Dr Jessica May, UK lead vet at FirstVet, gives her advice on how to help puppies get used to social interactions after lockdown.
Recent owners quickly find that there is a lot to learn when it comes to caring for a new canine. Training them can be one of the most challenging tasks. Since the beginning of the pandemic, socialising puppies will have been particularly difficult. Introducing puppies to other dogs and people early in their life ensures that they are able to confidently tackle social interactions later on.
Without being properly socialised, puppies and young dogs may struggle when they encounter strangers. Dogs who don’t have much social contact as a puppy are also more likely to be nervous or aggressive when faced with another dog.
When should puppies be socialised
It is best to socialise a puppy early in their lives, as they begin to explore their environment. For breeders, or those with a new litter, somewhere between four and twelve weeks of age is a good time to begin thinking about this.
It is important to note that if puppies are being sold, they should not go to their new owners until they are at least 8 weeks of age. With this in mind, new puppy parents should start socialising their puppy within the first month of bringing them into the family.
Be careful if your puppy is not yet fully vaccinated, they should only be socialised in safe environments where all the dogs they come into contact with are up to date on their vaccines.
How to socialise puppies
The best way to socialise a puppy is to gradually introduce them to unfamiliar situations, so that they can begin to get used to different places and new faces. Most young puppies will have had little experience of life outside the house, so going on walks where they may meet and interact with other dogs is a simple way to start. This helps them get used to meeting new people and pooches alike, but also helps them get used to new sights and sounds, making them less easily startled later in life.
If you know other dog owners, it may be helpful to organise joint dog walks so that your canines can get to know each other. It is best to make sure that you start these interactions with friendly and sociable pooches, as meeting a particularly loud or unpredictable dog may make a puppy more nervous or aggressive. Approachable older dogs are often adept at teaching puppies how to recognise canine social signals, so an easy going adult dog makes the ideal playmate.
How to know if a puppy needs help
It is important for puppies to enjoy themselves while they are being socialised, otherwise the experience may leave them with more bad experiences and habits than good ones. Owners should look out for signs that a puppy is upset or afraid, which can come in many different forms. It may be obvious when a puppy is scared if they are cowering or trying to hide, but it is also useful to look out for subtler signals.
If a puppy is licking their lips or panting, they may be feeling uneasy. Similarly, moving slowly or pacing can also be an indication of nervousness. If a dog suddenly starts looking tired or drowsy, or has a furrowed brow, these can also be ways of communicating that they are uncomfortable. At this point, you may want to step in to reassure a puppy, or give them a break from the situation.
Remember, throwing a puppy in at the deep end does not necessarily mean faster progress. Helping them adapt to new experiences gradually is the best way to get our canine companions used to tackling the unknown.