If you’ve ever adopted a new puppy, you’ve likely received a lot of confusing advice and conflicting recommendations about how and when to socialize your new puppy. On one hand, you want to avoid exposure to infectious diseases like parvovirus before she’s fully vaccinated. On the other hand, you want to start having fun with your puppy and introduce her to new friends, both human and dog.
So, as a new owner, you may be left wondering how to keep your dog healthy when she’s young and vulnerable while still being able to begin socializing her, which is very important to the development of young puppies. The good news is that socialization is easy to do in a safe manner.
“Socialization” means exposing a dog to a variety of situations in a controlled and thoughtful way, so she learns that the world around her is a positive and safe place. With dogs, the critical period for socialization occurs between three and fourteen weeks of age. During this time, dogs are more curious and accepting of new things, so this is the ideal time to expose them to the world.
In fact, many behavior specialists recommend that you expose your puppy to ninety different situations that evoke pleasurable feelings by the time she is 14 weeks old. After 14 weeks, the socialization window begins to slowly close as puppies develop a sense of caution. Since a puppy’s final core vaccines typically occur at 16 weeks of age, you’ll need to be careful when socializing her to protect her from disease.
The key to choosing social experiences for your puppy is ensuring that each encounter is a positive one. Watch for signs of fear or anxiety in your puppy, and keep the encounters brief, so she isn’t overwhelmed. Allow her to meet dogs of different breeds and sizes as well as varied types of people.
You want your puppy to feel at ease with people of all ages, heights, skin colors, and builds. Make sure people with beards, mustaches, and baseball hats handle your puppy and reward her amply with treats and praise. Expose your puppy to a variety of sights, sounds and surfaces under her feet. For example, your puppy should see skateboards, bicycles, stethoscopes, and vacuum cleaners during this crucial period.
A fun way to introduce your puppy to new people is a “puppy passing party.” Invite friends to your house and ask people to pass the puppy around and interact with her in a pleasant, calm manner. This is also the time when your puppy can have frequent, positive interactions with her veterinarian. If possible, choose a veterinarian who will see her at every vaccination or deworming visit. Some veterinarians may even offer brief “fun visits” for puppies that include cuddles and treats from the front staff and nurses, without any medical examination or treatment performed.
While you encourage these positive social experiences, also be mindful of exposing your puppy to disease. Diseases like parvovirus can be present on cement or dirt where other dogs have walked. You can consider your home, backyard, car, and the homes of friends (with healthy, vaccinated dogs) as safe zones.
You can also take your puppy to public places, as long as she is on a blanket you’ve brought from home or another clean surface. For example, if you take your puppy to the local coffee shop patio, keep her on a thick blanket from home. Or have her sit in a wagon at the park while you watch the cyclists and skateboarders go by, and reward her for staying calm. Drive her to your kids’ school for pick-up, and wait with her outside the classroom as all the children stream out.
Don’t hesitate to ask other pet owners to keep their dogs from approaching your puppy nose to nose. In general, the places to avoid at this stage include dog parks, pet stores, and anywhere else where groups of dogs gather.
Puppy social classes can also be a great opportunity for play and learning. Choose a play group that is held in a clean facility (ideally early in the day before adult classes are held) and that requires at least one set of vaccinations. At conscientious venues, dogs with vomiting, diarrhea, or coughing will be excluded from participating. There should also be a knowledgeable person supervising the puppy interactions so that positive behaviors are taught and learned. Ask your veterinarian for safe local puppy kindergartens – she or he can be an excellent resource.
Early puppy socialization is important to the veterinary profession for many reasons. Above all, our job is to foster long, healthy relationships between pets and their families. Sadly, behavior problems are the number one reason that animals are surrendered to shelters. A well-socialized puppy is more likely to stay with her family because she will be less reactive to the people and events that are part of normal daily life.
A dog that’s had many early positive experiences with lots of different people, including her veterinarian, is more likely to see the vet for routine wellness appointments, which can help prevent many diseases.
Finally, a well-socialized dog is more likely to be a physically healthy dog living in a happy home, and that is our primary goal as veterinarians.
Dr. Michelle Forgy is co-owner of Pinnacle Animal Hospital in San Jose, Calilfornia. PAH is an AAHA-accredited hospital and an AAFP Cat Friendly Practice. Dr. Forgy’s animal family includes Tabitha the Pit Bull and Willow the Dachshund, along with a rotating menagerie of foster pets.
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