#35 – Puppy Socialization

NMVMA listserve Veterinary Behavior Tip #35

Jeff Nichol, DVM

Doing it Right at the Right Time

I’ve always relished opportunities to advise new puppy owners or even better, those who seek counsel prior to adopting a canine youngster. By sharing research-based information on effective early socialization we are doing an even greater service than we may realize. We are saving lives.

The early demise of many young dogs in shelters dates to their lack of appropriate habituation to humans and other dogs during an essential time window of brain development. Specifically, ages 5-12 weeks is the ideal time to expose puppies to as many kind and gentle people of different ages, sizes, and races as possible. This is when their brains are primed and ready to learn that the great majority of us are actually safe.

Canine toddlers also have a better shot at becoming well-adjusted adults if they interact with other dogs of varying ages, not to mention members of other species they may encounter. Casual feline acquaintances are healthy for puppies. Cats who regard dogs with bemused facial expressions are best because they don’t run away and trigger chasing behavior.

Unfortunately there is little flex in the timing of socialization. Once a puppy has passed the age of 12 weeks there is little value in attempting to retrofit their brains. Resultant problems can include fear-related reactive aggression directed toward humans and other dogs.

This can be a tall order for busy puppy parents. Thankfully, there are socialization classes available that should be started when a puppy is as young as 7-8 weeks. Leave the nest, get the first puppy vaccination, and start school ASAP – certainly before 12 weeks age. There are actually two “sensitive” periods for canine social development. The first is from 3-12 weeks; the second from 16-20.

Research has broken these time frames down even further. Between 3-8 weeks puppies learn best how to socialize with other puppies. Most of them stay with mom and siblings during this time but orphaned, hand-raised puppies have important requirements for – if I may appropriate a human term – a good pre-K education.

There is some overlap. From ages 5-12 weeks puppies are receptive to learning to interact with a variety of members of our species. And from 10-12 weeks and again from 16-20 weeks, they are ready to explore new environments. Puppy class can be just the ticket for shaping a well-adjusted lifetime companion.

But aren’t these youngsters vulnerable to infectious diseases like distemper and parvo? Well, yes they are, but that’s why we have vaccines. A recent study conducted by Dr. Meredith Stepita and colleagues surveyed 21 veterinary clinics that provided socialization classes for a total of 279 puppies. Each “student” was required to stay current on vaccinations. Nobody got sick.

Vaccines aren’t perfect; there can still be a risk but it’s mighty small. The flip side for puppies, loved by overly cautious pet parents who don’t take them to class, is the potential for a lifetime of reactive fear because they missed their socialization window.

There is strong scientific support for appropriately timed puppy socialization. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), “Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”

Socializing a puppy would do more than just improve its wellbeing; it may save its life. By contrast, puppies who spend their sensitive periods in pet stores or stuck in kennels miss out on the social experiences that would facilitate a healthy transition to a lifetime home. Warehousing puppies is a very big mistake.

The AVSAB position statement is clear. “Puppies should also be encouraged to explore, investigate, and manipulate their environments. Interactive toys and games, a variety of surfaces, tunnels, steps, chutes, and other stimuli can enrich the puppy’s environment. Puppies should accompany their breeders/owners on as many car trips as possible. These exposures should continue into adulthood to maintain an outgoing and sociable dog.” This builds confidence.

“Classes and at-home training should be based on positive reinforcement with frequent rewards praise, petting, play and/or treats. Positive and consistent training is associated with fewer behavioral problems and greater obedience than methods that involve punishment and/or encourage human dominance. ” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Sadly, the concept of dominance has become pervasive; it’s helpful to tell our clients what not to do. Alpha rolls, pinning, shouting, and physical punishment have no research supporting their effectiveness. In fact, we have ample evidence of the harm these methods cause, especially to a youngster who is trying desperately to comprehend the rules of human engagement. Only good things should ever be associated with human hands, voices, and facial expressions.

Finally, the calming pheromone in an Adaptil® collar can help reduce the heebie jeebies on the first day of school, throughout the class, or anytime a puppy might get a bit wiggy.

I hope this missive is helpful to you, your clients, and their pets.

All the best,
Jeff Nichol, D.V.M.
Residency trained by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
Veterinary Behavior Medicine
Albuquerque and Santa Fe