Socialising puppies to become content dogs in our Society
Socialisation is most critical for young dogs from 4 weeks to 4 months. However, maintaining your dog’s socialisation is a lifelong process. Your dog needs to be exposed to all sorts of people, environments and different looking dogs. Socialisation is accomplished by gradually allowing your dog to investigate different looking people, children, environments, objects and dogs. It is critical that the dog is exposed to new stimuli on a voluntary basis and not forced to interact with beings or objects s/he is afraid of.
4 – 12 Weeks Socialisation
During this period, puppies need opportunities to meet other dogs and people. They are designed to learn different skills during certain development periods (see chart). It is possible to accidentally force socialisation on a dog. One way to do this is to cue a dog to touch something they are afraid of, or to use food to force them to go close to the being or object they fear. Proper socialisation is force free and completely voluntary on the dog’s part.
Many of us make the mistake of giving strangers food and basically forcing our dogs into a vulnerable position. Let the puppy or dog figure this out for itself. Stand and talk to a friend, sit on the ground, let the puppy just experience this in its own time. If it’s a footing problem, you can certainly toss food around on top of the floor but don’t force the puppy to “Get it”.
Socialisation is much more than just exposing your dog to your family and dogs and kids in your neighbourhood. This is a good start but not nearly enough for most dogs or puppies. Socialisations taking him or her everywhere you go, exposing them to hundreds of people and dogs. You want your pup to meet many unfamiliar adults, young, old, in wheel chairs, using crutches, real life events, school play grounds with lots of yelling and screaming kids and dogs of all different breeds and sizes and colours. This socialisation will need to continue throughout most of the dog’s life. An under socialised dog is more likely to bite and/or become stressed in unfamiliar environments and situations.
Ray and Lorna Coppinger in the book “Dogs – A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution” discuss how 80% of a dog’s brain is fully formed by 4 months of age, from 4 months to a year the remaining 20% of the brain develops. Most of a dog’s brain growth occurs from 4 weeks to 4 months. This is the critical time and when socialisation will make the biggest difference. Once the brain stops growing, it becomes far more challenging to “change the wiring”.
At birth a puppy has essentially all the brain cells it is ever going to have during its whole life time. If the puppy brain has essentially the same number of cells as the adult brain, how can it grow ten times bigger? The answer is that brain growth is almost entirely in the connections between the cells. Of all the brain cells present at birth, a huge number are not connected or wired together. What takes place during puppy development is the wiring pattern of the nerve cells. (Coppinger, 2001).
Coppingers writing makes it clear that consistent socialisation from 4 weeks to 4 months is critical for healthy brain development.
Transitional Period: Week Two-to-Four
The second week of life brings great changes for the puppy. Ears and eyes sealed since birth begin to open during this period, ears at about two weeks and eyelids between ten to 16 days. This gives the furry babies a new sense of their world. They learn what their mother and other dogs look and sound like, and begin to expand their own vocabulary from grunts and mews to yelps, whines and barks. Puppies generally stand by day 15 and take their first wobbly walk by day 21.
By age three weeks, puppy development advances from the neonatal period to the transitional period. This is a time of rapid physical and sensory development, during which the puppies go from total dependence on Mom to a bit of independence. They begin to play with their litter mates, learn about their environment and canine society, and begin sampling food from Mum’s bowl. Puppy teeth begin to erupt until all the baby teeth are in by about five to six weeks of age. Puppies can control their need to potty by this age, and begin moving away from sleeping quarters to eliminate.
Socialization Period: Week Four-to-Twelve
Following the transitional phase, puppies enter the socialisation period at the end of the third week of life; it lasts until about week ten. It is during this socialisation period that interaction with others increases, and
puppies form attachments they will remember the rest of their life. The most critical period–age six to eight weeks–is when puppies most easily learn to accept others as a part of their family. Refer to the article on how to socialise puppies.
Beginning at four weeks of age, the bitch’s milk production begins to slow down just as the puppies’ energy needs increase. As the mother dog slowly weans her babies from nursing, they begin sampling solid food in earnest.
The environmental stimulation impacts your puppy’s rate of mental development during this time. The puppy brain waves look that of an adult dog by about the 50th day, but he’s not yet programmed–that’s your job, and the job of his mom and siblings. Weaning typically is complete by week eight.
Puppies often go through a “fear period” during this time. Instead of meeting new or familiar people and objects with curiosity, they react with fearfulness. Anything that frightens them at this age may have a lasting impact so take care that the baby isn’t overstimulated with too many changes or challenges at one time. That doesn’t mean your pup will grow up to be a scaredy-cat; it’s simply a normal part of development where pups learn to be more cautious. Careful socialisation during this period helps counter fear reactions.
Puppies may be placed in new homes once they are eating well on their own. However, they will be better adjusted and make better pets by staying and interacting with litter mates and the Mom-dog until they are at least eight weeks old–older generally is better. Interacting with siblings and Mom help teach bite inhibition, how to understand and react to normal canine communication, and their place in doggy society. Puppies tend to make transitions from one environment to another more easily at this age, too.
Your puppy still has lots of growing to do. He won’t be considered an adult until he goes through several more developmental periods and reaches one to two years of age.
The juvenile puppy period generally begins at age ten weeks, and lasts until puberty and the onset of sexual maturity. It is during this period that puppies begin to learn the consequences of behaviour, and determine what is most appropriate to certain circumstances.
Puppies at this age have boundless curiosity, exasperating stubbornness, and enthusiastic affection. Expect your puppy to get into everything, and you won’t be disappointed. This is an ideal time to begin training.
Nearly every waking moment is spent in play, which is not only great fun for the babies, but is great practice for canine life. Puppies learn how to do important dog activities like chasing and running, pawing, biting and fighting. Social skills and canine etiquette are learned by interaction with litter mates and Mom. Puppies learn to inhibit their bite when they are bitten by each other, and learn canine language. Through play, they practice dominant and submissive postures, and prepare for life in the world.
10-16 weeks: Juvenile Delinquent Pups
Puppies test their boundaries during this period that lasts anywhere from a few days to several weeks. These dogs challenge owners to see who calls the shots, seem to “forget” any training they’ve learned, and act like rebellious teenagers.
Some of this has to do with teething. Pups lose baby teeth starting about three months of age. There can be discomfort as the permanent teeth erupt and puppies tend to chew more on anything and everything to relieve the pain.
Delinquent behaviour also may be influenced by hormones. Unlike many other species, a male puppy’s testosterone level from age four-to-ten months may be up to five times higher than an adult dog’s. That’s so the adult canines recognise he’s a juvenile and needs “schooling” in the ways of dogs—they make sure to knock him down a peg and teach manners before he gets too big for his furry britches.
Four to Six Months
Pups grow so quickly during this period you may notice changes every single day. Not only may your pup test and challenge you, this is the time frame puppies also figure out where they stand with other pets in the group. Some squabbling and play fighting is expected. It’s a dog rule that older animals teach the pup limits, which is normal and usually sounds scarier than it is.
In fact, an un-neutered male puppy’s testosterone level increases at around 4 to 5 months of age. This is one-way adult dogs recognize that even big puppies are still babies and they must be taught proper dog etiquette.
Puppies can also sometimes experience another fear phase during this period. It may last up to a month, and their maybe more than one especially in large breed dogs. This is normal and nothing to worry about. It tends to correspond with growth spurts, and you may notice some “flaky” behaviour or unwarranted aggression, become protective of toys or territory. Just ensure you don’t reward the fearful behaviour with more attention, and know how to talk to puppies and not use baby talk. It’s best to ignore the fear rather than risk rewarding it. Build confidence through training and the pup should transition out of it with no further problems.
Adolescence: Six to Twelve Months
Most of your pup’s growth in height finishes by this period but he may continue to fill out and gain muscle mass and body weight. Puppy coat starts to be replaced by the adult coat.
Puppies at this age seem to explode with high energy and will do well with structured play and exercise. Training and continued socialization is vital to ensure your youngster knows how to behave politely with other dogs, other animals like cats, and other people including children and strangers of all sizes, ages, and looks.
While the baby may still be emotionally immature, during this period the boy pups begin to leg-lift and mark with urine. The testosterone level in male puppies increases to 5-7 times higher than in an adult dog by age 10 months, and then gradually falls to a normal adult level by about 18 months of age. This helps signal the senior male dogs that the youngster must be put in his place, so you may notice more adult-pup squabbles during this period. Girl pups may go into heat (oestrus) as early as five to six months, and boys begin to be interested in sex during this period.
Social Maturity: Between One and Two Years
Depending on the breed, your dog will be physically mature at this age. Small dogs mature much earlier and larger ones take more time. Your pup’s social maturity also can depend on his or her experience with other animals. Socialization and training continues throughout your pet’s lifetime, because there are always new things to learn—or old lessons to revisit and practice. After all, the joy of your puppy’s first year or two predicts a lifetime of love to come.
What are you trying to achieve by socialisation?
- Teach your puppy to enjoy the presence of people. We need to ensure that it does not matter a person’s age, ethnicity, size and shape – all are fun and enjoyable
- Teach your puppy to enjoy being hugged and handled (gently restrain whilst giving high value food rewards and plenty of praise. Examine ears, paws, tail, mouth, collar grabs etc)
- Teach your puppy to enjoy giving up objects when requested – train the swap cue
Once again, it is important to continue the socialisation process in a safe and non-threatening manner. Expose the pup/dog to new people/pets and experiences and pair this exposure with a favourite food or game. If your dog is already exhibiting signs of fear and avoidance work at a distance that they feel comfortable and begin the counter conditioning process.
Counter conditioning is the process of changing an emotional state (fear/arousal/anxiety) in regard to a trigger (something that causes the emotional state in your dog), into a more desired emotional state (relaxation) when in the presence of the trigger.
For counter conditioning to work for you there are a couple of things that you need to ensure.
The food/reward/game needs to be presented after the trigger (not before – as this will just result in poisoning your food/reward as this is now the predictor of the scary thing).
- The ratio for reward: trigger needs to be as close to 1:1 as possible. If the postman is a trigger for your dog, and you are only home 2 out of 5 postman days per week your dog will quickly learn that the postman is not rewarding enough, and his relaxed state only occurs on days that you are home. If this is the case, talk to your postman and provide him with treats to give to your dog – he doesn’t need to hand them to the dog, just toss them over the fence as he goes by.
Puppies are more accepting of new experiences during the socialisation period. They are more likely to be inquisitive than frightened during this time of their lives. However, if something does occur during early developmental stages, this bad experience can lead to lifelong problems.
Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your puppy’s socialisation period:
- Keep a close eye on your puppy’s reactions and body language. If your puppy seems frightened, tone down the activity or take a break. If your puppy is cowering, hiding or you can see the whites of his eyes, he is scared and needs to be removed from the situation. Removing a fearful pup is not rewarding the fearful behaviour, it is simply being a considerate parent.
- If you have friends with dogs that are healthy, well behaved and vaccinated, take your puppy to meet them. Ensure all interactions are safe for your puppy.
- If you have friends with children, allow your puppy to meet them and watch that interactions are gentle.
- Take your puppy with you when you go out. If your puppy is carried, he is unlikely to pick up diseases that he is not fully vaccinated against and he will feel safe if he is closely supervised.
- There are pre-prepared recordings you can use to expose your dog to noises such as storms, fireworks, balloons popping and noises that can lead to fear responses. Playing a CD like this while your puppy is eating and gradually increasing the volume can help avoid the extremely common development of a noise phobia.
- Get your pet used to being touched all over, cut his nails (just the tips, so you don’t hurt him!), brush his teeth and hair, check his ears and ensure that he is used to being handled.
- Whenever you see good behaviour in your puppy, or you are training acceptance of handling and socialization, use lots of treats and praise. Ignore all the bad attention-seeking behaviour (like play-biting, barking and jumping up) and only give your dog attention when he is calm and well-behaved.
A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
Some breeds are more accepting of new experiences than others, even during the socialisation period. But regardless of the breed of your dog, early socialisation is the best opportunity you have to help your dog be comfortable with sharing your life fully.
Make the most of those precious few weeks, and make life better both for you and your dog for years to come
Make A Plan
The socialisation period offers a great opportunity to get your dog comfortable with new experiences. But the socialisation window of opportunity is very brief, so to ensure that you cover all the things you need to it is useful to have a plan.
Broadly, you want to expose your dog to the following things:
- Dogs of various sizes and shapes.
- Children (make sure all interactions are supervised!).
- People with hats, beards and deep voices.
- Elderly people, men, women, dark-skinned people etc.
- Loud noises like alarms, storms and fireworks.
- Traffic, bikes, skateboards, motorcycles and things with wheels.
- Vacuum cleaners and noises in the home (fire alarm, doorbell etc)
- Balloons, umbrellas, plastic bags and
- Touching, putting on a harness, looking in ears and mouth, touching nails and general handling.
Your puppy’s socialisation period will begin and end before your puppy has completed the initial course of vaccination. However, this does not prevent socialisation, there are just a few things you need to watch out for.
- Avoid places like public dog parks or other areas that might be frequented by dogs of questionable or unknown health status.
- Puppy school is fine to attend after the first vaccination.
- If you aren’t sure whether a friend’s house could have been home to an unvaccinated dog in the past 2 years, avoid letting your dog sniff around on the grass or soil.
- Parvovirus does not survive well on concrete footpaths, in direct sunlight and is easily cleaned away by bleaching. So, a concrete footpath in direct sunlight is very unlikely to be a source of disease, while a park full of grass, dirt and shade is.
- If you aren’t sure if the place is safe, carry your dog.
- Beaches are generally okay, just carry your dog across any park areas frequented by dogs and stick to the sand.