…and why I chose not to do this in my classes.

Owners hear a lot about socialisation, and how important it is for puppies.  Without this, they can struggle in the world.  But there is a big misunderstanding what socialisation actually is.


Often, owners think it’s about letting your puppy run around and play with every dog, human, or living thing that they can find.  Young dogs cannot control their emotions, and so always getting this high arousal fix can seriously dampen their judgement.  They go from 0 to 100 in nanoseconds, and you might as well go home – their attention (and hormones) are somewhere else.  Now if you have a small dog, and ALL the other dogs they meet are tolerant, then that’s ok.  But life is not like that.  Puppies grow up, and not all dogs appreciate being approached, chased or being bounced on.  When your dog hits full size adolescent, we suddenly expect them to control this impulse but we haven’t taught this, quite the opposite.


Dogs need to be taught social manners but don’t leave it up to a stranger’s dog to do this job for you.  I personally do not want my dog to have to resort to learning aggressive responses because someone else has not guided their dog in social etiquette.


So we need to teach our dogs that some dogs are great to play with, but others are best to avoid and to keep their focus on us as we pass by quietly.  In my classes, I teach the Rule Of 3 -play with one, avoid one, and polite greeting to the third…this is a quick 2 second polite sniff and move away.


Puppies have already learnt play skills from the moment they started moving with their siblings, so we need to teach them the other skills.


To get this right, we need to learn their body language.  We can only judge if an encounter is healthy or scary by watching how both dogs are responding to each other.


Play can easily get out of control especially with puppies.  They are not so good at reading other dogs, so for some dogs they go over the top, be over boisterous and then learn its acceptable to keep pestering the other dog – ie become a bit of a bully.  But for the other dog, even just one scary encounter with an over excited dog can cause them to feel scared or intimidated, and likely to become reactive to other dogs approaching.  It’s their way of defending their personal space and hoping the other dog keeps a distance.   Some dogs are more naturally shy and reserved, so having a crazy pup charge up to them is frightening too.


Once you have learnt about your dog, and how to understand body language, then you are better informed to let your puppy meet and play with the great role models.  Allow them to have a few crazy puppy friends where they can safely go mad with each other, but also let them hang out with ‘puppy tolerant’ older dogs who will teach them to trot around, sniff and come back to the humans.


I sometimes get asked why I don’t let the puppies meet in class, and why don’t I let them run around together.  However, I get asked even more times for help with getting their dog to listen to their owner whilst there are other distractions and dogs around.


For many of my clients, human and dogs, arriving at the field is an anxious time.  They may not know me, know what may happen, be worried that their dog will embarrass them (no such thing, we celebrate their personalities!) and certainly for the first class, I can see the slight stress responses in both species.  I’m there to help everyone settle in, guide them in how the class will work, and make everyone comfortable.  I see some dogs be over aroused in a new environment, some dogs look like rabbits in headlights.  So having a strange dog leap on each other is not going to be a good outcome.  Negative experiences will affect the classes and I would prefer that they all had a positive time, and learn that the class is a great place.


For some owners, this is their first dog so again, teaching about understanding their dog is key.  To be fair, it is only one hour a week that I ask that we teach your dog to focus on you, but the rest of the week they can do what you let them.  I love it when owners bond, and outside of class, its fantastic to hear of new friendships between the puppies.


Teaching your dog to bond better with you, to listen to you on walks when there are other dogs around can be life saving.  For this reason I don’t allow the puppies to meet or play.  If they do, then very often the adrenaline spike stops their brains from working and the class is always a struggle for both pup and owner.  This leads to frustration and upset for both parties.  This is the reason why nearly every trainer I know also don’t allow play in puppy class.


Finally, the venue I use is not 100% secure.  I have my heart in my mouth every session and worry that a dog may escape the netting and run out of the field – something I will do all I can to prevent from happening.


If you want to have some play time for your dog, then meet with the other owners on a 121 basis in a more appropriate park, and watch out to make sure both puppies are having fun!


It’s better to have a few special friends than be in an overwhelming environment and learn to detest social parties!


PS – Socialisation is learning how to interact with the world, and cope with new and novel things – exposure to their environment  – so this is why you want to let your pup watch, sniff and only sometimes interact with everything.  We have a Top Tips blog on Puppy Socialisation on our website which explains more.