in a foreign land, exhaustion can set in. Keep new exposures to a reasonably short time frame and always make sure your pup is supervised to ensure positive experiences. Anywhere between 10 minutes to a few hours is generally fine. Trust your instinct and if you feel your puppy becoming agitated or tired, end the session there. Tiredness can lead to frustration and ultimately aggression, so let your puppy sleep and process his or her new experience, then awake refreshed and ready for the next one.
This is a great rule of thumb for life with a dog. Work on building a supportive and trusting relationship from day one and never be afraid to put an end to or leave any situation that you know may have a negative impact on your furry family member. Doing this will let your dog know that he or she can trust you to make the right decision on its behalf, no matter where they go or what they do with you.
If other people, or especially children are going to interact with your puppy, make sure you encourage the pup, give him lots of verbal praise (and treats) and keep a close eye on what goes on. With children, and even some adults, be sure to establish ground rules to keep the introduction calm, happy and rewarding. This may include getting visitors to sit quietly on the ground and wait for the puppy to come to them (to avoid the terror of being chased), or putting a time limit on overenthusiastic cuddles so your pup still feels that it has freedom and is in control of the situation.
Here is a list of some ideas for social activities with your dog (once your vet has given your pup the green light to venture outdoors):
- Picnic with friends
- A trip in the car
- A café date
- One-on-one puppy play dates
- Puppy school
- Doggy day care (provided there is a separate “puppy crèche” area)
- Supervised playtime with children
- Taking your dog to work with you
Putting these plans to work will be fun for you and your puppy and will set the path for a happy and balanced dog who is ready for a lifetime of adventure with you!
Give your pup a kiss from me xxx
Lolly Wilson (Happy Paws Manager, Blogger and Resident Vet Nurse)