Updated: Jan 6
Your new puppy is currently in the ‘critical socialisation phase’ that occurs at 3-12 weeks old. At this age, the puppy is learning all about social relationships, how they should react to things in the world and what is scary.
Experiences that the puppy has now will influence how they approach new situations for the rest of their life, so you should aim to expose your puppy to as many different people, places, animals and things as possible in the first 4 weeks of coming home. You want to maximise the usefulness of the critical socialisation phase so that you raise your puppy to be confident and friendly around people, other dogs, and in new environments. Puppies are naturally curious at this age and giving them positive experiences with a wide variety of places and things will teach them to be optimistic, confident, and that new things aren’t scary. A ‘well-socialised’ dog is simply one who has experienced lots of different scenarios and met lots of new people, and in general reacts happily and warmly in new situations. Socialisation is a process you will continue with your dog forever, but the first few weeks are a vital time to set the foundation for how your pup will approach life when they grow up.
It is important to do all this socialisation safely of course, in a controlled way, so you avoid fearful, negative experiences as much as possible.
Where is safe for an unvaccinated puppy?
Your puppy will have had their first vaccination with their breeder at 6-8 weeks old. They will usually require two or three more vaccines before they are fully protected, and this usually takes up until they are 14-16 weeks old. That means they sail right past the critical socialisation window and you’ve missed the opportunity, unless you get creative and take them to some safe socialisation locations:
Your garden at home
- Get puppy used to going outside in all weather, during the day and at night
- Start driving your puppy around with you on the school pick up, the grocery run, to the petrol station etc. They can start experiencing different sights, sounds and smells from the safety of the car.
- (Remember to NEVER leave a dog in a car by themselves. If you are going somewhere where you will leave the car and you can’t carry the puppy with you – then best to leave them at home).
Friends' houses and gardens
- Take your puppy round to meet friends and family – the more new people they meet the better. You want puppy to get used to seeing adults, kids, noisy young people, quiet old people, people with different hair colours, skin colours, dress senses – everything!
- If they have other pets, this is a great chance for puppy to meet them (closely supervised of course). Their dogs should be fully vaccinated and healthy before meeting your puppy.
Anywhere outside where puppy isn’t on the floor
- Carry your pup around town with you in your arms
- On your lap at a dog-friendly café
- On your lap at a dog-friendly pub
- Sitting on a bench in the park (avoid the off-leash section for now)
- Walk around Bunnings or large pet shops with puppy in your trolley
Anywhere inside where dogs don’t go to the toilet
- Dog-friendly offices
- Dog-friendly hairdressers
- Dog-friendly shops
Puppy school and puppy play sessions
- Puppy school is usually designed for puppies from 8-12 weeks old who have had one or two vaccinations before joining. They are a great way of meeting other puppies of a similar age and are hosted in puppy-safe spaces.
- You can meet other new puppy owners at puppy school and organise some play sessions in your own time for your puppies to get together.
- The main disease to be concerned about in puppies is Parvovirus, which is spread in dog faeces. So, the main thing you are avoiding is dog poo, which is usually located on grass. Once your puppy has had at least 2 vaccines, you can start allowing your puppy to walk on the ground in public places, but it is safest to stick to the pavement or asphalt car parks where you can see any dog poo and avoid it.
- Introducing them to textures like sand, dirt, gravel and water is great, but be very careful that these locations are safe and haven’t had unknown dogs all over them.
A safe location is basically anywhere that avoids sick dogs or dog poo that could have come from a sick dog. Dog parks open to the public and any surfaces that unknown dogs may have defecated on, need to be completely avoided until one week after your puppy’s final vaccine.
If you know all the dogs in certain place are healthy however, then please let your puppy meet them! It is important for pups to get used to seeing dogs of all different ages, sizes and breeds so they learn great doggie manners.
The importance of meeting other dogs
Older dogs naturally teach younger dogs the polite way to interact by gently telling them off when they overstep the mark. Your puppy’s mother will have taught them some of these skills already, but it is important to have as many positive interactions with other dogs as possible, so these skills are reinforced. This will make your puppy much more well-mannered and likely to approach other dogs in a friendly way that will elicit friendly responses back. When the time does come to start visiting dog parks and meeting unfamiliar dogs, your well-socialised pup will be far more likely to have positive experiences.
During the critical socialisation phase, puppies also experience a ‘fear imprinting phase’, particularly between 8-10 weeks old. This is a phase where any scary experiences that they find traumatic might get imprinted into their mind and the fearful association with that experience might be difficult to undo in the future. It is important, therefore, not to overwhelm your puppy in your quest for great socialisation. If the puppy is showing any signs of stress during a new experience then don’t force it – be there for them, take them further away from the scary thing or place, and gradually build back up when the puppy is feeling more confident. A lot of excellent socialisation exposure can be done at a distance – just looking at the off-leash dog park but from the car, getting used to traffic noises and children shouting but moving away if it gets too much. If your puppy needs to meet dogs one-on-one first and not in a big group that’s fine. Your job is to be their go-to protector who takes them out of the situation when they’re feeling scared. This will teach them trust you when you’re helping them try new things and they will feel more confident exploring when you are there for support.