Could You Be Waiting Too Long to Socialize Your Puppy?

By Ken Tudor, DVM on Sep. 26, 2012

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


Ken Tudor, DVM


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