With the launch of our first puppy classes this week, I thought it would be a good time to talk about socialisation. What is it and why is it so important?
Without doubt, socialisation is the most important part of puppy training. At 16 weeks of age your puppies brain will be roughly 10 times larger than a newborn pup. This is not because it has grown more brain cells, but because of the increase in the number of connections between them. This is a direct result of all the learning they do in that time! These first 16 weeks are the best opportunity we have to prevent behaviour issues later in life by introducing your puppy to all of the situations it is likely to encounter in its role as your pet dog. Whilst we can't expose them to every single thing they may encounter in life, the more positive experience they get during this period, the more likely they are to be accepting of novel things later in life.
So that's the why covered, now for the how.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that simply showing their pup something or taking them somewhere new to experience it is socialisation. It is not quite that simple. Think of it this way, lets say you are introducing your pup to a baby. Babies are noisy, often in a high pitched way and to sensitive puppy ears the noise could be pretty uncomfortable. They are also unpredictable with their movements and may fall on top of the puppy or try to grab it. So if they are meeting a baby who is screaming in excitement, grabing its fur and is a bit unsteady on its feet so accidently falls over on top of the puppy, what is this puppy learning about babies? Given the way we know conditioning works, it is likley that this puppy is learning that babies are associated with pain/discomfort and are therefore best avoided. In our efforts to socialise this pup we could actually have done the oppisite, causing problems later in life.
So the golden rule of socialisation is MAKE IT POSITIVE!
We can not just expose our pups to new things and assume that is enough. If we imagine 2 puppies, each with their own bank account. They both start off with a balance of £0. Puppy A gets good positive socialisation with other dogs. They have been paid in treats and play everytime they have interacted with another dog so their account now has £100 in it. Puppy B has not had this socialisation. By chance, puppy B has had a few positive encounters on its daily walk so has accumulated £30 in its account. Then both puppies unfortunately come accross a reactive dog who lunges and barks at them and whilst no damage is done it was a horrible experience for the pups. The pups have both just had £50 withdrawn from their accounts....
Puppy A, protected by his good socialisation still has £50 in his account but puppy B is now £20 overdrawn. What will each of their reactions be the next time they come accross another dog? How confident/relaxed will each of them be? It is likely that puppy B will struggle more than puppy A.
As an owner you are your puppies advocate and although they don't have a voice, you can learn to read their body language to determine whether they are comfortable with the situation they are in. We can use this information to make sure that novel things are presented at a distance or volume they can cope with as well as actively ensuring that these new experiences are paired with things the puppy likes, such as treats or play to ensure we are fostering a positive relationship with what ever we are introducing them to.
For more information and ideas for things you should socialise your puppy with, the Kennel Club have an excellent resource http://www.thepuppyplan.com/ . You can also book your spot on our upcoming puppy life skills courses by contacting us where we can help you with learning how to listen to your pups body language and help you build up that bank account!