Anyone with a new puppy will probably be very aware of the limitations our current climate puts on effective socialisation, or at least our expectations of how socialisation should be done. I collected a foster puppy just as the UK went into total lockdown, so I too felt the pressure and added worries about getting it ‘right’.
Many of us will have been told numerous times about how we should socialise our puppies, we may have received a lot of conflicting advice, but we have probably consistently been told it’s vital that this is done in the early weeks of puppyhood and we should introduce and expose them to as much as possible. However, it’s important to be careful with socialisation and not simply introduce your puppy to anyone and everyone while letting him figure it all out.
We need to be creative and look at it from a different perspective.
So, how can we properly socialise a puppy given the restrictions in place in the UK and many other countries. We can’t follow the traditional approach of meeting new people and dogs, nor can we do numerous short trips to new environments or busy places, so we need alternative solutions to ensure our puppies still develop into stable, well-rounded adults.
We need to be creative and look at it from a different perspective. This could really change how we view socialisation. What really benefits our puppies? And are there actually better ways to socialise them? Only time will tell as we watch our ‘lockdown puppies’ grow into adults.
The Importance of Trust
Trust is central to good socialisation. Socialisation should involve careful consideration of your puppy’s feelings, emotions and responses to experiences. You should interact with him and support him through each experience, there is a careful balance between being supportive while also allowing a puppy to explore and learn.
Get to know his personality, a more sensitive puppy will benefit from more support, not overbearing, anxious mothering, but for you to step in when needed. Use plenty of rewards and prioritise gentle, gradual exposure to novelty. A bolder puppy will be able to explore a little more independently, have more freedom to figure everything out but will still require a vigilant human to support them and remain interactive throughout the process.
Be your puppy’s safe place where he can return to for security if he’s unsure of a situation. Teach him basic commands to build your bond and reinforce his focus on you.
Find the Novelty
A puppy who has positive experiences in novel situations will develop a more optimistic view of life and be better able to confidently handle new things.
This can easily be done at home, gather together some household objects (e.g. pots and pans, cardboard boxes, chairs or anything else safe for your puppy to explore around), scatter them around in an open space and let your puppy explore and investigate. Support him with verbal feedback and food rewards, but make sure you don’t use these to entice him into a situation he’s unsure of. Give him plenty of time and space to make the choice to interact with the novel items, and if he chooses to move away then don’t force him to go back – teaching him that he has a choice is hugely important too!
Novelty can be created in your own home by moving your furniture around or dressing up in different clothes and accessories to change your appearance. Changing how your furniture looks will create a whole new room for your puppy to explore and essentially give him a novel environment to experience. Wearing different clothes or accessories will allow your puppy to experience things he will encounter as he grows up.
Always watch his body language and don’t push him if he’s finding the situation difficult. If he spooks at you wearing certain items (e.g. a hat) then calmly leave the room and return in your normal clothes, then introduce the new items more gradually, perhaps putting the hat on while in the same room so your puppy can see the change.
Other items you can play with at home could include riding a bike or skateboard in the garden, or showing him the hoover or lawnmower. Moving items can be scary or exciting for dogs, so carefully introduce these at a pace your puppy is comfortable with. For example, push the bike before riding it, let him explore the Hoover before it’s turned on or move it around without turning it on.
Use lots of rewards with these items, ideally tossing the treat away from the moving item so your puppy is always encouraged to stay back while building a positive association… remember you don’t want him running up to bikes or getting under the Hoover in the future so toss the reward away and teach him to keep his distance.
Visit Different Places
It may be quieter outside but you can visit different roads, towns or locations like the river and woodland. Each place will have new smells, sights and sounds so give him time to take it in and explore. You don’t have to walk far, letting him explore near the car or on a short walk will be plenty for him to take in. Take lots of rewards with you so you can keep reinforcing him around the new environment, especially if he chooses to come back to you, rewarding this choice will show him he can return to you for some support!
Let Him Watch
Simply sitting and watching people, dogs and traffic during your daily outing is a great way to help him feel calm and confident. Find a safe place to sit and give him time to observe while you feed him some tasty treats, or take your walk at a slow pace so he has time to take it all in. Keep these sessions short so he doesn’t become too tired or overwhelmed but make it part of your day to take him somewhere to watch other people and dogs.
Let Him Listen
There are some excellent sound CD’s available which are designed to gradually desensitise dogs and puppies to different noises. Find one which will play the sound of things your puppy will encounter in daily life, for example, people talking, dogs barking, fireworks and traffic noises.
Start at a low volume and gradually increase it if he remains calm and relaxed. Ideally you want him to notice slightly but quickly carry on with what he’s doing, so play the CD while he’s playing with a toy or engaged in an enrichment activity. If he spooks or can’t ignore the sound then it’s too much and you need to reduce the volume until he’s barely noticing it.
Set up some mock vet visits and work through handling your puppy. Watch for signs of discomfort, for example, wriggling, running away, cowering or becoming excessively bitey. Watch how your puppy behaves and combine each exercise with food rewards. Start by briefly touching different parts of his body and make note of where he is less comfortable, these areas will need slower, more careful work. Never force handling exercises, this will only create more fear, so always take it slowly and keep it really positive and relaxed!
Social Distancing Interactions
This is likely to be most people’s biggest concern, after all we have often been told puppies should meet 100 people in their first few months, and suddenly we can’t be near anyone else! However, interacting with a lot of new people can be very overwhelming and we can unintentionally force puppies into interactions they aren’t comfortable with.
Social distancing will certainly make us rethink how we socialise our puppies with people, and a hands-off approach may actually benefit a lot of dogs. Many dogs who develop fear-aggression or reactivity issues towards people will have had negative experiences as puppies.
We may not realise until these issues present themselves as clear signals of barking, lunging or snapping, but most likely the dog has been showing signs since they were young, perhaps a subtle shying away from a stranger, or cowering or remaining quiet and still when being stroked by unfamiliar people. These are easy signals to miss and can be misinterpreted as a polite puppy, or we notice and assume he’ll get over it. Unfortunately, nervous puppies rarely just get over it.
Taking a step back and maintaining a safe 2-metre distance from people will give us more space to watch our puppies body language and allow him to ‘greet’ people without the pressure of a physical interaction. Let him sniff and watch people from a distance while rewarding him for staying with you. Watch for signs he’s uncomfortable (e.g. shying or moving away, lip licking etc.), if you notice signs of nervousness then simply increase your distance from the person or end the meeting and move away.
This will teach your puppy that if he’s uncomfortable, you will take control and move him away – he always has the choice to move away from a situation he’s unsure of and he’s never forced to interact or stay somewhere he’s uncomfortable … this is one of the most important lessons you can teach him!
Images by Naomi White