Sunday, April 13, 2014

Puppy Foundations: Balancing Risks in Socialization

Last week, I wrote a bit of a primer for people looking to socialize puppies. This week, I want to tackle some new information and perspectives I've come across since the last time I socialized one of my own puppies.

It's hard to figure out how to safely socialize a new puppy.
The importance of socialization is undeniable, but it can be a catch-22. During the same period that your puppy needs to be out and about meeting all kinds of people and experiencing all kinds of new stimuli, he's also most vulnerable to disease. Taking a puppy out of the house means exposing him to things like parvovirus, giardia, kennel cough, tick-borne illness, and other diseases that can result in lifelong problems or even death, so many professionals recommend waiting until a puppy has had his first series of shots before going out and about.

However, that means keeping the puppy isolated until as late as 16 weeks, well after the prime window of socialization has closed. Going to that extreme can prevent the pup from having the experiences he needs in order to be a stable, safe, obedient dog. So you have to evaluate the risks and rewards of isolating or socializing a puppy during this key period.

Some new guidance has been coming out about this conundrum. For example, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has released a position statement on socialization in which they take a pretty serious stance on the issue. Their argument is essentially that behavioral problems cause more deaths among young dogs than these illnesses and that careful socialization is worth the risk of disease. I am inclined to agree with their recommendation that puppies be enrolled in puppy class as soon as possible after they're brought home at 8-9 weeks, rather than delaying their enrollment the extra 4-6 weeks until their puppy vaccinations are complete.

These serious illnesses are horrible, and we need to take them seriously, but they are not as common as abandonments and euthanasia due to behavioral problems that stem from aggression and fear. Problems like these are dramatically lower in puppies who have been socialized carefully and who have been through early obedience classes.

That extensive discussion leaves us in search of ways to find our puppies lots and lots of varied experiences while minimizing their exposure to critical diseases. The first step is to talk to your veterinarian about which diseases may be endemic to your area. If you have a serious parvovirus problem in your area, you absolutely cannot risk exposure to areas where there might be unknown or unvaccinated dogs.

We took Jax out and about with us from the very first days we had him.
In our area, parvo isn't a major concern right now, so I would take (and have taken) my own puppy for a walk in the woods right off the bat during his first few days with us. Despite the risk of disease, it's really important to lay the foundations of good training and socialization right from the first days you have a puppy. If I see a dog I don't know, I pick my pup up and if necessary, explain to the other owner he's too young to play with dogs he doesn't know.

In other areas, the woods may present too much of a risk, but you can call around to local big box stores or home improvement stores and ask what their policy is for puppies. Some places allow dogs, and others will allow a puppy as long as he's held. Once you find some good locations, you can get out and give your puppy some positive experiences with strange people and places.

I'd avoid the pet stores at all costs, despite the fact they allow dogs. Too many careless people with unvaccinated or untrained dogs come through those stores. Once a puppy has had his shots, the pet store is a fun place to work on some training with distractions or to pick out a toy for a special occasion, but it's not a place I'd bring a young puppy.

So when you are preparing for a new puppy, include risk-managed socialization as a keystone. Puppy Kindergarten isn't just about laying the foundations for lifelong obedience. It also lowers the risk of problem behaviors down the road by helping show your puppy that the world is a safe place and that you are a reliable source of security and good things.

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