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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Could You Be Waiting Too Long to Socialize Your Puppy?

Urban legend and veterinary recommendations caution owners not to enroll their puppies in socialization classes until they are fully vaccinated. This creates a dilemma for puppy owners. Full vaccination programs for puppies are not complete until the puppy is 16 weeks of age. Veterinary behaviorists tell us that between the ages of 3-16 weeks are the most important in canine socialization.

Generally the fear of disease, especially parvovirus, is so great for owners and veterinarians that too few puppies are exposed to other dogs during this socially critical period. A recent study featured in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association should put minds at ease and end the vaccination versus socialization dilemma.

The Puppy Vaccination Study

Researchers collected data from twenty-one veterinary clinics in four cities located in the U.S. The information included age, breed, sex, vaccination status, canine parvovirus diagnosis, and attendance in socialization classes prior to 16 weeks of age.

Twenty-four trainers in the same cities collected the same information for puppies enrolled in their classes. All puppies had a least one parvovirus vaccination. Data submitted for 279 puppies attending socialization classes failed to report a single incident of parvovirus diagnosis. The research suggests that puppies receiving at least one parvovirus vaccine are at no greater risk of contracting parvovirus in classes than those not attending classes.  

Breaking the Information Down

The findings should not be all that surprising. Trainers typically require veterinary verification of enrollment in a vaccination program to qualify for class participation. This makes it likely that all of the puppies in a class have been deemed healthy by veterinary exam.

This process prior to class attendance is typically much longer than the 3-10 day period after purchase, adoption, or acquisition, when parvovirus is most commonly diagnosed. Puppies without symptoms of parvovirus after this 3-10 day incubation period are probably not infected.

Infection with parvovirus requires oral contact with feces (stool) or an area heavily contaminated with feces. Immediate response to fecal “accidents” is expected etiquette in puppy classes to avoid disease transmission. Saliva, the fur of infected animals, and clothing of owners of infected dogs are unlikely methods of transmission. Anal sniffing (the official greeting and name exchange behavior of dogs) is not necessarily a serious infection threat. In other words, the puppy class setting is not a “high risk” environment for contracting parvovirus.

Is Low Risk a Guarantee Against Disease?

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees when it comes to disease and medicine. Media and our legal system lead many to believe that medicine is cut-and-dry, black-and-white. The reality is that medicine, human or veterinary, are benefit/risk professions. Veterinarians and owners must weigh decisions based on potential benefits versus the relative risk of success or failure.

The decision to enroll a puppy into socialization classes prior to full vaccination is a classic risk/benefit decision. Early puppy socialization appears to be very beneficial for ensuring future appropriate behavior around other dogs. Attending class before full vaccinations presents a potential risk of contracting disease.

However, the above study and the precautions taken by those conducting the classes suggest that the risk is low but not zero. The benefits of a well-adjusted puppy would seem to far outweigh the small risk of disease.

Ignore popular advice. Check out the class and instructor and don’t hesitate to enroll if you like what you see.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Thinkstock

Comments  5

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  • Puppy socialization tips?
    09/26/2013 07:33pm

    What can you do if your puppy has not yet received vaccines?

  • 09/27/2013 09:05pm

    Sorry for the delay in replying. I had some computer issues. Get your dog's first set of vaccinations and start looking for a class. Instructors are not likely to allow an unvaccinated animal to participate. If your dog is between 3-12 weeks old, the socialization window is still open. If your dog is over 16 weeks you missed the prime window but socialization classes are still a good idea. Hope this helps.
    Dr. T

  • Multiple Dogs
    09/26/2013 10:29pm

    Would it help at all with socialization to have more than just the newcomer in the household? (Sorry if that's a silly question, but I don't "know dog".)

  • 09/27/2013 09:10pm

    Not sure I understand your question. Certainly introducing a dog to a household with another dog helps with socialization. The idea of classes is to get dogs used to peacefully encountering strange dogs that are not part of the household so there is a consistent expectation of good behavior in any social setting.
    Dr. T

  • 10/11/2014 07:59pm

    Socialization is much more than just intro to one dog, actually that's not socialization at all. So you definitely have to get your dog out and about and trained properly in many different situations.

    Here is great info on it: http://www.clickertraining.com/node/2184

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