A step-by-step guide to familiarise your puppy with the world around them.
Dog owners love to be obeyed and followed by their dogs. While selecting your puppy from a responsible breeder, who raises their puppies with an understanding of the critical socialisation periods and of course sound genetics is a great start! Your biggest success as a puppy parent is to turn your puppy into a well-behaved, playful, confident, calm and relaxed pet. Puppies at the age of 3 weeks are just like clean slates and are limited only by their genetic makeup.
The breeder’s role in fulfilling the appropriate training for each developmental milestone is critical to your puppy reaching its full potential.
While we will be looking at the period of development that begins at birth; it has been shown that babies that are born from mothers who experience fear, grow to be unstable and emotionally reactive.
Therefore the role of the breeder in the early development of dog behaviour actually starts at conception; amplified further when also factoring in their role in genetic selection. This highlights the deep and enduring role of the breeder’s responsibility when it comes to a dog’s behavioural development.
Scarily, during the neonatal period that extends from birth to 12 days of age, if left untouched; individuals grow to be more emotionally reactive as adults. We’ll look at how to identify a responsible breeder who is passionate and focused on rearing puppies that are mentally and emotionally sound.
How and why to socialise your puppy?
Puppy socialisation is the first step in puppy training. It involves introducing your blank paper puppy to its unseen world. It includes introducing your puppy to other family members, friends, strangers, animals, places, sounds, sights and much more. It implies presenting new life experiences and positively introducing them as pleasant experiences.
Unfamiliar situations can trigger fear in the dog’s mind. This fear is the primary factor for expressing aggression. According to a study conducted in Australia, the biggest cause of dog death (29.7%) was aggressive and undesired behaviours in dogs below three years of age. This proves the dire need for puppy socialisation at an early age to turn them into meaningful and valuable members of the family.
When to start puppy socialisation
This is a fundamental question most puppy owners are excited about. It stirs up feelings similar to those felt when sending a child to preschool.
This quote by Steven R. Lindsay highlights the significant role of the breeder and new puppy owner in what marks the most influential learning period of a dog’s life:
“During a brief period from 3 to 16 weeks of age, an average puppy will probably learn more than during the remaining course of its lifetime, forming a lasting emotional and cognitive schemata of the social and physical environment.”
Let’s look at the science behind starting puppy socialisation.
There are three periods in the dog’s life: primary, socialisation, and juvenile or adult. Puppy socialisation prevails to some extent in all three periods, but the main socialisation window starts at 3 weeks and ends at 12 weeks of age. Let us discuss the scope of puppy socialisation in all three periods.
Puppy socialisation in the Primary period
This period starts with the puppy’s birth and extends to 3 weeks of age. During this period, most puppies’ senses are not fully functional and rely almost solely on their sense of touch. Their mother is responsible for most of the care during the primary period. During this period, gentle tactile stimulation (stimulation through touch) is crucial in modifying behaviour later in life.
The best puppy breeders will include ENS (Early Neurological Stimulation) as part of their puppy-rearing program. ENS has been shown to produce puppies that are more resilient to stress and improves the bond the dog will have with humans. Suppose the puppy is repeatedly handled gently by the breeder during the early 3 weeks. In that case, it behaves more calmly and doesn’t fear being handled. The same gentle touch can be used as positive reinforcement later in life.
The Socialisation period – Learning how to relate and communicate
The most critical period of puppy socialisation is between 3 weeks and 12 weeks (in some cases, 14 weeks but not more). Some say it is the most influential period of a puppy’s life. It starts when the mother’s care is fading and play with littermates begins.
Puppy Bite Inhibition
During the primary socialisation period (3 to 5 weeks of age); puppies learn bite inhibition. Bite inhibition is learnt from mum if the puppy bites too hard while suckling and from littermates, during play.
Puppy Weaning & Behaviour Problems
Puppies that are weaned too early or removed from their mother and littermates during this period; grow to develop anxiety, reactivity, barking, hyper-vigilance, aggression problems, and compulsively destructive behaviours such as chewing and are often difficult to toilet train.
During this period, the puppy’s desire to learn outweighs its fears, and he is most permeable to feeling new life experiences.
Puppies’ heart rates undergo a drop at 3 weeks of age and increase again between 5 and 7 weeks. This rebound of heart rate at 5 weeks of age, is joined by an increase in caution and hesitancy in new social situations. This fearfulness peaks with the close of the socialisation period at 12 weeks of age. Before 5 weeks of age, puppies are unlikely to form lasting memories of stressful events. Conversely, from 5 weeks of age puppies are likely to be less resilient to fearful experiences, with this fear period being at its most sensitive from 8 to 10 weeks of age.
Also, during this period, a puppy:
- Starts fearing loud and unfamiliar sounds and learns to differentiate between harmful and harmless ones with time.
- Starts fearing humans initially, but the fear fades soon.
- Starts running with other littermates.
- Takes an interest in each visual, tactile (touch), auditory (hearing) and olfactory (smell) stimulus.
The significance of the relationship between this critical period and puppy socialisation can be inferred from the study that states, “The puppies without human exposure before turning 14 weeks old fail to make good relations with humans at all.”
Secondary Socialisation (6 to 12 weeks)
By 7 weeks of age, mothers start showing growing disinterest in their puppies. Puppies will often still want to suckle and have extremely sharp teeth, which can trigger a punishing reaction from the mother. Similarly, from 7 weeks of age, puppy play can become rough and boisterous and breeders will observe an increase in aggressive play which serves no benefit in a pup’s transition to being a good family dog.
Best age for re-homing
Although it is illegal in Australia to re-home puppies before 8 weeks of age. For reasons discussed previously, many experienced dog breeders and trainers believe that the ideal age for re-homing a puppy is 7 weeks. The most compelling argument for the benefits inherent in rehoming puppies at 7 weeks of age, is the increasing fearfulness and decreasing tendency to move toward social situations that occur from 7 to 12 weeks of age. The optimal time to transition a puppy to its new home involves balancing the forces at play during socialisation; fear and attraction.
Some people adopt two puppies from the same litter, despite trainers and ethical breeders advising against it. Studies on Guide Dogs have shown that when two littermates are raised together, one of the puppies develops well and can go on to become a guide dog while the other never reaches its full potential. This appears to only be observed in littermates (littermate syndrome) and pups who are raised into adulthood with their mother. Puppies raised in homes with dogs that are unrelated to them, don’t appear to be affected by this phenomenon.
Puppy socialisation in the Juvenile period
Despite the significance of the socialisation period, puppy socialisation should not stop after 14 weeks of age. Although the permeability for new life experiences decreases and new fears commence; the puppy still needs to be introduced to new people, objects and experiences. Also, they should be supervised carefully for the reinforcement or correction of responses and stimuli they learned during the previous periods. This period ends with sexual maturity.
Role of the breeder, veterinarian and pet owner in puppy socialisation
One thing to keep in mind is that the dog’s success in learning and responding to human communication lies in the dog-owner relationship. Failing to establish a positive relationship with your dog and relying on punishment and harsh treatment, will not create a good family pet. Similarly, the role of your breeder and veterinarian are equally as important.
Role of the Breeder
The primary period of a puppy’s life begins with the breeder in the home or in many unfortunate cases a kennel. The socialisation period of puppies also starts at the breeder’s home or facility.
The breeder must provide a sound environment for the physical and mental development of the puppy. The initial stimulation of the puppy through gentle touch is also a breeder’s task, and preschooling with litter playmates also occurs in the breeder’s home. A breeder should use the following guidelines to participate in the puppy’s socialisation process.
- Keeping the puppy with its mother and littermates.
- Isolating the puppy for brief intervals to provide individual attention and develop positive interactions with humans (ENS).
- Keeping the puppy away from large and aggressive dogs.
- Provision of toys and adding new objects to the puppies’ environment, as soon as the puppy starts using their sense of sight at 12-15 days.
- Keep the puppy safe from kennel-specific diseases and other sick dogs to maintain puppy health.
The puppy reaches the age of 3 weeks (the start of the socialisation period) at the breeder’s house. Therefore it is pertinent that a responsible breeder should introduce puppies to human interactions, household sounds and other objects a puppy will encounter later in their life.
This should start from birth and certainly by the age of 3 weeks and should continue till the time the puppies leave their care at 8 weeks old or older.
Breeders’ Puppy Play Gym
Responsible pet breeders will have a purpose-built puppy play gym that includes a see-saw, dog walk, A-frame, ball pit, tunnels, wobbly surfaces, stuffed Kongs, food puzzles, snuffle mats, doggy door and other various sensory stimulating daily activities. When the puppies use the agility hurdles and enrichment toys, they build critical life skills such as confidence, optimism, tolerance to frustration and flexibility.
Puppy Training starts with Breeders
Potty Training from 3 weeks
Ethical breeders commence toilet training with their puppies from 3 weeks of age. From 3 weeks of age, puppies have increasing mobility. The best breeders will separate the puppy area into two sections including half of the space dedicated to sleeping and the other half the potty area. The potty area will generally have pine pellets or artificial turf with puppy pads underneath for the absorption of urine. This system of toilet training carries through in the puppies’ nighttime indoor area till the puppies leave at 8 weeks of age.
Evolving as the puppies start to explore more of their surroundings and organised to include water, food, bed, play and toilet space in a highly organised, meticulously clean and consistent way.
Truly responsible breeders’ puppies leave their care at 8 weeks of age with a solid potty training routine. Such breeders receive the best breeder reviews with new owners commenting how their puppy was toilet trained from the time they arrived.
Puppies that are raised by breeders who take great care in training; go to their new homes understanding where they should go to the toilet.
Puppy Farms vs Small Ethical Breeders
Puppies that have been raised in clean conditions with clear and concise systems will appear to be searching for their toilet spot when they need to go. They’re optimistic that they will find the potty spot because they’ve been practising this behaviour for the past 5 weeks with their breeder. They’re used to smelling the spot to poop and pee, because everywhere else has been kept meticulously clean. Breeders should be washing all bedding, and soft toys, mopping floors and wiping down toys and surfaces at least once a day.
Puppies naturally don’t want to soil in the sleeping, feeding or play spaces. Puppies raised in clean conditions with a potty training routine will sniff and run about trying to find where they should potty. This makes the transition and commencement of a toilet training routine in their new home much easier.
Conversely, puppies raised in filthy conditions like those observed in puppy farms, mills, commercial breeding facilities and with some backyard breeders will poop and wee everywhere. When inquiring about puppies for sale, always ask the breeder about the pups’ toilet training routine.
It can mean the difference between getting a puppy that poops and pees all over your house, carpets and bedding and getting a puppy that simply needs to be shown where you want them to go and they’ll be successful within the first 48 hours.
Crate training from 5.5 weeks to Prevent Separation Anxiety
Great dog breeders also understand the benefit of starting crate training before puppies go to their new homes.
This process involves puppies spending small amounts of time (5-10 minutes initially), away from their littermates in a crate, inside the breeder’s home with the breeder close enough to comfort the puppy with soothing words and fingers through the crate when they cry. Puppies receive a tasty long-lasting chew and tasty green tripe stuffed Kong; this makes the experience a more positive one.
The length of time that the puppies spend in their crate away from their littermates can slowly be increased in small increments until they are comfortable being separated for an hour or so.
Some breeders will have their puppies sleeping contentedly in their crates overnight by the time they leave home at 8 weeks old. Understandably, this makes the puppies’ transition to their new home significantly easier and if crate training is continued, inoculates the puppy against separation anxiety.
Role of the dog owner
Play with your puppy
Along with the breeder, the most important person in puppy socialisation is the owner. The first 48 hours with your new puppy can be challenging; check out our ‘guide to surviving the first 48 hours with your new puppy‘.
The Role of Play in Puppy Training and Socialisation
As a dog owner, your goal should be to engage and motivate your puppy to learn new behaviours. Play helps to develop critical social skills like trust, tolerance to frustration, affection, disengagement and empathy. Interactive play with owners is a great way for pups to learn boundaries, impulse control and regulation of their emotions in a safe and controlled way.
During the socialisation phase puppies are in their prime for developing a love of learning. The best dog trainers understand how to utilise play in their puppy training; it’s the most influential motivator in your training toolbox!
The owner’s response to any puppy’s action is the main factor determining future behaviour. Puppy training begins as soon as you bring your puppy home and normal puppy behaviour includes jumping up, whining, and biting.
Comforting your puppy
Many new owners feel that they shouldn’t comfort their new puppy when it cries. Fearing that doing so, will encourage the pup to cry for attention in the future. This is not the case; puppies have a strong survival need to maintain social contact and new owners need to fill this role. Have your puppy sleep in a crate next to your bed and comfort them with fingers through the wire of the crate and calm words to soothe them.
Training your puppy to be left alone is something to be done gradually in small increments throughout the day. Failing to train independence in your puppy in a positive way or exposing them to separation experiences too early in their development can result in separation anxiety later in life.
Never punish a puppy for whining when they are left alone. Doing so will make the separation anxiety worse resulting in increased barking, yelping, whining etc.
Furthermore, at best if punishment successfully reduces the vocalisation; it may be replaced by pooping, peeing and other destructive behaviours around the home.
To familiarise the puppy with all possible pleasant and stressful events positively is the owner’s responsibility. During the socialisation period, the puppies are brave enough to interact with anything.
This fearlessness makes them vulnerable to many physical, psychological and environmental threats.
To avoid such threats and provide a positive environment for the puppy to learn is the essential duty of the owner. Puppy owners should be able to recognise dogs’ moods, conditions, and behaviours. You should know when your dog is happy, playful, calm, angry, anxious, confused and ill.
Many new puppy owners enrol their 12-week-old puppy in a puppy preschool course near them. Puppy preschool is often held at your local vet clinic or training facility and is a great way to build a relationship with your local veterinarian, dog trainers and other puppy owners in the local area.
Some puppy preschools receive bad reviews because they let puppies run wild during the session. This is not puppy socialisation, instead, this encourages puppies to build strong, high-energy associations with other dogs. Ideally, we want our pups to sniff other dogs but they should then be able to disengage and orient back to us.
Some dogs don’t appreciate other dogs being in their face and this can result in dog fights. Learning appropriate dog-dog interactions is vital during this stage of your pup’s development.
Role of the veterinarian
The veterinarian’s role is to maintain the balance between health and training. During socialisation, the puppy is not fully immunised against infectious diseases. So the veterinarian is expected to guide disease prevention, good nutrition and avoid stressful veterinary visits. The veterinarian should be able to identify destructive behaviours in a puppy, their causes and future implications.
The best technique for puppy socialisation:
Reward-based learning or Positive reinforcement
Dogs are fantastic predictors of reinforcement; they learn those behaviours that work for them. A dog loves toys, food, treats and good gentle petting. So if you introduce an object, a lesson or a stressful experience to your puppy and follow with a tasty treat, toy or love, he will mark that event as a positive experience. This is called positive reinforcement. And this is the best method to introduce almost anything you want to do with your dog.
Conditioning is defined as attaching an unknown stimulus with a known positive one. Let me explain.
Only pet your dog when they are calm or relaxed. This will attach the petting or gentle touch with calmness. Now, whenever your dog is anxious or stressed, petting them will calm them down.
In the example mentioned above, you attached an unknown stimulus (petting and stroking) with a known positive one (calmness). Now the stimuli are united.
Conditioning is a very powerful technique and can be used to teach the names and signals of family members, toys and actions. We will explain this later in this article.
Step-by-step socialisation of a puppy
Let us now discuss the steps and techniques to introduce objects, family members, basic commands, places, toys, etc.
Introducing new floors and textures
Put your puppy on different surfaces and floors to familiarise them with this new experience and remove fear. Introduce them to sand, floor, rugs, carpets, metallic surfaces, grass etc. keep an eye on the puppy while he is exploring the new surface. Young puppies can lick and chew everything, which can be harmful. Provide tasty treats to make the experience a positive one.
Familiarise the puppy with smells in your house, from talcum powder to the smells of other animals. Introduce your puppy to clothes, kitchen cabinets, food, shoes, lotions etc. Also, recognise and mark which smell he does and doesn’t like; pairing the presence of these unpleasant stimuli with tasty treats will help transform this association into a more positive one.
Introducing toys and other household objects
Puppies love to play. Toys include bones, balls, stuffed Kongs, food puzzles, snuffle mats etc. A puppy can also have fun with other household objects like empty bottles, boxes, cans, empty egg cartons, trays, etc. Keep away any sharp objects, electric wires and toxic material.
Visit each room in your house daily with your puppy. This will familiarise your puppy with what is considered, “home” and “not home”. Take multiple times daily to the toilet area specialised for a puppy for potty training (mentioned below). Once fully vaccinated also take him for short walks.
Places to take your puppy include the pet food shop, vet clinic, parks, school pick up and drop off, shopping centre complexes and rides in the car to familiarise them with the travel experience.
Familiarise your puppy with all sorts of sounds; like a baby crying, storms, horns, music, doorbell and fireworks. A puppy familiar with these sounds will remain calm upon reintroduction later in life.
Familiarising other family members and pets
Bring your puppy home directly from the breeder or transport company. Let your puppy sniff and become familiar with their new home at their own pace. Family members can start to hold and gently touch the puppy. Take your puppy to visit your friends and interact with their vaccinated pets as well (when fully vaccinated). If your puppy interacts well with other animals, reward them with a good treat and gentle touch.
Be calm and cool while meeting strangers. Your puppy should not feel offended or frightened by strangers. Don’t allow a stranger to approach your puppy without being invited. We don’t want strangers to be associated with scary past experiences.
Always wait for your puppy to approach strangers and interact. This will boost their confidence and optimism.
Introducing your puppy to the Veterinarian
Veterinary visits are part and parcel of a pet’s life. Introduce your puppy to their veterinarian as a positive experience early in life. To make this experience a positive one, feed your puppy tasty treats when they are in the clinic and on the examination table. This will help them to keep calm during subsequent visits.
Also, start introducing the muzzle during playtime; so your pup understands that the muzzle is not something to be feared if it’s needed for any future hospital visits.
Introducing the leash, collar and harness
Dogs do not always consider the leash, harness and collar positive and playful things. They can even be stressful, and your puppy may feel anxious when introduced to them. Always introduce a leash or collar when the puppy is happy and use tasty treats to build a positive association.
For example, offer a good treat to the puppy and when he is playing with a toy, introduce the leash or collar and start stroking them calmly. If the puppy is not accepting the collar and trying to pull it off, distract him with a tasty treat or toy.
Initially, introduce the leash for brief intervals; carefully supervise every movement, and gradually increase the time of your training sessions.
Introducing the crate
The puppy crate should be comfortable and large enough to accommodate your dog turning around and laying down. Put some kibble, treats or a long-lasting chew in the crate. When a puppy runs toward that toy, you can condition this behaviour by saying “CRATE”. Gradually the puppy will learn to go to the crate after saying that word.
Walking on the leash
Dogs that pull their owners on leash; are not considered well-trained. Practise training the skill of loose-leash walking with your puppy between 8 and 12 weeks of age.
As your dog walks, lure them with a tasty treat and lots of praise. When your puppy is walking next to you, give them a treat. Don’t pull your dog. If he tries to pull you, stop and wait until he looks at you and move backwards in the opposite direction to the way he was pulling; luring him towards you with your words, movement and treats.
Potty training of the puppy
Potty training is a combination of reward-based learning and conditioning. Take the puppy to the toilet area and wait until they try to defecate. As soon as they do, use the conditioning technique and mark this as good behaviour with a word like “poop” or “toilet”. Now give the reward in the form of a treat. Take the puppy multiple times a day to the area and repeat until this habit solidifies in their brain.
Introducing the commands
Commands should also be introduced during the socialisation period. Puppies welcome their owner warmly and excitedly. When returning to your puppy, ignore the puppy’s excitement and wait for them to sit or have all four feet on the ground. When they do so, mark the behaviour by saying “SIT” and pet them with lots of love and affection. Slowly they will learn to sit on the command.
Punishing a puppy is not a good option
Punished dogs don’t learn and don’t take an interest in anything. Instead of learning not to misbehave, a punished dog will learn not to get caught. This is called avoidance behaviour and it’s not something you want to encourage in your new puppy. Punishment increases fearful behaviour and some dogs will fight back and bite their owners. Both of these behaviours are undesired.
Puppy socialisation is crucial to training good dogs, but it comes with a lot of responsibility. Be patient, be calm and introduce your puppy to lots of positive experiences. Focus particularly on those that they are likely to encounter regularly in their lifetime like vets, household sounds and for oodles grooming items like the bath, dryer, brush, comb, clippers, scissors, nail clippers etc.
Appropriate socialisation during the fleeting periods of puppy development, particularly those occurring from birth to 12 weeks of age; is vital to preventing behaviour problems later in life.
When the biggest factor contributing to the surrender of dogs to shelters and rescues is behavioural issues; proper training and socialisation should be as routine to responsible breeding and dog ownership as vaccinations are.
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