As a vet tech student, you probably understand the importance of puppy socialization. Puppies that are exposed to a variety of people, animals, and experiences early in their lives are much more likely to remain receptive to these things as they age.
Puppies that do not receive proper socialization may become fearful and even demonstrate fear-aggressive behavior.
When puppies come in for wellness visits and vaccines, the medical care that is provided by the veterinary team is only one component of that visit. In addition to discussing vaccinations and parasite prevention, it’s also important to discuss training and proper socialization. Although the topic seems straightforward, it’s actually more complex than it may appear at first glance. Clients don’t always understand the hows and whys of socialization and it can be difficult to put these things into words if you’re not prepared. Get ready to encounter these common client questions.
What age is best for socialization?
Socialization should be an ongoing process for your puppy. Studies have shown, however, that the most critical period for social development is 3-14 weeks of age. If a puppy is exposed to humans prior to 7 weeks of age, they typically will handle the situation without showing any signs of fear; puppies who are first introduced to humans after 7 weeks of age will often be tentative.1 If a puppy is exposed to a number of new environments and situations before 14 weeks of age, they will typically remain open to those circumstances; puppies that are not socialized prior to 14 weeks age are often fearful outside of their immediate family and home environment.1
Although socialization should start early, it should not be stopped at 14 weeks of age! Owners should continue making conscious efforts to socialize their puppy until the puppy reaches at least one year old, in order to prevent reversion to more fearful behaviors.
Shouldn’t socialization wait until puppies are fully vaccinated?
Okay. This is a tough one. Yes, it’s true… in order to fully minimize the risk of infectious diseases, we would wait to socialize puppies until they have received all their vaccines. Unfortunately, if we wait until a puppy is 16 weeks old to begin socialization, we completely miss that critical period and can invite a host of other problems.
When we tell people to avoid taking their puppies in public before they are fully vaccinated, we are primarily trying to keep these puppies free of parvovirus. Fortunately, a 2013 study looked at the risk of contracting parvovirus in a well-run puppy socialization class. This study involved 279 puppies, each of which enrolled in puppy class prior to 16 weeks of age after receiving one or more parvovirus vaccines. By the completion of the training classes, none of the puppies developed parvovirus.2 This suggests that puppies attending classes with other vaccinated puppies are at very low risk of parvovirus.
What can be done to minimize infection risks associated with socialization?
A growing number of puppy socialization classes exist to help socialize puppies while educating their owners. These courses are limited to puppies only (no adult dogs) and require pet owners to submit vaccination records for each puppy. Therefore, the risk of infectious disease in this environment is limited.
If owners elect to socialize their puppies outside of a structured class, they should avoid areas where they may come in contact with unvaccinated dogs. Taking puppies to a dog park or letting them walk on the floor of a busy retail store before they are fully vaccinated can increase their likelihood of contracting infectious disease. Puppies should only be socialized with other dogs that are known to be up to date on all recommended vaccines.
How can owners socialize their puppies at home?
The goal of socialization is to give puppies positive exposure to a wide range of experiences. A well-run puppy socialization class will cover many of these scenarios during class, while also providing people with “homework” to be done outside of class. However, owners can still create a similar experience at home.
If socializing their puppy at home, owners should focus on introducing the puppy to a variety of:
- People: expose the puppy to people of different ages, genders, ethnicities, clothing, etc.
- Objects: introduce the puppy to items such as suitcases, umbrellas, shopping carts, wheelchairs, strollers, etc.
- Environments: walk the puppy on quiet streets, roads with heavy traffic, and on a variety of flooring surfaces (carpet, tile/linoleum, grass, dirt, sand, gravel, etc.)
- Behaviors: accustom the puppy to walking on a leash, handling the puppy, etc.
The goal with each of these experiences is not to force the puppy to tolerate the experience, but instead to work to make the experience as positive as possible. Owners should use treats or a favorite toy to reward the puppy in each new experience, proceeding at a slow enough pace to avoid triggering fear and anxiety.
What should owners do if they obtain an unsocialized puppy that is over 14 weeks old?
Puppies that are past the critical socialization window will be more difficult to socialize, but not impossible! These owners should still attempt to enroll their puppy in a well-run puppy socialization class or use the tips above to expose their puppy to a variety of experiences.
The trick with older dogs, however, is to proceed slowly and be careful not to push too hard. While a young puppy will often readily tolerate a new person or experience, an older dog is likely to require much more time before calmly approaching a new situation. The number one goal of socialization is to ensure that the puppy has positive experiences, so progress should be as slow as necessary to facilitate that goal!
Remember, the socialization that owners provide during the early months of their puppy’s life will have a significant impact on their relationship with their dog and the opportunities that they will have to spend time together. It’s worthwhile to invest time up front for long-term rewards!
- AVMA. Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of Socialization in Puppies and Kittens. Retrieved from: https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/resources/socialization_puppies_kittens.pdf
- Stepita, M. E., Bain, M. J., & Kass, P. H. (2013). Frequency of CPV infection in vaccinated puppies that attended puppy socialization classes. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Assoc