Puppy Socialisation is a concept that gets a lot of airplay and isn't always understood. It's easy to believe, (from books and Mr Google), that puppies should be exposed to as many new things as much as possible between 8 and 12 weeks when their brains are at their most receptive.
Puppies have evolved to be most actively curious at this age and it's true that their brains are most receptive at this time. Unfortunately, that means that they are just as receptive to being affected by bad experiences as good.
Which means that exposure to boisterous dogs or intrusive people will have just as profound an effect on them as being exposed to calm, well mannered dogs and thoughtful, understanding people. The good stuff can create a socially fluent, confident little dog, while any of the bad stuff can result in an anxious pup who lacks confidence and can start to show other stressed behaviours at home.
PEAK TIME TO LEARN
I think of this age as their "Peak Learning Period" because they are learning from every single experience they go through. From the moment they wake up to the instant they fall asleep: they're learning.
If you grab this little brain and expose it to as many things as possible, following a tick list like many puppy books say you should, you run the risk of overwhelming it. Brains are delicate organisms and too much information all at once can cause meltdown - because the synapses and neurological pathways are over-taxed and can't process the stimuli they're faced with.
WHAT IS SOCIALISATION?
Socialisation means teaching puppies to become resilient and able to deal with pretty much anything that the world throws at them. It sounds a lot like 'socialising', which is why so many people misinterpret it and start to make mistakes. "Socialising" comes with images of dog-days at the park playing with other dogs while we have a bit of a chat with their owners. And this is something that many of us love to do with our teenage and adult dogs. But it's something that needs to happen gradually, once your puppy has gone through a process of socialisation.
The two things aren't the same at all. "Socialising" means hanging out with friends. "Socialisation" mean teaching your puppy how to approach the world calmly and confidently and it needs to start with stacks and stacks of feeling good about new experiences. Once she's confident, you can build-up to the more worrying stuff, but her first encounters with anything new need to flood her system with serotonin, oxytocin and (to a lesser extent) endorphins and dopamine, which are the body's natural "happy hormones".
LOW LEVEL EXPOSURE IS GOOD.
Exposing your puppy gradually to new things at a safe distance allows her to approach things in her own time (or just sit and watch them from a distance if she needs to). Giving her choice about moving away when she needs to, by keeping new things at this safe distance, will create a confident, content little dog. Starting out in a baby-sling is a good way to keep things safe and under control. It means that you can feel how relaxed and at ease her body is, so you can take her away if things become a bit too much for her.
PUSHING THE RIVER
If she is uncertain about anything and you feel tempted to entice her to approach it (and this can include leaving the safety of the house) then that choice gets taken away and you're moving too quickly with her. It's worth being very aware of this if you use a baby-sling before your puppy is ready to go out after her vaccinations.
Baby-slings are really good, and a great opportunity to get your puppy out there safely, but always keep her at a safe distance and take her away, because she doesn't have the choice to move away if she's in your arms or in a sling.
Puppy brains are like rivers: they can't be pushed. And if you try to push them, you're going to get a whole lot of debris building-up, or burst banks. It really isn't worth it, even if you're trying to push them kindly by encouraging them with treats or gentle words.
ENCOURAGEMENT AND UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
I've worked with 3 teenage pups this fortnight who are either uneasy with, or frightened of traffic. They can be encourage past the traffic with words and treats, but they really don't like being around unfamiliar vehicles (even though they can happily get into their own cars). Their owners have enticed them to go on walks because their pups have been ok once they've got beyond a certain point (usually once they're away from the road). It's understandable that their owners have tried to get their puppies out walking because they know they love their walks once they're in an area they feel safe.
Unfortunately, though, each one of these pups has developed an aversion to having their harnesses put on because they're associating walking equipment with feeling stressed on their walks. Instead of anticipating the good, young receptive brains often tend to anticipate the bad and these dogs are associating harnesses, collars and leads with feeling bad.
TIPS FOR A CONFIDENT PUPPY
So how can you make sure that you socialise your puppy successfully?
* Take things slowly.
* Work at a distance from triggers.
* Work in places where you can control how close things get to your puppy.
* Drive to quiet places if your street is busy.
* Keep sessions short (5 to 10 mins max)
* Always have exit routes (car door or house door open)
* Walk your puppy away if anything approaches too quickly or too intently.
* Learn the art of saying 'She's very tired, I'm taking her home now' and walking away WITHOUT LOOKING BACK!
CONNECTION AND CALMNESS CREATES CONFIDENCE
Taking her out every day for short periods based on building connection with you in different places will create a resilient pup who navigates the world happily.
This means that all exposure needs to be gradual and start with a brain that is calm - because agitated, excited brains can't learn productively.
In the above clip you can see Sydney learning to encounter the world outside her front door from a state of calmness. It's the first time she has had her harness and lead on with someone holding the end of the lead for a sustained period. Until now, she's had brief sessions in the garden with the lead trailing behind her and with her family occasionally picking it up and following her.
Because of this gradual lead work, she is content to have the lead on and confidently wanders around the front drive. She sniffs, looks at the traffic and mooches about while happily choosing to connect with me.
LOOSE LEAD MEANS HAPPY LEAD SKILLS
I follow her so the lead never goes taut - now isn't the time to teach lead skills because it's her first time out and there are too many distractions. But at the same time, we don't want her to get used to feeling that someone will follow if she pulls on the lead, so I keep close to her so that it never goes taut.
KEEP IT SAFE, KEEP IT SLOW, KEEP IT HAPPY
If you get socialisation right with your puppy, you will have a calm, confident pup who will follow you contentedly wherever you both choose to go for the rest of your lives together!
She was a little star and has since been out and about beyond the driveway. She is a confident, calm little dog who has been a gem in classes because of this carefully managed early socialisation. Her family are doing great things to create a happy, resilient little dog