By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
(Note from March 31: Bark Magazine just published this article in the Spring 2015 issues of their awesome magazine. Click here to view it on their site.)
A few months back I attended a “Dangerous Dog Conference” at the University of California/Davis, during which Dr. Bonnie Beaver, former president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, highlighted a study on the risk of partially-vaccinated puppies contracting parvovirus at indoor puppy socials. The result?
Puppies with just the first set of shots attending puppy socials are at no greater risk of parvovirus infection than those not attending socials. During the study of 1,012 puppies:
- None of the 15 puppies that contracted parvovirus had attended puppy socials
- None of the puppies that attended socials contracted parvovirus
This UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine study dovetails perfectly with the standard of care recommended by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), which unequivocally encourages puppies to begin socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age and seven days after the first set of vaccines.
It is important to note that structured puppy socials, run by a variety of training and daycare facilities and other pet-related businesses, take place indoors on non-porous surfaces with immediate cleansing of any “accidents” with an antimicrobial solution. Porous surfaces, such as soil, sand and, in particular, dog parks, must be avoided until full vaccination!
Some veterinarians, shelters and breeders continue to unwisely advise new owners to wait until after the final set of shots to allow their puppy to interact with others, by which time the socialization period has closed, precluding their best shot at acquiring lifelong dog-on-dog social skills. Such under-socialization can result in behavior problems, fear and aggression, which are the primary reasons for relinquishment and euthanasia in pet dogs.
I do not take lightly that I may be asking you to reject your particular veterinarian’s counsel, but the recommendation that puppies begin socials before full vaccination is supported by the AVSAB as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASCPA and other dog health and behavior experts.
Puppy socialization classes do not guarantee that any given dog won’t develop fear or aggression later in life and neither are all under-socialized puppies antisocial. In utero experiences, early nutrition and the first weeks with the mother and siblings also play key roles in behavior and disposition. But there is no dispute that having rich and varied social experiences in the first three months of life improves the odds of a raising a balanced, confident dog.
Why is the socialization window so short?
At the risk of stating the obvious, puppies develop much faster than their human baby counterparts: Puppies walk beautifully at three weeks; babies not so well until after a year. This acceleration affects cognitive function as well, which develops rapidly during a short socialization period that forms the framework for the puppy’s future social functioning. A strong foundation built from a rich set of early experiences gives the puppy more context in which to evaluate and react to future stimuli in the environment, including people and other dogs.
The true socialization period for puppies—during which they readily incorporate new experiences into their developing worldviews that directly effect lifelong behavior—lasts from weeks 3 to 12. That’s it. Since most puppies remain with their mother and littermates for seven weeks (that’s a whole other blog post), this means new owners have just four weeks to make sure their puppy has ample opportunity to learn that there are many sorts of people and types of dogs in this world.
Think of your puppy’s brain during these 28 days as a sponge, supple and ready to absorb and incorporate new experiences. Weeks 8 through 12 are called the “second socialization period”, the first having been the prior seven weeks with the mother and siblings. This is absolutely the most profoundly important period in your dog’s life. Her brain is wired to absorb new experiences far more rapidly than any subsequent period, and she learns not only to accept being around people and other dogs, but also to enjoy and seek out these experiences.
Learning a new language
While not a perfect analogy, a puppy’s openness to learning socials skills is similar to the way young children learn new languages effortlessly. Studies have shown that children younger than seven years old easily pick up new languages because their brains are wired to readily incorporate the words, grammar and structure of multiple languages. Like the puppy socialization period that ends at 12 weeks, this window closes for children around seven years old, after which language acquisition becomes far more difficult. You can place a 6-year old child in a Mandarin immersion class for a year and she will come out fluent in the language but if I were to attend the same class, I would likely still be struggling with the basics.
The analogy continues in that my Mandarin would improve over time as I became more familiar and comfortable with the language, but I would never be as fluent as my toddler counterpart. Likewise, dogs without the advantage of a rich socialization period can learn to thrive in social situations, but it will take a great deal more time and effort and have a lower chance of success.
For dogs, being comfortable with and understanding our manmade world is a life-long process but the critical socialization period only comes along once.
Socialization…but to what?
The reason I titled this article “why you must take your urban puppy to socials after one set of shots” is that if your puppy is not destined for an urban life but rather, say, the life of a farm dog, socialization to lots of people and dogs is not as important. If your pup’s life will be devoted to managing livestock, this second socialization period would be the ideal time for him to hang out a bit with sheep, goats, cows, tractors, turbines and the like.
But 80% of Americans live in urban areas rather than farms, and since more of us have dogs in our homes than ever before, it behooves us to structure our puppy’s socialization period to take this into account. Our sheepherder probably doesn’t need to learn how to cope with city parks bursting at the seams with dogs. But if you live in an urban area and plan to take your (fully vaccinated) dog to parks, beaches and other dog-friendly areas, you’d best start teaching him early that there are lots of dogs of all sorts in this world. To do this, indoor puppy socials before 16 weeks of age are your best bet.
Puppy socials are just one part of a well thought out socialization plan (I recommend 7-10 socials at three distinct locations from weeks 8 – 16) but they form the cornerstone and have the additional advantage of being viable before all vaccinations are complete per the aforementioned recommendations of the ASVAB. In addition to the socials, a widely-accepted goal is for a puppy to meet 100 people during these same four weeks, including babies, children, elderly folks, men, women, all races, sizes and shapes. (Make sure a few bearded men in baseball hats gently approach and give your pup a treat!)
One caveat here is that these puppy socials and people-meet-and-greets must be positive experiences, not too overwhelming and not too scary. The actual ASVAB statement reads:
The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior.
So while you are your pup’s guardian in these situations and must avoid overly frightening situations (an unruly, much larger puppy, for instance) you must also allow your puppy to venture forth into the mayhem at their own pace. Sometimes a shy puppy will hang back for the first few events, and then become the social butterfly.
Otis emerges on the world stage
My dog Otis was of this ilk as a young puppy, shy and unsure of herself. She had been fostered in a rural area of eastern California, so the sights and sounds of San Francisco were initially overwhelming. At her first puppy social, she hung out under my chair and observed the other puppies playing; I did not coddle or overprotect her. By her second social she was venturing forth, playing for a few minutes, then retreating to her safe place under my chair. By her third social, she was actively seeking out playmates and practicing adult communication behaviors, which is the ultimate goal of these events.
Since Otis was by nature somewhat fearful, I have no doubt that had she not had the chance to come out of her shell among other puppies and to learn and practice social skills, she would be a fearful dog today, potentially aggressively so. Instead she has superb communication skills and is particularly adept at enticing other dogs to play and chase her. She remains cautious around novel stimuli (a strange stack of wood on our street or a kite hitting the beach nearby), but she is most definitely not fearful. Puppy socials made all the difference.
Had I only taken Otis to that first puppy social (the one in which she hung out under my chair, overwhelmed and frightened) it almost certainly would have backfired. She would have learned that being around other dogs was an unpleasant experience to be avoided. She might have become aggressive in trying to keep them away, like the multitude of dogs that have learned to snarl, snap, lunge and bark to keep other dogs from approaching. Instead, by giving Otis numerous opportunities to slowly learn to how to play, she became a world-class communicator.
I bring this up primarily because I recently took a call from the owner of a 6-month old puppy whose veterinarian had advised to avoid all contact with other dogs until fully vaccinated. In this particular puppy’s case, this meant no contact until 17 weeks. With clearance from their veterinarian, the pup finally attended one social, now five weeks past the end of the second socialization period, and it did not go well. The puppy was terrified, so they never went back. Now this young dog’s single point of reference is that new dogs are scary. She trembles in fear whenever in the presence of other dogs, unsure of how to act or react. A desensitization/counter-condition program will take months or years and will never be as effective as if that puppy had been taken to numerous socials while her brain was configured to learn and cope.
Don’t let time pass you by
In the UC Davis study, none of the puppies taken to socials contracted parvo but 15 not taken did. This is not surprising: new owners who are conscientious enough to know about the advantages of early (and safe!) socialization are also knowledgeable enough to avoid taking under-vaccinated pups to dog parks, where the risk of contracting the virus is high.
Conversely, people unaware of puppy socials are more likely to take puppies to places they should not be until after full vaccination, including dog parks, beaches and other porous surfaces likely to harbor parvovirus-infected feces.
I hope this article sheds some light not only on the advantages of socialization, but also on how such a program can begin early enough to make a real difference in the lives of dogs. In part because the safety and benefits of early socialization are well documented, most urban and suburban areas of the country now have access to indoor puppy socials that require just the first set of shots. This bodes well for the heath and well being of future generations of man’s best friend.