Get Your Puppy Off to a Good Start

By Jeff Stallings CPDT-KA, February 2015

There is no disputing the fact that having rich and varied social experiences in the first three months of life improves a puppy’s odds of a growing into balanced, confident dog. Also not in question is the reality that canine under-socialization can result in behavior problems, fear and aggression, all primary reasons for relinquishment and euthanasia in pet dogs.

The window in which the most effective socialization takes place is only open between weeks 3 and 12 of the puppy’s life; then, it slams shut. Given that the last combination vaccine (against distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, parainfluenza and coronavirus) is usually administered when a puppy is 16 weeks old, it’s also the genesis of a dilemma.

Some veterinarians, shelters and breeders advise new owners to wait until after a puppy has had her final set of vaccinations to allow her to interact with others. Unfortunately, by that time, the socialization period has ended, precluding the pup’s best shot at acquiring lifelong dog-on-dog social skills.

So, I was particularly interested in a study conducted by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which looked at the risks to partially vaccinated puppies of contracting parvo at indoor puppy socialization sessions (socials). The results were reassuring.

Risk vs. Reward

It seems that puppies who have had only their first set of shots are at no greater risk of being infected with parvovirus than those not attending socials. During the study, it was reported that none of the 15 puppies who contracted parvovirus had attended puppy socials, and that none of the puppies who attended socials contracted parvovirus.

This dovetails perfectly with the standard of care recommended by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), which unequivocally encourages owners to begin socialization classes for puppies as early as seven to eight weeks of age, and seven days after the first set of vaccines. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASCPA, and other dog health and behavior experts concur.

As the 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.”

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, and “accidents” are cleaned up immediately with an antimicrobial solution. Porous surfaces, such as dirt, sand and, in particular, those found at dog parks, must be avoided until full vaccination.

Also, puppy socials do not guarantee that a dog won’t develop fear or aggression later in life; genetics, in-utero experiences, early nutrition and the first weeks with the mother and siblings also play key roles.

Developmental Factors

Why is the window of opportunity so small? At the risk of stating the obvious, puppies develop much faster than their human counterparts. For example, puppies walk beautifully at three weeks, but it takes babies about a year to reach that milestone. This acceleration affects canine cognitive function, which develops rapidly during the short socialization period; it’s during this time that a puppy’s framework for future social functioning evolves. 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.

As mentioned, the true socialization period of puppies—the time during which they readily incorporate new experiences into the developing worldviews that directly affect lifelong behavior—lasts from weeks 3 to 12. That’s it. Since most puppies remain with their mother and littermates for seven weeks (a whole other topic), this means that new owners have just four weeks to make sure their puppy has ample opportunities to learn that there are many sorts of people and types of dogs in this world.

Weeks 8 through 12 are called the “second socialization period” (the first having been spent with the mother and siblings). During those 28 days, a puppy’s brain is like a sponge, supple and ready to absorb and incorporate new experiences. This is without question the most profoundly important period in a dog’s life. Her brain is wired to absorb new experiences far more rapidly than during 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.

While not a perfect analogy, a puppy’s capacity to learn social skills is similar to a young child’s capacity to learn languages. Studies have shown that children younger than seven easily pick up new languages because their brains are capable of readily incorporating the sounds, words, grammar and structure of multiple languages.

Like the puppy socialization period that ends at 12 weeks, this window closes for children around seven, after which language acquisition becomes far more difficult. A six-year-old child who spends a year in a Mandarin immersion class will come out fluent in the language. If I were to attend the same class, I would likely still be struggling with the basics.

The analogy continues. 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 young counterpart. Likewise, dogs without the advantage of a rich socialization period can learn to thrive in social situations, but it takes a great deal more time and effort and has a lower chance of success.

Country Dog, City Dog

It goes without saying that your puppy needs to be socialized to the environment in which she will be living. If your puppy is not destined for an urban life but rather, say, for 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 to hang out with sheep, goats, cows and horses.

But 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, 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. In San Francisco, we have a beach where sometimes hundreds of dogs roam around off-leash at any given time. Our sheepherding dog probably doesn’t need to learn how to cope with that, but if you want to eventually spend quality time with your dog in this lovely locale, you’d best start her education early (yes, during those four crucial weeks).

In addition to socials, a widely accepted goal is for a puppy to meet 100 people during these same four weeks: babies, children, elderly folks, men and women of all races, sizes and shapes, dressed in all sorts of clothing and carrying all sorts of implements—umbrellas, canes, plastic bags. One caveat is that puppy socials and people-meet-and-greets must be positive experiences, not too overwhelming and not too scary.

As your pup’s guardian, you need to shield her from overtly frightening situations (being pursued by an unruly, much larger puppy, for instance), but you must also allow her to venture forth into the rollicking puppy mayhem at her own pace. Sometimes, a timid puppy will hang back for the first few events, and then become a social butterfly. Take, for example, my dog Otis.

As a young puppy, she was shy and unsure of herself. She had been fostered in a rural area of eastern California, so the sights and sounds of the city 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, nor did I force her to engage with them. 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, possibly 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.

A word of caution here: Had I taken Otis only to that first puppy social (the one during 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 order to keep them away, like the multitude of dogs who have learned that snarling, snapping, lunging and barking keeps other dogs from approaching. Instead, because Otis had numerous opportunities to learn to how to play at her own pace, she became a world-class communicator.

I mention this primarily because I recently took a call from the owner of a six-month-old puppy whose veterinarian had advised avoiding all contact with other dogs until the pup was fully vaccinated. In this particular puppy’s case, that meant no contact until 17 weeks.

Five weeks past the end of the second socialization period, the pup finally attended one social, and it did not go well. The puppy was terrified and the owner decided not to go back. Now, this young dog’s single point of reference is that new dogs are scary. She trembles in the presence of other dogs, unsure of how to act, or react. A desensitization/counterconditioning 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.

Knowledge Is Power

I find it interesting (but not surprising) that in the UC Davis study encouraging early socialization, puppies taken to socials did not contract parvo, but some who were not taken to socials did. New owners who are conscientious enough to learn 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 they’re fully vaccinated, which includes dog parks, beaches and other settings with porous surfaces likely to harbor parvovirus-infected feces.

Puppy socials are just one part of a well-thought-out socialization plan, but they form the plan’s cornerstone and have the additional advantage of being viable before all vaccinations have been given.

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 our best friends.

I hope this 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 life of your dog. Now, get out there and mingle!

Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA and owner of Better Nature Dog Training, works and blogs in the San Francisco Bay Area.