Puppy Vaccinations and Socialization

Since the 1950s, behaviorists have known that exposing puppies to good experiences with other dogs, people and even other animal species can help them be better adjusted pets as adults.  Dogs that receive such early socialization are better able to form attachments to people and other dogs, and be less aggressive and fearful than dogs that do not have such experiences.   Research by Drs. John Paul Scott and John Fuller found that this “sensitive period”, when it is easiest for dogs to respond to these experiences, is between 3 and 12 weeks of age.

The risk of disease during this early age has created problems for puppy owners and their veterinarians.  Puppies at these young ages are at risk for certain communicable diseases such as distemper and parvovirus.  The conventional veterinary wisdom was that to avoid possible exposure to these very serious diseases, owners should keep their puppies away from other dogs or places where other dogs have been at least until the puppy has had his third series of vaccinations which could be between the ages of 16 and 20 weeks of age. 

Waiting to provide socialization experiences until these later ages misses the peak of the sensitive period and makes it more difficult for socialization to occur.  The sensitive period is limited by the puppy’s increasing fear of anything unfamiliar which makes it more difficult for puppies to accept new events.

For years, veterinary behaviorist Dr. R.K. Anderson has argued that puppies should be given these socialization experiences during the sensitive period and that if they occur in environments where the risk of disease transmission is low, the benefits outweigh the risks.   He likes to point out that the risk of death due to behavior problems as a result of poor socialization is far greater for most dogs than the risk of these communicable diseases.  As Dr. Anderson puts it, vaccination and socialization go together. 

Dr. Anderson has reports from thousands of puppies that have attended his puppy classes as well as those of several other behaviorists that show that puppies as young as 8 – 12 weeks of age can attend socialization classes with very little risk of disease, if proper care is taken.  In over 10 years, Dr. Anderson had not a single puppy develop distemper or parvo as a result of attending his socialization classes at a humane society in Minneapolis.  These results are consistent with other reports as well. 

Dr. Anderson urges that puppies should receive their first vaccinations before attending class.   The areas where the puppy is socialized should be clean, and sick dogs shouldn’t be allowed in areas where puppies are or where puppies will likely be.  Clearly, early socialization shouldn’t occur in areas where these communicable diseases are found.

This is good news for puppies and puppy owners.  Puppies can reap the benefits of earlier socialization experiences, and puppy parents should worry less about their puppies contracting serious communicable diseases if Dr. Anderson’s guidelines are followed. 

Puppy parents should always talk with their veterinarian before starting a puppy socialization class, to be sure there have not been outbreaks of diseases recently in the area, and to obtain a recommendation to a quality puppy class.

Both veterinarians and puppy parents should read the position statement created by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior about puppy socialization. 

If you need an authoritative, affordable resource filled with recommendations to understand and deal with all kinds of normal puppy "issues" from housetraining to chewing, get our award winning "Raising a Behaviorally Healthy Puppy"  book today.  Both New and "Gently Used" copies are available, and we offer quantity discounts. 

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