“Hello. We need some puppy training. He is 14 weeks old and almost ready to start – we have just been waiting to take him out until it’s safe after his final vaccination”
My heart sinks.
This is a call I receive all the time and every time, I feel a combination of sadness and frustration at hearing it. I could have helped that puppy so much more had the owners called me earlier. But they have been given misleading information that could affect their dog’s entire life. In fact this scenario is not the minority, but the majority, and it’s one of the main causes for behavioural problems.
When you first get a puppy, you want to make sure you do everything you can to set them up to be a healthy, well mannered and vital dog when they grow up. So of course you listen to the first professionals you have contact with – most often the breeder, the pet stores and the veterinarian.
But worryingly, many breeders, pet professionals and vets aren’t telling you what you really need to know about your pup’s development, or they’re giving you the wrong information, and some are even giving advice that could cause harm to your dog and their future behaviour. Because, wrapped in “puppy training” is something perhaps even more critical: puppy development.
The first thing your vet will recommend is puppy vaccinations but a concerning fact is that many vets are still giving the advice to keep your puppy at home until two weeks after the final puppy vaccination to protect them from disease while the vaccines take effect. Puppy training must wait.
It’s been known for many years that this advice is detrimental to your puppy’s development and while a change IS slowly coming about, the misinformation is still very widespread in the pet industry.
While this advice continues to be spread, puppies are growing into adult dogs with big problems because of a key factor that many vets gloss over or ignore completely.
A Critical Time
All puppies have a limited window of time while they’re young and during this time, learning is permanent. Puppies are soaking up information all around them like a sponge and deciding what’s good and fun in the world, and what is scary and to be avoided. This is a built in survival trait so that puppies can quickly learn what they need to avoid to stay safe when they venture away from the litter and out into the world on their own.
So if they have a scary experience during this time, it’s going to stick with them for life.
This limited window of time lasts from 3 weeks to roughly 12-14 weeks of age and can vary slightly from dog to dog and breed to breed. It’s referred to as the critical period of development and it’s called that because it really IS critical.
There’s actually a few stages within the critical period where a puppy is learning more about certain things than others. Studies have discovered amazing differences in the way puppies learn at very specific times which is beyond the scope of this article but the most important for you to know are:
3 – 5 weeks – Primary Socialisation – At around 3 weeks of age the eyes and ears open and so puppies become more aware of their surrounds. This is the critical time for puppies to interact with litter-mates and learn social skills from each other such as bite inhibition and appropriate play and interactions
6 – 12 weeks – Secondary Socialisation – this time has been found to be the most effective time for social learning around humans and the human world that the pup needs to live in.
Interestingly, around 7-8 weeks of age is when the mother of the pups becomes less tolerant of her puppies and her corrections for annoying pup behaviour increase. I’m sure this is partly because the pup’s teeth are now very sharp! It fits in well with the socialisation periods that puppies are removed from their litter and go to new homes at 8 weeks of age. Waiting too long past this age OR too early before this age can also cause issues later in life.
When should you start your puppy training? Straight away. A puppy’s learning capacity from 8-16 weeks of age is in its prime and a puppy that learns how to learn during this stage will make for a smarter and more trainable adult dog.
What Does Your Puppy Really Need During The Critical Period?
You’ve probably heard about the need for puppy socialisation and that’s exactly what is needed during your pup’s critical period.
A lack of socialisation can actually threaten your dog’s life. I can tell you it’s incredibly sad to see a 12 month old dog put to sleep because it cannot cope with the outside world, due to being kept at home for the first few months of its life on the vet’s or breeder’s advice.
If puppies aren’t exposed to a variety of environments and social situations during the critical period, their development can be compromised and the pup is unlikely to reach its full potential as an adult, even developing serious behaviour problems as a result such as separation anxiety, fears, dog aggression and human aggression.
In fact, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour acknowledges this in their position statement on puppy socialisation:
Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”
So you see, socialisation IS the most important “immunization” of all – an immunization against behaviour problems.
But What Exactly Does Socialisation Mean And How Should It Be Carried Out?
When most people hear the words, “puppy socialisation,” they often think immediately of puppies playing with other puppies and meeting other dogs. But did you know that this is only a tiny part of what makes up correct socialisation?
Socialisation is all about teaching your dog the correct social skills and how to be confident in the human world. So your puppy needs to have exposure to lots of different environments, sounds, people, animals, traffic and objects that they will need to be able to cope with as an adult dog. While socialising during the critical period is the most crucial time, socialisation never really ends and you should continue to socialise your dog throughout their life to maintain a balanced dog. Puppy training segues into adult training in this sense. The socialization side of puppy training continues to your dog’s great advantage as an adult.
So how does socialisation work? Let’s use other dogs as an example. Take note of how the outcome could go several ways depending on how socialisation is carried out:
- Your puppy has a really fun and rewarding experience with other dogs. They play furiously and the excitement levels are through the roof. This results in a dog that can’t contain their excitement whenever they see another dog, to the point that they bark and lunge towards any other dog they see, making walks unpleasant for you.
- Your puppy has a scary interaction with another dog – the other dog just wants to play but is too rough. Your pup is likely to learn that other dogs are a threat and should be avoided. This could result in fear aggression.
- Your puppy never meets another dog. They are therefore more likely to be scared of other dogs later because they haven’t had any exposure at all.
- Your dog meets other dogs that are friendly and calm and has short play sessions but when he returns to you, you provide him with play and a lot more fun.
- Your puppy will learn that other dogs are ok – but the owner is better and worth listening to! This is the option I prefer that will result in the most balanced dog later on.
You can replace the words, “other dog,” in the above examples with anything that your puppy needs to be exposed to:
- lawn mowers
- new environments
- livestock, etc.
You should aim that your puppy has either neutral or positive calm experiences but you should always be the most rewarding and fun thing in your puppy’s life. This will set you and your puppy up for easier training later because your pup will be learning the value of focusing on you no matter what else is going on in the environment. Another benefit of early socialisation and puppy training is that it develops the bond between you and your pup.
Your puppy should also learn to accept physical handling such as checking paw pads, trimming nails, checking ears, eyes, teeth and holding still for examinations. This will make trips to the vets and groomers a lot easier later and those professionals will thank you for it. It’s also a great idea to do fun trips to these places where only pleasant experiences happen. This will help you avoid fear and anxiety over going to the vet/groomer later on.
Still worried about disease? Simply don’t put your puppy on the ground in areas that are highly trafficked by unknown dogs. Remember, meeting other dogs is not the only part of socialisation anyway. Your puppy can even benefit by taking in the world from your lap or the car window.
You can also do a lot around the home by using sound recordings. I recommend the “Sound Proof Puppy Training App” for this.
The Genetic Factor
How your dog turns out is a combination of their environment AND their genetics. And the genetic influence is massive.
Fear and timidity can be passed on through genes so you may have a puppy that is genetically timid of new things.
You may also get a pup that doesn’t seem to be phased by anything in life, which is ideal.
When socialising, we need to work with what we’ve got. A stronger pup genetically may get away with less socialisation than a timid pup.
In the case of timid puppies, take it slow and make social experiences very rewarding. Your pup may never be a confidence superstar but doing your best with good socialisation now will make a significant difference.
No matter what your puppy is like, never force them to do something they are afraid of.
Should You Take Your Puppy To Puppy School?
One thing a lot of vets tell owners is that it’s not safe to go out before the end of vaccinations, but that you can bring your puppy to the vet-run puppy training school. I do find this ironic because if you’re going to be exposing your puppy to diseases anywhere, a vet clinic is where they’ll be. For this reason, carry your puppy inside when you visit the vet and don’t let them on the ground in the carpark and gardens outside of the building. The inside is usually safely sterilised.
Puppy school can be a fantastic idea but not all puppy school instructors are using the right approach, and some can actually do more harm than good.
As mentioned earlier, your puppy could learn that other dogs are a scary threat, nothing to worry about, or that they are more valuable to pay attention to than you are. The result will depend on how the school is conducted and it is worrying just how many behaviour issues I see that have resulted from poorly run puppy schools.
You’ll want to find a puppy school run by a reputable dog trainer, not a vet nurse or anyone else that talks about all the health products you need (that they sell) while the puppies have a free-for-all in the middle of the room.
A good trainer will know how to match up the right puppies to meet each other and won’t force a fearful puppy to have another puppy overwhelm them with play. They will know techniques to bring out confidence in the shy pups and prevent inappropriate play in the more exuberant pups. Plus they will know the value of teaching you how to make YOU the most important thing in your pup’s world, NOT other dogs. And of course, they’ll teach you how to correctly socialise your pup with more than just other dogs.
If you don’t have access to such a well run puppy training school, you’re likely better off doing the socialisation yourself or hiring a private trainer to help you.
Putting All The Pieces Together
There are many factors that influence how your puppy will turn out behaviour-wise. There’s genetics, socialisation, diet, medications, and the way you train them. All these pieces work together to determine whether you’ll end up with a truly vital dog in both body and mind.
A well socialised puppy can still have behavioural issues later if the genetics are poor, if they are allowed to run havoc in your household with no rules, if they are not adequately exercised and stimulated, or if there’s toxic chemicals and fillers in their diet.
Other than your pup’s genetics, you can see that all of these aspects are up to you and the choices you make for your puppy in the early days.
Correct Socialisation Doesn’t Have To Be Difficult
I’ve created a Puppy Socialisation Checklist that you can download when you become a free member of My Dog Matters.
The checklist covers a variety of experiences to go through with your pup. You don’t have to tick off every single one, but if you do a few from each category you’ll be creating a truly vital dog.
Puppy-hood shouldn’t be overwhelming for your puppy OR for you. Just go out and have fun together!
That puppy breath stage isn’t going to last forever so embrace your puppy’s antics and enjoy it while it lasts.
Tenille Williams – Qualified Dog Trainer & Applied Behaviourist
Ph. 0400 227 770