How to teach your puppy valuable skills to cope once they are out in the world
Thank you to all of you who have gotten in touch requesting information on puppy socialisation during the COVID-19 outbreak. I appreciate this isn't the ideal situation. However, it doesn't mean that socialisation needs to stop. Furthermore, it may actually allow you to practice mindful socialisation, rather than just subjecting your puppy to lots of situations (which may actually scare or overwhelm your puppy).
Effective socialisation should teach your puppy that they are safe - this is important as a confident puppy can remain calm; and a calm puppy can respond to you and make the right choices.
How do we teach your puppy to be calm and confident if they cannot experience the world? Don't worry - there are lots of things you can do from home to build these life skills. I will be using the principles in "Life Skills for Puppies" by Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills to guide this blog, as they have outlined a wonderful structure that can easily be adapted for inside. You can get an electronic copy so you don't even need to leave the house!
What are Life Skills?
These are the attributes that your puppy needs to be a well-adjusted member of the canine community. By looking at puppy socialisation this way, you focus on building a well-mannered dog, rather than one that can just respond to cues. What is the difference you may ask? Well - an obedient dog will respond to cues when prompted, but they need to be prompted. A well-mannered dog can choose the right responses without needing to be cued. Nifty right?
These life skills allow you to focus your socialisation efforts towards building a well-mannered dog and there are (paraphrased from the book):
2. The ability to deal with surprises / novelty
3. Comfort with handling
4. Tolerance to frustration
8. The ability to say 'please'
You also need to consider that:
9. Your puppy needs guidance in reaching these goals and
10. Has the right to 'be a dog' and engage in natural dog behaviours.
How do I work on these skills at home?
Firstly, I would consider not giving your puppy any of their daily food allowance from the bowl - you will likely need this for enrichment (separate blog to come soon) or training.
Think about how your puppy can explore new things. You can let them sit at the window and watch the world go by, pairing the arrival of scary or new things (like garbage trucks or the postie) with a nice reward. Or you could lay out objects in the home for them to explore in their own time. You can use things like sports equipment, empty boxes, packing paper etc. and place them down for your dog to have a sniff of (or dress up yourself if you can!). The aim is not to force them to explore, they should be free to move away if they do not feel confident. If they can move away, they can learn the situation is safe and will have more confidence to return and explore the next time.
I have included a picture showing dog body language below to help identify when your puppy needs space. You can also get your puppy used to noises (including fireworks) by using the television and YouTube. The DogsTrust have some wonderful free resources at: https://www.dogstrust.org.uk/help-advice/dog-behaviour-health/sound-therapy-for-pets this can be used to help prevent noise sensitivities.
It is also really important that when your puppy does meet people, that the people greet them politely (yes this goes both ways!) please see the below handout for information.
2. The ability to deal with surprises/novelty
You may notice that some things (moving the bins, using the hoover/hairdryer) upset your puppy or wind them up. Please think about how you can introduce these at a lower level, for instance, using the hoover in a different room whilst you give your puppy some food from a puzzle feeder.
You may also notice that sudden movements or noises can startle your puppy. This is worth working on to build their confidence. Try dropping something (for instance a small book or your keys muffled in a sock) from a low height and immediately throw your puppy some food or engage in a game. You can also try rattling pans or knocking on the door (see video on teaching your puppy not to bark at the door here). The idea is that your puppy hears/sees the thing, but isn’t scared enough to duck down or run away. Repeat this until they are looking excited by the game. Then you can make it a bit harder (by dropping it from a higher level). Again, it would be better if you could do this so that your puppy has plenty of space to move away if they need to. Secondly, you can play ‘exploring’ games with boxes and other things that are new (for example, moving a vase). 101 things to do with a box gives some good guidelines on this: https://www.clickertraining.com/101-things-to-do-with-a-box
The idea is that your puppy starts to see new things (e.g. a box) as a game and builds resilience to explore new things.
3. Comfort with handling
We all have (or know of) dogs that dislike having their claws trimmed, their harnesses put on or being rubbed down after a walk. They may dislike these things as they find them uncomfortable, scary or frustrating. Please get your puppies used to handling slowly and with lots of positivity. Licky mats can be a great aid in this!
Another method to explore is 'co-operative handling'. This is used in a range of species and allows you to handle your animals without restraint. An excellent article explaining this method (with videos) can be found here: https://fall2018.iaabcjournal.org/2018/10/25/cooperative-care/
4. Tolerance to frustration
If your puppy gets frustrated when they cannot have what they want, this can lead to barking, jumping and nipping. If you are dealing with these issues, then you need to firstly see if you can modify your environment to make things easier. For example, if your puppy jumps at their food bowl, can you feed them smaller portions more frequently? Are they getting the right amount and type of food? Secondly, you can teach specific cues such as 'sit/stay' and 'leave' which can help build frustration tolerance. Also, teaching a 'drop' during play is very important.
Your puppies may have an excess of energy at the minute, especially if you live in a flat or apartment and cannot allow them off-leash at present. This is where using their daily allowance of food to engage their minds comes in. Please see my separate blog on 'enrichment' for more information (NB: Coming soon). By encouraging your dogs to forage and problem-solve, you can direct their energy in a more productive manner. Training cues such as 'stay' can also help with building calmness.
Knowing the rules and how to respond to cues is an important aspect of rearing a young dog. Furthermore, this consistency and predictability can help both you and your dog remain calm and communicate better. I would recommend, as a family, agreeing what you want you dog to do - and sticking to it. It is easier if you are all singing off the same hymn sheet! Teaching your puppy specific cues (sit, down, come, leave etc.) can be both rewarding and also important for their safety. If you need help with training cues, I am running fully remote puppy classes with personalised guidance - so please get in touch!
Your puppy's ability to focus on you is very important. The more time, effort and enthusiasm you put in to your puppy, the more they will focus on you as a fun and rewarding aspect of their life. If you are boring..... well, ignoring you is just that much easier! Have fun with your puppies and teach them specific cues to focus back on you. I would recommend teaching the hand-touch and look cues.
8. The ability to say 'please'
Does your puppy jump up and mouth at you to say hello or when they want something? Try giving them a different behaviour (sit, down, chin rest, ring bells) to do instead!
9 and 10. Recognising your puppy needs guidance and letting your puppy 'be a dog'
Lastly, please remember that your puppies are still young and learning all the time. They don't speak the human language and sometimes it is hard for them to know what you want. Be patient, be kind and above all - have fun. Before you know it they will be fully grown :) make time for play - it is good for them and you!