When you first bring your puppy home, your vet will no doubt tell you about the importance of socialisation from an early age.
Taking your brand new puppy out into the world helps them handle whatever situation they encounter. A well socialised puppy is confident and relaxed, whether they meet new dogs and people, or they see children riding bikes.
Dogs become acclimatised to the way we live our modern-day lives. Puppies aren’t born knowing how they fit into the human world, it’s our job to teach them.
Unfortunately, under socialised puppies can become fearful or aggressive in certain situations. It’s not their fault, they simply haven’t had the chance to experience that circumstance and don’t know how to react. But this frightened reaction could end in a bite.
This can make simply going for walks a very stressful experience for both dog and owner. Once this behaviour is ingrained, it can be extremely difficult to put right.
So the best course of action is to make socialising your puppy a priority from the start.
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The basics of socialising your puppy
Up to around 12-16 weeks of age, puppies explore the world with little fear. It’s an important phase in learning and development. Anything after this age is approached with more caution.
So if pup encounters something new later in their development, they’ll find it more difficult to trust that object, person or environment.
As they’re not fully vaccinated until 12 weeks in the UK, that gives you a very small window to socialise your puppy.
Vets advise giving a week after their last vaccination, meaning they won’t be able to go on walks until they’re 13 weeks old. To counteract this problem, you should start carrying your puppy around with you as soon as you bring them home.
When we brought Loki home at 8 weeks old, I’d wrap her up in a little blanket and carry her to different places.
They need to experience many sights and sounds during this stage. Expose them to different people, cars, dogs, cats and farm animals; take them to beaches, parks, woodland and other people’s houses.
The more you can expose them to the better adjusted they’ll be.
Loki was at a slight disadvantage with her socialisation. Our vets made an error with her vaccinations which meant she couldn’t go for a walk until 17 weeks old.
You can just imagine our frustration. We had a very bouncy puppy on our hands!
We did our best with the situation, but Loki became what is called a ‘frustrated greeter’. She’d frantically lunge and yelp whenever she saw another dog or person. It was not aggressive. She’d just be eager to meet everyone and play. She still thinks everybody’s her friend!
It could get rather embarrassing if I’m honest.
We worked hard with Loki in those early months to correct that behaviour. We used distraction techniques to keep her focus on us and gave rewards for calm behaviour.
Now, thankfully, she’s only vaguely reactive.
She’s not bothered by people at all, and only performs her meerkat stance when she sees other dogs. It’s adorable actually. I wish I could get a picture of it!
But I wonder if she’d be different if she was able to play with more dogs during those crucial weeks… Who knows.
A special tip for owners with reactive dogs
I’m a member of a fantastic Facebook group called reactive dogs (UK). The group is filled with owners with all sorts of reactive dogs. They have plenty of advice to help handle fear aggressive dogs and frustrated greeters.
They work hard to reduce their dog’s stress levels, but what it all boils down to is a lack of socialisation. And many of these dogs are rescues. They have unknown backgrounds where socialisation was probably not a priority in their previous homes.
In my eyes these people are heroes. They’ve chosen to give a dog with behavioural issues a loving home. I couldn’t be more in awe of their commitment to help an animal lead a happy life.
If you have a puppy that’s showing signs of reactivity, I highly suggest joining. Sometimes it’s just helpful knowing you’re not alone.
They have plenty of guidance in the files section to help manage different reactivity behaviours.
Feel free to share your questions and socialisation stories in the comments. Is your dog well socialised? Do they show signs of fear in certain situations? I’d love to hear your thoughts…