Early puppy socialization classes: Weighing the risks vs. benefits - Veterinary Medicine
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Early puppy socialization classes: Weighing the risks vs. benefits
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) recently released a position paper outlining the importance of early puppy socialization, preferably before the puppy reaches 12 to 16 weeks old. Four veterinarians with extensive experience discuss early puppy socialization in a roundtable format.



Dr. Meyer: A lot of effort goes into keeping the environment clean to minimize the potential spread of infectious disease. What recommendations do you make to puppy owners to safeguard their pets outside of puppy class?

Dr. Griffin: Regional differences may exist, but I generally don't like dog parks for young puppies. Behavioral risks—especially injuries from rough play, dog fights, or other sensitizing stimuli that can result in generalized fear responses or aggression— associated with dog parks are present as much if not more than health risks for young pups. I prefer that puppies socialize in class with puppies of the same age group and with familiar, gentle, dog-friendly dogs that belong to friends and neighbors. Depending on a dog's temperament and size, 4 to 5 months of age (after completion of puppyhood vaccines) might be a more appropriate age to start attending dog parks—and with close supervision.

Dr. Messer: We advise owners to avoid areas heavily trafficked by dogs of unknown health and vaccination status until their puppies have had at least two distemper-hepatitis-parvovirus-parainfluenza virus vaccinations over the age of 8 weeks. If we were located in a less-affluent, higher-risk area, we might advise waiting until a puppy is at least 14 to 16 weeks old before venturing on busy public grounds. Other means of socialization during this period are encouraged, including socialization with adult dogs known to be healthy and have a current vaccination status and in areas not frequented by unknown dogs, car rides that comprise a wide range of sights and sounds, and exposure to many different people in safe settings.

Dr. Dunbar: We advise owners of very young puppies to continue socializing their pets with people in the safety of their own homes, with the precaution that outdoor shoes remain outside to reduce exposure to fomites. We also tell these owners to avoid high-risk areas, especially sidewalks and parking lots outside veterinary clinics and veterinary clinic waiting room floors. Because of the moderate year-round temperatures in our area, an owner can keep a puppy in the car until the examination time and carry the pet straight to the examination table without placing it on the ground. We also recommend avoiding dog parks and sidewalks until a puppy is 4 months old.

Dr. Kersti Seksel
Dr. Seksel: Safeguarding puppies outside of class depends on the specific area that the puppies came from and the areas in which they now live, as disease risk is regional. The usual precautions include keeping puppies away from areas that stray dogs frequent and avoiding dog parks until the vaccination series is complete. However, it is not only the physical health that is important but also the emotional health.

We should encourage puppy owners to socialize and habituate their pets to the sights, sounds, and smells of the dog's environment in a nonthreatening manner. Puppies should not be overexposed to stimuli in their environment, such as trying to introduce them to as many substrates (e.g. corrugated surfaces, slippery surfaces) as possible or exposing them to too many activities (e.g. tunnels, teeter-totters); just because a little exposure is good does not make a lot of exposure better. Also, choosing the puppy's playmate is important. Badly behaved puppies and adult dogs can affect a puppy's behavioral responses to other dogs. For example, if a confident puppy is only exposed to confident, boisterous dogs, the puppy may not learn how to interact in a polite manner with a more timid or withdrawn puppy or dog. It may not learn how to approach slowly and sniff instead of rush over and bounce on other dogs. Therefore, all interactions with other pups need to be carefully managed in puppy classes as well as out in the wider community.


Dr. Meyer: We all know that even with precautions, there are no guarantees. Please comment on the health of the puppies taking your classes. Have any of the puppies become ill, or have you had reason to believe infectious diseases may have been spread as a consequence of the class?

Dr. Messer: In the 13 years I have helped run puppy classes for thousands of dogs and the four years of clinical practice running puppy parenting sessions for hundreds of dogs, I have not known of any case of disease spread that could have been associated with their class attendance.

North American puppy class instructors are very concerned about the risk of disease transmission in class, both for the puppies' sake and for maintaining the veterinary community's trust—no one wants a parvovirus outbreak in class. I have not heard of cases of disease exposure or transmission in puppy classes, despite the steady trend toward decreasing the minimum age and vaccination requirements over the past 15 years.

Puppy class in itself is a progressive arm of the dog-training field, and most genuine puppy classes—classes that emphasize socialization with off-leash play and are restricted to puppies under 18 weeks of age—tend to be run by conscientious, well-informed members of the dog-training community.

Dr. Dunbar: We have occasionally had puppies become sick because of parvovirus infection while enrolled in our classes, but in over 27 years of classes we have never had a parvovirus outbreak where the infection has spread among puppies in the same class, and despite occasional parvovirus outbreaks occurring in the community. We have had kennel cough outbreaks in class, but always at a time when there has been a kennel cough outbreak in the community.

Dr. Seksel: I have never seen a disease spread because of attendance at my puppy classes. A puppy may occasionally have a bout of diarrhea or fleas, but these incidents have been unrelated to class attendance.

Dr. Griffin: I have never seen a puppy develop a life-threatening infection that was associated with attending puppy class.


Dr. Meyer: Clearly, the preponderance of evidence and practical experience support the early socialization of puppies through properly run puppy classes. Our expert panel unanimously agrees that the benefits of early socialization far outweigh the risks of infectious disease spread as long as basic precautionary strategies are in place.

Roundtable Panel


E. Kathryn Meyer, VMD
President, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Gaithersburg, Md.


Ian Dunbar, PhD, BSc, BVetMed, MRCVS
Director, Center for Applied Animal Behavior, Berkeley, Calif.

Brenda Griffin, DVM, MS, DACVIM (small animal internal medicine)
Adjunct Associate Professor Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla.

Kersti Seksel, BVSc (Hons), MA (Hons) MRCVS, FACVSc, DACVB, DECVBM-CA
Managing Director, Sydney Animal Behaviour Service, Sydney, Australia

Jennifer Messer, BA (Hons) Psych, DVM
Director, City of Ottawa Spay and Neuter Clinic, Ontario, Canada


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