Ask just about anyone and they’ll tell you to “socialise” your puppy.” But what does that mean? Socialisation is a deceptively simple concept and it means vastly different things to different people. Plus, some of the ‘socialisation classes’ out there often create the very problems they sought to prevent.
What Makes A Good (and Bad!) Socialisation Class?
- Careful Management
Beware classes where puppies are encouraged to simply make a beeline for other dogs, romp till they drop … and ignore their owner. Err, why would you want that?! Surely, you want your puppy to be calm around other dogs (or humans) and ensure your pup can respond to you amid distractions? “Over friendliness” is a nice term for a common problem. Dogs who think that every other dog/human equals playtime can be very annoying! You may have met such a dog, you know the one who simply cant settle until he’s dragged the owner across a field barking or whining to ‘say hello’ to another dog? Do your pup a favour – practice ignoring other dogs (and people!) as often as you practise politely greeting them. This may sound odd but imagine someone walking down the street who approached every stranger he happened upon. It’d be weird … possibly creepy! Teaching your pup how to ignore other beings at certain times doesn’t make your pup less social or civilised, it just means your pup learns when its appropriate to greet and when it’s not. Plus it makes Fido a more pleasant companion!
The ‘play fighting’ that is often allowed – and encouraged – in ‘socialisation classes’ is far from social. It’s called ‘play fighting’ for a reason – it’s practising fighting! Why would you want your puppy practising behaviours that may be unacceptable as he or she grows up or that may provoke an aggressive or anxious reaction from other dogs? Encouraging over boisterous ‘play’ simply lays down a blue print in your little pup’s brain of what is ‘ok’; but this kind of behaviour isn’t ok. So help your puppy out; teach your puppy how to interact politely and help them develop an ‘on/off’ switch so they can leave an interaction if required.
And that hyper wiggly thing where the puppy rolls on its back when approached? Is that ‘social’ or is it actually the puppy being anxious or overwhelmed by the situation? Often the frenetic wiggling and roll on the back is an appeasement gesture. Its the puppy’s way of saying ‘I’m not sure how to handle this’. By contrast, a pup with sound social skills doesn’t need to get all hyped up; he or she has the confidence to approach calmly and ‘read’ the situation rather than ‘react’ to it.
- Too Many Puppies, Too Little Space
Beware classes with lots of puppies – we advise 4 – 6 maximum. More than that and its simply about profit for the Trainer, not your puppy’s welfare. More than 6 puppies is too much for one – even highly skilled – Trainer to manage properly. Also, look carefully at the size of the room. You and your pup should ideally have a ‘pen’, a safe zone that’s just for you; with lots of space from classmates so that your puppy can have some respite. If your pup is struggling to disengage from other pups and pulling/whining to get to the puppy next to you – then you’re too close. The set up is just too crowded for pup to learn effectively.
- Put quality over quantity in your Socialisation Plan. Giving your pup good quality experiences, where you teach your pup how to approach different social situations CALMLY is far more important than lots of poor quality, overwhelming ones.
- Teach your pup how to ‘tune-out’ distractions; to see them but choose to ignore them and happily walk on by. Spend LOTS of time on this, it’ll make your life so much easier in future!
- Dogs who learn these skills, learn to ‘think’ logically rather than ‘react emotionally’ – and this gives them a huge advantage in life. By contrast, a dog who never got the chance to practise calm greetings ends up a social misfit! Jumping up on people endlessly, getting growled/barked at by other dogs because of poor play-etiquette. Your pup ends up labelled as ‘cant be trusted’. This makes outings stressful and limits your dog’s (and your own) life.
- If you’d like to read more on the subject, I’d highly recommend Laura Von Arendonk’s super book “Social, Civil & Savvy”