Socializing Your Aussie Puppy

(reprinted with the author's permission)


It is very important to understand that the critical period for socializing any dog ends at 16 weeks of age.   What happens to the puppy before that age will have more impact on the adult dog he becomes, than anything that happens later.   So if a breeder keeps the puppies kenneled outside during that time, rather than raising them in the home and taking them out for various socializing and training opportunities, the puppies may never be able to reach their full potential.  This cannot be stressed enough.   It is critical that a puppy in a home with his new owner, and any puppy still with his breeder, is properly and extensively socialized to all sorts of people including children, to other pets, and to many different situations he will encounter in a normal life with humans!  There are many, many articles and studies that have been done in this topic, so if you want to read more, you can do a search on the web for phrases like "critical period for socialization in canines".  
 Even after 16 weeks of age, it is still very important to consider a well thought out socialization plan.

What is socialization?  You hear that term tossed around a lot, but what does it really mean?  Socialization doesn't just mean taking your dog in public, or exposing him to a certain number or type of people.   It means getting him used to all sorts of handling such as having his feet, mouth and ears touched, being restrained for grooming or medical treatment and many other things.   It means getting him exposed to a huge variety of situations, noises, people and other animals, and many other things, so he will be well rounded and confident in his life.   This means household noises like a vacuum cleaner, the TV or radio, noisy kids playing, and so on.

Australian Shepherd pups need plenty of sensible, controlled socializing from birth on, if they are to reach their full potential.   As a breed, as per the standard, they may be reserved with strangers and possess strong guardian instincts.   What does this mean to a pet owner?  If not well bred, raised and socialized, you may have a dog that is overly protective of its home and family, or overly fearful.   This takes a lot of the fun out of owning a dog, not to mention is a major liability.

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Socializing should start before your puppy comes home.   A good breeder will be hands on with the puppies from birth to the point the pup is transferred to its new home.   Ideally that would mean the puppies are born inside and handled daily, and exposed to all sorts of sights, sounds, smells and experiences.  

You have to use caution in taking a young (and unvaccinated) puppy out into the big world, but you can safely do it to some extent.   Start taking him for car rides and visits to the local stores which allow pets to visit.   Don't put puppies on the floor or let them come in contact with other pets in the store at this stage.   Same for vet visits, they should be carried in to avoid being on the floor or ground until they have completed their shots.   In the mean time, take them places where the risk of coming in contact with other potentially disease carrying dogs is low, but where they can meet people and see other sights and sounds.  If you have other puppy friendly, healthy dogs in your family, neighborhood, or circle of friends, the puppy can be introduced to them after at least the first, if not second shot.    The most critical time to expose your puppy to as much as possible, but in a safe, controlled way, is 8-16 wks.

Try to make sure your dog meets at least a dozen new people a week during the first year of life.  Get them around tall people, short people, men with beards, people in hats or shiny sunglasses, people who smoke, loud people, quiet people, people of different races, people in "funny" clothes, kids, older folks and so on.   Also try to get them around different dog breeds and other animals, around busy traffic areas, in other buildings and homes.   Groom them regularly and make handling for medical treatment part of your regular social time.   That way when it's time to actually have treatment at the vet, they are more used to it.


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Another concept with socializing is HOW to do it.   Many people almost force their puppy to meet new people, even when the experience is clearly overwhelming for the puppy.  Try to keep a close tab on how your puppy is feeling.   Let them have some say in how much contact they have with new things, at first.   It builds confidence for them to decide how to relate to things, and you can set them up to succeed by trying not to put them in situations they aren't ready to experience, but reward them for exploring and visiting.  Don't force them to accept petting if they aren't comfortable, but let them set the pace.  The reason to use caution and not force them is that dogs can be really damaged by being flooded with more than they can handle.   You have to have a balance of positive experiences at this stage, to get an ideal outcome.   Your puppy needs to trust that you will not put him in a situation that is too much for him to handle.   If you damage that trust by forcing him at a young age, you may never fully get it back.  

IMPORTANT: Something you don't want to do is reward fear or caution by cooing to the dog, trying to reassure it with soothing words or petting.  That simply reinforces their fear or uncertainty.   Many dogs, Aussies included, may go through fear periods as they grow, meaning your normally outgoing puppy suddenly acts afraid of a new person or situation, or even things it used to be fine with.   A lot of people try to comfort the dog, but that simply reinforces the emotion and behavior.  It is best to pretend to ignore their fear, as if you’re saying "I don't have a clue why you are acting like that, you silly thing, there's nothing to be afraid of."   It's sort of like being matter of fact rather than feeding the fear, because your dog will feed off your reactions.

 If you have a dog going through a fear period, keep taking them everywhere and have people feed treats.   Don't happy talk the dog, or do anything that may make them think that you approve of them showing any hesitation, but look straight ahead at whatever you are doing, expecting the dog to come right along, as if it never occurred to you they may even consider being afraid.  You can observe them out of the corner of your eye, but don't watch them with your full gaze.  You are telling them that you don't expect or anticipate them being afraid and that information travels down the leash.   Don't feed or reward fear, but set things up for the dogs to succeed.  You can walk them around people and carry on a conversation with a person, almost ignoring the dog, and the dog will pick up that it's no big deal to be near strangers.   If you approach a stranger anticipating the dog being afraid, they will be if they weren't inclined to be in the first place.   Aussies are so keen at sensing our emotions and reacting based on that.   

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If you can enroll your puppy in a reward based, quality training class, that is great.   In some places those types of classes are easy to find, in others they are harder.   Find a trainer who is familiar with the breed and comfortable in working with them.   Watch a class before enrolling, if you can.  If at any point you feel uncomfortable with the methods used, don't take your puppy there.   Even if you have already started a program, the same applies.  Never let a trainer do something to your dog, or instruct you to, that makes the dog afraid of you or other people, or damages the trust and confidence you are building.  
 If you start to see your puppy bark at people or things, try not to make too much of a fuss over it, in a good way or bad way.  Your dog will naturally protect you, you don't need to encourage it in a young puppy, nor do you want to correct them for that as it could be motivated by some uncertainty, and you don't want to punish that. If your puppy starts to huff (that breathy kind of bark, usually indicating fear or uncertainty), try to change the subject by walking it off in a different direction.  If this happens, plan ways to set up the next similar encounter in a way to encourage your puppy to react differently.    If he was barking at a person, set up a friend to come in from a distance, tossing treats to the puppy, and maybe saying a mild greeting but not being too loud or excited sounding.   You want the puppy to see the approach of a stranger as not a huge deal.    If you tense up and anticipate a bad reaction from your puppy, you will get one.  If you set up the training to make it possible for your puppy to succeed, and picture succeeding, you will.  

The other thing you must do is understand the concept of management.   Even a "good" Aussie may find situations or people he just doesn't like.   Rather than trying to force the dog to behave in such a situation, don't be afraid to simply remove the dog.   An example could be a rousing game of football in the yard.   If your Aussie wants to "help" you or "protect" you from your friends, or your children from their friends, it's better to just remove him rather than have the dog take matters into his own paws.  You can keep working with the dog in that type of situation, but some may just find it too stimulating given their herding instincts.   It's better to remove the dog than have it bite!  In an Aussie, chasing moving objects is a very self rewarding behavior (meaning it feels good so it doesn't need an outside reward like praise or treats. )  The more they practice it, the more they will do it.   So the best thing to do is to remove the dog until you can train to have more control over the dog, and the dog can learn more self control in that situation.   If it can't learn that control, just don't have the dog loose in those situations.   It may be asking more than the dog can give.

One really important concept to understand is a dog is not a human nor should he be treated like one.   Just like some humans don't like EVERY person or situation they find themselves in, neither do dogs.   So bear this in mind and realize your dog is a thinking, feeling creature that may just need some understanding in some situations.   Dogs never do things without a reason or without warning, but if their owners don't understand them they may be blamed for that.   It is the human who lacked the training or skill in observing and understanding.   Most dogs want to please as it gives them the positive feedback from their owners, but not all dogs will be "perfect" in all situations.   Love your dog anyway, and train him, don't blame him!

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You can use this information to coach people meeting your dog as you have him out to socialize.   It is even more important to teach children how to properly meet and greet dogs.

So many people see a pretty dog and want to rush up to it, speaking in a high pitched or loud voice, and either pet or hug the dog.   If you think about how the dog perceives this, you may realize this is not the right way to approach.  Many dogs are threatened by a strange person rushing up to touch the dog, especially if the person is being loud and looming over the dog, or is trying to touch it.   Instead, remain calm and let the dog approach you.   Don't even try to make physical contact, and don't talk to the dog.   Instead, let the dog smell you and make the first contact.  After the dog has done this, you may put your hand out to be sniffed.   If the dog seems comfortable and accepting, reach under its jaw line to give a scratch.   So many people reach over the head of a dog, which is another potentially threatening gesture.   Dogs don't instinctively enjoy being patted on the head.   (Do it to yourself and see if you find it pleasurable).   The same goes for patting their ribs, something men do at times, giving a hard couple thumps on the dog's side.   Instead, try scratching under the chin, on the chest or on the rump above the tail.  These are places most dogs enjoy being petted.   Unless you know the dog well don't try to hug the dog.   Know that hugging is something people like to do, but dogs don't naturally understand it as a sign of affection.  In fact, in dogs, it is more likely to be used in a dominance interaction.   It is especially risky for a child to try to hug a strange dog, as the dog may bite.   Though people think it's wrong for a dog to bite in that situation, it is a perfectly natural reaction for the dog.

By behaving in this manner around new dogs, you will find most react much better to you than they would if you played the obnoxious animal lover.   And, you will be keeping yourself safe from a potential bite for doing something a dog is not comfortable with.  

In closing, when you take on an Aussie puppy or adult, you are embarking on what should be a very rewarding partnership with an amazing breed of dog.   It's up to you to set the stage for success for your little canine genius!  Help him be all he can be!  Train, socialize and succeed!