So you’ve brought your new puppy home and you’re super excited to get started. An 8 week bundle of fluff all excitable and ready to learn. You know that puppy socialisation is important……. BUT……. your puppy isn’t fully vaccinated yet. You’ve been advised not to take them for walks – so what can you do?
Here is the good news! There are plenty of ways to ensure your puppy gets good socialisation experiences from the moment you bring them home. Read on for my minimal risk, practical solutions for socialisation before your puppy is fully vaccinated.
The importance of puppy socialisation
So first let’s talk about why socialisation is so important. Puppies require adequate socialisation to become well-rounded, confident, sociable adult dogs who can cope with life within human society. Puppies who do not receive adequate socialisation are more likely to develop behavioural issues as they mature.
A puppy’s socialisation period starts at around 3-4 weeks old and gradually tapers off around 12-14 weeks. The most crucial learning occurs before 8 weeks of age. This means the most important socialisation work should be carried out by the puppy’s breeder.
And if you seek sound advice from a reputable source when you first rehome your puppy (usually at around 8 weeks of age) there is a window of opportunity of approximately 4-6 weeks where you can ‘top up’ your puppy’s socialisation experiences before the socialisation period ends. This is of particular importance if the puppy has not received optimal socialisation experiences prior to rehoming.
This 4-6 week ‘top up window’ overlaps a period of vulnerability to disease until vaccinations are complete. Depending on the vaccination protocol, or if vaccinations are delayed or restarted due to illness, some puppies may not be fully immunised until after the socialisation period has ended. Puppy owners are often advised not to walk their puppies, attend training classes or meet other dogs until fully vaccinated.
Puppy owners like yourself are rarely given advice to appropriately, and safely, socialise your puppy during this period. But did you know you can, and should, be doing so?
What is socialisation?
The term ‘socialisation’ is often mistaken to mean meeting and interacting with other dogs and people. Whilst these are important elements, they are only a small part of what makes up an appropriate socialisation programme for young puppies.
The socialisation period is a sensitive time in a puppy’s life when they are learning what is normal/safe or not normal/potentially unsafe. Connections rapidly form in the brain and bad experiences may trigger a stress response. Equally, if a puppy receives no exposure to a situation at all, connections cannot form. This means the puppy will likely perceive the situation as scary.
The more a puppy learns to associate novelty with positive outcomes e.g. fun things in life such as treats or play, the more likely they are to embrace exposure to new situations in the future. This means they will be less likely to be worried about experiences (social or otherwise) they have not previously encountered. Puppies who are not socialised properly tend to have more difficulty developing positive associations with new things as adult dogs.
Puppy socialisation programmes
In order to produce a well-balanced and well-adjusted adult dog able to cope with novelty, an adequate socialisation programme should introduce your puppy to the sounds, sights, smells, environments and social interactions they are likely to encounter as an adult. Crucially, these experiences should be perceived as positive by your puppy.
But what does this mean in reality? Firstly, keeping your puppy in the house and not exposing them to the outside world until after the age of 12 weeks is likely to lead to the development of fear responses and behavioural issues later down the line. Secondly, exposure to novelties at a level that is worrying to your puppy can lead to the development of fear responses, so socialisation experiences should be tailored specifically to their needs.
So what simple strategies can you put in place to ensure your puppy is getting adequate and appropriate socialisation during the latter stages of this sensitive period (8-14 weeks) and before they are fully vaccinated?
Exposure to novelty at home
Exposure to different sounds
Many dogs show signs of being worried by sounds such as fireworks and thunder. This is often due to a lack of appropriate exposure at a young age. Playing sounds to your puppy whilst they enjoy their favourite activities e.g. playing with toys, can help combat this.
You might choose to use sound CDs, apps or free online programmes. These should include noises such as; gunfire, babies crying, children playing/screaming and traffic noises.
Socialising with people
Your puppy may not be able to go on walks yet, but they can safely meet people in your home. Puppies need to learn about a variety of different people, all the while taking care not to overwhelm them.
If you don’t get many visitors consider dressing up and making yourself appear different by wearing hats, glasses, hoodies etc. Anything that makes you look unusual and different as you greet your puppy, play with them or give them treats can help create positive associations with unusual situations.
Exposure to new scents
A dog’s world revolves around scent, and exposure to new scents can provide mental stimulation and novel enrichment. So bring the outside inside!
Do you have a friend with a cat? Ask to borrow a blanket the cat has rested on for your puppy to sniff. Whilst out on a walk pick up pine cones, moss etc. Use them to create a woodland snuffle box for your puppy to investigate and find treats. When your post arrives, perhaps allow your puppy to sniff and investigate the packing from any deliveries.
Walking on different textures
Exposing your puppy to a variety of textures they are likely to encounter builds confidence and gets them used to feeling unusual textures underfoot.
Carpet, rugs, laminate flooring, tile, and grass are great examples. Also consider more novel and unusual textures such as sand, AstroTurf, bubble wrap, tin foil or a yoga mat.
Consider ways to create novel activities, for example placing items that make a noise when they move inside a tub with treats scattered throughout. As your puppy forages for treats, the items will move around and make noise. This will help teach your puppy that investigating unusual situations will lead to a reward.
Many household items can be used as food dispensers that make noise, move in unusual ways and provide alternative textures to traditional rubber or plastic food toys. Examples include cardboard boxes, toilet roll inner tubes or empty drinks bottles. Just be sure to observe and ensure they are interacting with these items safely and not swallowing anything they shouldn’t.
The opportunities are endless but do require you to be inventive. The aim is always to nurture a puppy that is confident and inquisitive in nature.
Safe exposure to the outside world
Pre-vaccinations, your puppy may be at risk if placed on the floor. However, they can still experience the world from the safety of your arms. If you prefer you might consider using a carry bag/papoose instead. Please note. it is important that your puppy is introduced to this carefully and does not find this stressful.
Beneficial socialisation experiences can include (but are not limited to):
- Carrying your puppy around local walking locations e.g. woods, beaches, heathland or by the road, thus exposing them to different environments and traffic
- Sitting at a dog friendly pub or cafe
- Visiting a garden centre or the local pet shop
- Going to the veterinary practice for some treats
- Sitting near a local pond to watch the ducks
Taking puppy in the car
Another way to get your puppy out and about safely is by taking them to places in the car. Park up somewhere so that your puppy can sit in the boot and watch the world go by. This might be at a supermarket (watching lots of people and trolleys pass by), near the local train station to listen to the trains, or perhaps the local playing fields on a Saturday when children are playing football.
Again, to ensure a positive experience, it is crucial that your puppy is happy and relaxed in the car and does not perceive this as stressful. Furthermore, it is important to remember that puppies tire easily. So it is important that these experiences are kept short and sweet, with plenty of time to rest.
Socialising with other dogs
Puppies learn canine social skills from other dogs. So encounters with other well-socialised adult dogs can help them develop into confident and robust individuals with good social skills.
Interactions with fully vaccinated dogs in a private garden reduces the risks as much as possible. It is important to cease interactions if they become overwhelming to your puppy. A frightening or stressful experience with another dog during this stage can often be worse than a lack of exposure.
Ensuring positive socialisation experiences
Not all puppies will be confident enough to cope with all of the suggestions listed above. As previously mentioned, for socialisation to be appropriate it is important that your puppy is exposed to new experiences at a level where they do not become stressed.
Observing canine body language
A skill to help you ensure your puppy is having a positive experience is learning to read canine body language. This involves learning the subtle signals that indicate your puppy is uncomfortable so you can prevent overt signs of stress such as cowering, tail tucking, running away/hiding or growling, barking and snapping (in cases of extreme fear).
Recognising and understanding what to do when subtle worry signals are displayed can reduce miscommunication and misunderstanding in many situations. This means you can ensure your puppy is having positive experiences when being carried in a papoose, travelling in the car and being exposed to new sounds, people and environments. It also means you can learn when play and social interactions with other dogs are appropriate and step in if the learning experience is tipping towards the negative.
Seeking preventative advice and support
Consider seeking advice from a qualified professional in the early stages rather than waiting until things go wrong. Following preventative advice is far easier than dealing with a behaviour problem once it has arisen. It requires far less demand on your time, financial and emotional resources.
Advice should come from someone who is trained to understand the developmental needs of young puppies, how to read canine body language appropriately and who is able to convey these messages in a way that is easy to understand. Unfortunately the dog training and behaviour industry currently remains unregulated. This means it is easy to receive poor, and sometimes damaging, advice from individuals calling themselves trainers.
How to find an appropriately qualified practitioners
Avoid social media and instead seek advice from trainers and behaviourists registered with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC). All practitioners listed have had their knowledge, understanding and practical skills rigorously assessed.
Attending well-run puppy training and socialisation classes such as those taught by Puppy School tutors can be exceptionally helpful. But so often advice is required far earlier regarding how to appropriately socialise and ensure those experiences are positive. ABTC practitioners (Animal Training Instructors, Animal Behaviour Technicians and Clinical Animal Behaviourists) can come to your home, or teach via zoom, to give advice on a 121 basis and give you clarity regarding how best to socialise your individual puppy.
There is a crucial window of time from 8-14 weeks in most puppies’ lives where they are still within their socialisation period but might be missing out on socialisation experiences because they are not yet fully vaccinated.
However, there is so much that can be done to help create appropriate and positive experiences that are safe and minimise risk for the puppy until they are fully vaccinated.
Early contact with appropriately qualified trainers and behaviourists, such as those registered with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC), to give additional advice and support may also be highly beneficial. From an animal welfare perspective, there may be huge benefits associated with the normalisation of seeking advice from reputable sources early on and focusing on prevention rather than cure for behavioural problems.