Habituation is the process whereby your puppy becomes accustomed to non-threatening things in the environment and learns to ignore them. The aim is for every experience to be positive for the puppy
Socialisation is the process whereby your puppy learns how to recognise and interact with the people and other animals it will live with
There is a sensitive period of development in which socialisation and habituation must occur. For puppies this period is between 3 and 14 weeks of age, but exposure to things needs to continue regularly for the first year of life. A dog that has had no experience of something by the end of the sensitive period will always be fearful of it; a dog that has had some exposure, but not sufficient, will be better adjusted, although not entirely sound; and a dog that has had adequate experience in the sensitive period will grow up to be "bomb proof". Although it is possible through training to improve fearful reactions, prevention is always better than cure!
Watch your puppy carefully when he meets something new. He should be curious and want to explore. You are responsible for making sure the experience is always positive for him. If he shows any fear, move away and try again.
A puppy’s exposure to environmental stimuli should be as systematic as possible to ensure the best chance of it developing a sound temperament and capacity to cope in all circumstances. A lot of responsibility lies with the breeder. Basically, a puppy obtained from a chaotic, noisy family household is far less likely to develop a fearful temperament than one that has been kept exclusively in a kennel or farm building.
Of course, the puppy needs to be kept safe from catching infections and it should not be taken for walks in public places until after its vaccinations are completed, but this does not mean you need to keep your puppy indoors at home all the time until then. There are lots of things you should do at home and you can even take your puppy out and about in the car and by carrying it until it is safe for your puppy to walk by itself.
Things that you should do at home
Accustom your puppy to lots of visitors of both sexes and all ages. This will develop its social experience and help to keep territorial behaviour to manageable levels in later life. Ensure your visitors only say "Hello” and fuss your puppy once it has got over it's initial excitement, so as to prevent the development of boisterous greeting behaviour.
Accustom your puppy to being handled by your and/or visitor's children, but don't let them pester it or treat it as a toy. ALWAYS SUPERVISE. Arrange to meet someone with a baby regularly, especially if you plan to have a family. This will help to overcome the common worries about how the family dog will react to a new baby and toddlers.
Domestic sights and sounds
Expose your puppy to noisy domestic stimuli such as the vacuum cleaner, washing machine, dishwasher, toaster etc. but don't make an issue of them. Let the puppy get used to them gradually without being stressed.
The postman and milkman etc
Carry your puppy and meet these people as often as you can. If your puppy gets to know and like them and more importantly learns that they will not "run away" if it barks, it is far less likely to show territorial aggression towards them when it grows up. (Some householders have to collect their post from the sorting office because the postman will not deliver as a result of their dog's behaviour).
If you have one, introduce your puppy to it. Keep the puppy under control and reward it for not pestering. Be careful not to worry the cat, as it may scratch your puppy. Placing the cat in a cat carrying basket just out of the puppy's reach can be a useful method of introduction with little chance of an unpleasant incident occurring. This can be repeated after a few days so that both puppy and cat learn to become settled in each other's company.
Other dogs at home
If you already have a dog introduce your puppy to it in the garden. Once the initial acceptance has been made by the older dog, the two should find their own level and settle down without too much intervention from you.
Prepare your puppy for walking on the lead by getting it used to its collar and lead in the house and garden.
Socialisation is very important, but so is learning to be alone. Puppies who are not accustomed to being left unattended on a regular basis are much more likely to suffer from separation anxiety (i.e. become anxious when separated from the owner) in adulthood. The three main symptoms of separation anxiety are destructiveness, incessant howling or barking and loss of toilet control.
To help prevent your puppy from suffering from this very common syndrome, you need to leave it unattended (i.e. in the house on its own) for over an hour on most days, preferably in the area that it sleeps in overnight. Ensure this area is "chew proof" and free from hazards such as electrical cables etc. Crates and pens are useful. Leave your puppy with some appropriate chew items, such as long lasting chews from the pet shop, and fresh water.
Initially you should accustom your puppy to you sitting in another room, with the door between you open. Over a period of time the routine can be carried out with the door shut. Once your puppy accepts this you can start to leave the house; go next door for a coffee, for example. Gradually extend the time you are away until you are absent for over an hour on a regular basis. Do not go back if you hear your puppy crying. Return when it is quiet. If a puppy thinks it can "call you back “ it may never accept being left.
Be very matter of fact about going out and coming home. If you fuss your puppy before leaving you can unsettle it and make it want to go with you. Too much fuss on returning home highlights the loneliness of your absence.
Things to do away from home
Go to all the environments you can think of that will help your puppy become "bomb proof" . Start in quieter places and gradually find busier ones. Remember to carry your puppy until it has completed its vaccinations.
Expose your puppy to the sound of traffic and the movement of people. Start in quiet side streets and gradually build up to busy ones.
Places where people congregate
Any environment where people tend to congregate to sit and chat will do, so that they have the time to take interest in and handle your puppy. Local parks, beaches and town centres are good for this
Children's play areas, schools, creches
These are good places to meet lots of children of different ages (but consult your veterinary surgeon about the appropriate worming programme before bringing your puppy in contact with children). Take your puppy along to the local school or creche at playtimes or starting and end times. Take your time and start with just a few children and control their enthusiasm to prevent your puppy from being overwhelmed.
Plenty of car travel will accustom your puppy to it and help prevent car sickness. Do not let your puppy sit on the front seat or on someone's lap. Accustom it to travelling in the place it will occupy when it is an adult.
Accustom your puppy to the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside and livestock etc. (in your enthusiasm don't forget the Country Code).
Once your veterinary surgeon has said that your puppy can be safely walked on a lead instead of carried, carry on as before but go back to using quiet areas, then gradually build up to noisy and busy ones again. In addition think about the unusual places to which you can accustom your puppy, for example, open staircases can be a problem, as can the vibration of station platforms when trains arrive or the movement of the floors on trains, buses and lifts. Encourage your puppy to walk on lots of different surfaces, such as concrete, gravel, sand, mud, stones, gratings and manhole covers. In the countryside keep your puppy on a lead and reward it for staying with you and ignoring livestock.
Socialising with other dogs
Puppies learn a lot from their littermates and mother. It is important that the process of learning to interact with other dogs continues througout the socialisation period and first year of life. However, socialising with other dogs does not entail allowing your puppy to run amok with other dogs in the park or on the beach! You would not allow your child to run off and play with any child they see, so be as careful with your puppy! If the other dogs are not properly socialised, their interactive and communication skills may be poor, which can often result in a misunderstanding and aggression. This sort of encounter could result in your puppy learning to be aggressive towards, or fearful of, other dogs. So set up meetings with your friends’ or family well behaved dogs instead.
Puppy training classes are a great environment for puppies to learn to be with and meet other dogs in a controlled way. Good classes will teach you how to help your puppy greet people and other dogs calmly and politely. Our behaviourist, Carol Clark, runs such classes, so contact her to enrol now!
What should I do if my puppy shows any fear whilst it is being socialised/habituated?
Do not overreact. Just keep calm, be matter of fact (it’s OK you know!) and show your puppy there is nothing to worry about
Reward the puppy every time it does not react to the stimuli, or as soon as it recovers from its fright if it does react
Expose the puppy to the type of stimulus that worried it as often as possible, but initially from a distance (i.e. reduce the size of the stimulus) so that the puppy can become desensitised to it and learn to cope. As the puppy's reaction improves you can gradually get closer
Do not try to pressure a puppy into approaching the item as you will make things worse, rather move a little further away until you see your puppy calming down and coping
Remember: Start socialisation and habituation from the moment you get your puppy and continue it for the first year of its life!