Dog running with ball

Puppy and dog behaviour

The secrets of socialisation in their first few weeks, the best way to train them – and keeping their tails wagging with toys and regular exercise.

In this section we’ll look at:


  • Puppy socialisation
  • Training
  • Toys
  • Exercise
  • Research 


Puppy socialisation

Socialisation is one of the most important things you can do for your puppy as it helps them become friendly and outgoing. It’s all about getting them to meet people and other animals – and experience lots of everyday sights and sounds, especially in the first few weeks of life.

Socialisation has a big influence on your puppy. It will affect their behaviour and temperament for the rest of their life. A well-socialised puppy is more likely to grow up to be a friendly and outgoing dog. If it’s not done properly, then it leads to problems as adults. They are more likely to have anxiety and fear, have behaviour problems, be aggressive – which can result in them being given away to rehoming centres or even being put to sleep. Tragically, this happens to thousands of dogs every year. But it can be simply avoided...

Puppies need to be socialised when they are young because of the way their brains develop. Between 3 and 8 weeks, a puppy wants to explore everything that’s new. But, after about 8 weeks, their brain changes. They are more likely to be nervous of new things and back away.

So what should you do to help their behaviour before 8 weeks?
Get them meeting people and animals, exploring different places, enjoying new experiences. The earlier you start socialisation, the better. It starts the moment they are born. You should get a puppy from a place where it has been amongst everyday sights and sounds, like the vacuum cleaner, TV, hi-fi and washing machine.

Is socialisation important after 8 weeks?

Yes. Their brains are still developing, but they will be naturally wary of new people and situations. So the way 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?
Yes. This is important to help protect them from diseases before they start meeting other animals. Puppies should be with their mother until 8 weeks of age and then go to their new home. You should then contact your vet to find out when they can be vaccinated. Some puppies will need their first vaccination – and then a second one a couple of weeks later, depending on your vet’s advice. Others will have already had one vaccination, arranged by the breeder – and will be due for a second.

What are the golden rules to socialise my puppy?

  • The experiences must be good.

    If your puppy seems anxious or afraid when they’re doing or seeing something new, just calmly end what they’re doing. Don’t try to comfort or reassure your puppy as this will make them think 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.

    E.G. 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, Repeat them as often as possible once your puppy is happy with them.

  • Supervise play with other dogs carefully. Don’t let their play get too boisterous. 


Training

Training is a great way to keep your dog’s mind active. It also helps you bond and understand each other, especially when you are out together.

Without training, the world can be a pretty confusing place for your dog. We all expect dogs to behave in set ways and follow certain rules. But just as with a child, it’s not instinct. Rules need to be taught properly. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see people shouting angrily at their dog. This isn’t fair. What’s really needed is some effective dog training.

It’s easier to learn when it’s fun. The kindest and most effective method is called “reward-based training” – also called “positive reinforcement”. It’s easy and something we can all do.

How does reward-based training work?
By rewarding your dog with a treat when they do what you want, they will want to behave that way again.

Repeat this several times. So if you want them to sit, give the command and give the treat either during the good behaviour or immediately afterwards. Your dog will eventually respond to your 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 grasp these golden rules:


  • Know what makes your dog tick!

    The reward 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.

    Help the dog link the behaviour with the reward: give the reward during the behaviour or within half a second after they’ve done it.

  • Keep it short.

    Don’t make training sessions too long, or your dog will lose interest or get frustrated. Always end on a high, 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.

    Use short commands. Avoid confusion by only using the command for the behaviour you want.

  • Keep going.

    Keep rewarding when your dog does what you want. It may take lots of repetition but, with patience, your dog will eventually understand the command and what you want. It’s a great moment when, suddenly, the penny drops and your dog gets it!

  • Ignore mistakes.

    Every dog makes mistakes sometimes. It’s not their fault – it just means they haven’t learnt the task yet. Ignore the mistake and give the reward next time they get it right.

  • Never use punishment. 

    Shouting, smacking, hitting, using gadgets like water pistols, or using rattle cans and choke chains are all forms of punishment. They cause anxiety and fear; which are proven to make animals learn slower. It’s unkind and doesn’t create lasting results. It teaches your dog that people can’t be trusted and this can lead to behavioural problems later in life. Instead, use positive, fun, reward-based training – it’s kind and effective.

  • Get everyone on board.

    Everyone in contact with your dog should praise the right behaviour, use the same commands and ignore mistakes. So your dog gets the same message from everyone, rather than gets confused by different messages.

  • Get them to eat the right treats.

    Dog obesity causes health problems. Try using healthy food as rewards, e.g. a very small slice of carrot. If your dog is only interested in less healthy food, such as small pieces of sausage, reduce the size of their main meal so they don’t get too much food on training days.


When can I start training my dog?
The sooner you start the better: basic reward-based training can start at 6 weeks of age. But it’s never too late at any age.

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 the dominant one and that you need to be the leader of the pack in order to control them. Your dog doesn’t need to view you as more dominant than them, but they do need to learn to trust you and understand your commands.

How can I find a good dog training class?
Choose a class that uses reward-based training. Avoid any class which use water pistols, rattle cans or similar training gadgets. Avoid any class which bases their training on the idea that dogs need to be dominant. Members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers only use reward-based methods – to find a trainer in your area, visit www.apdt.co.uk


Toys

A mentally stimulated dog is a happy dog. So play with your dog regularly, using appropriate dog toys. Keep some stored away: use different toys in different weeks. This helps keep the toys interesting for your dog – and also gives you a chance to clean them.


Exercise

The amount of exercise your dog needs depends on its age, breed and health. For example, a small dog may need less exercise than a particularly active one, such as a Border Collie.

As dogs get older, many may need less exercise. But owners can still make sure their dog's life is enjoyable, perhaps by replacing with 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 everything into consideration.

  • When out exercising, keep dogs on a lead when exercising in built-up areas. Only release them when you are absolutely sure it is safe. This ensures your dog isn’t a nuisance to others and protects it from traffic, litter and other hazards. 

  • Walk your dog in the cooler early morning or in the evening, if the weather is hot.

  • Avoid throwing sticks for your dog, as vets see many dogs where sticks have been swallowed or become stuck in their mouth.



Research

PDSA reveals the state of our pet nation each year in a comprehensive measure of animal wellbeing in the UK – The PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report.

Since 2011, over 21,000 pet owners, veterinary professionals and children have been surveyed to find out how dogs, cats and rabbits are cared for. Here are the findings for dogs and their behaviour:

Research overview

Improving behaviour is a key area to tackle in dogs. Aggression and destructive behaviour can have serious consequences. Other types of problem behaviour can also 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 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.

Key findings from our most recent report:

BEHAVIOUR MELTDOWN – Over 165,000 dogs show aggression towards people every week:

  • 5% (415,000) show aggression towards other pets. 8% (over 660,000) behave poorly by growling or snarling. This aggressive behaviour is a significant concern for both people and pets as the consequences can be serious and sometimes fatal.

  • Some owners didn’t have their dog as a puppy so they don’t know if it was socialised or not. Socialising dogs means getting them used to everyday sights and sounds – vacuum cleaners, washing machines, people etc – and getting them used to travelling in a car, going to the vet and being examined. 

  • 39% of owners don’t know what socialisation their dog had when young.

  • 58% of dogs never went to training classes during their first six months of life.

  • Just 21% went to a weekly dog training class in their first six months of life. Only 6% of owners took their dog to training classes – 1% monthly and 5% even less often).14% do not know whether or not their dog went to training classes.

  • 63% of pet owners have been frightened or concerned by another dog’s behaviour.

  • The veterinary professionals surveyed also had some key concerns about dog behaviour: Aggression was the top issue that needs 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) CCAB Clinical Animal Behaviourist; Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors-Chair.

Health
Companionship