Socialising a puppy is a crucial process every owner of a young dog must go through. It’s the only way of ensuring they learn how to properly interact with the world, people and other animals.
Positive interactions are vital in helping to raise confident, enthusiastic and inquisitive dogs rather than shy and anxious ones. Introducing them to more humans other than just yourself also reduces stranger anxiety.
Thankfully introducing the process is usually relatively straightforward for owners. However, the first year is vital and will pave the way for the rest of their life.
This is especially the case for habituation, the part of socialisation concerned with getting puppies accustomed to everyday surroundings. This should help leave them unbothered by everything from noisy traffic to the vacuum cleaner!
The optimum time to introduce a puppy to new experiences, people and dogs is between 3 and 12 weeks. This is called the socialisation window.
How much is achieved at this time will eventually determine how confident and outgoing your pet becomes.
Obviously, the time scale can depend on when you adopt your puppy. As you shouldn’t adopt a puppy until they are 8 weeks old, a breeder should have started socialisation.
But even if you have an older dog, it is never too old to get them used to their surroundings.
Socialisation and habituation involve getting your puppy used to:
- people who you know and see often
- other people coming into your home
- young children
- other dogs
- other animals, such as cats or horses who they may encounter
- internal noises such as the washing machine and TV
- external noises such as wind, fireworks and public areas
- vet surgeries
Socialisation & habituation methods for puppies
You may realise your puppy is a bundle of inquisitive joy, exploring and sniffing the world without any worry. Or, you may realise your puppy is a little nervous about everything.
Both are completely normal and can depend on personality, breed and even their genes. Some dogs are predisposed to being nervous because their parents are, so will take a bit more work. Herding breeds tend to be more prone to fearfulness and need more and earlier socialisation than other breeds. And then some are simply shy of their own accord!
But even if your dog seems confident, you still need to monitor their socialisation and habituation. One loud noise that they’re unsure about could set you back months in confidence, and cause issues going forward too.
How and when you socialise your puppy depends on whether they are vaccinated. You shouldn’t allow a puppy to go outside before they are fully vaccinated as their immune systems aren’t strong enough. So, below is what you can do in your own home as well as outdoors eventually.
Socialising a puppy at home before their vaccinations
Dogs need to get used to walking on a range of surfaces, which can sound a bit strange at first. But dogs spend all day on their paws if they aren’t sleeping or resting, so before taking them out for the first time, you need them to understand that not every surface will feel the same.
If you have carpet in your home, they also need to become used to the kitchen floorboards, bathroom tiles and outdoor paving or grass. Other great ideas are to get them walking over bubble wrap, cardboard, tin foil, sand, and in a small amount of water.
In a similar way to exploring new surfaces, it’s also a good idea to subject your new puppy to various sensory experiences he will miss out on until exploring the outside world.
Think how much dogs like to get lost in the park or woods, and explore when out on walks. This is the kind of environment you need to create for them at home.
Use cardboard boxes to fashion tunnels, hide treats under objects in the house so they have to investigate, create soft barriers with clothes and towels they must jump over – anything to make your home a bit more of an adventure and a place that encourages brave exploration.
Be as creative as you want with this but of course, don’t get too carried away. Keep things relatively simple so that your puppy isn’t attempting something that might hurt them and use soft items when creating obstacles.
If you think about the outside world for a second, you’ll realise it’s a very loud and disruptive place.
And while you might be accustomed to it, a new puppy is surely going to be slightly startled by the sudden influx of people and traffic. Therefore it’s very important to introduce your canine to sounds and sound effects while at home.
The most effective way to do this is obviously to play recorded sounds. Playlists specialising in puppy socialisation can be found easily on Spotify or you can even purchase a CD or use YouTube if you are not on streaming platforms.
Make sure these sounds are all played at a low level while your puppy engages with another activity and then gradually increase the recorded noises. Your canine should slowly get used to background noises in and around the home this way, and so will be less confused when such things occur outside.
You can also leave the television or radio on all day. This way, they are used to talking, and noises from adverts.
Playing with metal and wooden spoons or pots and pans can certainly create some strange noises, and you can even create auditory toys such as shakers made out of toilet roll tubes and small stones.
Oh and don’t forget the vacuum, washing machine and hairdryer!
Smell is probably a dog’s most important sense. They use their nose more than anything to get by in day to day life. It is difficult to recreate the many unique and distinct scents they will pick up on in the outside world. However, you can still use smell as a way of training your dog indoors and encouraging them to use their senses.
Perhaps spray their toys with different scents and let them become adjusted to the different smells of each toy. Then hide them around the house and have your pup hunt them down!
You can also allow them to sniff you after you’ve been outside, so they get used to strange smells.
Socialising a puppy after their vaccinations
The time has come. Your dog has had their second vaccinations, you’ve waited two weeks and they are 14-16 weeks old. You can venture out into the big wide world.
Other dogs, strangers cooing at how cute they are, funny outdoor fresh air smells and noise from traffic can all be overwhelming though. You need to take things slowly and also still be cautious that they are still working on their immune system.
Human socialisation on walks
Because you need to start slowly, don’t allow all strangers to approach your puppy.
Start with people you know first, who they will see regularly. Go to their house, and allow them to come into yours.
Then gradually increase the number of interactions with strangers. You still need to be careful – some people can be very overwhelming, approaching the dog from above and not being very calm. This can especially apply to young children.
If somebody does want to say hello, ask them to crouch down and get the puppy to approach them instead. Don’t allow them to pick your puppy up, and avoid using food. You don’t want your dog associating all strangers with food!
Dog socialisation on walks
Like humans, dogs come in all different breeds, sizes and personalities. Try to get your dog used to as wide a range as possible.
When your dog is on a lead, it is the perfect time to socialise with other dogs. Ask owners if you can approach their dog, and if they say yes, approach slowly so your puppy doesn’t get overexited. You can quickly intervene if things go badly.
But if they go well, when you part ways, reward your puppy with vocal praise and treats to tell them they did such a good job!
If they are socialised with other well-behaving dogs, they will learn proper behaviour. This includes not biting, and how to communicate. Adult dogs usually tell any puppy off if they’re being too rough. Ideally, you will be able to socialise with an adult dog you know well already.
If things become a bit too boisterous, get your dog’s attention. Also, don’t be shy in telling another owner to control their dog if they are overwhelming your puppy.
If you live in the centre of London, you likely won’t come across sheep and horses. But in the Yorkshire Dales, you likely will. Always keep your dog on a lead around livestock, but get them used to seeing any non-canine animals.
If this goes wrong, it is a very difficult behaviour to overcome. You don’t want them scaring a horse that is walking past with an owner, or worrying sheep.
Don’t stick to walking around the streets on your housing estate. Your dog needs to get used to a range of different environments! Try:
- the local park
- the quiet countryside
- busy main roads (if it is safe)
- driving further afield in a car
- sand at the seaside
- water in dog-safe ponds or lakes
- visiting the vet
The vet visit is particularly inevitable. You’ll have likely already taken them to get their vaccinations done, but a checkup can be different if they are a bit older. Get them used to regular car journeys so they don’t think they are just going to the vet when they get in a carrier.