Dogs are not born instinctively knowing how to live life as a pet – it is something that they need to learn. This learning process is called socialisation and it’s the way young dogs are taught the essential life skills they need to become happy, confident and sociable adults. A puppy that is not socialised properly is likely to end up a nervous, fearful or even aggressive dog later in life.
During the first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life, they will produce trillions of new brain connections as a result of the experiences they have. Everything a puppy sees, hears, feels, smells and tastes will give them valuable information about the world around them and inform their future reactions to situations. Positive early experiences will lead to confident encounters later on, whereas frightening experiences will likely have the opposite effect.
Young puppies will happily accept new experiences but they need careful exposure. In the early days it is a good idea to get a puppy used to all the things that they will come across in everyday life, such as household sounds like the vacuum cleaner and hairdryer, car journeys, traffic noise, and being handled and groomed. As well as different environments, a puppy will also need to get used to the different people they will meet – children, vets, groomers, visitors to the home, and of course other dogs.
The optimal time for a puppy’s brain to learn new things is between four and 12 weeks old. Until your puppy is fully vaccinated they should not be walked in public places, but it doesn’t mean you have to miss this vital window of opportunity. Carry your dog with you when out and about in town so they can sniff the world around them or take them out in the car. Friends and family can meet your new puppy in your home or garden.
While the window of opportunity is fairly narrow – and you’re likely to be excited about fully integrating your new pet into family life – make sure you build up their experiences gradually. Puppies can become overwhelmed easily so don’t try introducing too many new experiences in one day.
Choose a time when your puppy is relaxed to introduce a new experience. Use toys, treats and praise throughout to build positive associations, which they will remember the next time around. If at any point your puppy seems anxious or fearful, remove them from the situation and try again at another time.
The PDSA has a brilliant check-list containing all the things your puppy should be exposed to before they are 16 weeks old.
Try to introduce your pup to older dogs that you know are calm and friendly so that their first social encounters are positive ones. Until your puppy is fully protected, it is vital you make sure any visiting dogs are fully vaccinated.
Supervise your puppy closely when playing with other dogs and interrupt their game if it looks like it is getting a bit boisterous. You don’t want things to get out of hand!
Your vet should be able to recommend a good puppy training class near to you where you can get help with the basics of training, while also meeting other owners and dogs in your local area.
While it is important for your pet to learn how to get on with people and other dogs, it is also very important that they are taught how to be happy on their own. Unfortunately, it is an all-too-common mistake that new owners make – they choose a time when they are at home for a couple of weeks to settle in a new pup and then all of a sudden go back to their normal routines, leaving their puppy alone, confused and unable to cope. This can lead to excessive barking or destruction in the home if not addressed. It is also a common reason why some dogs end up in rescue centres.
As pack animals, dogs do not naturally enjoy being alone so need to be taught to be happy with their own company. Start by leaving your pup for a few minutes while you go into another room and gradually build up the time you are apart. If you are using a puppy pen or crate to keep your pup safe, you won’t have to worry about what they are getting up to when you are out of sight! It’s a good idea to keep your puppy busy so that they don’t have a chance to miss you. Choose puppy-safe toys or chews to keep them distracted and calm when you are not with them.
If you’ve chosen to rehome one of the thousands of unwanted dogs in the UK that has ended up in rescue, you could find yourself with an adult dog who has missed out on some valuable early socialisation.
Dogs that haven’t been socialised, or who have suffered traumatic experiences in the past, are much more likely to develop behavioural problems in later life. These can include anxiety, phobias and aggression. However, just because they might have missed that all-important socialisation window it does not mean that all is lost. With kindness, consistency and a lot of patience, older dogs can be helped to overcome fears and become more confident and sociable canine citizens.
Signs that an adult dog is in need of socialisation include being fearful around other animals and people, and being nervous when out on walks. To avoid any potentially dangerous situations – where your dog could react aggressively towards another dog or person – it is a good idea to consult a canine behaviourist first so that you can approach socialisation in the right way for your pet.
Don’t expect results overnight as an adult dog’s previous life experience will often work against them. It can be immensely rewarding helping an adult dog learn how to accept new experiences and reframe their previous perceptions, but it is often a long road and will take a very dedicated owner.
By getting socialisation right from the start, you will be rewarded with a pet who will be able to join in with every aspect of family life, including days out, holidays, social events and maybe even joining you at work. Trips to the vet or groomer will be stress-free, dog walks will be without worry and every new person your pet meets will be greeted in a calm and confident manner. You will have yourself the perfect canine citizen!
I’ve spent 20 years writing about pets and exploring the wonderful relationships they have with their owners. I started as a staff writer on Dogs Today magazine, working my way up to become deputy editor in 2008. In 2010, I left the office to pursue a freelance career, relocated to north Norfolk and started a family.
Over the years I’ve contributed thoughtful human-interest features, celebrity interviews and investigative news stories to publications including The Sunday Times, Dogs Today, Dogs Monthly and Your Cat. I’ve also ghost-written veterinary books and press releases for the pet industry.
When I’m not writing, I enjoy long walks in the Norfolk countryside with my rescue lurcher Popsie. These are always followed by tea and cake.