I think all veterinarians can agree puppy and kitten visits are usually the happiest parts of our day. Between puppy-breath kisses, we usually vaccinate, de-worm, perform our exams, and go over pet food and basic husbandry aspects of having a new puppy. The longer I practice, the more I am seeing the importance of early socialization and the impact that it can have on the well-being of the dog and their owners. When I’m concentrating on the new pet’s physical health, it is a subject that I am guilty of overlooking frequently. Believe it or not, behavior problems like fear and aggression are the number one cause of death in dogs under 3 years of age; outranking infectious disease and trauma, and socializing your pet can help significantly. Lack of socialization and reliable training is the main reason young dogs end up in shelters or are euthanized.
So when is the best time to socialize a puppy? The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior says the peak period for puppy socialization is 4 to 14 weeks of age. During the first 3 months of life, puppies are much more open to new people, animals, and experiences. Their sociability outweighs their fear at this time. This period can be a balancing act between socializing and protecting from infectious disease. Many would argue that the risk of developing a life-threatening behavior problem is greater than the risk of contracting an infectious disease like parvovirus. However, there are basic safety precautions owners should take when they begin bringing a young puppy “out into the world.” Avoid places like dog parks, animals who have not been vaccinated, and high traffic areas that can’t be sanitized properly.
The objective of puppy socialization is to try to expose them to as many new people (all ages, genders, and ethnicities), new places (traffic, playgrounds, quiet areas, yelling children, etc.), different animals, and new experiences like car rides and manipulation of their sensitive areas like ears and feet. An excellent way to provide structured socialization is to find a good puppy class. This provides socialization in a controlled and safe environment and should be done on a surface that can be easily sanitized. The puppy should have at least the first set of puppy shots 7 days prior to starting a class, be de-wormed, and stay current on vaccines throughout the duration of the class.
When socializing, it is important to remember that the experiences must be positive for the puppy, or it can work against you and create fear and anxiety. Always use positive reinforcement in the form of treats and praise. For example, if the puppy is scared of a loud noise or a specific person, try to make it positive by letting the stranger give the treats or distracting the animal during a fearful time. If the puppy suddenly becomes anxious and fearful in a situation and does not recover in less than 1 minute, it is probably best to remove the animal from the situation. If the animal is flooded with negative stimuli, it can promote more fear and aggression because they just want to get away from the situation. If a puppy does not recover from stimuli like loud noises in less than 1 minute, a behavior evaluation may be needed.
The final point to remember is that socialization does not stop at 14 weeks. Although puppies are most receptive at a very young age, training can (and should) still continue and be effective. It’s similar to the way children are more open and receptive at a young age. We can still learn as we get older, it just takes a little more work. Your veterinarian may be able to help you with behavior questions or problems, and if not, they can definitely direct you to someone who can help.
-Dr. Alison Bradshaw