puppy socialisation

Helping your young dog understand our world

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I was standing in our local high street with my puppy, just watching the world go by.

We saw people, children, dogs, wheelchairs, cars, vans, and a very interesting pigeon on the pavement a few yards from us. Coco studied this for a while and I gave him plenty of time to look at it, ensuring his lead was slack. Whenever he seemed more than curious, I’d feed him for not reacting. We were taking everything in our stride …

UNTIL this pleasant episode was interrupted by shouting. A woman was walking down the wide pavement, yanking the lead of her dog. She shouted “LEAVE IT!!” and yanked again. As far as I could see the dog was quite surprised by this.

She marched on, towards us and the pigeon. The friendly-looking young dog looked towards my pup - YANK! “LEAVE IT!!”

Then he made the mistake of glancing towards the pigeon YANKYANK SHAKE “LEAVE IT!!!”

By now the poor dog was straining on his lead to get as far away from his owner as possible. She stopped, gave the lead an almighty yank and hoisted the dog off his feet, once more yelling “LEAVE IT!!”

I wonder if that dog had any idea what “Leave it” meant?

Img_Molly.png

What I do know is that a naturally curious young dog was being abused and punished for … what? Showing interest in his surroundings. 

This is exactly what I had brought my young dog out to do!

•  It’s very sad that anyone should treat another creature in this way.

•  It’s more sad that the dog was doing nothing wrong.

•  Sadder still that his owner seems to think this is the way to teach.

•  And saddest of all? He is stuck with this short-tempered, unenlightened owner.

We can’t reach everyone, but by our example we can hope to change attitudes, one dog at a time

 

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Make life easy for you and your dog!

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“Why are you carrying that lump of a child the whole time?” the woman asked of my friend Jessica. “He must be two if he’s a day. Where’s his pushchair?”

Jessica blushed and struggled on, hoisting her well-built two-year-old son onto her hip. She didn’t want to have to answer this sensible question. She was exhausted carrying the wriggly heavy child for hours, but she was under the thumb of her partner, who had decreed that no child of his would be put in a pushchair, and that his mother had to carry him whenever he could not walk. Apart from wearing out his mother who had no free hands for anything else, this prevented the child from interacting with his world without parental pressure. It blocked the path of discovery, self-awareness, confidence. 

This madness extended to the home, where the boy was not allowed to sleep in a cot. 

The result? Midnight mayhem. Whenever he awoke, Basil would - naturally enough - slide out of bed and start wandering. Naps were impossible if Basil decided he wasn’t sleepy enough. Result: unrested and overtired child - and all parents freeze with apprehension at the thought of that!

It’s hard enough bringing up a toddler, without both hands being tied behind your back.

Most parents would consider these attitudes lunacy - the result of Jessica’s spouse’s bullying. 

So why do people do the exact same thing with their dog?!

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I’m always surprised when I come across resistance to using a crate for a dog. 

Using a crate for a dog is just the same as using a cot for a child.

There’s no question of punishment. The crate is his bed, his own space; it has plenty of toys and chews in it; all meals are fed in it; stuffed food toys are given in it. It’s a haven where he’s safe from other dogs, cats, children, the world. All he has to do in it is r-e-l-a-x. 

Here you see Coco Poodle relaxing in his much-loved crate. It even has a handle for him to pull to open it when he wants to go in for a break. 

You should always know exactly where your dog is. If you ask him to go in his crate when you go out, you’ll know that when you come back you’ll be greeted by a smiling, stretching, cool, rested puppy, with no chewed cables or furniture, no upturned bin, and no pee on the floor. Your pleasure at seeing each other will be genuine and untrammelled by recrimination, bad temper, and frustration. 

Leaving him loose to entertain himself in the house instead of getting his valuable shut-eye, will make you bad-tempered and cross, and your puppy will have NO idea what he’s done wrong - just that you don’t like him and you may be dangerous. This is not the way to create an unbreakable bond with your dog!

So why would you resist this simple solution to so many aggravations?

Don’t labour on like Jessica did, making housetraining, chewing, and life in general much, much harder. Use the tools that are available to you, just as most parents do with their small children. 

More info on how to crate-train happily here

 

And have a look at just how I train my own puppies! in this small but perfectly formed mini-course

 

I wish I could take my excitable dog on family outings!

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Yes! You can!

One of the reasons you got a family dog was the enticing thought of outings - to the pub, the cafe, the beach, forest parks … What could be nicer than enjoying a walk in beautiful scenery, and ending the visit in congenial surroundings with everyone tucking in to good food and drink?

But the reality arrived in your fluffy bundle of puppyness, and you soon discovered that your family dog had other ideas about how life should work!

So you may have a dog who’s ebullient, boisterous, loves everyone, and you feel you can’t inflict that on a pubful of people wanting a peaceful refreshment stop. 

Or maybe your dog is reactive - shy, anxious, “aggressive” - and struggles to be in the same space as strange people and - worse - their strange dogs.

Your ideas of family outings with your dog have been put on hold for an indefinite period, until … until what? Until he gets to age 11 and calms down a bit? Until he suddenly decides he’s no longer afraid of people and dogs? Until he’s able to pass a dog on the path without a meltdown?

You could be waiting a long time!

So let’s speed this up - a lot. 

A portable parking spot

One game all dogs should learn is how to relax on their mat. Once your dog knows that if the mat is on the floor, then he should be on it, calmly waiting for you to reward him for staying there, then you can consider going out to places.

For precise, step-by-step, instructions on how to achieve this, go to my Books page where you’ll find that a whole book on calming your dog down is free! Yes, really …

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I can’t tell you the number of students who have found this skill so useful - at home, when friends visit, in cafes, on trains, on buses, at training class, on holiday, at the shops, at friends’ houses, at the vet’s - the list is endless.

If you’re starting with a puppy, so much the better. This can all be part of her valuable socialisation program.

“We thought about delaying getting our new German Shepherd puppy because we had already arranged a short holiday with friends. Our breeder persuaded us that we shouldn’t wait and that a holiday was an ideal time to have our puppy bond with us. So we collected our 8 week old puppy and spent 2 weeks getting to know one another, then headed off with our friends by car and then ferry to the Isle of Skye. Before she was 11 weeks old, puppy Elva had been in the car, on a train, and on a ferry - and she took it all in her stride. People might worry about meeting enough people in the important socialisation phase in a puppy’s life but everywhere we went, she was a people-magnet with everyone wanting to pet her. She loved all the attention and we loved that she was interacting with so many people!

I’d had concerns about travelling with a puppy but we’d started crate training right away. Our travel crate was invaluable in the car and a great place for a tired puppy while we went out for dinner with our friends. By evening, she was more than happy to sleep quietly in her crate until we came back.”

Amanda and Elva, German Shepherd puppy

And Ellen travelled a lot with her Border Collie pup Selkie, even at only four months!

“The games have helped greatly with making puppy trips easier and laying the foundations of good communication. She's particularly great on her mat on buses, trains and in pubs!

 
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Mat is King!

So matwork will get you part of the way there - and may be all you need for your excitable dog. You also have to make life as easy as possible for your worried dog.

For this you need to work on techniques and strategies to help him adjust to our world - there are plenty here to get started on at Brilliant Family Dog

And the most important thing for your reactive dog is distance. So a good place to start would be an establishment with a large, open, garden where you can get away from other people and be out of their way. If you go to a crowded place and your dog surprises you by being “fine” with all the busyness, think again. It’s more likely that your dog is exhibiting a learned helplessness - he can’t escape, it’s all too stressful, so he shuts down and waits for it all to be over. 

So heading off on this type of outing can only be done when you know there’s a good chance that with all your preparatory training, your dog will be able to cope. 

Forward planning

Either way, you need to plan this trip! 

Here’s a wonderful example of just how effective this can be, from Kerina, one of the students on From Growly Dog to Confident Dog

“We had aimed to go to the pub today and had it planned out to the letter. If either of the dogs got too stressed we wouldn’t stay for lunch, just a drink. We plotted the route yesterday.

I was prepared, had packed toys for the dogs, frozen kongs, coolmat for Spud and blanket for Robin, water from home and some kibble and treats. We chose a table that was at the side, right by the river, and both dogs settled.”

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Later the dogs enjoyed more of their river walk and a swim. They couldn’t have had such fun from the day without the thought Kerina and her sister put into it.

It didn’t take much to take all this stuff with them - think how much a toddler’s family has to pack for a couple of hours! - but it paid off many times over.

An important part of Kerina’s plan was to abort the trip if things weren’t going well. Always be ready to get out of Dodge. If your dog is stressed it’s not going to be much fun for any of you. And if your dog’s having an exciting walk, with lots of running and sniffing, be sure to factor in plenty of downtime. That’s when those prepared foodtoys and the mat come into their own. 

So get everything ready, do all the training first, plan a trip, plan your exit strategy, and enjoy the family outings you were so looking forward to when you decided to get a dog to share your life. 

Yes, it can happen.

 

 

 

You’ll find a week’s worth of tips for calm walks and outings here in this free Workshop!  

Check it out here

 

Should I get an older puppy?

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“We don’t want to be bothered with housetraining, so we’ll get an older puppy,” she said, talking about getting her first dog.

“Oh, please don’t!” was my reply.

Housetraining is very simple if you know what you’re doing. 

So don’t let fears about that put you off. Your house won’t be ruined, there won’t be poo everywhere. 

If you follow this Guide to Errorless Housetraining closely your 8-week-old puppy will be clean and dry by 10-15 weeks of age at the latest. Just a few weeks in a lifetime with your dog. It’s a very short time and you’ll be building a bond with your puppy as you go (because there’s no crossness or telling-off in this method). 

Get your free guide to Errorless Housetraining and have it all done in a week or two!

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You should know three things

1. Poor-quality breeders (or greeders, as I prefer to call them) will have puppies left over long after they should have gone to their new home. 8 weeks is the correct age for that. So these pups - who could be any age, really - have been kept in a bare shed with a gang of other pups for months on end. They have had no socialisation (and no housetraining either!) and they may find it very difficult to adjust to a normal family life. Unwitting buyers may be told the pup is months younger than he actually is. Read up on how to recognise a puppy farm/puppy mill and don’t get caught by these chancers. Do you really want to take on this unsocialised, mentally neglected, pup?

2. Some competitive breeders produce litter after litter in their big operation, and pick pups to “run on” to see if they’ll shape up as potential prizewinners. Once these pups have got to six months or so they decide which one to keep and sell the rest - usually to ill-prepared purchasers who responded to an advert for a “puppy”. These dogs may have lived only with one breed of dog, kennelled in a big run of kennels. Some of the worst cases of fear or aggression I have to work with have come this route. Do you really want to take on a ticking time bomb?

3. Adolescence (5-14 months roughly) is the commonest age for dogs to be dumped in rescue shelters. (Don’t worry, I know that some dogs end up in shelters through absolutely no behavioural fault of their own.) So you have to be prepared that your chosen dog may need a lot of work to repair. People got a fluffy puppy. They may have housetrained it, who knows? They certainly didn’t do anything else they should, because now they’re abandoning their pet because … he’s unruly, he’s too strong on the lead, he runs off, he barks at other dogs, whatever. This is all because of their neglect in rearing and training their puppy properly. While giving a home to an abandoned dog is a laudable and kind thing to do, you owe it to your family to get the most suitable pet possible. Is this mixed-up, neglected, confused dog really right for your home?

Tell me, (apart from exceptional cases where perhaps the caring owner died) where will you get a puppy who has been carefully and sensitively housetrained, is now six months old, lovingly trained and socialised - and yet someone wants to get rid of him?

I know some of you will write to tell me just that. And you struck lucky! I’m delighted to hear your happy story.

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Possibly there was a genuine reason for the owner parting with the dog, or possibly you found a breeder who genuinely loves dogs (I know that sounds crazy) and who did all the work necessary to produce a sound and confident young dog.

Housetraining is a brief interlude, quickly done, soon passed. If you choose to skip it and get an older puppy there is a possibility you could be dealing with its other problems long after the housetraining period is over.

And to find out exactly how I teach my own puppies

check out this mini-course

 

My dog’s NOT afraid of fireworks! But why?

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Fears have been high up in doggy discussions recently. It’s the Fireworks season in the UK and this is what’s brought them bubbling to the surface again.

Remember, remember, the 5th of November - gunpowder, treason, and plot!

And one thing common to a lot of these discussion threads was the surprise registered by owners of reactive dogs who were not upset at all by the noise. Some of these new owners had got prepared for the onslaught and were expecting the worst - then were utterly astonished that their dog couldn’t care less about it all.

So perhaps a little look at the subject of fear would be helpful here. 

Is all fear the same?

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Humans are born with only two fears: fear of falling and fear of loud noises. And these fears are stimulated in the Apgar tests for newborns, to elicit the startle reflex and check that all is well neurologically with the baby. All other fears are learned.

So fear of ghosts, planes, spiders, heights, and so on, are acquired on our journey through life. Many of these fears are developed early on, and can be heavily influenced by our family's response. A mother who is afraid of spiders can quickly transfer this fear to her children, while the mother who is happy to pick up an insect and take it to a place of safety is likely to have children who are curious about the other species in their environment and not fearful of them. It’s also true that a natural predisposition to be cautious around predators means that people are more likely to be afraid of creatures than of … bicycles, or trees.

Now the jury is out on whether dogs are born with any fears. Certainly there will be a predisposition to fear certain things, and the social influence of the mother and the environment in which the pups are reared are definitely going to have a big effect. Hence the supreme importance of early and proper socialisation for puppies up to the age of 12-15 weeks (jury is out on the timescale too).  

But we can certainly influence this fear by showing extreme fear ourselves. 

Will I make my dog worse if I cuddle her?

Fear is an emotion. And you cannot reinforce an emotion. It’s either there or it isn’t. You can only reinforce a chosen behaviour. While it is not possible to reinforce the emotion of fear - that is, to reward it and encourage it and make it stronger and more likely to occur - by giving comfort to a frightened person or dog, it’s certainly possible to plant the idea that fear is the correct response to something. Hence the general firework advice to mask the noises and flashes as much as possible (loud tv, curtains drawn, prepare a den) and carry on as normal yourself.  

You can't make your dog more afraid by comforting her.

You can't make your dog more afraid by comforting her.

And this advice also extends to not making your dog afraid of other dogs by being afraid yourself! So many people anticipate a bad outcome at the sight of another dog - maybe because their dog is reactive and has barked and lunged in the past - that they will tense up, breathe quickly, panic, tighten their grip on the lead, winding it six times round their hand to shorten it. This is telling your dog that you are afraid of the incoming dog, and that strange dogs are inherently dangerous. As you’ll see in the Growly posts on this site, your first response at sight of an incoming dog should always be

  • Relax hands

  • Relax shoulders

  • Breathe out

  • Relax lead

This will be telling your dog that you are ok with the incomer. (Whether you are or not is beside the point!)


What’s conditioning? And what’s counter-conditioning?

So fears grow in people and in dogs through experience, through social learning, and from a pre-disposition - self-preservation is all-important, so being afraid of things about to pounce on you is sensible. There’s also genetics to factor in. Some dog breeds are more alert to strange things in their environment than others, and are going to be faster to develop fears - unless that careful socialisation, familiarisation, and habituation, is done.

So your puppy is being conditioned to certain fears through his life experience. A snake appears and mum runs away from it: noted - snakes are dangerous.

Counter-conditioning is when we weigh in to lessen a fear, or lessen the impact the fear will have, by changing the association in the dog’s mind to something good. If every time that pup sees a snake you stuff pork pie in his mouth - his emotional response is going to change, over time! No, we don’t want him getting curious about the snake and approaching it - but we equally don’t want him to panic and run off - into the path of our modern-day killer, a car.

Your dog is going to be afraid of things he’s learnt to be afraid of. It follows that without that experience he’s not going to have the fear in place. Of course there are dogs who are so psychologically damaged that they have a generalised fear of everything. But even these can be brought to a level of comfort with patience and dedication, and possibly medication.

So being afraid of snakes is not going to make your dog also afraid of cars. And being afraid of other dogs is not going to make him afraid of horses, or sheep, … or fireworks. 

Cricket will sleep through a thunderstorm!

 

Cricket the Whippet will sleep through almost anything!

Cricket the Whippet will sleep through almost anything!

In my own household I have two (Lacy and Coco) who will ignore most fireworks, but bark at a very loud bang - it’s an “alert bark” not a panic attack - one (Cricket the Whippet, the professional sleeper) who is not at all bothered, and Rollo the usually independent Border Collie who gets very unhappy and worried.

During the firework season Rollo sticks to me like a limpet, wedging himself under my legs and following me pathetically wherever I go. It’s at least reassuring that I am considered a place of safety. The situation is manageable without medication, as he doesn’t panic and damage himself trying to escape - as some dogs do.

The interesting part - for the purposes of this discussion - is that Rollo is not what is commonly termed “reactive”, while Lacy and Coco most definitely are.

Border Collies are a sensitive breed with superb hearing. So if they’re going to be worried about anything it’s understandable that loud and sharp noises would be up there. But it’s not automatic that a Collie would be noise-sensitive, any more than the dog who is afraid of men in hats, for instance, should also fear children. 

So what you can take away from this is that fears will exist in your dog; you can minimise those fears with appropriate socialisation at the correct age; you can help make those fears manageable with careful training; and that a fear of one thing does not automatically imply a fear of anything else. 
 

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Our family’s always had dogs, why is this one so difficult?

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“Archie just goes mad,” said Anne.

“He’s so full of energy he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s always stealing things, getting on the chairs, he knows just how to wind me up  …

And then, when we go out, he’s not at all friendly with other dogs. Some children were rushing past on their scooters the other day - I thought he was going to grab them!

We’ve always had dogs - but I’ve never had one like this before! 

What’s wrong with him?”


This is a shame. Anne was very pleasant, well-meaning, and obviously devoted to the naughty Archie. When I visited her I saw the life that Archie lived and found the root of the problem fairly quickly.

Anne was indeed experienced with dogs. For forty years there had always been a family dog. 

Now she had the dog … but no family!

Her previous dogs had been brought up in the rough and tumble of family life. From morning till night (and sometimes during the night) there had always been activity. The electric energy children bring to a home was ever-present.

There would be visiting children, bikes to chase after, tears and jam to be licked off cheeks, shrieking, dropped food to be cleaned up, toys, gadgets, running and racing, tree houses to climb up into, a sick child to cuddle up with …

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Housekeeping in a busy family was basic maintenance, not perfection.

And then there were the school runs, walks to the shops, family holidays on the beach.

Archie’s predecessors had had a very different upbringing!

And Archie had missed out on all of this.

 

What Archie had missed


• He hadn’t learned to cope with children (Anne never walked to the shops these days and there were as yet no visiting grandchildren.)

• He did not encounter many dogs in the rural area Anne had retired to 

• The house was painfully quiet - and spotless. Anne was very, very houseproud. 

• He’d never been to puppy class (“The other dogs had never needed it,” said Anne, “so I didn’t bother.”)

• He didn’t know how to use up his energy in the day 

• He had plenty of long country walks which made him stronger, but his mind was never tired

• This was all exacerbated by the fact that Archie was a high-energy dog, bred to work till he dropped


So while Anne thought she was rearing her young dog the same way as her previous family dogs, in fact she was missing a huge chunk of his essential upbringing!

"I'm bored! If something doesn't happen soon, I'll have to make it happen!"

"I'm bored! If something doesn't happen soon, I'll have to make it happen!"

In this case we started a program of belated socialisation and habituation, Archie came to class and was very quick to learn the games and tricks I teach there, and Anne learnt that mental stimulation is infinitely more tiring than physical exercise!

You cannot “socialise” an older dog. This is something that can only happen in the dog’s brain up to the age of 15-16 weeks. What you can do is get him out and about, having new experiences, and enjoying them! If he’s not enjoying - for instance another dog walking towards him - then about turn and withdraw to a safe distance where he can observe the dog passing while you pop treats into his mouth. The distance will vary, but could be at least 50 yards. 

Anne didn’t need to take Archie on ever longer walks, building his stamina so that his energy was boosted - just spend a few minutes here and there during the day when she could play some of the games and tricks he’d learnt in class, and mind games to satisfy his busy brain. Here's a great book to get you started.

As a working dog, Archie quickly took to the games which involved his amazing powers of scent. Hide and Seek, in the house and the garden, became very popular! We even taught Archie some useful tricks: fetching Anne’s indoor shoes when they arrived back from a walk was very popular all round. It gave Archie a job to do straight away, and Anne was able to dry his feet when he brought her shoes, before he’d started running all over the house. 

Family Dog but no family?

Children go so well with puppies!

Children go so well with puppies!

So if you're like Anne - you want to get another family dog but don’t have the family at home any more, here are a few things to consider:

• Early socialisation to everything in our world is vital. This includes towns, shops, countryside, schools, fairs, horses, bikes, trains, dogs, children, etc. “Early” means from the day after your puppy arrives, at 8 weeks.

• A first-rate force-free Puppy Class will give you lots of tools and experience

• Mental stimulation is more tiring and satisfying than physical exercise alone. This was a big surprise to Anne!

• Playing with your dog is much more fun than telling him off

• Care less about the spotlessness of your home - you have a dog!

• Choose a breed that was not designed to run over moor and mountain for eight hours a day

• Worry less about what your dog is doing, and more about what you are doing


Most of all, enjoy your puppy!

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