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The Social Dog: The Importance of Socialisation in Canines

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Socialising Puppies, Juveniles and Dogs

The word "socialising" has been around for many years. Many meanings have been allotted to it, most of them quite correct, just worded in different ways. Breeders, owners, and trainers have understood the importance of socialisation for a long time. Accordingly, they spend much time socialising puppies and juveniles from a very early age. However, it is not just for very young dogs. Socialising happens throughout the dog's life in any new circumstances the dog and owners find themselves in. It is something we need to do for life. When training puppies and families, the word "familiarise" can be used in place of socialisation, which may help the client get a real handle on what socialising means.

How important is it for our puppies, in particular, to be well socialised?

It is one of the most important things we can do for any new puppy we may take on. Without proper socialising, our puppies don't have the tools they need to live comfortably in the world. Socialising gives the dog a chance to practice their emotional response to a stimulus; that way, the stimulus itself is not so scary in the future. For example, when talking about people, if you are scared of heights and no one ever exposes you to them or allows you to experience it in a safe environment, where you can process your emotional response, you will continue to be scared of heights. Your dog's feel the same way about your vacuum cleaner, hairdryer, and the dog next door; they need time to process the stimulus and form a reaction, which you, as the owner, are there to guide.

'The Importance of socialising in canines' is very valuable to understand and socialising and or familiarising is not a difficult thing to teach. It just needs to be identified by the owner, and then time needs to be taken to teach the dog. If you read their body language, the dog will often let you know they may be having a hard time with something new. By paying attention to what the dog is “saying”, owners can understand their puppy or dog's needs through their body language. Having a puppy is a three-way street. You and your family, the dog, and the environment in which they live.

Definition of socialising (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) *

transitive verb

1: to make social especially: to fit or train for a social environment

2: to adapt to social needs or uses

3. intransitive verb: to participate actively in a social group

Definition of familiarising (Oxford Dictionary) *

give (someone) knowledge or understanding of something.

Furthermore, when discussing socialisation with canines, it is often broken down into three main sections:

1) Canine - Canine

2) Canine - Human

3) Canine - Environment

Canine - Canine Socialising:

The puppy starts socialising as soon as it is born. It hopefully has been born to a healthy, sound mum with a great temperament and one of several offspring. It has the feeling of others around it, even though as yet it can't see them. It feels pretty secure where it is and is hopefully feeling comfortable in its environment. In a relatively short time, it is mixing with its siblings, playing with them. By about 4 to 5 weeks old, it is learning to read the body language they are telling the other and giving back the body language all puppies/dogs understand. It is already socialising (being social in its environment and forming the disposition it will carry into adulthood.) Of course, this includes biting and mouthing, but that will have to wait until another article.

Dog to dog “bullying” is not acceptable but quite normal behaviour with littermates. A good handler of the litter will stop any form of bullying they may encounter when it is noticed. This is crucial as it allows the puppies of smaller size in the litter to feed and gain strength freely. Being first is not a problem, but not being allowed to eat is.

Suppose the pup is removed from the litter for any reason at this crucial age. In that case, it may never have the chance to learn about the body language vital for dogs to understand as they get older. If not taught by their new owner, they may never really reach their full potential. This is where socialising with other pups around their age grouping plays an essential role in their adult lives. Things such as puppy school, friends or family's dogs, and more are all great examples of ways to build up your furry friend’s canine-canine socialisation skills.

It can't be emphasised enough how important it is that you choose or recommend the best puppy school you can. Puppy schools of note are not just about product and play; it is far more than that. It is essential to understand why the puppy does the things it does and how to work with them using their instincts to hear, point, run, or a hundred other things the puppy was born to do.

It is highly recommended that you go and see the puppy school in action before you choose or recommend them for training. Puppies need to be around other puppies and be able to play, sometimes even what we might consider a little over the top, without being afraid. This play teaches the dog how to interact with their furry friends, what another dog will tolerate, and what it won't. It provides them with a chance to experiment with behaviour and receive direct feedback on their actions, which is how they learn from each other, especially when they are young. This should be balanced with the puppies co-existing in the same space, without necessarily being on top of each other playing and touching. Remember, socialisation and play can be two separate things for the dog to learn; all play is technically socialisation, but not all socialisation is play!

What happens to a puppy between the age of 8 to 16 weeks sets the basis of its actions for the rest of its life. It is the most potent "imprint" period in the dog's life cycle. It is such a critical time for any dog, regardless of breed. Your dog never forgets the good things that happen during this time, but nor does it ever really forget any trauma that may occur, and it certainly sets a strong foundation for your dog's ability to continue to further learning/obedience, Rally-O, Herding, Trick Training, Scenting etc.

Puppies should socialise with both dogs of their age and older dogs but always err on the side of caution when introducing older dogs to a puppy. This includes older dogs already in residence, and on-lead introductions in a neutral space can be beneficial.

A hound and a Westie. Dogs are very social animals and thank goodness for that. It still doesn't mean that we should let our dog go up to a completely strange dog without supervision.
Do you want to play? I'm friendly - are you?

Canine - Human Socialising:

Dogs must become very comfortable around humans of all ages, sizes and circumstances. Dogs can become fearful when they are only ever handled by only one person. It's not the case, however, that they are guaranteed to become fearful. Still, it certainly makes it much easier for the dog when they mix with a wide variety of people. Being handled by young children and older people helps the dog understand that there is more than one human they need to understand. Done well, young dogs should not have any problems with humans ever.

How do you socialise canines with humans? It starts by managing the puppy when around other people and not allowing them to jump up, bark etc. An easy way to begin to do this is to place the dog on a lead before people arrive at your house, if possible, and tether them to a particular spot; this may be a bed, crate, or something else sturdy. This will eliminate your dog's ability to run at the door, jump on guests and develop bad habits. As people enter your house, instruct them to stay calm, and once they have entered, retrieve your dog and introduce them on lead to the guests. The presence of the lead allows you instant control of any destructive behaviours that may occur. It is also critically important to praise good behaviour, not just focus on the negative. This same method can be applied to meeting people in public. Inform the person to stay calm and manage your dog’s behaviour with your lead and perhaps some treats if they do the right thing (a pat or toy works too!). Practising this whenever possible helps the dog settle quickly and allows them to understand how they should behave. It gives the dog an understanding of how to manage their emotional response to seeing another person, which is often exciting and instead, it allows you to keep them under control and well-behaved.

Until COVID-19, our puppy training included swapping puppies. Each family or owner took another puppy for just a few minutes. At Bonnies, we recognised that some owners were really on their own at home, so swapping puppies allowed for every puppy to be handled by different people. It could be seen that this had a very profound effect on the puppies over several weeks. More confidence with everyone allowed the puppy to be as comfortable as possible. It had very positive ongoing outcomes for vets, groomers and others who worked on or with the puppy in the future, as the puppy understood they were safe. They knew exactly how to behave when handled. If you are not in a position where you can attend puppy training, this is one of the most important things you can try to organise for your puppy while they are little. Get them to interact calmly with as many people as possible.

We suggest that each family have a set of written rules when it comes to socialisation. How do we want our puppy to interact with others? What do we do when they see another person or dog? What is expected from them before they are allowed to greet another person?

Families should put their list of rules for the dog on the fridge, so everyone is on the same page on how to approach things: same commands, same voice corrections, same hand signals, same rules. We encourage clients to use common words each family member can understand, which may be in another language. This can be a bit of extra fun and can provide you and your puppy a little bit more of a special connection, as they will only understand you (however, be careful with this if you leave them somewhere to go away on holidays). Remember, like humans, we understand the language we are taught. Hand signals should be used with vocal commands as well as on their own. Dogs understand and read body language. Use hand signals - even if they are different to the standard hand signals used in obedience, it is ok. As long as the whole family uses precisely the same signals, the dog will learn and develop regardless.

Canine – Environment Socialising:

Way too many people forget the value of environmental training. We suggest that everyone at puppy school train and mentor the puppy with everything they use at home. If, for example, they have a vacuum cleaner, they should bring it out and walk around pushing it when it is not turned on. The puppy will begin to understand there is nothing that will hurt or bother them. After doing this a couple of times, then turn it on and start to use it. Generally, and where possible, I suggest that another family member have the puppy on a lead and let the puppy go up and look at - and sniff, then say, “come”, and give them a treat or reward when the dog returns to them and ignores the distraction. It may take a couple of times over a few days. Still, the puppy will learn to manage their emotional response to seeing the vacuum. We have a client whose puppy loves the robot cleaner. Before it barked and jumped on it, then a little time spent with the puppy training, they now have a puppy who rides around on top of the Robot without barking but just having fun going for a ride. If he gets too excited, they turn it off and put it away. Puppies are puppies and not robots - they have fun too. Thank goodness for that.

The Social Dog: The Importance of Socialisation in Canines - When you get a puppy, walk them alongside you when you take out the wheelie bin. Introduce them to the blower, mower, whipper snipper etc. Don't expect them to know what things are purely because you do; they don't know about anything when they are little; they need to be shown!

A very common phrase trainers will hear, "My dog does this perfectly at home but just won't do it here (at training)!" The response to this question is often something along the lines of, do you have all the same smells at home? Do you have all of the other ten dogs at training at home? Do you have these plants at home? How many times has your dog been asked to do these things around distractions? It is essential to realise that training in your house, whilst extremely valuable, does not mean that training will be applicable in different environments, that needs to be taught.

Final Thoughts:

Training at home, in the home environment with one set of rules, is setting the puppy up for success into the future, not failure. Consistent, balanced, calm, controlled, concise commands given correctly and in a timely way gives our new puppy every chance in the world that they will have the very best life they can. It doesn't matter where you live, whom you live with, what you live in or whatever lifestyle you choose; a puppy who is beautifully socialised has every chance to become your best mate. When people ask us, "When do we train and for how long at a time?" we say the following. Whenever you engage with your puppy, you have an opportunity to educate and train them. One minute of positive interaction done consistently over the day is enough. If you have four people in the family and each person gives the puppy one minute of their time 4 or 5 times a day means the puppy is learning consistently. Over a day, this can equate to 20 minutes of positive engagement. Win, Win. Good luck, and give your furry friends a pat from us!

Article Written by The Bonney Family (Val, Bruce, Peter and Christian)

Bonnies Dog Obedience and Puppy School

P.S. (Spelling using a Z is American English, i.e. Socialise / Socialise - relates to human interaction, and whilst we should try not to anthropomorphise human feelings and traits onto our canine mates, we acknowledge this can be used as a generic term used for canine interactions)

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