Image via iStock.com/Lunja
By Sarah Wooten, DVM
Socialization is when your puppy learns how to interact with other creatures in his environment and determines whether the world is a safe and happy place or not.
To avoid behavioral problems, a puppy needs to have lots of positive interactions with dogs and people during the critical socialization period of roughly 9-14 weeks of age.
However, savvy dog parents know that puppies aren’t completely vaccinated and aren’t considered fully protected by their puppy vaccines until they are finished with their puppy series, which is usually around 16 weeks of age.
So your dog needs to go out and be with other dogs, but it is not safe to do so yet because your puppy hasn’t been properly vaccinated. Hmmmm. How do you reconcile the need for socialization with the need to protect your puppy against fatal contagious diseases like parvovirus and distemper virus?
Puppy Vaccines 101
When deciding on the right time to take your puppy outside, it is helpful to include some knowledge about how vaccines work in your decision-making process.
Puppies typically receive multiple injections with the same type of vaccine starting at age 6-8 weeks. Puppy vaccinations are repeated every three to four weeks until 16 weeks of age.
The initial vaccine primes the immune system to make lots of antibodies in response when the puppy is vaccinated again against the same virus. That is why vaccines are called boosters—they boost the immune system.
Puppies already have some protection from antibodies found in their mother’s milk; however, these maternal antibodies also interfere with vaccines. Maternal antibodies start to decrease in a puppy’s body at different rates, and we have no way of knowing when those maternal antibodies decrease enough to allow the vaccines to start to work.
This is why puppies must be vaccinated multiple times and aren’t considered protected until they receive all their boosters by 16 weeks of age.
How to Protect Your Puppy
In order to protect your puppy against contagious diseases, the following precautions are recommended in puppies younger than 16 weeks of age:
- Get all vaccines as recommended by your veterinarian.
- Avoid taking your puppy to places where other dogs frequent, such as dog parks and pet stores.
- Carry your puppy in and out of veterinary hospitals. Veterinary staff take every precaution to protect your puppy from infectious disease, but sometimes sick dogs can still contaminate floors, furniture and rest areas in a hospital before the personnel can disinfect the area. Be safe and carry your puppy.
- Avoid letting your puppy sniff animal feces while walking, and do not let your puppy interact with dogs with an unknown vaccination history.
- Make sure other dogs in your household are current on vaccines.
- Allow your puppy access to a fenced yard. If your neighbors have dogs, let them know you have a new puppy that is not fully vaccinated.
How to Safely Socialize Your Puppy
Now that you have made sure your puppy is safe, how can you ensure that he gets properly socialized during the critical socialization period? The following scenarios are generally considered safe zones where your puppy can try out his budding social skills in a disease-free environment:
- Interactions with fully vaccinated dogs that belong to your friends and family.
- Interactions with other puppies in training classes. All puppies that go to class must bring evidence that they are following a proper vaccination schedule.
- Interactions with people in environments where no other dogs are present.
When socializing your puppy, make sure you are pairing every interaction with dog treats and praise to help him develop good social skills. It is also helpful to follow the rule of seven: every day, your puppy needs to have seven positive, novel experiences that help him develop a positive relationship with the outside world.
Using these guidelines, you should be able to avoid any situations that can present a contagious disease risk to your puppy while still providing plenty of positive interactions to allow for proper socialization during the critical age window of 9-14 weeks of age.