The first year of a guide dog puppy’s life is when they learn about the world around them and gain all the experiences of daily life. This period is really important, and we’re so grateful for the dedication of our puppy raiser volunteers (formerly called a puppy walker) who help us raise puppies that are well socialised.
As puppies and dogs develop and mature, they learn about the environment around them. Development of the senses, increases in hormones and every experience a puppy or dog has, can affect their perception and behaviour.
It’s important to help our puppies and young dogs build-up a positive bank of experiences throughout their time during puppy raising (formerly called puppy walking). This will help counteract the effects of any worrying situations they may encounter later in their life.
This means, regardless of a dog’s age (two-months, 12-months, 20-months or older), it always helps to build upon and develop their positive experience bank account.
The following guidance has been developed by our Puppy Development Team and our Training and Behaviour Team, for any volunteers who are looking after a guide dog puppy at home.
Socialising your puppy
Introducing new experiences
It’s normal for young puppies to respond to every new noise, sight, movement and smell, and you should always give your puppy as much time as they need to do that. Over time, we would like our puppies to gradually stop paying attention to irrelevant everyday information, such as the kettle, the boiler, traffic noise outside, birds in the garden or movement in a vehicle.
To make sure your puppy’s behaviour is developing well (at any age), you should always monitor their body language. It’s important to look out for signs that indicate they’re not getting used to everyday things as we would expect. If a puppy is not, this can be a red flag for the development of anxiety or fear-related problems, which will have a detrimental impact on their welfare, and make them less suitable for the role of a working dog.
We aim for our puppies to learn new things in a way that is either neutral or positive. For the best results, introduce your puppy to new things when they are in a calm and relaxed state of mind. If they are over-excited, tired, or anxious, the possibility that they will perceive these new things negatively increases.
A wide variety of experiences can frighten puppies, including loud noises, movement, grooming or veterinary handling and travelling in a vehicle. Puppies won’t just “get used to” things that scare them by repeated exposure. We would never advise ‘flooding’ a puppy with a new experience, such as continuously exposing them to something that they have shown a concern towards. This approach is often very scary for animals, as it gives them no control over the situation, and can cause more long-term problems. We always advise introducing things in a carefully planned and low-level way and pairing that with positive events such as feeding and play. Over time, the experience can be gradually increased, in duration, number of repetitions, or intensity.
If you notice that your puppy is not comfortable and relaxed in any situation, you should pause the introduction and take time to re-evaluate your approach to building confidence and positive experiences. To build positive experiences for a puppy that is mildly uncomfortable, follow each introduction of the new thing, such as a sound, with a piece of food or play. If this approach is done carefully, your puppy should begin to predict that good things happen. With the example of a sound, the noise of the sound will take on the same positive response as the food or toy.
If your puppy is showing obvious signs of fearing something, we will need to introduce a structured approach that considers your individual puppy. These signs don’t always happen the first time a puppy experiences something that concerns them. It is often the second or third time – or even later – so it is important to always be vigilant. Any time a puppy shows obvious signs of fearing something, please contact your Puppy Development Advisor (formerly called a Puppy Training Supervisor) for further advice and support.
It’s very important to be aware if your puppy is fearful or concerned. The resources in this section will help you identify signs in your puppy’s body language. Any time a puppy shows obvious signs of fearing something, please contact your Puppy Development Advisor (formerly called a Puppy Training Supervisor) for further advice and support.
Using your puppy’s daily food allowance is a great way to help with socialisation. Weigh out your puppy’s daily allowance in the morning, give them a small breakfast and keep back a small amount for dinner. You can then use their remaining allowance for creating positive experiences. For example, giving them kibble for watching birds calmly or introducing new equipment.
You can buy or make an interactive feeder – ideally using a variety of different types to encourage different behaviours. You will need to introduce each feeder to your puppy, and you might need to teach them how to use it. Once your puppy has finished eating you should first swap it for a piece of kibble and then take the feeder away. It is important to note that your puppy should never be left alone with an interactive feeder.
It’s normal for your puppy to look towards sounds, and we would also consider this normal for an adult dog. However, we would like our dogs to be confident with sounds so they would continue to work happily, even when a sudden noise occurs.
There are a lot of great online resources and recordings. Dogs Trust has created sound clips that replicate everyday noises, which you can use at home to help build your puppy’s confidence.
Letting your puppy meet and greet lots of different people will go a long way to help them become confident with a variety of people as they grow. You could also try changing your appearance, movements, mannerisms and even smell. Walk differently, skip, dance, pause, and then offer a piece of kibble (or toy). Again, watch the puppy’s body language and alter your approach accordingly. If your puppy is relaxed, continue or raise the intensity of your efforts. If they are tense or afraid, stop and try again at a lower intensity the following day.
Once your puppy is relaxed around new items, you can start to carry the item. Puppies are all individuals and will react and progress differently. The key is to watch what your puppy is doing and follow their lead. As your puppy gets more confident around new objects, think about ways you can make them look, or place them in different locations around the home and garden, whilst continuing to pair positive outcomes when they investigate.
You can let your puppy watch TV and should try to vary the programmes as much as possible. Monitor your puppy’s body language – if your puppy is asleep or appears unaware of the tv, don’t complicate things by offering food or toys or drawing attention to the tv. However, if your puppy is aware of the images, give them a piece of kibble and/or toy to play with after they have heard or watched, to set them up for positive associations.
Giving your puppy the chance to sniff whilst on their daily exercise will now be more important than ever. As your puppy is currently restricted in meeting new people and dogs, this gives them the opportunity to smell the scent of other dogs and people that have been there previously.
Give the cue (‘Go free’), for your puppy to be able to sniff. This will not hinder their long-term training and may pose big advantages to their overall socialisation. Wearing different perfumes and varying your hand wash/shampoo may also be helpful.
You can offer your puppy plenty of different surfaces to walk on, such as cardboard, carpet, linoleum, tiles, rubber matting, car mats, decking, dirt, sand pits, foil, bubble wrap, grass, gravel, concrete, and even moving surfaces such as wobble cushions or sports equipment.
Please consider your puppy’s age and remember that puppies should not jump up or off heights. Don’t use a lure for this exercise, instead place the item on the floor and wait until your puppy has made a movement (however slight) towards the item. ‘Mark’ any movement by saying ‘good girl/boy’ and then give a piece of kibble or toy (play).
Please remember that any physical movement still needs to be appropriate for the age of your puppy.
Grooming/health check equipment
It’s important to introduce your puppy to grooming and a variety of grooming equipment gently. You could use items such as Zoom grooms, brushes, combs, nail clippers, empty treatment bottles and chamois leather cloth. First, let your puppy look at and smell the item, followed by a piece of their kibble. Place the item close to your puppy, then give your puppy another piece of kibble. Next, touch your puppy with the item gently (usually the chest or rear of the dog is less concerning for dogs), followed by a piece of kibble. Continue in this way, gradually building up the duration.
Watch your puppy’s behaviour closely. If you observe your puppy backing away, flattening their ears or displaying a stiff or stooped posture, you should stop and speak to your Puppy Development Advisor (formerly called a Puppy Training Supervisor). Only progress to the next stage if the puppy is showing relaxed behaviour. The aim of this exercise is for your puppy to gain more confidence, rather than to groom them. Puppies will progress at different rates through this exercise, so take the lead from your puppy. It’s better to go slowly, and trust that by making it a positive experience, they will gain confidence and progress over time.
You should follow the same procedure using other items such as empty medicine tubes, feathers, towels, paper, a stethoscope or the back of a spoon.
Puppy coat and equipment
Guide dog puppies will wear a harness when they become a working dog, so they need to be confident with both wearing and having any equipment put on.
A great place to start is using the puppy coat as a place mat for their bowl at mealtimes, even if your puppy has already worn the puppy coat. Doing this helps to introduce and reinforce the puppy coat as beneficial to your puppy. You can also walk around the house with it draped over your arm or place it so that it is poking out from under a toy box. Do this for at least a few days or even a week before offering your puppy their coat and giving them a piece of kibble for investigating it.
To reinforce a positive association for older puppies, encourage them to have nice experiences such as playing with a toy whilst they are wearing their coat.
You should take the same approach with any other equipment the puppy may need to wear. Each puppy is individual and will progress differently. If your puppy backs away from the coat or any piece of equipment, or shows any subtle signs of fearful behaviour, such as dropped ears or stooped posture, stop the exercise and contact your Puppy Development Advisor (formerly called a Puppy Training Supervisor).
A working guide dog is likely to experience car travel on a frequent and regular basis. Although guide dog owners do not drive, they will probably share cars with family and friends and use public services such as taxis. It’s therefore important that our puppies are introduced to both vehicles and the sensation of travelling in a car in a positive way. It is likely that even before training, most puppies will travel daily in a car with their puppy raisers (formerly called a puppy walker).
Regardless of your puppy’s age, feeding them one of their meals in the car once a day is a great way to get them used to your car. Have the food ready by the car (perhaps on the roof) before you go to the car.
Try to avoid luring puppies into the car. Whilst luring can be effective, we want to prevent our puppies becoming dependent upon being lured or bribed into the car.
Build up the length of time that your puppy is in the car. Try putting them in different parts of the car, practice turning the engine on, turning the car around, and sitting in the car – perhaps use the time to call someone on the phone or just having a quiet moment with your puppy. Kong’s and chews are helpful when building duration, as they tend to last longer.