Your pup is healthy and she has her first set of vaccinations and a deworming. Should you...
a. Take her to the dog beach or dog park?
b. Enroll her in puppy classes and take her out with you?
c. Keep her at home until she has all of her vaccinations?
If you answered "b" you answered correctly! There is an extremely important time period in a puppy's life called the socialization period (3-16 weeks). If you expose your puppy to the things in her environment during this time using positive methods, she is less likely to be afraid of them later. If you don't expose your puppy during this time, she is more likely to be fearful and often aggressive as she develops. Your puppy should get out in safe situations in which there is a low risk of disease after her first vaccine and deworming.
Part of socializing your dog is exposing her to other dogs. Often, this is the most difficult part of socialization. Unless you have friends or know people in the neighborhood with gentle dogs, finding a way to expose your pup can be a challenge. People will oftentimes seek out the dog beach or the dog park to socialize their pups. This can be risky for lots of reasons.
First, you can’t verify the health status of the dogs that go there. Because public dog parks are open to anyone, the dogs there don’t have to be dewormed or vaccinated. Because your pup has not been fully vaccinated, she is more prone to severe disease than an adult dog. She needs to be interacting with dogs that are healthy.
Second, you can’t verify the temperament of the dogs that go to a public dog park or dog beach. When I was an intern, I remember many days between 6 and 7 p.m. when we would get at least one dog presented for a dog bite wound sustained at a dog park. Invariably, the owners didn’t know the vaccination status of the biting dog. Not good.
Just as positive experiences during the socialization period have a big impact on adult behavior, so do negative experiences. One dog bite or one pack of dogs chasing down your puppy during this period could cause permanent damage. That could create one of the most common behavior problems, at least in my practice: reactivity to other dogs.
Let’s review. You need to take your dog to meet other dogs before she is 16-weeks-old, and I am advising you not to take her to public play areas like the dog beach and the dog park. Nothing like making it more difficult than it has to be!
But wait, there are solutions. Make play dates with dogs in your neighborhood. Enroll in a puppy class so that your pup can play with other pups. While your pup may not be able to play with the pups during class time, often the instructor will let the pups loose after class.
If that isn’t possible, make plans to meet before class or to meet at your house for the pups to play. Visit friends with dogs so that your puppy can meet new dogs and go to new places. It is important for your puppy to play with adult dogs as well as other pups so that she learns about the different play styles of different breeds. Enroll in play sessions at a daycare or a pet supply store. Often, these types of businesses have play sessions for puppies only 1-2 days a week. Although they may be rare, there are also private dog parks. A private dog park is a "key swipe" dog park, where the dogs are screened behaviorally and medically before being admitted as members. I wish there were more of these, actually.
You have to get your pup out, but do it the smart way so that her experiences are positive. Have fun!
Dr. Lisa Radosta