Between juggling curbside service and getting puppies started on preventatives and vaccinations, there’s a life-saving prescription that often gets lost in the information overload for new puppy owners: puppy socialization. There's no better time than during this pandemic for veterinary clinics to start approaching socialization the same way as puppy vaccinations – socialization should be considered its own “vaccination” series.
As part of a puppy's care team, you can’t do it all, and you shouldn’t have to!
Let’s look at why socialization is crucial, what it really is, and ways you can encourage your clients to start proactive puppy socialization right away. Fortunately, there are many resources you can rely on to support and educate your clients; I've provided several in this article.
Positive socialization and exposure to the many things a puppy will experience throughout their life is essential for raising them to be a confident, resilient, and well-behaved adult dog. Missed or incomplete early socialization is a main cause of fear, reactivity, aggression, and other behavioral issues. And many of these behavioral problems make providing veterinary care difficult, stressful, and potentially dangerous for veterinary staff!
Beyond in-clinic stress and safety risks, these behavioral challenges are also the main reason dogs are relinquished to shelters and rescues and are the leading cause of death for dogs under three years of age. For this reason, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior emphasizes that socialization needs to be part of the standard of care before full vaccination.
The most important time for a puppy’s socialization with their new family is from seven to sixteen weeks of age, often referred to as the “socialization period” or "imprint period." At this age, a puppy's brain is most receptive to forming new social connections and learning associations between different stimuli in their environment and any resulting consequences – whether positive or negative. These associations will stick with a puppy for the rest of their life.
The timing of puppy socialization is key! After the socialization period ends, it’s more difficult to change any negative associations made during this time, whether due to simply never being exposed to certain stimuli or having a scary experience. You can’t “socialize” a one-year-old dog the same as you can a twelve-week-old puppy because their brains are in different states of development.
After the socialization period is over, we can maintain socialization or switch our focus to remedial counter conditioning in the case of fear or negative reactions. It’s always better to socialize proactively during the crucial period of brain development – think of it as “socialize now or work ten times harder later!”
If you ask a puppy owner what socialization means, almost everyone will say, “having a puppy meet lots of new people and other dogs.” But as we all know, this is only a small part of true socialization. In fact, I would argue that the term “socialization” is confusing in and of itself. For humans, it makes sense – socialization means social interactions with our conspecifics. It then follows for our puppies. We want them to interact with others of their species, as well as lots of different people since they live in our world. But this leaves out so much of what puppy socialization really is and what can lead to behavioral issues in the future!
*Percentages above are general/anecdotal estimates and are meant for comparison purposes only.
What’s great about this comprehensive socialization is that most of these things can be done as soon as your client brings their puppy home, without exposing a puppy to risk of disease! And a puppy’s visit to your veterinary clinic involves many of these different aspects of socialization. Think of all the smells, sights, sounds, and interactions with humans that a puppy experiences during an appointment – they're learning a lot about whether your veterinary clinic is a great place to visit or if it's pretty scary and stressful.
Since final vaccinations usually aren’t completed until 16 to 20 weeks of age, many puppy owners are told by their veterinarians that they shouldn’t expose their puppy to risky environments or interactions. And that warning is important to reduce disease transmission! Unfortunately, many puppy owners interpret this as “don’t take your puppy outside" – since they aren't sure what a truly risky environment is – and their puppy is deprived of critical socialization experiences.
We should strive to be more specific when educating dog owners, as they don’t have the knowledge nor background we have. Clarify ways to reduce disease risk by defining what environments in your area are risky and should be completely avoided while also providing alternative and safer ways to proactively socialize their puppy.
Beyond taking the time to provide a positive and fear-free veterinary visit for puppies in your care, you can educate clients on what socialization includes and give them ideas and tools to get started right away with their puppy. This can be done in-person, through providing informational new puppy packs, follow-up emails, or on your website and social media.
By prioritizing socialization in your client education, you can help set the puppies in your care up for success. There are many things a puppy owner can do to begin proactive socialization while waiting for their puppy’s vaccinations to be completed – they just need to know where to look!
Your clinic is often the first place a client will seek out information when raising a new puppy. Being able to point them in the right direction for puppy training and behavior resources leads to increased client loyalty and satisfaction. It results in an easier-to-handle and less stressed canine patient when they visit your clinic.
During a puppy's initial visit to your clinic, sharing the below tips and resources is like giving the puppy their first socialization "vaccine." And in every follow-up appointment, don't forget to give them a socialization "booster shot" – this can be as simple as asking if they've started puppy classes or connected one-on-one with a certified trainer.
Clients can download our Pupstanding App for free to access an interactive socialization checklist, track their puppy’s progress, and learn what to do if their puppy shows fear or stress to particular stimuli. This app also includes built-in sound recordings to help puppies acclimate to different sounds, such as fireworks, thunder, babies crying, and more. You can also hand out hard copies of socialization checklists, such as this socialization checklist created by Dr. Sophia Yin.
Online training programs make it easy for puppy owners who don’t have physical access to socialization and training classes to work with a trainer in small groups or one-on-one, no matter where they are located. And often, virtual training is more affordable and easier to fit into the busy schedules of puppy owners. With professional support, puppy owners can get started on safe socialization exercises at home while their puppy goes through their vaccination series.
Preventive Vet's Pupstanding Academy offers a Puppy Essentials: Socialization Foundations Workshop, along with other workshops for common and frustrating puppy behaviors. In this socialization workshop, puppy owners are given ideas for starting at-home socialization exercises. They learn how to socialize outdoors safely while waiting for vaccinations and receive a one-on-one virtual coaching session with our certified professional dog trainer where they can ask questions and get personalized help and support.
Give your clients a 25% off coupon code and receive 20% commission by signing up as a Pupstanding Affiliate Partner. The process is easy and you'll receive a personalized coupon code and customized webpage to make sharing these resources with your clients easy. Learn more and sign up as an affiliate partner here.
A puppy who attends a properly run socialization class benefits immensely behaviorally with minimal exposure to disease. The AVSAB recommends that puppies begin attending classes as early as eight weeks of age (or one week after receiving the first vaccination of the DHPP series). Robert K. Anderson, DVM, DACVPM, DACVB, writes, "Experience and epidemiologic data support the relative safety and lack of transmission of disease in these puppy socialization classes over the past 10 years in many parts of the United States. In fact; the risk of a dog dying because of infection with distemper or parvo disease is far less than the much higher risk of a dog dying (euthanasia) because of a behavior problem." (Read more of Dr. Anderson's open letter about puppy socialization here.)
If available in your area, partner with a training facility that provides well-run puppy socialization group classes for puppies between 8–16 weeks of age. Confirm that these facilities are taking the proper cleaning and sanitizing precautions, require adherence to a vaccination schedule and that they do not allow the puppies enrolled in class to attend other daycares, dog parks, or similarly risky environments. Or, consider partnering with a certified professional dog trainer or behavior consultant to offer these types of classes in your clinic outside of business hours.
If your clinic provides new clients with puppy packs, include in-depth resources about training and behavior, such as our 101 Essential Tips: Dog Behavior & Training book. Preventive Vet has also created this one-page insert that contains links to many valuable resources. Get it here.
Give your clients ideas on how they can safely socialize their puppy while they wait for vaccinations to be completed. Here are some safer ways to take a puppy “out and about” and practice socialization inside the home:
Introduce the concept of socialization to your clients with the same urgency as parasite preventatives and vaccinations. It should be their top training priority during the initial two months after they bring their puppy home. Basic obedience cues can be taught at any age, but socialization is essential and time-sensitive. With your support, these puppies will grow up to be healthy dogs, both medically and behaviorally.