Importance of socialisation
Socialisation is highly underestimated by owners: many assume that the idea of socialising your puppy is to solely let them interact with other dogs. However, there is so much more to socialisation than many owners realise. Socialisation should not be overlooked, nor should it be misinterpreted. The way in which a puppy is socialised has dramatic effects on its future. A good socialisation programme is crucial and requires much planning, patience and time. I can not stress the number of cases which are brought to me with dogs expressing aggression or fear due to a lack of exposure to a broad spectrum of stimuli when the dog was a young pup.
What is socialisation?
Socialisation is the term used among behaviourists to explain the exposure of the pup, at a certain age, to various stimuli and environments in order to help them cope with everyday life as a household pet.
What age should you socialise your pup?
This has recently been brought back to the limelight amongst behavioural scientists searching to find the exact age which best suits the dog. Originally, it was thought that the core socialisation stage was between the ages of 10-12 weeks. However, this has recently been extended with research now showing that dogs are more likely to avoid behavioural problems if the socialisation process begins as early as 8 weeks and ending at around 16 weeks of age.
Where to start?
Generally, as a rule, owners acquire puppies at the age of 8 weeks, so the socialisation process can begin immediately. Gentle handling and the odd visitor to the house will allow the pup to habituate itself to human contact. You can then, in the next week or so, start carrying your puppy to different places. Vaccines are not given until 10-12 weeks, therefore it is unsafe to allow your pup to walk on the floor. However, by carrying them, you are still helping to socialise them in a safe way.
What should I include when socialising my pup?
EVERYTHING! any sight, sound, smell your dog is likely to encounter in its adult life. Different textures such as grass, rubber mats, carpet. Animals such as horses, sheep, rabbit. People - old, young, teenagers, babies, toddlers, children. Different environments such as shopping centres, playgrounds, road-works, building sites. the list is endless, and you cannot expose them to too much.
Make a diary
By keeping a diary of where you have taken your pup and noting down the pup's reaction will give you a great start at working out how best to help your pup cope with the various stimuli.
•Do expose your puppy to as many different things as you can.
•Do not force your pup into a situation. If it is showing signs of nervousness or anxiety.
•work at the pup's pace: one day he may be fine with a child in the park, the next time you go past a park he may show signs of nervousness. This is alright, but take your time and slowly build back up to the exposure.
•Don't flood your pup with a million things at once. Take your time, little and often.
•Always make it a pleasurable experience for the pup, giving lots of vocal praise and food rewards.
•Protect your puppy. Any negative experience at this stage of its life could be detrimental.
The second sensitive phase
Research has now discovered that dogs go through a second sensitive phase at around 6 months of age, showing signs of fear or anxiety to situations or environments they previously were fine with. If your dog does experience this, then coax them through it, working at the dog's pace to expose them to the stimuli, and rewarding them for times when they do not show fear or anxiety. Never force them into the situation just because in your mind you think they are being a 'silly dog'. If this stage isn't handled with the up-most of care, then it can have detrimental effects on the dog's behaviour later on in life.
Don't forget Noise desensitization
Noise desensitization is often overlooked. However it should form part of your socialisation programme. Noises such as thunderstorms and fireworks can have a big effect on a dogs sensitive hearing, making them behave anxiously. If you habituate your puppy at early age to these strange noises, likelihood is he will be able to cope when hears them later on in life.