What is socialisation?

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One of the most common things new puppy parents ask me about is socialisation. They know that it’s important to get it right as they want a happy, confident and sociable adult dog.

Nobody gets a puppy dreaming that they’ll grow up to be one of those dogs barking and lunging at the end of their lead.

However there’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to what socialisation actually is. Never mind how best to approach it!

So what is it?!

The vast majority of people I speak to think that socialisation is getting their dog to meet as many other people and dogs as possible whilst their puppies are young so that they will ‘get used’ to it. 

Unfortunately this is a recipe for disaster. 

If you’re reading this thinking, ‘But that’s what I thought socialisation was!’. Don’t panic - so did I until I learnt better. I too was a victim of socialisation misinformation.

Almost everyone tells you how important it is for your dog to meet others. In fact, when Mango was a puppy people would stop me in the street to say hello to her and proceed to give me a lecture on the importance of socialisation when I politely told them they couldn’t stroke her. 

Don’t get me wrong, I agree 100% that socialisation is incredibly important. It’s their understanding of what socialisation was that I don’t agree with.
If you look at the chart above, you can see that meeting other people and dogs is only a small part of what socialisation should be for your dog. 

But what’s wrong with my dog meeting lots of people and dogs?

This is a natural question, especially after being told that it’s an important part of a puppy’s upbringing. The trouble is, some people are so committed to socialising their puppy that they actually OVER socialise them. This can cause a couple of problems.

Some dogs will find being around people and/or dogs so rewarding that, given the chance, they choose to hang out with them instead of their own families. This can make recalls in particular incredibly challenging as we need our dogs to think we are the best thing in the world for a successful recall.
The other problem is that we’re setting the puppy up to have unrealistic expectations. When they’re little they get to say hello to everyone, however once they get older they’re expected to calmly walk by ignoring most people. 

At some point in their puppy’s upbringing, families think the socialisation period is over and so stop allowing their dog to meet everyone. This can then lead to frustration from their dog as their previous experiences and expectations are no longer matching reality.

Over time, this frustration can lead to negative emotions when they see people or dogs and present as barking and lunging or shying away from others.

When thinking about my clients, over socialisation as puppies is the number one cause for dogs that bark and lunge at other people or dogs. It’s not aggression, lack of training or too little socialisation - it’s the dogs who have such well meaning families that they’ve allowed their dog to meet too many people!

It would be much kinder to your puppy to set the level of interaction with strangers at the level you are going to maintain when they are an adult. 

As a general guide, I allow my puppy to meet no more than one in every 10 people they see. And only if they are calm (that goes for the puppy and the person!).

What should socialisation look like?

Regardless of what you’re exposing your dog to, the aim is for your dog to remain calm. A neutral reaction where they pay little to no interest is ideal. We want day to day life to be neither too exciting or scary, ensuring they don’t fill their bucket.

[Read more about your dog’s bucket here]

If your dog struggles to stay calm at any point, reduce your dog’s exposure. This might mean moving them further away from a particular object, turning down the speakers or simply leaving an environment altogether.

Here are some socialisation examples

Going to a school at home time
You could do this before your puppy is even allowed out on the ground by carrying them in your arms. The first time you do this you might just walk up and down a nearby road so that your puppy is being introduced to the new environment without lots of people around.

Providing that they are comfortable you can gradually advance to walking next to the school. 

Once your puppy can walk on the ground safely, move back to walking down quieter roads before building up to being next to the school. The world is a completely different place when down on the ground compared to your arms.
Playing sounds 
You can find lots of great sound playlists online now which have recordings of random noises such as fireworks, gun shot, thunder, babies crying, doorbells etc. 

Introduce these by playing them on a low volume to begin with and gradually increase the volume. Try to play them while carrying out your puppy’s usual day so that you aren’t making a huge event of the noises. 

Floor textures
An idea of a few different textures you could try and expose your puppy to: carpet, hardwood, vinyl, tiles, concrete, pebbles, grass, astroturf, mud, sand and metal (bridges or manhole covers).

I also like to use things I have around the house such as cardboard, cardboard covered with tin foil, old fence panel on its side, wooden board and towels. 

Going to the city / country
Whichever environment you live in, it’s important to take your puppy to the other end of the scale too so that they get used to lots of different places.

The city can be particularly challenging for a dog who is used to the country as there is so much going on in terms of smells, noises, sights and even vibrations from the traffic. 
Let your imagination go wild! Use all of the random things around you to help create great experiences for your puppy. Remember to take things at their pace, and if at any point they are overwhelmed, calmly end the session or remove them from the environment. 

If you're bringing a new puppy home soon and want to ensure you get things off to a great start, why not book in for a Pre-puppy 1-2-1 consultation? These 1 hour sessions take place on zoom so don't worry if you're not based in Sussex, you can still train with me!
How to socialise your puppy
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