Recent research has confirmed that early socialization of puppies (prior to 16 weeks of age) is very important and pivotal to helping young dogs develop a normal, healthy response to life.
A new puppy owner might hear this information and be ready to eagerly pursue this early training, but then the puppy’s first veterinary visit occurs. The vet might tell these new puppy owners that they should not expose their puppy to any dogs until they’ve finished their vaccine series, which ends around 16 weeks of age.
The new puppy owners are confused… how do they provide early learning opportunities to their dog while keeping them safe from communicable diseases? It seems impossible.
Take a seat (if you aren’t already sitting), get your cuppa coffee or tea, and let Dr. D clear it up for ya.
First: A quick lesson in immunity.
When puppies are born, they inherit some protection from disease from their mother, depending on her exposure to disease or vaccination. This protection is known as “maternal antibodies”. Humans have those, too, when they are babies.
The maternal antibodies only stick around in the pup’s body for about 4 months. When a puppy is vaccinated, his body tries to make its own antibodies to that disease. Unfortunately, if his maternal antibodies are still around in high numbers at the time of vaccination, they will counteract the new antibodies and render them ineffective.
As the number of maternal antibodies decreases, the puppy’s immune system is more effective at creating antibodies after vaccination. Since every puppy’s immune system is different, and we can’t tell when he’s making enough antibodies, veterinarians administer a few boosters of a vaccine, typically every 3-4 weeks until that pup is 14-16 weeks old. This vaccine schedule ensures that the puppy can develop his own immunity to a disease once his maternal antibodies are gone.
So what does that have to do with early socialization?
The concern about early socialization has been related to the puppy’s possible exposure to disease before he has the ability to fight it off. If a puppy is socialized early, starting at 8 weeks of age, he has only had one vaccination. One vaccination has not given him enough time to create a good immune response to the disease. He needs at least 2 vaccinations, with no interference from maternal antibodies, to be safely protected.
And, there’s the rub.
What’s the answer to this conundrum?
Here is what we know:
- The single most important thing we can do to provide puppies with behavioral wellness is proper socialization during the critical developmental period (before 16 weeks of age).
- Behavior problems are the #1 cause of relinquishment to shelters, and over half of the dogs in shelters are euthanized.
- Canine parvovirus is the main disease risk associated with puppy socialization before the vaccination series is complete. Though it is important to assess risk, it should be encouraging that only 2-8% of puppies may not be adequately protected from parvovirus until after their last vaccine at 14-16 weeks old. In English: The risk of your puppy getting parvo from a puppy socialization class is very low.
- The idea of “puppy class” is fairly novel. Training facilities who provide genuinely safe opportunities for puppies to socialize are on the cutting edge. They are progressive among their peers, therefore they are conscientious and often take every precaution to ensure your pup’s safety.
So, after taking all this into consideration, what do I recommend?
I believe in the power of early socialization for puppies, as well as ongoing training, to minimize potential behavioral issues later in life. Behavioral issues such as destructive chewing, separation anxiety, house soiling, dog aggression, fear of humans, etc. All the behavioral issues that can land a dog in a shelter.
I also believe that this early socialization is so important that the benefits outweigh the very small risk of exposure to disease. Holding your puppy back until he is done with his vaccination series could seriously inhibit his ability to cope in normal, every day situations.
But I also want to make sure that new puppy owners are taking their pup to socialize in an appropriate place. A well-run puppy socialization class is the best and safest option for this early socialization to occur. Here are few things to look for in your puppy social class:
- A dog training facility or veterinary clinic with a solid reputation.
- Puppies are grouped together by age, and sometimes by size.
- Puppies are allowed off-leash and able to play-fight with boundaries.
- There is a protocol in place for sanitation and immediate clean-up of accidents.
- Puppies should be required to have their first round of vaccines at least 7 days prior to attending their first class. You will also be required to continue and complete the puppy vaccination series.
Often you will find that during puppy class you will also get some bonus material, such as training tips, an education on dog body language and behavior, and information on other topics that are important to a new puppy owner. These classes are extremely valuable.
Dog Parks, Pet Stores, and Other Cesspools of Disease
You might have been thinking this whole time that your puppy could just get his socializing done at the dog park. You would be mistaken.
I do not like dog parks for young puppies. Dog parks are not a controlled, safe environment for your young pup to learn healthy behaviors, healthy responses to stimuli, and how to properly interact with other dogs. Not to mention that there are huge health risks involved – you don’t know if the other dogs are vaccinated or carrying intestinal parasites. Wait until your pup is about 4-5 months old (after finishing the puppy vaccine series) before taking them to a dog park, and keep them under close supervision.
Also, if you want to prevent unwanted disease in your puppy before they are fully vaccinated, don’t take them with you to the pet store. Wait until they are fully vaccinated. You have no idea what’s been there.
So, what’s the next step for my puppy?
Find yourself a local puppy socialization class! And don’t wait! Don’t worry if you’re starting late; late is better than never.
Trust me. You’ll thank me later.
Dr. D used the following resources to help write this article for you. If you want more information, check ’em out!
AVMA PetCare Page on Protecting your dog, yourself, and others
DVM360 Article weighing risks vs benefits of early puppy socialization classes
AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization
Are Early Socialization and Infectious Disease Prevention Incompatible?