There is a window of opportunity, when dogs are puppies, in which their brains are growing, and everything that happens to them during this period will affect the rest of their lives. Some minor events, if not repeated, will be insignificant, whereas major events will shape behaviour for the future.
One bad experience can stay with him for life. After this, behaviour can be modified, but we can all think of examples where it’s difficult to modify or eradicate unwanted behaviour once it has been established.
So the art is to ensure that our dogs have been equipped to live in the world – in the environment they are required to live in. This is called socialisation. The socialisation window has a cut off point at around sixteen weeks of age.
Many problems in dogs occur purely through incorrect socialisation, or through a lack of it. These problems include aggression (which also includes perceived aggression which is not always what we think it is), difficulty with training, and fear.
For example, there are many dogs who never get to mix with other dogs, or say hello to them. People walk their dogs separately, and their dogs never get to mix with their own species – how awful is that? And what do we do? We blame the dog if something goes wrong. No dog is a bad dog – some dogs learn unsuitable or unwanted behaviour because they haven’t been taught how to be sociable and live in the world.
Puppies need to be given total effort from their owners before they are sixteen weeks old. They need to be taken to lots of different places and meet all sorts of people. All of this must be done in a positive and safe way. Cars, buses, trains, vets, household appliances, woods, beaches, stairs, noises, strange objects – anything and everything you can think of. Dogs of all sizes and colours and breeds; sheep, rabbits, cows, guinea pigs, children and people of all shapes and sizes, with beards, moustaches, hats, wooden legs, wheelchairs – all of it, everything possible.
You might, for example, carry him to the local pub or supermarket car park. You might take him to a busy town centre and sit with him watching people go by. You may take him to a train station, or to the local school gates at home time.
Although it’s lovely to see puppies playing with children or other dogs, you need to bear in mind that what’s acceptable for a tiny puppy might not be acceptable or safe for a great big dog. Puppies should learn manners and control. If you allow a small puppy to jump up at people, who usually love it because he’s cute, you’ll have a problem adult dog who might knock people over, scratch them, or ruin their clothes.
Teach your puppy to be gentle, calm and obedient in all places. Be aware that you can be prosecuted if your puppy or dog injures someone.
Puppies also benefit greatly from the guidance of sensible older dogs to help them learn doggy manners. Strange dogs will not take kindly to your dog if he rushes up to them and sticks his nose in their faces. An older dog will teach your puppy doggie etiquette and show him how to keep out of fights.
If all of this is done in a gentle and positive way, then after sixteen weeks of age (or thereabouts), your puppy will have the tools and experience to be the ‘master of the universe’, ‘sound as a pound’. The imprinted information will live with him forever, and if it is all good, then with a good environment, proper training, stimulation, exercise, motivation, correct diet and lots and lots of love – how on earth could you have a dog who would be anything other than quite possibly the best dog in the world? And what a personality he would have!
Older puppies and adult dogs need socialisation too. It is important never to stop socialising your dog so that he will always be happy to meet new people. If you have taken on an older, unsocialised dog or puppy, do not despair. It is possible to socialise some older dogs, it just takes much more time and patience.
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