New Puppy? Socialization Starts Now!

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy skittered into class and ducked under a chair, trembling. It was Pip’s first night of puppy kindergarten, and he was terrified. After class, I chatted with his parents.

“Your puppy is really shy,” I said. “Sixteen weeks is the latest we’ll take a puppy into this class, and he’s right at that mark, so it’s going to be more challenging to help him since he’s at the end of his critical socialization window.”

“We wanted to start earlier, but the vet told us to wait until he had all his shots,” his owner explained. “His breeder also told us not to take him outside at all until he’d finished his vaccinations.”

I wanted to scream. Instead, I assured her we would work together to help little Pip as much as we could.

Early Learning

During their first few months of life, puppies form opinions that they carry for a lifetime. If you wait until a puppy has all his vaccinations before beginning a socialization program, you are too late. You can’t make up what you’ve lost. The result can be an adult dog who is fearful, shy, even aggressive. So why do some new puppy owners still get the advice to wait?

Not everyone is up to date on current understanding of canine behavior. This goes for breeders, veterinarians, groomers, pet sitters, and yes, trainers. We know a lot more about dogs today than we did even a decade ago. And current science tells us to socialize puppies as soon as possible.

Expert Advice

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has a position statement on puppy socialization. It includes the following information:

–The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life.

–It should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.

–Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression

–Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number-one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.

If you already have an outgoing, confident puppy, proper socialization will help strengthen this foundation. If your puppy is shy or fearful, starting an appropriate socialization program right away could change his life. Sometimes you are not aware your puppy has the potential to be timid until you expose him to new things, so start right away.

Keeping Puppies Safe

You do have to be safe. Keep your puppy away from other dogs’ feces and keep his paws clean, just in case he stepped in something that could make him sick. Make sure he gets regular health checkups from his veterinarian. According to AVSAB guidelines, puppies can start socialization classes as early as 7 to 8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least seven days prior to the first class and a first deworming.

By the end of my six-week class, Pip the frightened puppy did emerge from his shell. He became much more confident around people, although still hesitant to approach them at first meeting. He learned to tolerate other puppies in class, but never really wanted to play or engage with them. I can’t help but wonder how much progress he would have made if he had started sooner. This was not his owners’ fault – they were given outdated information. You can bet they will start socialization much earlier with their next puppy. Don’t delay getting your puppy out into the world. You can be safe and social at the same time!

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.