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Familiarisation or Socialisation? Which does your dog need?

Whilst learning with Kay Laurence I was introduced to the term familiarisation. Despite being a dog trainer for some years this term was new to me.

Familiarisation is the description of the young dog learning about their world, everything except social interaction. Youngsters need to learn about their life in your environment. The puppy may not have been bred to live in a home exactly like yours and needs to learn about the behaviour of other people, the young and the elderly, the weather, wildlife, traffic, other pets, neighbours. On top of this we can add the vet surgery, groomers, dog walker or day care. This is a lot of learning for a developing mind, it takes time and a young dog needs plenty of rest between exposure. We call this process Sensitive Exposure.

With good intention to 'socialise' the dog during their formative weeks, we can unintentionally create a very negative experience through over exposure. It is possible to traumatise a young dog with insensitive exposure especially if they are tired. To begin Sensitive Exposure it is essential that the dog has a safe place. This safe place can be you - behind your legs, in your arms, under a chair, in a crate, or in a spare room. It becomes your job to make sure that nothing comes into that safe space, no other dogs, no well-meaning people, no bikes. We never want our dogs to feel that they have no escape, especially when choices are limited by a lead and collar - this can set up negative associations with equipment that we need them to wear for safety. When a dog notices a change in the environment they will:

Observe/assess (unsure) Move away to safe place Move towards - explore, curious, interact Look at you for more information

Let's look at these in more detail: 1. Observe/assessing Support this behaviour by stopping with your dog if it is safe to do so, always look around you to make sure the environment is clear of advancing dogs, people or other hazards. Dogs need to stop moving to take in more information, just as we do. This stop is an inbuilt survival behaviour, it gives the dog time to work out what to do next. Assessment periods in a young dog are moments of learning, be quiet, let the dog learn that other dogs walk by, people walk by, bikes and prams pass and it is nothing for them to worry about, chase, or play with. 2. Move away Support this behaviour by making sure that the thing they are unsure about cannot enter the safe space. Pick your small dog up. Stand in front of your dog. Do everything you can to intercept the 'friendly' dog or 'friendly' stranger. Let your dog learn that they can depend on you to protect them. 3. Move towards Think before supporting this one! If the environment, object, person, other dog is something that will be part of your dog's future then an opportunity to interact could be beneficial. Avoid letting your dog interact with common problem distractions such as bikes, children playing, other dogs playing, wildlife, joggers, traffic. Encourage observation - create more distance, sit on a bench or observe from the safety of your car* 4. Look at you for more information The golden ticket! Be ready to acknowledge your dog for this behaviour and then give them good information. This is the foundation of on and off lead connection.


Consider what needs to be on your familiarisation list. Each list for every family will be unique.

Consider these categories:

Non Invasive including traffic*, joggers, people walking past, household machinery the washing machine or vacuum, technology, noises, children playing next door.

Invasive such as grooming, vet examination, handling

Proprioception Skills consider activities such as getting in and out of car, travelling in vehicles, trains, buses, boats, going up and down stairs, travelling in a lift, walking on uneven surfaces.

Restrictions encompassing leads, harnesses, long lines, crates, baby gates, fences and doors, being carried.

Introduce each new event at a level where your dog remains mildly curious. Avoid triggering fear, suspicion or anxiety. If your dog avoids or moves away from a novel object or event, support them and reintroduce at a lower level later on.

Be patient, some familiarisation experiences can take 10 minutes but others 10 months, go at your dog's pace. Hurrying or forcing your dog into familiarisation can be harmful in the long term. Only ask your dog to do one thing at a time, for example walking in a new place can be overwhelming which is why we suggest sitting on a bench, or in your car as a first step. If your pup is small and comfortable being carried this is also an option.

Keep assessing your dog's reactions, especially during adolescence, and be prepared to change your response to help them.

Need more help with walking your dog? Email for full details and appointments *Border Collies and traffic issues? After living with collies for many years, I can honestly say I've walked the walk with this one! Drop me a line for more help.

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