I got a call this week about a 4 month old, abandoned-in-a-box-at-3-weeks hound mix, who has never been anywhere but a backyard in Mar Vista since arriving in its current home at 8 weeks, upon strict orders of a Beverly Hills vet. I hope the good doctor is able to help this family in 6, 9, or 18 months time, should this horribly under-socialized pup start biting the rambunctious teens in the house. Or lunging and snarling at the dogs they meet on walks.
Failure to socialize a dog before the critical age of 16 weeks won’t just make a puppy difficult to live with, it could mean the difference between life and death, as stated in the October 1, 2008 edition of the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA):
“While veterinarians are appropriately concerned about infectious disease in young puppies, the fact is that behavioral issues—not infectious diseases—are the number one cause of death for dogs under 3 years of age, according to the AVSAB. Veterinarians contribute to these behavioral issues when recommending pets be kept away from possible germs until their vaccine series is complete, the AVSAB stated.”
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on Puppy Socialization explains this further:
“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. For this reason, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that is should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.”
Socialization is the process of exposing your pup to everyday activities, people, places, and especially other dogs who you’re reasonably certain have been fully vaccinated (you can always ask). FYI, all shelter and rescue dogs in California have been vaccinated against most communicable diseases prior to adoption, by law.
Avoiding contact with dogs under 6 months of age who you aren’t sure have been vaccinated will go a long way in helping your puppy avoid most communicable dog diseases, including the dreaded Parvovirus. For this reason, dog parks, dog-friendly trails, beaches, public parks, and any where a large number of dogs are congregating are best avoided until the puppy series of vaccinations are complete.
If you’re ever in doubt about a location or situation, keep your pup’s paws off the ground (and wash/disinfect the bottoms of your shoes before you enter your car/house/yard). Very little opportunity exists for disease transmission when paws never touch the ground, and noses and mouths don’t come into contact with other dogs. I avoid all public dog water bowls, or at least empty and refill before my dogs partake, for puppies and adults alike.
If you personally come into contact with an infected dog (shelters, rescue kennels, adoption events, and pet fairs pose the most risk) it’s possible to transmit Parvo on your skin, clothes, and hair, so either avoid these or disinfect your clothing and your skin before you make contact with your puppy.
So why not avoid this threat all together and keep the puppy home all of its shots have been had, like my client’s vet suggested? Because dogs aren’t socialized during this time in their lives never make up that deficit. You can rehabilitate most dog behaviors, if you’re willing to dedicate the considerable time and effort necessary to effect lasting change, but the hard truth is, few people are willing or able to do the hard work required. Most remain uneasy about the potential liability, even when they’re generally able to control the dog.
The good news is, socialization, while being vital to your dog’s future, can be a lot of fun at the same time.
During the first 6 months of your puppy’s life, take them with you wherever, when ever you can safely do so. An unattended pup in a parked car, or tied up outside of a store or restaurant alone is at great risk for pet theft and/or subject to teasing. I strongly advise against doing either. However, if you know in advance you can have your puppy with you at all times safely (and have planned for house training considerations), take them along. Ask adults and kids over the age of 6 to pet or briefly hold your pup, and ask younger kids if they would like to pet them with 1 finger (with your immediate supervision!).
If you’ve ever tried to walk a dog that gets overly excited or aggressive at the sight of another dog, you know what a nightmare leash aggression can be to live with. You can likely avoid this by getting out and about with your pup as often as possible, and teaching them how much fun fun life can be on-leash!
After basic leash training at home, walk your puppy near playgrounds and elementary schools, and within 50 feet of busy bus stops and parking lots. Watch kids “going big” at a local skate park, or admire the parade of bicyclists and rollerbladers out on a Sunday jaunt at the beach or local park Enjoy dog-friendly pedestrian malls, shops, and cafes together. Make “happy visits” to vets and groomers where your pup gets a delicious treat (you provide) from their personnel, but no “treatment.”
With a little effort and imagination, socialization can be educational, entertaining, and the best part of your week with your new puppy.