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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.

Sensible Socialization

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
    Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Written by

Dr. Nancy Kay wanted to become a veterinarian for just about as long as she can remember. Her veterinary degree is from Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, and she completed her residency training in small animal internal medicine at the University of California-Davis Veterinary School. Dr. Kay is a board certified specialist in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and published in several professional journals and textbooks. She lectures professionally to regional and national audiences, and one of her favorite lecture topics is communication between veterinarians and their clients. Since the release of her book, Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, Dr. Kay has lectured extensively and written numerous magazine articles on the topic of medical advocacy and veterinarian/client communication. She was a featured guest on the popular National Public Radio show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Dr. Kay's newest book is called, Your Dog's Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet. Her award winning blog, "Spot Speaks" is posted weekly (www.speakingforspot.com/blog). Dr. Kay was selected by the American Animal Hospital Association to receive the 2009 Hill’s Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award. This award is given annually to a veterinarian or nonveterinarian who has advanced animal welfare through extraordinary service or by furthering humane principles, education, and understanding. Dr. Kay was selected as the 2011 Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year, an award presented every year by the American Veterinary Medical Association to a veterinarian whose work exemplifies and promotes the human animal bond. Dr. Kay has received several awards from the Dog Writer’s Association of America. Dr. Kay's personal life revolves around her husband (also a veterinarian), her three children (none of whom aspire to be veterinarians) and their menagerie of four-legged family members. When she's not writing, she spends her spare moments in the garden or riding atop her favorite horse. Dr. Kay and her husband reside in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
  • Jerrie Wolfe
    Jerrie August 2, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    It is the breeders’ responsibility to start socialization at BIRTH. People need to wake up to the fact that socialization does not mean “puppy play-dates” and that puppies should never leave for their new home at 8 weeks old!!! I do not care how big large breed puppies are, they are still too immature, mentally & physically, to be isolated from their dam. siblings and house-mate pack. I have a great article on socializing puppies that I wrote back in 1997 and have used for years raising terriers.

  • Val August 3, 2014 at 1:49 PM

    Our training club’s Puppy Kindergarten policy is that a pup can start after the first 2 sets of puppy vaccinations, after showing proof. Vaccinations given by a breeder are only valid if they contain vial stickers with expiration dates and lot numbers. PPuppy books and notebook paper with some unknown person’s record keeping are not valid. The ages of starting class can vary depending on the vaccinations – some as early as 10 weeks, most around the 12-13 week mark, and others at 14-15 weeks. We graduate at around 20-22 weeks depending on the breed. I find the puppy class and the controlled dog and human socialization at that age invaluable.

  • Beth Anne Gordon August 3, 2014 at 6:17 PM

    I have always followed a 6,9, 12 week protocol for distemper/parvo vaccinations for all my puppies. Therefore, they are ready for puppy playschool after 12 weeks and I always take them to puppy playschool. But puppy playschool lasts only until they are 6 months old and then it becomes my responsibility to continue their socialization. This is where “play dates” and other events become important.

  • Jim Davis August 6, 2014 at 7:24 AM

    Puppy socialization is very important if you are shipping puppies via the airlines. Puppies will arrive at their destination an be greeted by strangers and taken home to meet children and other pets. Being well socialized will help the pup get off to a good start with his new family.

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