Dog behaviour

PDSA's Care Advice

The ideal approach to your puppy or dog’s behaviour

Owners and breeders should pay special attention to dog and puppy socialision, and establish good puppy behaviour from a young age. Socialisation is one of the most important things you can do for a puppy. It’s all about letting them meet people and other animals, and letting them experience lots of everyday sights and sounds, especially in their first few weeks of life. Training is also important. Training, using kind and effective methods, is a great way of keeping your dog’s mind active and helps make sure you and your dog understand each other, especially when you are out together.

Puppy Socialisation

What is socialisation?

Socialisation is one of the most important things you can do for your puppy. It’s all about letting them meet people and other animals, and letting them experience lots of everyday sights and sounds, especially in their first few weeks of life.

Why is it important to socialise my puppy?

Socialisation has a big influence on the behaviour and temperament of your puppy that will affect their behaviour for the rest of their life. A well socialised puppy is more likely to grow up to be a friendly and outgoing dog. If socialisation isn’t done properly they’re more likely to be anxious and fearful as adults. Anxiety and fear are unpleasant feelings that reduce a dog’s quality of life.  In addition, anxiety and fear cause problem behaviour, including aggression, so a lack of socialisation results in dogs being given to rehoming centres or even being put to sleep. Tragically, this happens to thousands of dogs every year.

Socialising your puppy or dog

When should I socialise my puppy?

Puppies need to be socialised when they are young because of the way a puppy’s brain develops. Between the age of 3 and 8 weeks, a puppy wants to explore and investigate everything that’s new. But after about 8 weeks, the brain changes and instead of wanting to investigate new things your puppy is more likely to be nervous of them and back away. Exposure to a range of people and animals and different places and experiences is therefore crucial before 8 weeks of age. The earlier you start socialisation, the better. In fact, socialisation really starts at the place where your puppy was born so you should get a puppy from a place where it has been amongst normal everyday sights and sounds, like the vacuum cleaner, TV, hi-fi and washing machine. After 8 weeks socialisation is still important and the brain is still developing. At this age puppies will be naturally wary of new people and situations so the way in which you handle their encounters is very important to make sure they stay relaxed and unafraid.

Do puppies need their vaccinations before they can meet other animals?

This is an important point. Puppies normally go to their new home at 8 weeks of age (and should be with their mother until this time), and at this age you should take your puppy to your vet to find out when they can be vaccinated. Some will have already had one vaccination (arranged by the breeder) and will be due for a second. Others will need their first vaccination, and then will be due a second one a couple of weeks later (depending on your vet’s advice). It’s important because socialisation involves meeting other animals, but your puppy needs to be protected from diseases first. When you’re at the vet’s, ask about puppy socialisation groups (sometimes called “puppy parties”) which lots of vet practices run to let puppies learn to socialise with other puppies. You should also ask for advice about socialising your puppy with dogs that are known to you and that are themselves fully vaccinated.

How should I socialise my puppy?

Let your puppy gradually meet and experience different things, but before you start, remember these golden rules:

  • The experiences must be good ones! If your puppy seems anxious or afraid when they’re doing or seeing something new, calmly end what they’re doing. Don’t try to comfort or reassure your puppy as this will make them think that there was something to be scared about. Just be positive and upbeat and do something different. This is very important because otherwise your puppy can develop fears and phobias.
  • Build up new experiences gradually; for example, go to a local row of shops before a shopping precinct; a quiet road before a busy road etc. When your puppy is calm and relaxed, give them occasional praise and healthy treats so that they enjoy the experience.
  • Don’t introduce too many new experiences in one day. Three a day is a sensible number, remembering to repeat them as often as possible once your puppy is happy with them.
  • Supervise play with other dogs carefully. Don’t let the play get too boisterous.
Girl training dog


Do I need to train my dog?

Training is a great way to keep your dog’s mind active and helps make sure you and your dog understand each other, especially when you are out together.
Without training, the world can be a pretty confusing place for a dog. People expect dogs to behave in certain ways, and to follow certain rules, but, like a child, a dog can only know what these rules are if they have been properly taught.
Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see people shouting angrily at their dog when what is really needed is some effective training. This isn’t fair on the dog.

What’s the best way to train my dog?

The key to successful training is to make it fun! The kindest and most effective method is called “positive reinforcement” – also called reward-based training. Anyone can do this, including you!

How does “reward-based training” work?

The underlying theory is simple: if an animal behaves in a certain way (e.g. sits), then receives something that they like (a reward), they will want to behave that way again.
By repeating this several times and ensuring that the treat arrives either during the good behaviour or immediately after it, then adding a command (e.g. “sit”), the animal will eventually respond to the command without needing the reward.
Using reward-based training, almost any animal can be trained to understand commands, from dogs and dolphins to ferrets and fish.

How can I train my dog using rewards?

First, you need to know these golden rules:

  • Know what makes your dog tick!
    The reward you offer has to be something that your dog really likes, so that they’re prepared to work for it. Some dogs like food treats, others prefer praise or a favourite toy.
  • Timing is everything
    For a dog to know what they’re getting the reward for, the reward must be given while they are doing the behaviour or within half a second after they’ve stopped doing it.
  • Keep it short
    Don’t make training sessions too long, or your dog will lose interest or get frustrated. Keep the training fun and positive, and end on a high each day, after a success.
  • One by one
    Focus on training one command at a time. When your dog has learnt one, then you can move on to the next.
  • Clear commands
    Make sure the command you are using is short and only used for the behaviour you are training, to avoid confusion.
  • Keep going
    When you’re teaching a new command you’ll need to keep rewarding the behaviour that you want your dog to do. It may take lots of repetition but, with patience, your dog will eventually understand what you want. It’s a great moment when, suddenly, the penny drops and your dog gets it!
  • Ignore mistakes
    Every dog will make mistakes from time to time. It’s not their fault, it just means they haven’t learnt the task yet. Ignore the mistake, then give the reward next time they get it right.
  • Never use punishment
    Punishment includes shouting at your dog or, even worse, hitting or smacking them. It can also involve the use of gadgets like water pistols, rattle cans and choke chains. By using these techniques, your dog will experience anxiety and fear; emotions which have been proven to make animals learn more slowly. Reward-based training is kind and effective. Punishment is unkind and doesn’t create lasting results. In addition, if you punish your dog he will learn that people cannot be trusted and this can lead to a range of behavioural problems later in life.
  • Get everyone on board
    Everyone who has contact with your dog should praise the right behaviour, use the same commands and ignore mistakes. This means that your dog gets the same message from everyone, rather than different messages, which is confusing.
  • A note on food treats
    Dog and cat obesity is a big problem and causes health problems. Try using healthy food as a reward, e.g. very small slices of carrot. If your dog is only interested in less healthy food, such as small pieces of chopped sausage, reduce the amount of food given in the main meal so your dog doesn’t get too much food on training days.


When can I start training my dog?

It’s never too late, but the sooner you start the better. Basic reward-based training can start at 6 weeks of age but remember just to teach one task at a time.

Do I need to be the pack leader in my dog’s eyes?

No. It’s a myth that some dogs always want to be dominant and that you, as their owner, need to be the leader of the pack. Your dog doesn’t need to view you as more dominant than them, but they do need to learn to trust you and to understand your commands, using the kind and effective methods described earlier.

How can I find a good dog training class?

Make sure that any class you are thinking of joining uses reward-based training and does not base their training on the idea that dogs need to be dominant. Avoid any class which is using water pistols, rattle cans or similar training gadgets. Members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers only use reward-based methods – to find a trainer in your area visit their website:

Dog toys


Keeping your dog stimulated with toys

Dogs need plenty of mental stimulation to be happy. To help provide this you should play with your dog regularly, using appropriate dog toys. Keep some stored away, so that you can use different toys in different weeks; this will help to keep the toys interesting for your dog, and gives you a chance to clean them as well.

Dog exercise


How much exercise does my dog need?

The amount of exercise needed varies according to the age, breed and health of a dog. For example, a small dog may need less exercise than a particularly active one, such as a Border Collie.

As they get older, many dogs may need less exercise. But owners can still make sure their dog's life is enjoyable, with walks perhaps replaced by gentle play for mental stimulation.

Always take veterinary advice into account. For example, a dog will need to be rested after surgery.

Your vet is the best person to advise on how much exercise your dog should be getting, as they know your dog and can take the relevant factors in to consideration.

When out for their exercise, dogs should be on a lead in built-up areas, and only released when you are absolutely sure it is safe. This protects your dog from traffic, litter and other hazards, and ensures your dog cannot be a nuisance to others. Early morning or in the evening are the best times to walk your dog if the weather is hot.


PDSA's Findings

PDSA has produced the first ever comprehensive measure of animal wellbeing in the UK, revealing the state of our pet nation - The PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report.

Over 11,000 pet owners were surveyed to find out how dogs, cats and rabbits are cared for - below are the findings for dogs and their behaviour.


Improving behaviour is another key area to tackle in dogs. Aggression and destructive behaviour can have serious consequences, but there are also other types of problem behaviour that can have a real impact on both the owner and the pet. As 26% of owners got their dog from a rescue or rehoming centre, many people don’t know how much socialisation or early training their dog has had. Owning a happy, well-behaved dog is a very rewarding experience, despite the hard work that may be needed to achieve it.

What is your dog afraid of graph

Key findings

BEHAVIOUR MELTDOWN – Over 165,000 dogs show aggression towards people on a weekly basis.

  • 5% show aggression towards other pets which equates to over 415,000. Other types of poor behaviour typically shown on a weekly basis by dogs are growling or snarling (8%, which is equivalent to over 660,000). These types of behaviour are a significant concern due to the serious and sometimes fatal consequences they pose to both people and pets.
  • Socialising dogs means getting them used to everyday sights and sounds (such as vacuum cleaners, washing machines, people) and getting them used to travelling in a car, going to the vet and being examined. It should be pointed out that some owners did not have their dog as a puppy so were not able to say whether any socialisation had taken place.
  • 25% of owners who had their dog as a puppy did not adequately socialise it. 44% of owners don’t know what socialisation their dog had when young.
  • 50% of dogs (around 4.1 million) never went to training classes during their first six months of life.
  • Just 22% went to a weekly dog training class in their first six months of life. 5% of owners took their dog to training classes very infrequently (3% monthly and 2% less often). 22% do not know whether or not their dog went to training classes.
  • 35% of dog owners would consider giving up their dog if its behaviour became a problem so it is vital to consider their behavioural needs before problems arise.
  • The veterinary professionals surveyed also had some key concerns about dog behaviour. Aggression came out top of the issues that need addressing in dogs. Inadequate socialisation, inadequate training and inappropriate training methods also featured highly.

“Many serious problems such as over-aggressive behaviour and separation distress can be traced back to the early experiences of puppies. Considerately exposing puppies to the right kind of experiences is the most useful advice I can give breeders and owners who want a well-balanced adult dog”.
David Ryan PG Dip (CABC) CCABClinical Animal Behaviourist; Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors-Chair

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