I currently have a dog in with me for training. He’s a 5 month old German Shepherd and has been brought to me because he’s already growled and snapped at the owner’s two daughters and the guy is worried, quite rightly, that next time it may not just be a warning and he may do them actual harm. When I had my initial meeting with the family and met the dog himself, it quickly became clear that this puppy isn’t aggressive at all, but just very very nervous. They have only had him for one month and prior to that the pup had been at the breeders, in a kennel with his brother and his sister, seeing no other person or anything else for that matter, for his entire life so far. The most important window of a puppy’s development for socialising is between 7 and 15 weeks, and these poor people got this puppy at 16 weeks. He wasn’t under socialised, he was completely UN-socialised.
As a result of this whenever the puppy felt cornered, threatened or frightened he was showing signs of aggression. By the very nature of an aggressive reaction, people will back away because they understand what that means, therefore the dog learns that aggression works, because the thing that he’s scared of has backed away. In other words, it is a self rewarding behaviour.
Throughout this dog’s rehabilitation programme I did not deal with his aggression, because he wasn’t an aggressive dog. Instead I spent the whole time dealing with his lack of confidence. If he feels more confident then the things that previously made him feel insecure and made him want to defend himself will no longer make him feel that way because he’s more confident and is scared of less things.
I can not stress enough the importance of socialising your puppy if you want to have a well balanced and confident adult. Many behaviour problems that I am called to are caused by nerves or anxiety due to lack of socialising. Nervous biting, excessive barking, separation anxiety and poor toilet habits are some of the behaviour problems that can be prevented by good socialising.
Below are my top ten tips on socialising your dog.
TEN TOP TIPS FOR SOCIALISING YOUR PUPPY WELL
1. Never push your puppy out of his comfort zone. Watch his body language and if he’s starting to freak out, stop whatever you’re doing.
2. Before he’s old enough to go outside, invite lots of people to your house so he meets all kinds of humans (in dribs and drabs though, don’t have a party!) Ideally, make these people play with him or give him treats so he associates humans with good things. Especially invite men and children round if possible (although not all at the same time!) as most dogs tend to have a natural trust of women, but need assurance with men and children.
3. Once he’s old enough to go outside, take him to other people’s houses to visit so he learns to greet humans in different environments.
4. Mix him well with other dogs, but be VERY careful that you know the other dogs are friendly. It literally takes one bad experience and you have a fighter for life on your hands.
5. Take him to busy places, like shopping malls, so he can watch all the hustle and bustle. Again, be careful that this doesn’t scare him, and if it does let him watch from a distance first, gradually closing the gap.
6. Get him used to noises, such as bangs. There’s nothing more distressing to watch than a terrified dog on bonfire night.
7. Don’t make an issue of things. If he’s acting afraid of something, simply walk him away from it. Do not try and drag him towards it, telling him it’s OK, and absolutely do not call him a good boy. He will interpret his fear as the thing you’re praising.
8. Get him used to the car. Start off with letting him sit in the stationary car with a chew stick or a toy, so he learns that the car is a fun place to be. Then start with short journeys around the block to make sure he doesn’t get car sick. As with the lead and collar, introduced correctly the car can be a real place of excitement for your puppy.
9. If you live in a rural or quiet area make sure you take him walking down main roads so he gets used to the noise and sight of passing cars. It is possible for a dog to love being IN the car, but be afraid of passing cars.
10. If there is something in your specific lifestyle or area that will happen often, make sure your puppy is introduced to it properly and regularly. Things such as, if you live near a hunting area, the sound of guns will scare him to start. If you live on a main road, he might be OK with cars, but big wagons might scare him. If you live in a busy area, drunken crowds staggering home at night might scare him. It is essential to adapt your socialising to fit in with your lifestyle and area. Otherwise your puppy will live in perpetual fear of every day sounds.
Socialising your new puppy is probably THE singular most important thing you can do for him. Start as early as possible and show him as many new things and situations and noises as possible. The key here, as we say in Cyprus, is slowly slowly. Introduce lots of new things, without bombarding him or scaring him. And keep it fun. Remember, he’s just a baby.