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Puppy Socialisation and Habituation

Tips from Agria's Behaviour and Training Advisor
Puppy Socialisation and Habituation

When it comes to training your puppy, you are probably thinking about teaching him to sit when you ask and come when you call. There are however some far more important things that should form part of his early education.

We need our dogs to be social and safe when they meet people and other dogs, and we need them to take in their stride all the things that form part of the day-to-day life of a modern companion dog. This is how you prevent future behaviour problems and avoid a dog who may have fears and phobias, or be reactive and worried.

This doesn’t happen naturally – it takes a lot of work, first from the puppy’s breeder, and then from you as the new owner but time spent on this vital part of your puppy’s life will pay off later as he turns into the go-anywhere dog of your dreams.

What is socialisation?

Most people know that puppies need to be socialised but few people really understand what that really means, how to do it and when to do it. The first thing to note is that there are two parts to what is usually just called ‘socialisation’.

The first, the actual socialisation bit, involves introducing the puppy positively to all the things you want him to have a social relationship with (so play with and interact with). Generally this is just people and other dogs. It includes all kinds of people – women, men, children, babies, people with hats, people with umbrellas, people with flapping clothing… you get the picture.

The other bit, called habituation, is teaching the puppy that there are lots of things in his new life that while they could be potentially scary or wildly distracting, are just things to ignore and not get worried or excited about. This can be everything from vacuum cleaners to fireworks, joggers to livestock, traffic to cyclists and so on…

So socialisation means you play with it, habituation means you ignore it!

The socialisation window for puppies

The tricky bit of this socialisation is that there are only certain times during the development of your puppy’s brain when these things can be learnt. After that the window of opportunity in the part of your dog’s development responsible for the soft skills and staying safe, closes - and the way that dog will react to people, other dogs, situations, his social skills and his behavioural competencies are pretty much now set in stone, as once brain connections are made, they can’t be unmade.

The socialisation part starts when your puppy starts to become sentient at around 15 days old and finishes at about 14 weeks old (this varies in different breeds and types). During this time, he is learning who his social group is, who he feels safe around, and who he is happy to look on as part of his family.

The habituation window for puppies

The habituation part is far shorter – as all animals need to learn very quickly what is safe and what is dangerous if they want to survive - and this starts at sentience and largely finishes at around 7 weeks old – although reassessments (“is it really safe?”) and generalisations (“I know it was safe when I was with the breeder but is it safe here too?”) are being made for a few more weeks.

Keeping it fun

And it’s not just introducing puppies to all these things either… It is about doing it in a positive fun way so they feel happy around these things. As well as learning what things are safe, they are also learning what things are scary or potentially dangerous – so when it comes to socialisation it’s as much how you do it as it is about what you do.

How to socialise your puppy

So…how can we use this knowledge of our puppy’s early development to make sure our dogs are well adjusted and safe members of canine society?

  • Make sure your puppy comes from a knowledgeable breeder who understands socialisation and habituation and has prioritised this with their puppies. Much of the vital work happens in this time.
  • Once the puppy comes home with you, make sure everyone in the family handles him gently and that he gets time to learn to trust his new people.
  • Make a chart for each week up to 16 weeks and include all the things you want your puppy to be social to, and not worried about. This could include different people, different dogs, traffic, trains, pubs, groomers… anything and everything you might need him to accept as an adult. Tick off every experience he gets – and try to get three exposures to each one in each week! The chart will help you see what you might be missing.
  • Do not allow your puppy to be frightened in these early weeks – but make sure he gets a chance to see and hear all the usual household objects at a safe distance (vacuum cleaners etc.) – and reward him for ignoring them.
  • Introduce him to a variety of different people – men, women, children… anyone you can find! Make sure he has good experiences with them – and is rewarded with treats to make the association that people mean ‘good stuff’!
  • Find a good puppy playgroup so he can mix with other dogs and people in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Find an app with strange noises on it (thunderstorms, fireworks, gunshots etc) and play these quietly at random times when your puppy is doing fun stuff like playing or eating. This can reduce noise phobias. Watch your puppy carefully to make sure he’s not worried by this.
  • Take him out and about as much as you can to a variety of places – always making sure he is happy and not worried by anything. Give him plenty of treats to teach him that the world is a safe and wonderful place!
  • If you have any concerns, find an appropriately trained and qualified behaviourist to help you.

About the Author

Carolyn is an accredited behaviourist and trainer with over 20 years experience working with dogs and other companion animals. She has written books, over 500 published articles and trains owners and professionals alike both nationally and internationally. Carolyn is also an experienced broadcaster and presenter, has appeared in five TV series’ and countless radio shows. Her passion is for helping owners build a strong and positive relationship with their dogs and fully develop the potential of the bond between them.

More articles from Carolyn Menteith

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