by Rachel Casey
Puppies need to meet a range of different people during their ‘socialisation period’ (between about 3 and 12 weeks of age) so they accept contact with people as a normal and positive part of life. They also need to learn about all the different things that people do when handling dogs - like being handled all over, picked up, their feet being handled and cleaned, ears examined, coat groomed, and nails cut. They also need to learn about people coming in and out of the house, or coming to put post through the door then heading off again! It’s also important for pups to learn that sometimes people are great fun and play, but at other times they do boring things like watch TV and don’t necessarily want a puppy in their face!
The aim of a structured socialisation programme is to give puppies the best chance of coping well with the various types of people, circumstances in which they appear, and ways in which they interact with dogs. To make sure they see people as consistently positive, the introduction of new experiences needs to be gradual and controlled. It is also important that puppies are not already anxious or fearful when they interact with people, as this will increase the risk that they will associate contact with these negative feelings.
- Plan in advance how you will ensure that your puppy can experience different types of people. The more the better, but should include at least one person of each gender, someone above retirement age and children. Meeting at least one older child (> 8 years), and also a baby or toddler is ideal, as these are very different experiences for a puppy! For safety, children should only have contact with puppies under supervision. Where access to young children is not possible, it helps if they can hear recordings of children playing and babies crying using good quality recordings.
- Prepare in advance any items which will help broaden your puppy’s experience of people. For example, having a brightly coloured and rustling jacket (like those worn by postmen or delivery people), a motorcycle helmet, a cap, a back-pack, a pushchair, a zimmer frame and an umbrella available will mean that you can introduce all these things positively.
- Make sure your puppy is somewhere where they feel safe and relaxed when meeting people or new things.
- Have toys and food treats available before starting sessions.
- Check that you are familiar with behavioural signs of fear and anxiety, so you can tell when your puppy has had too much.
Socialisation to different types of people
- Puppies should be familiar and confident with you and immediate family members before you start to introduce new people. If your puppy seems worried, for example by cowering, moving away, trembling, or pulling back on contact, give them extra time. Where a puppy is worried contact with people should be quiet and calm. Crouching or sitting a short distance away from the puppy and encouraging them to approach is good, because you can be sure you are not forcing too much contact. Positive approach should be rewarded with food treats. Build up to gentle stroking on the chest area: avoid putting the hand directly towards the puppy’s head as this may feel threatening for them. With increased confidence, the puppy can be gradually stroked on the shoulder, back, flanks and head.
- Once your puppy confidently approaches and interact with all family members, you can start introducing new people. Evaluate how he or she reacts to each new person, and adjust the programme if you see signs of anxiety.
- When your puppy is confident with several new people, you can start thinking about introducing them in different circumstances. For example, coming and going through a threshold (e.g. door in a household), and meeting people when they are in an outside garden or run.
- The socialisation programme can then be expanded to include contact with children where possible. Older children can interact with puppies, but should be helped to understand how to handle and play with puppies before the interaction begins. It can be better to get children to start by doing some simple training exercises that the puppy already knows (e.g. sit), rather than handling straight away. Contact with children should be supervised at all times to prevent any inadvertent negative experiences for either. Where younger children or babies are introduced to puppies, they should be held by their parents.
- You can use ‘props’ to help introduce your puppy to the different types of things that people wear and do. For example asking visitors to interact with the puppies wearing a florescent jacket, motorcycle helmet or backpack makes for interesting dinner parties! These experiences will help puppies to learn that all these variations of how people appear are a normal part of life.
Different types of interation
- Pups need to accept that people come and go regularly from the house, and that this is not a cause for either anxiety or excitement. They also need to learn that periods of contact with family members sometimes involves interaction, but sometimes also periods when people are busy doing other things. Plus, accepting all sorts of different contact such as examining their ears, smoothing them all over, reaching over them, stepping over them, drying their feet and grooming them is important to prepare for domestic life.
- Getting puppies used to people coming and going just needs the help of some friends or neighbours! Ask people to pop by for coffee, but prepare them to always wait for the puppy to be quiet and calm before saying hello. Lots of experiences of people coming and going makes it a less exciting event – and only getting a fuss when they are quiet will help them to learn how to react when visitors come to the house.
- To ensure that puppies have the right expectations of contact with people, they need to both have periods of fun training and play, but also learn that sometimes people are present but not interacting with them.
- As part of the interaction with people, make sure that your puppy is handled all over, picked up and cuddled and have their feet and ears examined.
- Throughout all of these interactions check for signs of fear or anxiety. If you spot these behaviours, stop the handling. At the next session, start with less intense handling, or go back to someone more familiar, to make sure that he or she is completely relaxed before progressing.