Our blog this month comes from guest writer, Claire Denyer, a professional dog trainer who, along with her husband John, runs Family Dog Services in Kent. Claire is also the author of the book ‘The Life of Rose – Raising Puppies the Family Dog Services Way’ and ‘The Life of Rose’ blog, which are based on the journey of her own Labrador from an 8-week-old puppy to a confident, well-mannered member of the family.

The period up to 16 weeks is one of the most important periods in your dog’s life.

The critical socialisation period for a puppy is the first 12 weeks. This means that from when you bring your puppy home at around eight weeks of age, you only have a few weeks to get going. It really highlights how important it is to have a socialisation and habituation action plan in place before collecting your new puppy.

I repeat this really is a critical time for socialisation. The puppy is becoming more aware of their surroundings and will go through two distinct learning phases, canine socialisation, and human socialisation. During this time, the puppy is learning all about our world and should be exposed to many different experiences through socialisation and habituation.

I remember when Rose was 11 weeks old, we could see her studying everything we did. She would watch us intently, clearly working things out. She would sit there with her head tilted, taking everything in. It used to make me smile watching her figure everything out.

Be mindful that there is a fear impact period which runs from around eight to 11 weeks of age. You may, or may not, notice during this time that your puppy can become wary or fearful of anything unfamiliar, and they need to be carefully socialised.

To help introduce Rose to new environments and experiences during this time, I made a list and a plan to follow. Just because your pup is in that period doesn't mean you have to mollycoddle them; you just need to try to make their new experiences fun and positive.

When you bring your puppy home the puppy socialisation and habituation period you will be working within is eight to 16 weeks of age. During this time, your puppy should begin basic training, and you should be working your way through your socialisation and habituation plan.

Remember, the period up to 16 weeks is the most important period in your dog’s life. Your puppy learns more during this short space of time than at any other time in their life. Of course, your dog will be learning for life, through life experiences, however, what you see at 16 weeks through your moulding and educating is a good indication of what you are going to get as an adult dog without training or behavioural modification. Therefore, work hard on giving your young dog the best start in life that you can.

Socialisation is a word that is often very misunderstood, it is the process of getting your puppy or dog, used to something. It is the learning process that a puppy goes through to learn essential life skills to ensure that he/she is happy and confident in their environment. If a puppy does not see and experience a variety of things including people, cars, dogs and so on, that they will come across in their lives until the socialisation period has ended, he/she is more likely to be fearful. A fearful dog is often an unhappy dog, and, more likely to have behavioural problems. Socialisation is a necessary process, which will help your puppy to grow into a confident and friendly dog.

I really need to stress here that letting your puppy play fight with other dogs is not socialising. Over recent years the word socialisation has been misused and abused.

As trainers and behaviourists, we see the aftermath of incorrectly socialised dogs, making us sad and frustrated. We do our absolute best to educate owners on how to socialise their dogs appropriately.

We see the results from a lack of socialisation or inappropriate socialisation all too often in behavioural work. For example:

  • Dogs who as puppies have spent a lot of time playing, or play fighting with other dogs, often have issues like being obsessed with other dogs and poor recall.

  • Dogs who suffer from lead aggression/frustration because they are so obsessed with getting to other dogs.

  • Dogs who have been bullied by other puppies and dogs at ‘party puppies’ and are fearful or defensive as a result.

Our advice is that your puppy should be exposed to many different breeds and sizes of dogs to help ensure that he/she does not later develop a fear of them. We recommend taking opportunities for the puppy to experience other dogs under control. This could be as simple as seeing or meeting other dogs on walks, they do not have to 'play' with them. The puppy should learn how to greet dogs appropriately, relaxed with a quick sniff before you move them away. The interactions should be managed to ensure that no boisterous behaviour is indulged, and the puppy is neither bullied nor allowed to bully.

As well as other dogs, try to ensure your puppy meets, or at least sees, as many different people as possible, short, tall, different skin colours, men with facial hair, children etc. Do this over time so that the puppy is not overwhelmed. Remember too that some dogs can develop irrational fears of inanimate objects such as walking sticks, umbrellas and hats, bicycles and so on.

A correctly socialised dog is a joy to own as they will be able to accompany you, should you wish, to the beach, pub, family outings, coping well around a variety of situations with confidence. They are also generally easier to train if they are confident and happy.

Habituation: The best way I can describe habituation is a dog becoming comfortable or accustomed to different sights and sounds, both on walks and in the home, like the hoover, the T.V., traffic, anything that your puppy comes across in life. Generally speaking, the more a puppy is exposed to things, the less likely they will be to become fearful or worried by them. Habituation sounds a lot like socialisation doesn't it. The easiest way I can explain the difference between socialisation and habituation is that socialisation allows the puppy to learn canine etiquette, and to learn correct and acceptable behaviour when around other dogs and people. These are skills that your puppy learns, and you help teach. Starting socialisation when the puppy is young helps minimise future behavioural problems and teaches your puppy good manners from day one.

Habituation, on the other hand, is exposure to things. If done too fast or incorrectly, it may be too much for the puppy to cope with, but too little exposure could lead to fears, phobias, or even inappropriate behaviours. Habituation doesn’t require any actual interaction with the stimulus.

You can read more about Rose’s journey in the book ‘The Life of Rose’, in which Claire walks you through raising a puppy the Family Dog Services way. You can purchase a copy here

Claire and John provide training and behavioural services for dogs. They also have a range of online Gundog Training Courses for anyone who is unable to train with them in person, including a 6-week Puppy Foundation course. Find out more about Claire and John and the services they offer on the Family Dog Services website

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