You should start working on your puppy’s social skills between the age of six and eight weeks, up to 16 weeks.
This period is key in developing your pet’s future confidence. It’s when they discover new experiences and learn what’s safe and what isn’t.
Puppies that aren’t socialised properly during this time, risk moving into adulthood fearing certain people or situations. This can be a challenge for new adult dog owners.
Don’t worry, we’re here to guide you through the right way to socialise your puppy or older dog.
And if you're experiencing problems like fear or aggression while trying to socialise your dog, see your vet. There may be an underlying medical reason or they might refer you to a behavioural expert. Behavioural treatment might even be covered by your puppy insurance.
Usually puppy’s stay with their mum until they’re around eight weeks, but this doesn’t mean the socialisation period can’t begin. They’ll learn how to interact with their littermates and surroundings through play.
Don't be tempted to think that your dog breed doesn't need it. Even notoriously sociable dogs like Labrador Retrievers need socialisation in order to help them develop the confidence and disposition they're known for.
Socialising a puppy while social distancing
The covid-19 pandemic can make it a bit harder to socialise your puppy if you’re social distancing or need to self-isolate.
If you own a puppy you should introduce them to plenty of new people as early as possible.
But you do need to do this in a way that creates positive associations. Don’t pass your puppy to them. Instead, let your puppy go over to them in their own time. They need to feel comfortable enough to do this, and able to retreat if they want to.
If your pup shows any signs of anxiety, remove them from the situation and try again later. They’ll show they're anxious by holding their tail down, ears back and staying away.
If you’re socialising an adult dog, again you need to allow them to approach adults and children in their own time and aim to introduce new people once a week, so they don’t become overwhelmed.
If they run and hide, then try doing something you know they feel positive about, like dishing up their dinner. Don’t force them to return - just let them come to you.
The most important thing is to ignore any undesirable behaviour and reward the good. You don’t want to accidentally reinforce their fears by lavishing attention on them in an attempt to comfort them.
It’s important to introduce your puppy to a range of dogs so that they learn valuable social skills from them, and that they have nothing to fear.
The problem with this is that it’s unlikely your puppy will have completed their full course of primary vaccinations until they’re around 12 weeks old, so they’re at risk of catching diseases off other dogs.
To overcome this, you can let them meet friends’ dogs you know are fully up to date on their vaccines.
It’s best to do this in a private garden where you know there haven’t been any unvaccinated dogs.
Once they’re vaccinated, you can take your puppy to classes. to meet some younger playmates.
You may find your puppy is a little too excited when meeting new dogs. But if an older dog doesn’t want to play, they’lll usually let your pup know.
Socialising older dogs
If you have a rescue dog or an older dog that’s missing a few social skills, it’s never too late to start putting things right. But older dogs can be territorial, so you need to proceed with care.
When they first meet, keep both dogs on a lead, and meet in an open place, such as a park, not in one of the dogs’ home or garden.
Don’t let the dogs touch or sniff each other at this stage. The initial meeting is very important, and there will be a lot of tension in the air. If they attack each other, this will establish the grounds of their relationship.
Instead go for a walk with both dogs – with one dog in front of the other. This will focus their energies on the walk, and not each other.
As you’re walking, allow them to sniff each other’s behinds – which is a normal dog behaviour.
If one of the dogs has a poop, allow the other dog to sniff it. This again is a behaviour that helps to establish bonding.
Once you’ve finished your walk, the dogs should be a little more comfortable around each other.
If you find the dogs get on well from the very beginning, you may not need to follow these steps so closely. Just make sure they don’t begin to show aggression towards each other. And if they do, separate them, and try again later.
Dogs meeting in the home
Dogs are very territorial, so initial introductions should be away from the home. Once the two dogs are more comfortable with each other, you can introduce the new dog to your home.
If you have a garden, try allowing the dogs to meet there first. Next steps would involve the ‘in home’ introduction. Keep the existing dog in the garden, while the new dog enters your home. Then bring the existing dog in.
Don’t let the dogs spend too much time together, just allow them enough time to say hello, and be comfortable with each other. If either dog shows signs of aggression, then separate them.
Before you start introductions, you might want to take some steps to child and pet proof your home with barriers and stair gates to keep everyone safe in this new situation.
Don’t forget to remove any of the original dog’s toys or bowl items from around the home or garden to avoid any conflict over them between the new and existing dog.
Bringing a new puppy home when you have an older dog
You should introduce the puppy to the older dog on neutral ground, like at a park, to avoid territorial behaviour. The process is the same as with introducing older dogs to one another.
Once they’re more accustomed to each other, you can begin the home introductions. which again are similar to those for older dogs.
Puppies are very boisterous and don’t understand adult dog communication methods. They’ll jump on your older dog and try to get his attention. Your older dog will tell your puppy off, by growling, baring his teeth or staring at her. This tells the puppy ‘stop it, this isn’t normal grown up dog behaviour’.
If your older dog gets physically aggressive with her though, this should be stopped immediately.
You should provide both dogs with a place they can retreat to by themselves.
You should also feed both dogs in a separate space and supervise them carefully when they’re playing.
Importantly you should never force a situation with either dog or punish a dog for bad behaviour.
Finally, you should also spend some time with each dog individually. Researched by the University of California published in the Telegraph suggests that dogs do get jealous, and this evolved to protect social relationships.
Spending time with your older dog will help prevent him feeling ‘replaced’ by your new arrival.
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