Following the festivities, many have welcomed new puppies into their home and hearts. Many are booking onto classes and looking for puppy parties, eager to socialise their puppy. Sadly, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions regarding socialisation, which can often result in puppy owners achieving the direct opposite to what they intended. This blog is going to consider 3 of those myths, in order to help you get socialisation right from the start.
Socialising your Puppy will stop reactivity
When dog guardians see a reactive dog on their walk, they often assume a dog is reactive because of a lack of socialisation, but this is rarely the case. Reactivity has many causes such as trauma, ill health, age or stage of development, aversive training, temperament and genetics. You can give a puppy all the best training and socialisation in the world and they could still become reactive if they have a traumatic experience with another dog, if aversive equipment are used in the presence of other dogs or even when they grow old and they begin to lose their sight and/or hearing. Some puppies are born with a predisposition to reactivity, because their parents struggled with reactivity or their mother experienced chronic stress during her pregnancy.
Some puppies become dog reactive during adolescence, despite lots of positive socialisation because they go through a second fear period between 6-9 months of age. Due to all the neurological and hormonal changes, adolescence is a very sensitive and vulnerable time in canine development and even situations or experiences that we don’t perceive as scary, can be traumatic for a puppy, triggering reactive behaviour. Puppies can also become ‘over socialised’ when the quality of experiences isn’t maintained. For instance, some puppy parties can be a free for all, and your puppy could be overwhelmed and even be bullied, something which is commonly observed at these often unsupervised events. Negative experiences such as these, could really impact your puppy’s resilience and result in reactivity.
Exposing your puppy will reduce fear
“Make sure you expose your puppy to everything as quickly as possible.” Sound familiar? Despite the fact that many if not all dog owners know the term socialisation, not many actually understand the intricacies of appropriate socialisation. Many see socialisation as a tick list you need to rush through because they believe any exposure is going to reap positive results. This has led to some pretty strange unethical trends, such as puppy yoga and pass the puppy. (An activity where puppies are passed in a circle to complete strangers). When we expose a puppy or dog to something and disregard their needs, body language and right to consent, we are flooding the puppy, not socialising them.
Flooding involves forcefully exposing an animal or person to a feared stimulus, with no means of escape, based upon the fact that the person or animal cannot exhibit fearful behaviours forever. This is a very controversial behavioural therapy and is the equivalent of locking a person with arachnophobia, in a room full of spiders. This approach has a high chance of failure and can cause a phenomenon known as ‘learned helplessness’, whereby the dog learns there is no escape, so they emotionally shut down. The fears are still there but they have been suppressed and pushed below the surface.
Puppies may endure social experiences but will often exhibit body language to communicate their discomfort. If and when this body language is ignored phobias, reactivity and aggression can gradually develop over time. Hence, the best thing you can do for your puppy is to give them choice by giving them the option to move away or not be touched. They will be more resilient in social situations if their needs and communication are respected and they socialise on their own terms.
Let your Puppy say hi to every dog
This is one myth I am always eagerly discussing with puppy owners because allowing your puppy to say hi to every dog causes a real a headache when your puppy reaches adolescence. Although playing and interacting with other dogs is important, it’s actually a very small part of socialisation. One of the most important skills to teach your puppy, is you can’t say hello to every dog. Once a puppy is heading towards a year old, many guardians are no longer eager to interrupt their walk and say hi to each and every dog their dog sees because their dog has already been socialised.
Therefore, they prevent their dog saying hello and the dog becomes incredibly frustrated. Some dogs will even begin barking and lunging, causing onlookers to think your dog is aggressive. Despite all that socialisation, you now have a ‘frustrated greeter’; a dog that becomes dog reactive because they can’t say hello. In an effort to address the problem, guardians will often revert back to allowing their dog to say hello as quickly as possible, to stop the barking, but this only exacerbates the problem.
Realistically, your puppy can’t say hi to every dog because that is not going to be an expectation you can meet consistently when they are adults. Therefore, teaching your puppy to engage and calmly walk past other dogs, is an essential part of socialisation because this is something you will want them to do as adults. So by all means, allow your puppy to greet and play with other dogs when appropriate, but mix up those experiences by training your puppy around dogs from a safe distance so they don’t become frustrated and dog reactive.
So to ensure you get socialisation off to the best start, recognise that no dog is immune from becoming reactive and that it can still develop despite your best intentions. Remember it is also possible to over socialise a puppy by removing all choices and fully exposing them to situations that elicit fear. Therefore, it is crucial to diversify their social experiences and give them plenty of support and agency to develop resilience at their own pace.