Top tips for socialising your puppy

So you're the proud owner of a gorgeous new puppy. Congratulations! You've probably heard about the need to socialise your puppy in the very first few weeks of their life with you. But what does this mean, and how do you go about it?

Read on for advice on everything from what age is best to start socialisation to the vaccinations they'll need before getting out and about. And remember to protect your beautiful new pup with pet insurance from the moment you bring them home.

Labrador Puppy in grass

What do we mean by 'socialising'?

When we talk about socialising a puppy, we don't mean setting your little dog up with some good table manners and nice conversation skills. No, we're effectively talking about preparing them for a number of situations they will come across in the first few weeks and months of their lives. Your preparation and guidance will ensure that these new places, people, animals and events – a whole host of new experiences – don't distress or alarm them.

These situations include meeting people – both people you know and strangers as well as adults and children. Another category is, of course, meeting other dogs, and indeed other animals generally. After that, it's a good idea to think about what kinds of events and environments they might be exposed to, both at home and out in the wider world, and prepare them for these, too. These could be, say, a noisy party, a walk down a busy high street, a trip to pick up your child from school.

Next, you should think about some of the different sounds they will come across, and gently and gradually introduce them to these. Finally, puppies should be prepared for the experience of visiting the vet, so they’re not too alarmed when the moment finally arrives.

Helping your pup to learn good socialisation skills is one of the key responsibilities you have as a pet owner – alongside, for example, making sure you complete all the relevant vaccinations, and arranging some suitable puppy insurance.

Why is it important to socialise your puppy?

If you introduce your little furry companion to lots of new sights, sounds and experiences

at an early age, you're basically increasing their storehouse of experiences for later life. That will stand them in very good stead as the years go by – they will be much better prepared for any unknown situations they may come across.

Research has shown that a dog's experiences during the first year of their life have a major impact on how they view the world – and how well disposed they feel towards humans, dogs, other animals, and various environments and situations.

Conversely, puppies that aren’t exposed to a variety of scenarios are more likely to grow up frightened and anxious, because the world holds so many unknowns and unwelcome surprises for them. And that frightened, anxious dog is much more likely to develop behavioural problems than a canine who has been exposed to a variety of situations early on.

Socialisation is all important, yet it's not always being done properly: the PDSA's 2021 PAW Report showed that 27% of dogs owned since March 2020 are showing behaviours that could be related to a lack of socialisation. A big reason for this could be the pandemic, where dog owners weren’t allowed to mix in normal ways.

At what age should I socialise my puppy?

This is a key question, as the optimum time for socialisation is a relatively narrow window – when your puppy is aged between three and 12 weeks.

The reason for this is that, just like us humans, puppies are most impressionable and open to new experiences when they are very young. As they grow older, they become more cautious and anxious – and so a dog that hasn't been socialised as a puppy will find it much harder to get on with the outside world.

Now, given that you won't be able to take ownership of your puppy until they are at least eight weeks old, a fair proportion of this socialisation should already have been carried out, by a responsible breeder or owner, before your puppy comes home with you.

That person should already have introduced them to different people, and got them familiar with the sights, smells and sounds of their own home. With this grounding already in place, it’s a good starting point for you to build on when you get them home.

What do I need to think about when socialising?

When it comes to preparing your puppy for the big wide world, there isn't really a ready-made, one-size-fits-all approach. Different breeds – even different animals of the same breed – will have different psychological makeups and sensitivities. Some puppies will take to their socialisation with little difficulty or anxiety: others may take a little more patience and dedication.

You may want to seek some advice from your vet on how best to socialise your puppy, depending on their breed and temperament. Alternatively, here at Purely Pets, we offer an advice line for you to call, as one of the benefits of our pet insurance policies.

Factors to think about here include:

Breed

This one is perhaps the most obvious variable. Puppies from 'herding' breeds, such as collies and German shepherd dogs, may require more socialisation than other breeds. Conversely, the poodle, a very intelligent dog, should socialise quickly without too many problems.

Genetics

Your puppy is likely to inherit certain character traits from their parents. If your pup's mum was nervous, the chances are that they will be, too.

When it comes to the socialising itself, keep any encounters with the outside world fairly short, with time in between for resting: young puppies get tired quickly and easily.

Try to make sure that these encounters are rewarding for your pup. These early experiences are so important in forming their view of the world and their place in it. So, try to make sure they are pleasant. That way, your little friend will grow up feeling safe and confident.

But my puppy hasn't yet been fully vaccinated. Is it safe to socialise?

When you first welcome your puppy into your home, they will likely have had their first vaccination – typically given at around six to eight weeks – but not their second, which takes place two to four weeks later.

So, for some of that eight- to 12-week period, they are still not fully safe from catching infections from the world around them. So how can you keep them safe while still continuing with your training?

Well, it's possible – you just need to be sensible about it. Until your puppy is fully vaccinated:

  • Only let them mix with dogs who have been fully vaccinated – that way, you are keeping your pup safe from infections passed on from other dogs.
  • Try to keep to the limits of your own home and garden. Or, if you do venture further, avoid outdoor areas soiled with dog waste, which can harbour infections.
  • Alternatively, let them experience the outside world while being carried by you. That way, they don't risk coming into contact with contamination on the floor or with other dogs.
  • Give your pup regular play time with family and friends. Always supervise any socialisation with children to protect both them and your pup.

If you need further advice here, or have a concern, our pet insurance policies include a Vet Helpline that you can call 24 hours a day.

Puppy nose to nose with dog

My pup is fully vaccinated. What can I do now?

When your dog has had all their vaccinations, your options open out considerably. For one thing, you can start to introduce them to a wide range of other puppies and dogs outside the home. Keep in mind that these experiences need to be positive – a bad experience will be worse than no experience at all.

For this reason, try to make sure that you know the dogs your little friend will be mixing with, and that they are calm and friendly animals who won't alarm or frighten them. Within these restrictions, try to ensure your puppy gets to meet a wide variety of breeds, if possible.

You might want to consider attending a 'puppy party'. This event, which is every bit as fun as it sounds, may be offered by your local veterinary clinic, or a puppy training class near you. Basically, the idea is for several puppies to get together and play with each other in a safe environment.

When you do meet other dogs outside, don't force your puppy to approach them – this could unnerve them. Keep a close eye on their interactions, and don't allow any play to get too boisterous. If you have to intervene, use a toy or treat to distract them.

Any other animals that mix with your pup should be well under control, and there should be no danger of them chasing your little one. Reward calm behaviour with a treat and, if they do get over-excited, withdraw them a little distance until they've calmed down.

Meeting strangers

Coming across strange people for the first time will be a testing experience for your new pup. However, you can help to make it a positive experience for them. For one thing, if you are relaxed and friendly, they will pick up on your mood and feel safe around these new people, too. Greet people in the street: if suitable, stop to chat.

People visiting the house – such as a builder, delivery driver, or postman – may be seen by your dog as a threat. So, if you can, take a minute to talk to them and to show that they are welcome.

In fact, most puppies will enjoy meeting new people (and the reverse is certainly true!). You just need to make sure your pup doesn't find the whole experience overwhelming. Try the following:

  • Ask people you meet to crouch down to your puppy's level. This will be less alarming for them.
  • Let your puppy approach new people, rather than vice versa. That way, your puppy gets the interactions that they feel confident with.
  • Don't allow strangers to pick up or cuddle your puppy: this could frighten them.

How will my puppy cope with children?

Children are likely to take an enormous interest in your puppy. Kids, especially young ones, love anything cute and playful, and puppies are hard to beat in either the cuteness or playfulness stakes. But is it safe for your little one to be around children at this early stage?

The answer is yes: playing with children is one of the many different interactions your puppy should experience from early on. However, it's essential to teach kids how to play with their new furry friends in a safe, calm and gentle manner.

Tips here include:

  • Always be around your puppy when children are present. Don't leave them alone together.
  • Teach children how to properly pick up the dog, so neither gets hurt.
  • Don't let play become too boisterous or rough. Reward your puppy and kids alike for calm, gentle play and petting.
  • Teach children not to force the puppy to play – sometimes the latter will need space and peace. Eating and sleeping are especially important times for this.
  • Make sure your puppy has somewhere they can go when they need to be alone – near to the rest of the family but partitioned off, such as a basket or crate.

You can find plenty more advice on these early stages of your puppy's life in our article, The ultimate guide to house training your puppy.

Puppy and child

Meeting other dogs and puppies

So much for people. But what about meeting creatures of their own kind? Dogs, of course, come in all sizes and shapes, and your puppy should get used to a wide range of canines from early on. You don’t want them to develop a fear of certain breeds or sizes just because of a lack of exposure when they were little.

In fact, this time spent with other dogs is crucial for a young pup. Not only does it get them used to the wide variety of animals that they will come across in life, it also teaches them how dogs interact with each other. A puppy that has spent lots of time around other dogs is more likely to have fun, friendly canine relationships throughout their adult life.

For example, this early exposure is where your pup will learn important doggie etiquette, such as not putting their teeth or paws on other dogs, and how to communicate with other dogs.

Keep a careful eye on your puppy as they start to play with other canines. How do you want them to behave around unfamiliar dogs? This is the age at which these behaviours will be set. For example, you might allow them to be physical with other dogs – but they may find, later in life, that not all dogs want to do the same. This could result in some awkward encounters.

What other things should I expose my puppy to?

Make sure your pup walks on different textures – carpets, cardboard, bubble wrap, metal, sand, wood, grass and so on. Always supervise these exploratory walks, and make sure your pooch doesn't chew anything they shouldn't!

Different smells are another good thing for them to get used to – as we know, dogs have a very advanced sense of smell (we discussed some of the most gifted sniffer breeds elsewhere on our blog).

Try your pup out on a variety of smells, including perfumes, herbs and spices (no need to remove the lid), packaging, food items and more.

They will also enjoy trying out different objects, so let them have a (supervised) play with things like plastic bottles, empty cereal packets, a washing up bowl and other objects around the home. Pop a treat inside to encourage them to get exploring!

Lastly, try acclimatising them to different sounds, whether from a CD, YouTube or elsewhere. You might want to try them on the sound of fireworks, or a baby crying. Thunderstorms, cars, and children playing are similarly useful sounds for them to get used to. And don’t forget the vacuum cleaner!

How do I prepare my puppy for vet visits?

Visits to the vet are likely to be a fairly regular feature in your puppy's life – beginning, of course, with that trip for their second round of vaccinations at around 10 to 11 weeks.

Across their life, they are quite likely to have more trips to the vet – they may injure themselves, for example, or succumb to an illness and need treatment. If you have a suitable pet cover policy in place, you may get some financial help with the costs of these visits, and any medication or procedures they need.

A trip to the vet can be stressful for a dog. Being handled by a stranger is never likely to be pleasant, and if your dog is unwell or in pain this becomes all the more unwelcome. Dogs can get scared and even lash out. So it's important to give your puppy some positive associations from their first vet visit.

How can you help here? Well, some vet clinics may be happy for you and your pup to visit a few times, just for some gentle handling and perhaps a treat. This will quickly create the right positive feelings in your dog. You can also prepare your puppy, at home, for the type of handling they can expect in the consulting room. We've got a list of helpful tips for visiting the vet with your dog elsewhere on our site.

Finally, you may wish to train your puppy to wear a muzzle. A frightened dog may bite at any moment, so you may wish to get your pup comfortable with wearing one in tricky situations. Again, elsewhere on this site we've got some useful information on training your dog to wear a muzzle

How do I socialise my puppy after lockdown?

Many people bought new pets during lockdown to help them through the difficult time. In fact, the BBC reported that we welcomed 3.2 million animals into our homes during this period.

The list of most popular breeds during lockdown was headed by two crossbreeds, the Cavapoo and Cockapoo, with the Dachshund, Cocker spaniel and German shepherd all following close on their tails.

During the lockdowns, these puppies wouldn't have seen much of the outside world. But now life is getting back to normal, and you and your pup are free to interact with other people and animals just as you normally would.

So how can you gradually introduce them into post-lockdown life? And how can you prepare them for your return to work, leaving them alone for long periods of the day?

Naturally sociable animals, dogs are affected by being left alone: as reported by the RSPCA, research suggests that 85% of dogs may struggle with being left alone. You can learn to read the signs of unhappiness in your dog: they may adopt a low body posture, tucking their tail under and their ears back. They may also turn away from you or avoid eye contact.

Never leave your dog alone for more than four hours. That’s the recommendation from the Dogs Trust. We've got some more insights on how your dog or puppy may be coping after lockdown in this article.

Pet insurance from Purely Pets

The pleasure that you’ll get from your puppy starts from the minute they arrive in your home. And your responsibility to care for this beautiful, playful little ball of fun begins at exactly the same moment.

In this article, we've discussed how you can prepare your friend for the outside world. Another hugely important step you can take towards their health and wellbeing is to take out some suitable pet insurance.

Benefits of taking out pet insurance with us include:

  • 15 levels of lifetime cover
  • 24-Hour Vet Helpline
  • Lifetime cover up to £15,000
  • Excess from just £60

Contact us today to arrange the right pet insurance for your little bundle of fun.