When you come home with a new puppy, it may feel like a crapshoot. Will he be cuddly, cooperative, and loving? Or will he rebuff your affections, growl at other dogs, and snarl at strangers? Truth is, his lifelong patterns are much more in your hands than you may think. The way you treat him in the first few months is paramount in shaping your dog’s lifelong temperament and behavior. Raising a friendly and social dog isn’t as hard as you might think.
In 2017, animal behaviorist Helen Vaterlaws-Whiteside, PhD, head of research and innovation
at The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in Long Marston, England, launched a revolutionary program for the socialization of puppies. The low-cost, quick and easy-to-complete regimen of exercises proved to have vital, lasting benefits as the dogs grew into young adults. We talked to Dr. Vaterlaws-Whiteside about the influential techniques that emerged from the program. They provide invaluable help not just for breeders and trainers, but for dog owners everywhere.
You call your puppy training strategies a “socialization program.” What do you mean?
It means getting dogs used to living in the human world. From a dog’s perspective, humans do things that are normal for us but weird for them. So it’s about getting them comfortable with all the normal things in our houses and outside. Another key part of socialization is social habituation — getting them used to humans and other domestic animals. This can include dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, even sheep if you live in the countryside. We want them to become relaxed and positive with everything in their environment as they grow up.
Your program focuses on the first six weeks, with potential follow-up for weeks after that. Why are these first weeks so important?
Dogs have very sensitive periods where any behavioral experiences set them up for the rest of their lives. Great experiences in that period give them a much more positive attitude about things similar to those experiences. With less-positive experiences, they may grow up more frightened, less confident, and needing an awful lot more training and support. Although the parents’ genes obviously play a big part in any dog’s temperament, a lot depends on nurturing. Behavior is the result of genetics and every experience one has ever had. We humans have a great responsibility to make sure our puppies have a great, happy early upbringing so they can grow up to be happy, confident adult dogs.
At first, puppies are mainly attracted to stimuli, when their ability to approach and interact with things overrides their fear. The fear response kicks in at around nine weeks, and as it emerges, they don’t know how to control it. So it’s important that we set them up for success by making sure their early experiences are really nice and positive. After that, their fear starts to override their response to stimuli, so they’re less likely to approach new and novel things. Also, that’s often when they leave the mother and whomever they’ve been living with and move into their new homes. So we need to make everything positive for them before these changes occur.
What techniques do you use to accomplish this, and can pet owners use these same techniques?
In our study, along with traditional socialization, we added much more stimulation to see if it would help them grow up to be nice, confident dogs. Also, in contrast to traditional training, we tailored it specifically to the dogs’ developmental stages, and worked with them on an individual basis rather than just as a litter. Puppies go through such rapid development. They’re born blind and can’t hear, and the only real stimulation they have is smelling their mommies. Then, over the first two weeks, their ears open up. The third week, they open their eyes and begin walking. So we tailored the training to each of these stages.
At first, when their main senses were just smell and touch, we presented different snuggling surfaces — fleecy surfaces, woolly surfaces, lots of different things that humans have lying around the house. We brushed them with little toothbrushes, towels, or rubber gloves to give them a variety of sensations they could expect to experience in everyday life. When they could walk, we’d have them walk on different surfaces and textures, from carpet to tile to grass to prepare them for what they would encounter in the future.
As they got older, we stimulated their hearing and sight, always in a positive, fun way and in the presence of their moms. We did all of this for very short periods, since they were so young. For example, we’d give them different standard human things to look at, like TVs or things moving in the environment. We’d have people walking at different speeds past them, or roll a ball past them. We’d call mobile phones near them, since everyone has them today. We started on a very, very low volume, put it on the other side of the room, and let the puppy approach if they wanted. If they were comfortable with that volume, we slowly increased
it, until it could be considered a normal ring and the dogs ignored it, which is what we want, a dog that’s not annoyed or shocked by a mobile phone going off. We’d take them to the bathroom and flush the toilet, because they’ll certainly be experiencing bathrooms and toilets. We also started taking them outside and getting them gradually used to spending time alone, then as they got a bit older, letting them spend brief periods with people. We started by leaving three puppies at a time with a person, then we’d gradually bring it down to one puppy, so they’d get used to being alone with people.
All of this was important, since once they moved on to their next home, they were going to be alone with people. We’d have attendants take them out in the garden to sniff around, or go sit with them in the car, so it wouldn’t be a strange and unusual experience when they began traveling in the car with their owners. We wanted them to start associating people with having fun, playing, seeing new things, and exploring new environments.
With each experience, we’d monitor the dog’s body language to make sure it was comfortable. If not, we’d take a step back, expose them to a lower-intensity experience, and gradually build up again. We made sure all of this was fun for them, because gradually being introduced to things while having fun is the best way to learn. Doing all of this in a puppy’s first weeks lays a great foundation for their relationship with people.
We standardized our techniques and made them as cheap and easy as possible, using items that are in every home, because the easier we made things, the more likely people were to do them. The whole point was to get trainers and owners everywhere to do these things. We saw such positive results in our puppies, it was important to share that knowledge to help dogs around the world.
That training all occurred in the puppy’s first several weeks, but most of us acquire doggies after that. How much can we do to shape or reshape their personalities and behavior from the time we bring them home?
First, before you get the dog, make sure you pick a responsible breeder who cares about the puppies, and ask them about the socialization strategies they’ve used. Ask to see the pups interacting with their moms if you can, because that tells you a lot. Then you need to keep up the important work the breeder has been doing. Roughly through the first 12 months of the pup’s life, socialization and habituation are important to keep up. Do lots of fun, positive playing with the dog as you slowly introduce him to all those new things he’s going to experience, whether taking him to school to drop your kids off, or taking him out to meet other animals. If you give your pup a good foundation with positive experiences of the environment, hopefully he will grow up having positive behaviors.
While there are very sensitive periods when positive or negative experiences can have lasting impacts, it’s not a process that ever stops. Even our oldest dogs can experience new things, and it’s important that we do everything in a positive and engaging way. Be led by the dog. Watch their behavior and make sure they’ve got relaxed body posture, that they’re happy and confident in approaching new things.
If you’re introducing them to something they’ve never seen before, see if they’re happy to walk up to it and give it a sniff. If they are, great. However, if they’re reluctant to approach that object or person and have tense body posture and are trying to get away from it, never force it on them. Take a little step back or move the object away from them. Leave it there and let them explore it at their own pace.
How important is it to expose your dog to other people and animals?
Really important, because they’re part of the environment. From their beginning, slowly increase a pup’s interactions with other people and dogs, as well as cats and rabbits if they’re part of your household. Dogs are social creatures and like interactions with other dogs, but some are more social than others. Be led by the dog. Similarly, if he wants to interact with you or come over for a cuddle, by all means do it. But also make sure you give the dog downtime. Look at his body language: Is he trying to avoid you or get away? Then don’t force him: Never force a dog to interact.
Most of us spend weeks or months training a puppy when we bring her home, then ease off when she’s learned the basics. But should we be training them throughout their lives?
When you say training, it depends on what you’re trying to do. I know people who continue to do obedience training and agility training with their dogs, and that’s great fun for them. But some dogs might not like it. People think of training only in this very formal sense, as in “I’m teaching the dog to sit or walk nicely on the leash,” but socialization training is about the activities you do together, making them fun and engaging. It’s important for dogs to be mentally stimulated.
But it can just involve going out on walks and letting them have a good sniff around. And if you have a dog who likes balls — not all do — spend time playing ball with her, throwing the ball and getting her to come back to you, which is also training. It involves fun, exercise, lots of stimulation, and really good bonding all at once. So there are lots of different ways to build “training” into your everyday lives, doing things that you may not have thought were training, but which provide the stimulation and bonding your doggy needs.
Should we ever use punishment in training?
It should play no role. There’s a lot of evidence it doesn’t work, and it’s not good for your bond. The most important things are fun, patience, positivity and reward, and especially kindness. Just spend quality time with her and give her a cuddle. Having a good time with your dog is best for her development and well-being, leading to the behaviors we want. Keep it enjoyable and fun, and you’ll have a long, wonderful relationship with your dog.
5-Point Checklist: How to Be a Puppy Person
If you want your dog to grow up to be sociable and affectionate, you need to be that way with her. That often means thinking of her needs first. These points, says animal behaviorist Helen Vaterlaws-Whiteside, PhD, will make you a good owner.
- Make sure you’re ready. Before you bring a puppy home, ask yourself these questions: Does my lifestyle allow me to have a dog for a dozen-plus years? Will I be home enough to give her ample attention? Can I happily take three or four walks a day, even in rain and snow? Can I handle hair on the furniture or mud on the floors? If you answer no, don’t get a dog.
- Research your dog’s breed. Study up on her tendencies and needs, so you know what to expect and how to respond.
- Remember, the walks are for them. Dogs need walks, not just to relieve themselves, but to explore and have their brains stimulated. Instead of powering around, raising your heart rate, and getting the walk over with, let your puppy relax and have his little sniffs, because dogs love to sniff. It’s their antenna to a world of fascinating information.
- Teach them how to be alone. If you know you will often need to leave your puppy alone for hours, prepare her for it. Start by leaving the room for five minutes. If she’s not frantic after that, try 10 minutes. Then actually leave the house a while, gradually increasing time away until she’s mentally prepared for hours alone. Always leave her something stimulating to do while you’re gone. For example, a doggy puzzle or toy, or her favorite bone to chew. If you leave for more than five or six hours, holding it in simply isn’t good for a puppy’s insides or her emotional well-being, so use a dog walker or doggy day care.
- Study your puppy and learn to read his body language. If he’s jumping from foot to foot, or heading for the door, he may need a walk immediately. If he becomes desperate as you take out your keys, he may recognize that you’re leaving and be panic-stricken. Give him attention or take him for a walk first to burn up some of that nervous energy. If he comes and puts his legs on yours, and stays there staring in your eyes, he may need a cuddle or some lap time. If he scratches or taps at you, and if affection doesn’t do it, he may just be hungry. Learn to read his signs, so you can give him exactly what he wants and needs.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Dog’s Mind, in 2021.