When I got my first puppy just over 2 years ago all the advice was to get my puppy out into the big wide world as much as possible and to do as many different things and experiences with him as I could. I believed the advice that puppies were clean slates and that if I socialised him lots and took him to puppy training, he’d be great. I even had a tick box socialisation chart from my dog trainer that I stuck it up on my kitchen wall so I could tick things off as I completed them.
Right from the start Max was cautious in new surroundings, if visitors came, he’d stay back and warm up to them slowly, I noticed he wasn’t like all the other puppies in class that were social butterflies jumping on every human they saw, and this made me even more determined to keep going with my socialisation chart. When I reflect now, I wasn’t giving him any time to recover, it was just new experience after new experience. I was conscious the experiences needed to be positive, but I remember thinking that as long as nothing bad happened then that was positive. In reality many of the experiences were overwhelming him and he learnt that sometimes the world can be a scary place – the exact opposite of what you want a puppy to learn. If he struggled with a situation, I would leave him to figure it out on his own, I thought he was learning about life and that he needed to experience it, that was a mistake.
Max is an incredible dog, he’s a sociable dog with a hard work ethic, I love nothing more than watching him hunt with his nose down but because of those early learnings as a puppy he often approaches new people and situations with caution. He learnt at an early age that if things are scary he can bark and they usually go away and it’s taken a lot of work to build his confidence and teach him the world is fun and that humans he doesn’t know are nice and kind, just like the humans he does know. So the tick box socialisation approach didn’t work for Max, I should have taken things at his pace and then given him time to recover in familiar surroundings.
Seven is my new puppy and is now 20 weeks old, he has a very different temperament to Max, he’s a confident little puppy and on the whole he thinks life is just one big party. I knew right from the start that Seven’s socialisation would be led by Seven and that we would do things at his pace, he’d have time to recover and process his new experiences and that if he was struggling with something, I’d let him know I was there to support him. During my training as a dog trainer and as a professional dog walker I’ve learnt a lot about body language and canine communication, I knew that with Seven I’d be able to see when he was struggling so I could pick him up and we’d experience the new thing together. This happened the first few times we walked down a busy road near home at school going home time. The busses, running and screaming children and car horns going off were a lot for him to handle, so I picked him up through the busy stretch and then when we got to the park we played and had fun to make the experience positive. We did this for 2 days, had a rest day and on the fourth day he just walked through the busy stretch to the park and he wasn’t fazed at all.
Often people with puppies will try and find other new puppy owners so they can play and socialise their puppy, some places even have puppy parties! Although a puppy party might be cuteness overload, it’s important to think about what the puppies might teach other? Puppies don’t always know how to play appropriately or have manners, they often get over excited and can’t calm themselves down when they get over excited. Puppies need to learn social skills and manners; how to meet and greet other dogs and recognise subtle body language, the best way to learn these skills is from well socialised adult dogs. We don’t send our kids to school to be taught by other kids, they’re taught by well-educated adults, so why wouldn’t we want the same for our puppies? Seven hasn’t spent much time at all with other puppies but in the first week at home with me he’d met numerous adult dogs, he’d spent time with Flat Coat Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Cockapoo’s and Sprockers, and my other dog Max of course.
So, I guess a one size fits all approach to socialisation doesn’t work for all puppies, even though that’s the advice that a lot of people are given, for me it’s about appropriate socialisation based on your puppy’s temperament and confidence. For me a well socialised dog will have different social skills they can draw on in different situations, I teach my dogs to ignore other dogs and humans when they are on off lead walks, but if a dog approaches them, they can meet and greet and then we move on. The number one priority for me during the socialisation period is to protect a puppies confidence, and build it.