Updated on July 6, 2014
Socializing Your Young Pup: Healthy or Hazardous?
If you want to make yourself a little crazy, ask a bunch of dog experts if it’s a good idea to socialize your youngster before completion of his or her puppy vaccinations. Guaranteed you will hear, “Absolutely!” from some and, “Absolutely not!” from others. Why the discord? While we all know that socialization with people and other dogs is developmentally beneficial for youngsters, we also recognize that most pups are not fully protected against that dastardly disease duo (distemper and parvovirus) until they’ve had the last of their puppy vaccinations at four months of age.
The Pros and Cons
Canine distemper is a highly contagious and heartbreaking disease. It spreads from dog to dog via respiratory secretions. Most puppies who contract distemper don’t survive, no matter how aggressively they are treated. Parvovirus organisms are passed in the feces of infected dogs, and they remain contagious in the environment for weeks to months after they are shed. Puppies who are sick with parvovirus disease do survive, but not without aggressive medical care that, in and of itself, can negatively impact socialization (some pups become timid and fearful in response to all of the necessary poking and prodding). Taking puppies out into the world before they have ample immunity to canine distemper and parvovirus is risky business.
On the other hand, puppies who are not well socialized from a very young age are less likely to develop into adult canine good citizens. They are more likely to develop undesirable traits such as inappropriate aggression, fear, and anxiety. Such negative behaviors often lead to dismal outcomes such as backyard isolation, rehoming, and euthanasia.
Clearly, there are perils on both sides of the fence when it comes to early socialization. What’s a puppy raiser to do? My recommendation for pups younger than four months of age is what I refer to as “sensible socialization” involving one-on-one play dates in safe environments. Here’s what’s involved:
- Avoid the temptation to bring your new puppy home once weaned from its mother. Ideally, littermates should remain together until at least 10 weeks of age. All that rough and tumbling between siblings builds a solid foundation for good socialization skills.
- Allow your pup to socialize only with dogs who appear overtly healthy and are known to be up to date on their vaccines or have serology results that indicate adequate disease protection against distemper and parvovirus.
- Your puppy’s playmates should be proven “good sports” who don’t lose their temper when reprimanding clumsy, demanding puppies.
- One-on-one play dates are best. Interaction with more than one dog at a time can be overwhelming for puppies.
- Puppy kindergarten classes for dogs under four months of age are risky business. Even when vaccinated “by the book” most pups experience lapses in their immune protection against distemper and parvovirus while in the midst of completing their puppy vaccinations. This has to do with individual variation in the timing of when maternal immunity (protection acquired from the mama dog) tapers off. And, one cannot tell a book by its cover- a pup with parvovirus will be contagious to other dogs several days before showing any outward symptoms of this disease.
- Socialization should ideally take place in individual home environments rather than places that may be frequented by dogs with unknown vaccination histories. This means avoiding venues such as public recreation areas, pet stores, and dog parks.
- Socializing with other dogs is great, but don’t forget to socialize your pup with the people you know- ideally individuals of all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors.
Please know that these “sensible socialization” recommendations represent one veterinarian’s opinion. Other veterinarians, breeders, or trainers might provide differing advice based on their experiences. It is ultimately up to you to determine how best to socialize your pup while minimizing health risks.
How have you socialized your puppies? If you are a trainer, behaviorist, veterinarian, or breeder, please do chime in.
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.
Thank you for bringing up this important subject. I am a dog trainer/behavior consultant certified by five trainer organizations. This subject comes up frequently in both private lessons and puppy classes (where none of the puppies attending have ever become ill).
I consider this subject so important that I have written a book on it, Puppy Socialization Guide — An Insider’s Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness, available on Kindle http://tinyurl.com/l92cphs and just released in paperback http://tinyurl.com/ofpsp8l.
There are conflicting views by veterinarians, veterinary behaviorists, trainers, and the general public about socialization but no single comprehensive place that addresses this topic until this book was published.
The book includes a discussion of what socialization is and how the term is misused, a history of socialization, and hundreds of safe suggestions on puppy socialization for breeders, owners/guardians, and rescue organizations. There are contributions by Dr. Michael Fox, Dr. Ed Bailey, Dr. Carmen Battaglia, Dr. Ian Dunbar, and others.
It has received favorable reviews from everyone from Paul Owens who is the Original Dog Whisperer, to Veronica Boutelle of dog*tec, as well as Dr. Richard Palmquist, past president of the American Holistic Veterinary Association.
Dr. Kay, I welcome your input. Please email me so I can send you a copy of the book.
Hello Dr. Kay~You’re right about the varied opinions regarding early puppy socialization and while I cannot speak to your medical knowledge and experience, I can speak about training and behavior, which according to renown behavior expert, Ian Dunbar, DVM, in his book, After you get your puppy Each year in the United States, an average of five puppies per veterinary clinic die from parvovirius, whereas several hundred are euthanized because of behavior and temperament problems. Indeed, behavior problems are the dog’s most common terminal illness during his first year of life.
The UC Davis Veterinary Medicine, conducted a clinical trial with 279 puppies and the results were that puppies that had been vaccinated at least with their first booster had no greater risk of contracting the Parvovirus than puppies that did not attend puppy classes.
As a trainer and behavior consultant, I’ve seen more people who do not have a good understanding of the importance of “puppy education” than the importance of the puppy’s
veterinary examinations. If we want to prevent dogs from dying (in shelters) we need to be paying equal attention to how we’re raising them.
I conduct puppy socialization classes with a few basic commands. My age requirements are not younger than 8 weeks and not older than 16 weeks. Most of the puppies who attent are usually between 10-16 weeks. My classes are held in a strongly controlled environment. The floor is disinfected and puppies must be carried in and out.
The advantages are that the puppies are socialized not only to each other but to the human attendees as well and develop friendships with them.
My reconds show that in the 20 years that I have been doing this, NOT ONE PUPPY EXHIBITED dog-aggression or fear of people.
I also work with puppies in their homes on a private tutorial basis (this is my 40th year) but the exposure is a more limited for those pups. I do not allow them outside the home until they completed their vaccination programs and do not allow neighbors’ or friends’ dogs near them unless they are certifiably healthy. No dog parks, no dog beaches and no streets even in their own neighborhood.
Puppy classes can be risky, of course. So can keeping them away from other pups and people. If done intelligently and sensibly, with care and responsibility, they work fine.
Why do I start puppies at 8 weeks od age? Because while puppies are capable of being taught and learn even at the age of 5 weeks by their mothers, the period between 8 weeks and 16 weeks is the most retentive period. What they learn, they absorb like little sponges and do not forget – provided of course, that the owner continues their education consistently.
So both methods are good and risky. With common sense and without collars, leashes, jerks, yanks and tugs, you will have an appropriately self-controlled adult dog. The above listed devices and methods are counterproductive, especially on delicate young necks and spines.
Thanks for your comments and questions, Tim. In response to your two questions, puppies should be exposed to other dogs from the time they are born. Ideally a pup should stay with litter mates until approximately ten weeks of age. Once they leave the nest they should begin interacting with non-family members who are “safe candidates” as described in my blog post. Even though your JRT is healthy and fully vaccinated, it is possible that she could bring home disease from the dog park. For example, if she stepped in some feces containing parvovirus, she could easily bring this home. My recommendation is to keep your older dog away from the dog park as long as she is socializing with puppies under four months of age. The other option would be to thoroughly bathe your girl (scrubbing feet in particular) before her play dates with the puppies.
Thanks for this post. I find myself in agreement with parts of your message and parts of those written by commenters above – though I’m certainly no expert myself. While our dog park and our favorite dog beach don’t have specific rules about how old dogs must be before they visit, I’ve talked many people into turning around with their 10-16 week pups to avoid the diseases mentioned above while also stressing the importance of other socialization options.
I find myself in a great position right now. I have a good friend who’s wonderful dog was bred and the pups have just returned home (they’re only a few weeks old right now). I get to visit them myself this week and I can’t wait to help with that early socialization process. And my own dog, who’s still young and crazy but incredibly sweet/patient/gentle to younger dogs is going to help in their socialization as well – albeit not right away. So, my questions for you all are:
1) How old should the pups be before they are exposed to other dogs? Is there any “minimum age” for health reasons? (My dog is fully vaccinated and healthy – but we still want to be responsible.)
2) Because we visit the dog park frequently (as in at least once daily and sometimes more – did I mention she’s a very active 21 month old Jack Russell Terrier) or the dog beach (weekly), I’m wondering about the possibility of her being an accidental carrier of disease. Besides a bath, is there anything I should consider before taking her to visit the pups? Would a few days away from the dog park be a good idea before the visit? Anything else I should consider? While I’m confident of my dog’s health, I would feel just awful if she carried something from the dog park to the young puppies in an attempt to help them become fully socialized.
Thanks for any advice you can offer!
One more point that no one here has yet addressed, although beyond the question of disease, is that it is crucial to be selective and constantly with your puppy. I meet so many dogs on walks and at the dog park (I try to only talk to people with dogs, so there’s MY socialization!) who tell me their dogs are afraid of larger dogs because their dog had a bad experience or was attacked by a large dog or specific breed as a puppy. These wonderful owners are now attempting to help their young dogs past their fear, but that trauma runs deep into canine instinct.
Most of us are so clueless when we get our first dog, and our social structures around dogs are so artificial to canines. Dogs used to run free, meet new dogs in the neighborhood, get into trouble, and come home. Of course, many got into serious trouble; but that is how canines evolved to live…not locked up behind a fence with no other dogs, and little to no free will or freedom. I understand that this is how it is, and canines are desperately trying to adjust; but some days I wax nostalgic for when all our dogs ran free, and in my neighborhood, we had a phone tree: we would get a call that the dog catcher had been seen in town, and everyone would run out front, grab whatever dogs were in sight, and bring them into our yard for an hour, until the dog catcher was gone…
There is a geographical factosr to be considered as well. These disease risks are greater or fewer depending on where you live. My vet did not consider disease risk to be a factor when I brought my pup home. Before you make an irreversible decision to delay, forego, or limit smart socialization, see if you can find out what the actual risk for disease is in your area. Good puppy classes (and there are bad ones) can be a real benefit.
Nancy, this doesn’t always work. You wrote:” Avoid the temptation to bring your new puppy home once weaned from its mother. Ideally, litter mates should remain together until at least 10 weeks of age. All that rough and tumbling between siblings builds a solid foundation for good socialization skills.” You also said that others might do it differently: and that is what I like so much about you. You are always positive and open to changes.
I would love to have been able to do that for the dog I have now. But her mother killed all the other puppies in the litter, and when I went to see this puppy, she had a terrible cut on the back of her neck. The breeder was very upset: she had never had anything like this happen before in her 40 years of breeding dogs, and she bred very nice dogs, dogs for showing and dogs for working and dogs for companionship. The dog had come from me from a very good lineage, and I had never had anything like that happen. The breeder had the mother put down since the puppy could not be with her and had to be bottle fed.
We brought the puppy home. We bottle fed her, we kept her separate from our older dog, and she thrived. Now I do have to tell you that I had also been a breeder and I had also shown my dogs. But taking care of this dog was the most interesting thing I ever did. She is now eight years old and she is the smartest dog I have ever had. I don’t think of that being the work I did: I think of that as being who she is. Until two months ago, she had always had companions. One was her grandmother who died two years ago at age 15. The other was a wonderful dog that I did programs for children with, and she died suddenly at the vet’s two months ago from a ruptured spleen they told us. She was only 11 years old.
But our survivor has adjusted and is being her whole self. She loves children, she loves people, she is very active, and she doesn’t seem to miss the other dog. She reminds me very much of her grandmother, a dog named Hannah who was a champion, who always seemed to know what to do, who was a very loving companion for me and my husband, and the one who lived to 15 years.
I look forward to your writings every day. You give everyone excellent information and you do it with joy. I have learned a lot from you.
I believe you have made a grave mistake in your advice regarding puppy socialization classes. The primary socialization “window” or sensitive period closes around 15 weeks, just before that magic 4-month threshold where the puppy vaccinations are considered effective. There is simply no doubt that lack of socialization before 15 weeks kills far, far more dogs than parvo plus distemper combined. And it creates a dubious, at best, quality of life for millions more. Since there are plenty of ways to socialize safely, and since puppy class is one of those ways, I believe it is incumbent on every veterinary professional to recommend a good puppy class, or at least, refrain from telling puppy owners not to attend puppy class because of the disease risk. Are you aware of this study? Frequency of CPV Infection in Vaccinated Puppies
that Attended Puppy Socialization Classes, Meredith E. Stepita, DVM*, Melissa J. Bain, DVM, DACVB, MS, Philip H. Kass, PhD, DVM, DACVPM, J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 2013; 49:95–100. DOI 10.5326/JAAHA-MS-5825
(http://www.luckydogsportsclub.com/pdf_files/parvo_%20risk_socialization.pdf) — not to mention the AVSAB position.
I also disagree that all socializing should be done in “home environments.” This is the optimal time for puppies to learn that varied environments, noises, machines, and other elements of the environment are a normal part of their world. Puppies who have only ever seen homes until they are older tend to have a very hard time adjusting to new types of floors, noises, places, etc. when they are older. They need to see outdoors environments and varied contexts; they need positive, distant exposure to potentially scary things like trains, diesel engines, and construction equipment if they are not to be potentially paralyzed with fear once their owner begins taking them for walks. There are safe ways to perform these exposures: Carry the pup (try a puppy pack or baby sling), put the pup on the ground if it’s a low-dog environment, consider using a viricidal foot wipe if there’s concern about walking in riskier environments, practice crating skills in new places, etc. If it’s a resilient pup, a ride in a shopping cart at Home Depot or another accepting hardware type store is a great outing. Many elder care facilities will accept small-puppy visits without a formal therapy program or certification (and the residents LOVE this). Nurseries are generally dog friendly and again, you can use a cart if you wish. Long excursions are not necessary; a few minutes of eating treats while taking in new sights and sounds is wonderful experience.
How many puppies did you lose last year to parvo or distemper? How many did you euthanize for behavior problems that very likely could have been avoided with decent socialization early on? You are spared many of these behavioral euthanasias because so many of these dogs end up dead in shelters, surrendered for being impossible to live with.
I believe you can save some lives by retracting your comment about puppy class and substituting in some more modern, data-backed, and helpful advice.
I agree with your viewpoint to a point. Our study, published in JAAHA last year, showed that puppies that attended puppy socialization classes were no more likely to be diagnosed with CPV than those that did not attend.
We all have to take risks based on an educated evaluation of the environment. Probably the worst place to take a puppy is to the veterinary clinic Yet, that’s our number one recommendation for their proper healthcare.
I agree with both Laura’s comment’s above. I would like to add that Puppy class should include more than just meeting strange dogs and people. There’s the car ride, seeing things that move like flags or leaves blowing, hearing new sounds like motorcycles or bells, and learning about new smells. The great thing about being a trainer is to getting to make up all kinds of crazy things to introduce to the puppies.
Trainers see far too many puppies that freak out at blowing leaves, hunker down and refuse to move while going through doors, or trying to bolt at the sound of stepping on a twig.
If we can figure out how to do this with a high probability of safety, puppy owners should view their job during the critical period as one of an Activity Director, showing puppies new things and experiences every day. “House Arrest,” for the first 4 months, which seems to be advocated by an increasing number of vets, results in very limited experiences that then have to be counter-conditioned instead of just introduced. Health includes a life is without fear and stress.
Perhaps you could give a “If life was perfect,” scenario where you would be willing to let puppies socialize in groups. Would it include a specific type of facility and cleanliness? Specific lab tests to prove health? If trainers did these things, would you be more willing to advocate for early socialization?
I was so happy to see this article until I read that puppy classes are “risky business”. I am still seeing adolescent dogs already starting to exhibit behavior problems because they were told not to do puppy class and not to take them out and about by their veterinarian. They followed this advice and while they have a disease free dog, they have a dog that has not been socialized at all. You may classify puppy class as “risky business” but so is not getting your puppy socialuzed, getting a solid foundation and cultivating a good relationship with a trainer for your puppies early learning. Good trainers do a pretty good job of setting up safe environments and while it may not be completely risk free, I certainly wouldn’t call it “risky business” as if taking your puppy to a well run class is gambling with his health and safety.
As a rescuer of dogs, from pregnant females to hospice elders, the 2 scariest words in the English language are “distemper” and “parvo”. I have seen too many deaths. I agree with you, Nancy, 100%; and Laura’s point is not lost and is great as long as there is some way to be sure all puppies in a class have had their shots, and that the floor has been disinfected since any other dog walked on it….and that all puppy parents know to CARRY their pups in, rather than allowing them to walk on any frequented area. When I do adoption events at pet stores, all pups under 12 weeks of age are not allowed to touch the floor or the ground; they are in elevated crates, or better yet, shopping carts. I certainly agree that more dogs are killed because their humans are too stupid or lazy to socialize and train them, so training is crucial to a dog’s survival.
Once you lose a puppy or a litter to one of these diseases, you become hyper-vigilant; you never want to watch a baby suffer and die again.
I take my dogs to a privately-owned ocean beach, where they can run free. On a busy weekend, I may see 100 dogs there (it’s a mile long, and most are walking with their friends). Last week I saw 2 pups – we mostly pause to admire each other’s dogs – one was 9 weeks old, one 11 weeks. I asked about their puppy shots, and both owners assured me they had them all, but seemed quite unaware that the instant the pup gets a shot, they are not automatically 100% immune. I cringed to see such babies there, playing and having fun and in serious danger…
Socialization is crucial, but must be done very carefully. I wish it were illegal to separate a pup from their mother and siblings until minimum 12 weeks; that would solve a lot of the problem. I am happy that “my” dog park does not allow dogs under 4 months of age!
As breeders of Clumber spaniels, my husband and I do not allow any of our puppies to be adopted to their new puppy parents until the age of three months. Once the puppies are weaned each puppy goes with me for socialization in their puppy pouch. Yes, you read correctly, a puppy pouch. I purchased a baby carrier (one where the child “sits” in carrier facing the parent) in which I place the puppy. Off we go to various businesses that allow the puppy and I to visit. This way I don’t need to worry about the puppy coming in contact with any virus or bacterium that he or she has not been inoculated against. This also allows the puppy to see other dogs from their vantage point but he or she is not in direct contact with the other canine. After three litters we have not had a puppy who has contracted an illness from other dogs. All of the adult dogs in our family are up to date on their shots and deworming prior to the birth of the pups. To be honest I love socializing the pups the way I do … maybe I have more fun that the pup being socialized … but I don’t think so!
Thanks so much for this blog. It’s so important for pups to HAVE IT ALL safely and responsibly.
You are not just one vet w/ an opinion, Nancy, you are a pioneer in the veterinary community and wish other vets would expand their interests beyond medicine as a whole dog involves mind and body, not just body.
Your work, insight and knowledge continues to grow and be an inspiration. Thanks again for another gem of a blog.
I think vets and trainers get divided on this because each of us sees the worst of what can go wrong — vets see sick puppies, and trainers see behavioral messes which could have been prevented with early socialization or intervention. It’s a tough call.
As it stands now, however, we see a lot more dogs die for behavior issues (how many adolescents are dumped or dropped at the shelter?) than we lose to parvo or distemper, so as a trainer, my inclination is to err on the side of behavior.
But of course, we need to socialize with an eye to safety. I don’t take puppies to dog parks or to public areas with a lot of dog traffic, or to other high-risk areas. And of course we have to socialize carefully, or we can risk creating the very problems we’re trying to avoid (http://www.clickertraining.com/node/3953). Overall, though, I rarely wish my clients would have done less socialization!
Thanks for bringing up again an important topic. Puppy owners need to be aware and plan for their puppy!
Hi Laura. Thanks so much for chiming in on the topic of puppy socialization. Your comments and experience are totally welcome and much appreciated.
Well, since you asked….
I respectfully disagree with you on the puppy classes. My background is 2 years as a shelter worker and 10 years as a dog trainer. The biggest cause of euthanasia in the shelter was lack of socialization that resulted in a fearfully aggressive dog or an over-the-top adolescent dogs who didn’t learn polite boundaries before they got to that age. In my 10 years of training, I’ve never lost a single puppy to distemper or parvo but I’ve helped hundreds of puppies come out from behind their owners and learn to play with confidence without being too rough. Those first three to four months are so crucial that I hate to see them wasted.
I understand your position on this because you see the worst case scenario of a puppy getting parvo all too often. I’d argue that many more dogs die of behavior problems in shelters than die of parvo, but I don’t have specific stats on that. Any little quirks and fears are so much easier to fix before four months of age that it’s a shame to waste them. At four months you’re playing a much tougher game of catch-up to get them used to the wide world of canine interaction before they hit adolescence.
As backup, I point to the AVSAB position statement on socialization – http://avsabonline.org/uploads/position_statements/puppy_socialization1-25-13.pdf Of course, this assumes that the socialization is done with all vaccinated puppies with an instructor who knows how to make it a positive experience for all the pups. It just makes such a night and day difference, especially in the hypervigilant breeds, like herding dogs, that get so easily overwhelmed if not exposed to the big scary world early.
(Just remember, you asked. 😉 )