Early puppy socialization classes: Weighing the risks vs. benefits
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) recently released a position paper ( http://AVSABonline.org/) outlining the importance of early puppy socialization, preferably before the puppy reaches 12 to 16 weeks old. The AVSAB encourages owners to take their pets to puppy classes as early as possible, even before puppies have completed their full vaccination series.
Some veterinarians remain concerned about allowing puppies to commingle before vaccinations are complete. So to further explore the practical and theoretical issues involved, the AVSAB has interviewed four veterinarians who have extensive experience with early puppy socialization. The participants' individual interviews are presented below in a roundtable format.
UNDERSTANDING THE BENEFITS
Dr. Kersti Seksel: Well-run puppy classes undoubtedly provide the basis for happy, healthy dogs and happy owners. The risks of a puppy's exposure to infectious agents always need to be considered, but the risk of being euthanized or surrendered is much greater in unsocialized, untrained dogs than the risk of dying from infectious diseases.
Dr. Brenda Griffin: For puppies, the single most important part of a behavioral wellness program is proper socialization during their critical developmental period, which ends by 16 weeks. Owners must begin socialization the day they bring their new puppies home, and the clock is ticking.
Proper socialization combined with positive reinforcement-based training in the context of a group puppy class helps puppies grow into well-adjusted pets. Classes provide critical socialization time with a variety of people and other puppies. And studies clearly demonstrate that when owners invest in training classes, they are much more likely to keep their pets.1,2 The experience helps owners develop a strong bond with their pets as well as establish realistic expectations of their pets' behavior while learning proper techniques to shape it. And it's fun.
Dr. Jennifer Messer: Relatively few risks and enormous benefits exist in allowing puppies to interact in a well-run puppy class before they've completed their vaccination series.
Canine parvovirus transmission is the main risk, as the other infectious agents we vaccinate against are either comparatively rare in prevalence and the vaccines are highly effective, or the agents cause relatively minor illness in otherwise healthy puppies. That said, even with the improved efficacy of parvovirus vaccine technology developed in the mid-1990s, about 2% to 8% of puppies may not be adequately protected from parvovirus until after they have been vaccinated at 14 to 16 weeks old.3 This percentage is relatively small, but it can't be ignored, and it must be balanced against the serious behavioral risks of holding puppies back from class until they are fully vaccinated. Specifically, poorly socialized puppies are at greater risk of behavior problems such as fear and aggression toward other dogs and people, and of being unable to engage in safe, ritualized fighting where they inhibit the force of their bite. Puppy class not only offers an opportunity for critical socialization, but is also a great forum for owners to help prevent other types of behavior problems such as housesoiling and hyperactivity (the two most commonly reported behavior problems of relinquished dogs)4 and to develop more realistic expectations of their dog—both of which play key roles in reducing the chance of relinquishment.2