Socialization is like vaccination for behavior problems
“Don’t take your puppy anywhere until the last round of shots is completed”
That’s what we used to tell our clients… back in my day. No, really, we did. And I’ve only been out of veterinary school for 15 years (yikes… I don’t really want to think about that). But, we were taught to keep puppies inside and especially away from other dogs until 2-3 weeks after their entire puppy series of vaccines is completed. No need to risk horrible diseases like rabies, parvo and distemper, right? But sadly, this advice does more harm than good from a behavioral standpoint. So why are so many of my colleagues (and a lot of rescues and breeders for that matter) still clinging to this outdated idea? I’m going to be perfectly honest and say that I have absolutely no clue, except that perhaps they aren’t keeping up with the current literature or attending continuing education about behavior.
So let’s examine what this advice does to our patients. We do a series of 3-4 DA2PP (distemper, adenovirus, parainfluenza, parvo viruses) vaccines every 3-4 weeks starting at 6-8 weeks of age, and then a rabies vaccine between 12 and 16 weeks of age in order to impart full immunity to these very deadly, but very preventable, diseases. After each vaccine, it takes the immune system anywhere from 2-3 weeks to develop the necessary antibodies to fight these diseases. So if we recommend waiting 2-3 weeks beyond the end of the series, most dogs will not hardly leave the house (except of course to come to our office) before at least 4 months of age (but potentially up to 6 months of age). The reason this is important behaviorally is that the socialization period for a puppy is 3-14 weeks of age (12 weeks if you ask some scholars). It is during this sensitive period of time that dogs are most receptive to new experiences, new people, new places, new noises, new everything! It is where their innate fear is overcome by their innate curiosity and willingness to explore their environment. It is during this period of time that they learn what is normal, and also what is scary, in their world. A lack of exposure to something during this period of time can lead to fear of that “something” later on in life. How many times have we heard an owner say “my precious rescue dog must have been abused by a man wearing a hat, with a broom because it is terrified of all of those things.” In my estimation at this point in my career, there must be hundreds of thousands of men in hats running around abusing dogs!
Thankfully, this isn’t the case at all. As was pointed out by the dog-mom with a cute southern accent in one of my puppy socialization classes “Why honey, when have you ever seen a man pick up a broom?” She’s right, you know (sorry guys, no offense!). The likelier scenario is that these dogs were simply not exposed to the things they find scary during their socialization period. If they are not exposed to other dogs, sidewalks, elevators, or men during this key window, those things are going to be quite frightening later. So what happens when the young 20-something-year-old girl with a puppy who was kept sequestered in her mom’s house until 5 months of age because she dutifully followed her veterinarian’s advice, meets a young man, moves to the city and lives in a high-rise apartment? Well, the dog is terrified of the boyfriend and growls every time he comes home. The dog balks at the elevator door and refuses to enter so she is forced to walk up and down 9 flights of stairs just to allow the dog to eliminate. And, the dog refuses to eliminate when the sidewalks are crowded, so she has to get up extra early before work in order to ensure he potties at least once before she leaves for her 10-hour workday (oh yeah, and he wasn’t exposed to crate training or long periods of alone time either because her mom was home with the dog all day previously and now he attempts to escape the crate and howls all day garnering her a noise complaint from neighbors which may lead to a potential eviction). So what happens? Her beloved dog ends up at a shelter. Up for adoption to a new owner (who also lives in the city) and the cycle repeats itself. But, thankfully, the dog never got parvo or distemper! Phew!
So how do we balance the need for socialization AND the need for disease prevention? By allowing puppies to interact with their environment in a safe and controlled fashion. By teaching owners the ins and outs of appropriate positive socialization in a way that also does the best job of avoiding diseases. I’m not advocating that we allow owners to take their dogs to pet stores, dog parks, or areas where there could have been dogs with unknown diseases! But we do allow them to attend a well-run puppy socialization class. One tha
t requires one set of the initial shots and 10 days of ownership at the time of starting class (to account for the incubation period of these diseases); and a class where no puppies are allowed that have had vomiting, diarrhea, or upper respiratory signs in the last 48hrs unless cleared by YOU, their trusted veterinarian. A class that is held in a safe, appropriately cleaned location (like at YOUR veterinary clinics!) to ensure the best possible chance of disease prevention. “But diseases!?!?” you are still shouting from the rooftops. Ah ha! Science has proven that if socialization classes are held in the fashion I have outlined above, there is no higher chance of a puppy contracting these diseases than the average puppy who stays sequestered in its house during that same time-frame (see references below). The risk of behavioral relinquishment remains much higher than disease transmission, so do our clients and patients a favor and EMPHASIZE the need for socialization, immediately. Not when the puppy is older than the socialization period, because once that window of opportunity closes, its lost. And to help a dog overcome their fears later on takes the help of qualified positive-reinforcement trainers and veterinary behaviorists. And sometimes even we cannot help a dog with such ingrained fears to the point that it makes a good companion.
The immunology behind prevention of contagious viruses using vaccinations is based on years of scientific research. As veterinarians we embrace science. It is the foundation of our profession. So why wouldn’t we listen to the science of behavior medicine too? Socialization is like vaccination for behavior problems.
Stepita, Meredith E., Melissa J. Bain, and Philip H. Kass. "Frequency of CPV infection in vaccinated puppies that attended puppy socialization classes." Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association 49.2 (2013): 95-100.