Socialisation is a hugely important concept but unfortunately one which is often poorly executed. The most common misunderstanding is that “You can socialise your dog at any age” and that there is some sort of sliding scale as they get older. Unfortunately, this just isn’t so and the dog, like humans, has sensitive periods where socialisation is helpful and periods where they are really not in the right frame of mind for new experiences.
Firstly, let’s get the terminology straight so I don’t get shouted at over the internet. Exposing your dog to different things can obviously happen at any time, and does. Your dog is always learning and there is a level of brain plasticity throughout their life. But in terms of taking advantage of the critical period where your puppy is laying neural pathways in an optimistic frame of mind (what behaviourists term the critical socialisation period), then this very much has a deadline. And the first deadline that should concern new puppy owners is around 16 weeks. At this point the puppy starts transitioning into a more pessimistic phase at the start of adolescence called the 2nd Fear Stage. Whereas previously your puppy was like a sponge, lapping up new experiences and learning resilience, now they become more nervous of novelty and easily offended – still a sponge but more geared to remembering the bad stuff than the good. And if you have picked up your puppy late, or had a particularly long vaccination protocol, this could sadly be the exact age that you start taking your puppy out and about.
The biggest disconnect we find is with dogs that had a very different first 16 weeks from the home they now live in. Examples include the farm bred dog, outdoor reared and who was late being sold – they often know very little more than quiet countryside, tractors and the postie visiting once a day. They then suddenly arrive in a normal family home with microwaves pinging, children bouncing about, traffic and lots of unfamiliar people and dogs. And if this change happens during their 2nd fear stage, rather than habituating to all these novel things, they may become sensitised to them.
Another risk group is rescues which see a higher rate of behaviour issues than the norm. Although some dogs are relinquished for very understandable reasons, many are abandoned simply because the cute puppy, bought on an impulse, has now become a big and “annoying” adolescent – unfortunately these puppies have often come from homes where even basic socialisation was non-existent and so are not prepared for life in general.
The final risk group is those owners that just didn’t realise how quickly the initial socialisation period whizzed by. These owners care enormously for their dog, and are following all the vet advice. Maybe they also have an older dog in the household and assume that their other dog is providing necessary socialisation for their new puppy. This is the group who I most hope read this blog, as it is always frustrating when they call Widget’s Farm for puppy training and their puppy is already 16 weeks or more. They often tell me that they had been waiting for their full vaccination course to finish or had been busy trying to do everything right at home first – they didn’t realise we could take them into class one week after their first vaccination. So there is certainly lots we can do to help them and get training going asap but, through no fault of their own, they are already playing catch-up.
So why is there a deadline? Most likely the 2nd fear stage provides an evolutionary advantage - at around 16 -20 weeks your puppy would naturally start investigating the world more and there is obviously a big safety advantage to be cautious of things you haven’t met before. A dog roaring up to a snake, and getting too close, may not last very long. What has a clear evolutionary advantage in a feral situation, (ie bark at scary snake first, ask questions later), is not deemed socially acceptable when directed at your elderly neighbour. This is sometimes exasperated when the embarrassed owner tells the barking puppy off and so increases how aversive the moment is for the dog. This will simply enforce to the nervous puppy they were right to be worried in the first place and will make the barking more likely the next time.
Understanding these early critical stages is important for all owners so that you can take advantage of the optimistic sponge moments and rein it in when your pup is feeling more pessimistic. If you have missed the 6-16 week phase, or taken on an adolescent rescue, certainly don’t worry but also take it slow and steady. You should not feel like you are in some great rush to get your dog to meet everyone and everything - relax because you have already missed that phase and now your approach should be different. Your job is now to help your adolescent dog meet the world at a rate they can cope with. Exposure to new things should be short and sweet, done only if your dog has loose and relaxed body language and ideally followed by something reinforcing. Don’t get me wrong, learning happens all through your dog’s life, but as they become different after 16 weeks so must your training too.