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There is a rather hot topic in the dog world at the moment about the importance of socialising your puppy under the age of 12 weeks old. It is said that after this age your puppy is no longer able to socialise, the socialisation window has closed, meaning your pup is more likely to develop fear aggression or poor social skills and any ‘socialising’ after this point is now rehabilitation and/or counter conditioning.

Hmmm, now this is a very very tall order for 99% of people who acquire their new family member at the age of 8-10 weeks and now only have 2-4 weeks to ‘socialise’ their puppy before they turn into a fearful, aggressive, lunging, barking adolescent! So in that amount of time you have to: Get your puppy used to its new environment, couple of scary vet visits for vaccinations, meet all the family members, meet other pets in the family, go out on a walk for the first time, see 1000’s of new and scary things daily, be petted by strangers, have unknown big/small dogs in their faces, learn some new commands, wonder where mum and siblings have gone to, a car journey home, etc etc, all in 2-4 weeks!!! I think I would have a break down if I was expected to do all of this at such a young age and be expected to have good positive experiences from all of the above in such a short amount of time.

This is where I feel the act of ‘socialising’ your pup has gone drastically wrong. I speak to owners and work with them and their dogs on a daily basis, 99% of my work is helping ‘reactive’ dogs. Before I continue let me explain what a ‘reactive’ dog actually is, you will probably be shocked when you read what is classed as a ‘reactive’ dog. The majority of reactive dogs are NOT aggressive snarling beasts, they don’t need to have bitten someone or another dog to be classed as reactive. A reactive dog is ANY dog of any breed and any age who reacts in any way other than politely walking past a person or dog. Yes you have read that correctly, a cute little 16 week old puppy bouncing about on its back legs, straining on its lead, whilst heading towards another dog is indeed a reactive dog.

The Collins English dictionary’s definition of reactive is: ''To be reactive is to be ready to react or respond to something else — as opposed to ready to act on one's own. A person who's reactive does things only in response to others. To react is to do something in response to something else. When someone pinches you, for example, you react. But if you're a reactive person, then you only react; you're always ready to react but not to act on your own. You're rather lifeless unless something or someone else causes you to do act. This is usually seen as a negative trait in people, unless you're talking about, say, firefighters or cops. We admire people who don't need prodding to get things done. Some chemicals are called reactive, too, because they react readily with other chemicals.''

You will notice that this definition does not mention the word ‘aggressive’, ‘mean’ or ‘horrible’. As stated above, reactive is simply a reaction to something else. Of course a dog can have a mild reaction such as looking at another dog, or a temporary reaction such as jumping at a loud noise. What I mean by ‘reactive’ in this article are behaviours which are deemed unsocialable and problematic, such as barking, lunging, straining to get to something or running off after a stimulus such as a dog or person.

The recent trend to combat ‘creating’ a reactive dog is to take your dog to as many different places, meet as many people as possible, meet lots of dogs, walk over different surfaces, touch different objects and so on, all in 2-4 weeks!!! Ok, I know I have mentioned 2-4 weeks a few times but just WOW, what a short time frame! In my experience this has caused more problems than it has prevented. Why? Because it has caused a panic from well meaning dog owners who have risen to the challenge with a carefully planned itinerary and ticksheet to make sure they leave no socialisation stone unturned. Every human they see they have allowed and encouraged people to feed and pet their puppy, every dog has been approached and puppy allowed to play and have fun with them, after straining and pulling towards said dog or put into doggy day care to ‘socialise’ with other dogs, or else forced to ‘go say hello’ despite the brakes being put on and puppy pulling away from said dog or person. Puppy has also been carried through busy high streets, shops, past buses and bikes a few times a week, to fun dog shows and introduced to children and people both inside and outside the home, all whilst with a human they have known for only a few short weeks and have yet to build a true bond and trust with.

Now I am not saying that all puppy’s who go through this regime are doomed to fail and become reactive or fearful, lots become well rounded, happy members of society, but for the rest of the puppy’s they face months and even years of fear and frustration due to being flooded or forced into situations they really didn’t want to go into.

Then what happens is the owners are made to feel guilty by being told you over/under socialised your puppy and they are reactive because YOU did it wrong. Hang on, that is a very unfair statement. Very rarely it is the owners fault that their cute little puppy has become a cowering fearful wreck or a barking lunging demon. There is much more to it than simply under or over socialising a puppy. There are 2 main issues/considerations which are majorly over looked when ‘socialising’ a puppy. The first is GENETICS, I am not declaring to be an expert on genetics BUT I do know that they play a huge part of a dog’s behaviour and needs. There are lots of dogs out there who will never be social butterflies, the same as there are some people who aren’t, and forcing them to meet and greet everyone and everything will not change this. This doesn’t make them ‘bad’ dogs, far from it, it simply means that you as their owner and carer should recognise and accept this, whilst giving guidance to your dog on how to avoid and deal with these situations without having to resort to barking and lunging. Another part of genetics is BREED; each breed needs to be ‘socialised’ in a slightly different way, for example with bull breeds and terriers socialising means teaching your pup how to recognise ‘calming signals’ (a term coined by Turid Rugaas) from other dogs and how to reciprocate them and lots of self control, with labs and spaniels it means showing your pup that you are much more fun than playing with another dog or ‘hunting’ and how to approach dogs calmly, if at all. These are just 2 quick examples and vary from breed to breed and dog to dog. The last part of genetics is inherited behaviours from parents; studies have shown that nervous or fearful mothers are more likely to produce pups that are also fearful and nervous therefore looking at your chosen pups parents may tell you a lot about how your pup may turn out.

The second issue/consideration which is sometimes over looked is simply building an amazing bond based on trust with your pup. This doesn’t happen overnight or in a few weeks, it takes lots of time and commitment for your pup to trust you at all times. A good bond based on trust is, to me, the most important aspect of ‘socialising’, people spend too much time socialising pups with everything else and forget to socialise them with themselves, YOU the owner, caregiver, guardian! If your puppy can’t place their trust in you and feel safe whilst in your care, then no amount of socialising will help. So how do you combat this, SIMPLE, play with your puppy, use positive reinforcement techniques, show them love and guidance, go to the park and play fetch or tug or chase me, just you and them, no other dogs no other people involved, just the two of you having fun. Do some training throughout their little walks, let them watch people and dogs but be WITH YOU whilst observing, then have a good game with them. You should be the main focus of your pups life, everything good comes from YOU, everything else should be background noise, take all the pressure off your pup to ‘socialise’ and instead teach them that you have their back in all situations, so why do they need to worry or be fearful!

I am not saying they can never meet or greet another dog or a person, they can, after they have built that bond with you and with calm dogs with good social signals, this way you won’t end up with a dog who runs off after people and dogs, causes issues with other dogs by being to ‘in your face’, jump about and strain at the end of their lead to get to other dogs and people (which can turn in frustration when they can’t get to them), or crumbles under the pressure of having to meet, greet and experience so many different things in such a short amount of time at such a young age and therefore become ‘reactive’. I would personally advise taking your time with socialising and don’t believe it is a case that after 12 weeks that it, it’s done and over, I believe it is a continuous journey for at least the first 12 months of a pups life, giving them plenty of time to experience the world and mature. So instead of taking your new pup straight out into the big wide world, just spend a little time getting to know them, having fun, a bit of training thrown in and most of all creating that unbreakable bond between dog and human because there is no better feeling than knowing your dog trusts you 100%.

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