Socialisation and Habituation
Socialisation – this is how puppies learn to relate to and interact with people, dogs and other animals.
You can aid this by ensuring your puppy has positive interactions with as many people as possible: people of different ages, races and genders; people with funny hats, high vis vests, umbrellas, prams and walking sticks; men with beards; people talking loudly and laughing; and so on.
Meeting a wide variety of dogs who are good with puppies is important too, so your pup can learn how to behave with them, as well as how to read their behaviour. Puppy classes can be a brilliant way to assist socialisation of your pup, but if you choose to enrol your pet in these, they should ‘as well as’ not ‘instead of’ other social interactions. Your puppy will be able to meet lots of other dogs once their vaccination course is completed. However, to take full advantage of the socialisation period in the meantime, if you have friends with dogs who are up to date with their vaccines and flea and worming treatment and are healthy, letting your puppy meet them in your home or garden/your friend’s home or garden confers minimal disease risk and can be a great way to start this process early.
If you have other pets (eg. cats or horses), your puppy will need to learn to accept them and vice versa. Please ask if you would like any advice on how to do this.
Habituation – this is the process by which an animal learns which things in their world are normal and thus not to be worried about. This is about environments, objects and noises rather than social interaction. You will want to ensure your puppy is comfortable with noises around the house, such as hoovers, hairdryers, etc; with outside noises such as traffic, car horns, etc; with the environments (indoor and outdoor) they may be in (eg. rural, urban, homes, cafes, pubs, vets, groomers, etc); with odd visual things such as flapping plastic bags, traffic cones, etc.; with car travel; and with anything else they may come across.
Sensitisation – this is what happens if a young animal is exposed to too much, too fast. For example, if the first time your puppy sees and hears traffic is at the side of a busy main road, instead of learning that they don’t need to worry about cars, they will likely learn that cars are scary loud things and startle every time they go past. On the other hand, if you start getting your puppy used to traffic on a quiet side street, monitor their responses and see that they aren’t worried, you can gradually take them to busier and busier places.
You can usually progress faster with bolder puppies, whereas shy puppies will take longer to get used to each new thing. Start with a small version of the stimulus and build up. The key is to keep checking in with your puppy; alert is fine, frightened isn’t. Aim for socialisation and habituation, NOT sensitisation.
The charity Dogs Trust has set up a wonderful resource, called The Puppy Plan, to help with this process:
The Puppy Plan talks you through how to socialise and habituate your puppy, step by step. Click on your puppy’s age to see the tasks for that section and set up your puppy’s own personal checklist to track their process.
Dogs Trust also have a series of recordings to help habituate your puppy to different noises. These are free to download and come with a comprehensive instruction manual: