ABSTRACT: The role of the veterinary nurse in educating clients about the importance of puppy socialisation is paramount. Veterinary practices should openly promote puppy clinics, puppy parties and socialisation groups. Nurses need to understand how puppies assimilate these learning processes in order to fully convey to owners why their puppies display certain behaviours.

Background to development

The socialisation period begins at three weeks of age, is a period of rapid brain development and coincides with the maturation and myelination of the spinal cord. At this age, the puppy becomes fully aware of – and able to respond to – its environment.

There are many features of socialisation that occur in the main socialisation period (4 to 14 weeks), but the features of the most long-term behavioural significance are:

development of anticipatory responses as a result on an increased ability to attend to the environment

emergence of social behaviour, including determination of relative rank

ability to form primary social relationships with conspecifics and with other animals (including people).

In puppies, there is a rapid increase in tendency to approach unfamiliar people up to the age of five weeks. After five weeks puppies become increasingly cautious of unfamiliar individuals or situations, but social motivation to approach and interact, outweighed fear up to the age of eight weeks. 

From the age of 12 to 14 weeks puppies were easily frightened, and it was concluded that after this period, the growing tendency to react fearfully to novelty put an end to effective socialisation.

Throughout the juvenile period (14 weeks to sexual maturity), gradual improvement of the motor skills occurs and refinement of behaviour patterns in both relevance and context are seen. During this period there is the increased tendency to explore the environment.

At about four months of age, the speed of formation of conditioned reflexes begins to slow down, as associations made previously probably interfere with new learning. There is evidence for a second period of heightened sensitivity to fear- provoking stimuli just before puberty at around four to six months, and an increase in social aggression.

Puppies should be allowed time on their own so that they can become habitualised to separation

Veterinary nurse's role

The nurse’s role in aiding clients with socialisation of puppies must start from a very early age. Greater results can be achieved if socialisation is commenced whilst puppies are still with the bitch. This can only be achieved if breeders are open to ideas and take on the responsibility of the socialisation of the puppies.

Feeding behaviour when with litter mates can greatly influence feeding behaviour in adulthood. Puppies, when with litter mates, should each have their own food bowl. Puppies that have to share are more likely to bolt food down (this can result in vomiting if food is eaten too quickly), food guarding – and thus aggression – towards food. 

When puppies are presented to the veterinary practice, they are usually already at roughly eight weeks of age, a period when socialisation is exceptionally important. Nurse clinics are an ideal opportunity to educate owners on why socialisation is required and how to achieve it. Monthly nurse clinics – tied in with worming regimens – are an ideal opportunity to monitor how clients are doing with socialisation; although this can be too late in many cases.

Veterinary surgeons too have a vital role, during the primary vaccination course, to highlight to clients the importance of socialisation and to attend puppy socialisation parties. It is also critical to remember that this visit to the practice is usually the puppy’s first visit, and therefore needs to be as atraumatic as possible and positively pleasant for the puppy.

Puppy socialisation parties are mainly run by veterinary nurses and they are key to the education of owners as to how they should go about socialising their puppies. Many books do have socialisation charts that can be followed by owners and that give them a good indication of the things that they ought to be looking at achieving with their puppy. It is important to instil in owners’ minds that puppies should be socialised in a wide variety of different ways.

Socialisation is defined as the process whereby an animal learns how to recognise and interact with its own species and the species with which it cohabits.

Habituation is defined as the process whereby an animal becomes accustomed to non-threatening environmental stimuli and learns to ignore them.

Take every opportunity to promote your puppy classes and clinics to clients

Broad approach to socialisation

People’s circumstances can change and, therefore, puppies should be socialised with respect to everything that they might possibly encounter during their lives. People who live in rural areas should take their puppies into the city for socialisation, and vice versa. Owners who do not have children still need to socialise their puppy with children, because a new baby may come into the house later on in the dog’s life. It is impossible to predict the future and this should be emphasised strongly to owners.

Puppy classes, clinics and parties are an ideal opportunity to discuss worming, neutering, insurance and the prevention of common behavioural problems. CDs used for noise phobia problems should be recommended in order to aid in the prevention of noise phobias in puppies. Use of these CDs will habitualise the puppy to these unfamiliar sounds.

Puppy parties are great fun, but the person in charge of the party does need to be in control. Off lead, free-for-alls with large numbers of puppies can do more harm than good. The temperament of individual puppies should be taken into account, with nervous and withdrawn puppies being allowed to explore without being overwhelmed by others.

Care must be taken that bad experiences that could occur in these situations, at this vital stage in socialisation, don’t result in development of behavioural problems.

Breeders should make every effort to start socialising and habitualising puppies as early as possible

What to do if things go wrong

If things do start to get out of hand between two or more puppies during a puppy party, it is important to intervene quickly. The puppies should be placed back on their leads and allowed to calm down. The important factor is to ensure that potentially negative experiences do not occur, and constant monitoring of the puppies, interaction is required.

This is invariably the consequence of having too many puppies in the party without having sufficient extra help to monitor them interacting. It can be difficult to monitor the puppies whilst answering the owners’ questions, so having a
dditional pairs of eyes can be beneficial.

Quiet puppies

There will always be a collection of puppies that are very quiet, cautious or hesitant about interacting with other puppies when attending puppy parties. If there is more than one puppy in the group that is like this, it is best to sit them next to each other away from the more boisterous ones.

If there are no suitable puppies with which they can interact, then it can be beneficial for the individual puppy just to observe for the first session. In order for the puppy not to become too dependent on its owner, it can just observe from your lap. In most cases, by the end of the session, the puppy might be starting to come out of its shell a little and it might be able to walk around the other puppies, provided they are on their leads. 


Nicola Ackerman


Nicola works as senior medical nurse at The Veterinary Hospital Group and has been one of the emergency night nurses since 2005. She is a graduate of Hartpury College with an Honours Degree in Equine Science, specialising in animal nutrition; and qualified as a VN in 2002. She has subsequently gained a postgraduation Certificate in Small and Exotic Animal Nutrition.

She is also the Head Assessor in practice for a team of four other assessors, and is currently studying for the internal verifiers award (V1). Nicola was part of the BVNA Council for four years and held posts of Treasurer and Executive Editor of the VNJ during this time.

Nicola is part of the Pet Obesity Taskforce, has written a book on animal nutrition for veterinary nurses and technicians, and starting in January 2010 will sit on the Veterinary Products Committee Appraisal panel for human suspected adverse reactions to veterinary medicines.


1.   SHEPHERD, K. (2002) Development of behaviour, social behaviour and communication in dogs. Chapter 2. In: BSAVA Manual of Canine and   Feline Behavioural Medicine   (Eds)   Horwitz,   D.,   Mills, D and Heath, S. pp 8-20. BSAVA Publications,   Gloucester.

2.   DEHASSE, J. (1994) Sensory, emotional and social development   of the young dog.   Bulletin of Veterinary Clinical Ethology 2(1-2), pp 6-29.

3.   BOWEN, J. and HEATH, S. (2005) Behavioural Problems in Small Animals: Practical Advice for the Veterinary Team. Elsevier.

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 25 • No7 • July 2010 •