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  • Writer's pictureCanine Consultant - Emma

Getting Socialisation & Habituation Right (and how to avoid getting it wrong!)

I keep seeing articles on socialisation and a bunch of other dog training things, with annoyingly click-baity titles like 'I NEVER SOCIALISE MY PUPPIES - HERE'S WHY!'... They annoy me and I don't think they serve to educate the owners, as a lot of folk will just skip past and simply not socialise their puppy... they just exist to piss off other trainers. So in the interests of being constructive rather than destructive... here goes, a guide to socialisation, and habituation (it's often left off but its important) and what to avoid! What ARE "socialisation and habituation"? Good question, I am so pleased you asked. Socialisation means learning how to safely and politely exist alongside a variety of other animals. Habituation means becoming familiar with a bunch of situations and environments and goings on, such that the puppy is not fazed by 'stuff and things'.

Both should be achieved by gradual exposure paired with high value reinforcers to effectively create a 'happy feels' database in your puppies brain, so that the next time they experience this sound/sight/place/person/animal, they think 'oh, this was ok last time, probably it's ok this time'. Both these are VERY important to your puppy, although I find they are lumped together under the one term 'socialisation' very often, and its also rare that its fully explained what we REALLY mean by it. Oh great, so it means my puppy should greet everyone and play with everyone? Hell no! Read it back; 'safely and politely exist alongside a variety of other animals'...

This is the first and most common misunderstanding, socialisation does NOT mean your puppy has to greet everyone, should be taught to run up and jump on every dog, should recieve treats from strangers, should be played with fussed picked up cuddled kissed.. whatever.. by everyone they clap eyes on.

We should be teaching our puppies that it is safe to see, and hear all these other animals around us, that it is rewarding to experience them at a distance, up a bit closer, in a variety of places. Further more, those reinforcers should be coming from us, the puppy owner, not strangers, and this leads me onto 'Common Error 2'...

I don't need to give Puppy treats, he's fine with this... oh wait now he looks worried, I'll give him a treat, oh he doesn't want it now... guess treats don't work!

Yeah, so the point of the socialisation and habituation process is that we PAIR highly reinforcing experiences with these new experiences of seeing people, objects, hearing loud noises, seeing fast movements or weird things. To do that, you need to be offering something super tasty at the same time as your puppy is seeing that loud motorbike or that lady with 47 shouty children all pulling rattly toys and blowing whistles. Very young puppies will often watch a scene in front of them and show no obvious fear reaction, until that is they are fully overwhelmed and THEN it's scary. If you wait until your puppy shows you that they are scared, you've just missed an opportunity to create a positive association, and you have STILL missed that opportunity even if your puppy did not show you they were scared. You had the chance to have your pup make an entry in that 'happy feels' database, now you have no entry at all, at best (as it is quite possible your puppy was worried, but simply didn't show it at the time.)

OK, but my vet says my puppy cannot go out of my house, even in my own garden, until two weeks after his 2 jab... With the greatest of respect to your vet - this is bullshit, horse-apples, whackadoodle, crazy-town talk. Did your vet also ask you to carry your puppy into the surgery and tell you not to put your puppy down on the floor or sniff the puppy sat next to you in the waiting room, did they tell you to take a decontamination shower before you re-enter your home each time you've been to the shops, to walk your adult dog, to nip to the car - hats off if they did but I'll warrant they did not. The risk of your dog being euthanised due to behavioural problems as a direct result of lack of socialisation/habituation, is greater than the risk of your dog dying of ANY of the diseases we vaccinate against, put together. (Quote, Ian Dunbar) Now that does not mean you go walk your 8 week old puppy down dog-shit-alley (every town has one), invite play dates with Mangey Marvin the Mongrel who is unvaccinated, dripping green snot and has his fur hanging off in clumps, and send him swimming in the rat infested canal. Those would be taking unnecessary risks, and your puppies immune system is still developing, it is sensible to be sensible here! Carry your puppy out and about whilst you can, for some puppies of small breeds that'll be good for ages, for larger breeds obviously this is a very short term plan indeed. Visit clean places - beaches that are washed twice daily by the tides are good, clean pavements particularly after rain can be good. Places people don't typically walk their dog like supermarket carparks, or places where you know there aren't many dogs and those that are present are on lead, picked up after etc. If you drive, or can use public transport - go to places where you can sit and watch the world go by from a distance - remembering to pair reinforcement with each thing your puppy sees and experiences. As for gardens, unless yours is a public toilet for multiple cats and foxes, your puppy should be fine to go out to the toilet from day one. If you feel there is a risk, use a puppy pen to create a suitable toilet area for your puppy and hose that down first thing every morning (and don't let your puppy near the clothing and shoes you wear out in the garden, or you'll be tramping all those germs you are keen for your puppy to avoid, straight back into the house!). Visit friends houses, if they have a dog as long as their dog is healthy and inclined to be polite and kind with your puppy (indifference is FAR better than 'mad excited play' at this point!) that can be a beneficial experience for your pup. You can also pair those reinforcements with sounds played via computer or phone, in your home. So all those fireworks, car door slams, thunder, traffic noises, baby screams, they can be found on social media, on YouTube etc. Listen through with headphones so you know what time-stamps the noisey parts are at, so you can be ready to pair reinforcements as soon as your puppy hears the sound!) Avoiding infection in the unvaccinated puppy is NOT a reason to stay locked in your home and not socialise or habituate your puppy!

Ok so what should I be doing?

  • Observing people and other animals from a distance

  • Visiting a variety of locations and environments

  • Pairing reinforcements with every movement, sound, interaction

  • Reinforcements come from you, the puppy's person. Not strangers.

  • Thinking ahead, what will you need your puppy to be ok with in a few months - fireworks? thunder? loud traffic sounds? Work on this now!

  • Walks with older, sensible dogs once your puppy is old enough for walks.

  • Visits to homes with older sensible dogs who will mostly ignore puppies.

I guess there are things I should not do?

  • Puppy parties and socialisation 'classes', where puppies all run about mullering each other. Puppies already know how to be puppies, they aren't likely to learn anything useful from one another!

  • Overwhelming situations you can't remove your puppy from - simply don't go in the first place

  • Don't be afraid to be rude to folk who want to touch/fuss/pick up your puppy - they can get their own puppy if they need a puppy to fuss!

  • Subjecting your puppy to scary or unpleasant experiences - I can't believe I have to make this so clear but it appears I do. There is NO benefit to your puppy being scared or finding something horrible. None whatsoever.

  • Do NOT let your puppy run up to every dog or person they see - teach them to stay with you until you are close enough to the person to ask if a meet and greet is ok (and check if you think their dog is a suitable dog to meet, many are not even if their owner says 'oh yes it's fine'!)

Most of all, advocate for your puppy. If you've run out of treats, if you think your puppy looks worried or tense, if you suspect something will be too much.. say no, mean it, take your puppy away and prevent that bad experience from happening in the first place. This does sometimes involve being rude or risking being thought of as rude, particularly by family and friends (because who cares if strangers think you are rude!?) It's better to come across rude, than set your puppy up for months of rehab work over an incident that could simply have been avoided!

Socialisation and habituation is about giving your puppy the BEST start in life, the best chance of being a happy, confident and easy going dog who takes all that the human world can throw at them, in their stride. It's NOT about creating a dog who loves everyone and wants to climb into their laps or fling themselves at a person from half a mile away, covered in mud and flob, its about manners, confidence and really, safety.

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