The Value of Meeting Strangers
When dogs meet people other than their owners — especially children, if there aren’t any in your household — it sets a good foundation for being comfortable around humans. Puppies should meet men, women and children, as well as people of a race different from your own. Some dogs may seem antisocial because they growl or behave otherwise aggressively toward people who are different from those they’ve been exposed to at the breeder’s or your house. A dog will do this if he has not met a wide range of people — and whatever smells or looks unfamiliar will usually bring about a negative reaction.
Even though the pup hasn’t had all her vaccinations yet, you can go to a willing “dogless” friend’s house — if they have a fenced backyard, so much the better — at least until she’s had her second set of immunizations at nine or ten weeks.
Then, after ten weeks, you can have friends visit at your house — so much the better if they have immunized, gentle dogs and/ or children (the children should be gentle ones, too — although their immunizations are not as relevant!). Before ten weeks there is no good reason to expose your little pup to other dogs, who, even though they themselves may be healthy and immunized, may have come into contact with ill dogs or bacteria that could compromise a very young puppy.
New Situation Equals Treats
Shower the dog with treats when he’s faced with new people, places or things. Make all experiences fun and positive. Expose him to lots of friendly humans: give treats while waiting on lines at shops or banks, and enlist strangers to hand the treats to the dog when possible.
When at home, keep a stash of tasty dog treats somewhere near your door (inaccessible to the pooch, of course) and hand a treat to anyone who comes around — visitors, the mailman, deliverymen, service people. Ask them to hand it to the puppy so she associates a good treat with anyone who comes to your house. The puppy should sit first for the stranger before getting the treat.
Find a friend who’ll “loan” you a small child or two — and then give the children bits of cheese to feed the dog. Accustoming a puppy to children is one of the most important steps in socializing a pup, because, let’s face it: children are everywhere. And the problem with kids is that they look, act and sound so different from adults: they are louder, faster, and higher-pitched and make unpredictable noises and motions. Some dogs have a really hard time getting used to the little humans, so the sooner they get started, the better for all concerned. However, before starting your child/ dog experiments, read Chapter Fourteen on “Dogs and Children” so you are well prepared for how to keep the child( ren) safe and happy while teaching them and the dog to become friends.
Make Your Own Puppy Play Group.
If you can’t find any puppy classes near where you live, or you don’t want to do the legwork of finding an acceptable puppy kindergarten, you have the option of creating a do-it-yourself puppy social group. Many professional breeders recognize the importance of “civilizing” their puppies, but there’s no way they could take eight puppies to a class. Many of the more dedicated breeders have come up with their own versions of puppy education, and there’s no reason you can’t follow their lead. Come up with a plan that gives your puppy a good exposure to a variety of adults, children and other dogs.
WHAT ABOUT PUPPY SHOTS AND COMMUNICABLE ILLNESS?
The paradox is that the most critically sensitive developmental weeks in a puppy’s life — when some say it is best to introduce him to places and things — are the very weeks when others recommend keeping your puppy physically isolated because he is most vulnerable to getting illnesses from other dogs.
Standard medical advice suggests that a puppy should not be exposed to other pups until two weeks after the puppy vaccine is given. The earliest that shot is given is at twelve weeks. But what becomes of a puppy who is isolated for that long at such a crucial period? How is his development stunted? Generally speaking, dogs with this isolation grow up oriented and attached to people much more than to other dogs. For most people this is an acceptable outcome, since a dog that is more responsive to them is easier to train and relate to — even if he may be awkward around other dogs, or downright antisocial to them.
Your puppy isn’t fully immunized until sixteen weeks, but the critical socialization period ends around week twelve or thirteen. Some experts would tell you to keep puppies away from all other dogs and public places until their puppy shots are finished at sixteen weeks; others claim that your puppy will be emotionally stunted unless she meets lots of dogs and experiences loads of social situations by the time she reaches her sixteenth week. As noted earlier, you can never recapture that super-sensitive period; many canine behaviorists believe you need to expose the young dog to lots of experiences, protecting her health as best you can but not being so protective that she misses out on the interactions. It’s a risk/ reward decision you have to make for yourself, and there are suggestions later in this section on how to walk that line.
What’s the Worst That Can Happen, Medically Speaking?
Most of the infectious diseases that puppies are vaccinated against have fortunately become rare, or even extinct (in good part because of aggressive vaccination programs in the past). Parvovirus and distemper are two of the most common and dangerous diseases that can affect puppies: distemper has been almost entirely wiped out, and parvovirus (“ parvo”) doesn’t occur often. Rabies is rare, and “canine infectious hepatitis” is practically unheard-of, although it can be deadly to an entire litter.
Kennel cough (also called Bordatella) is probably the most dangerous illness that’s out there for all dogs, which means it can be even more serious for little puppies. It is a highly infectious airborne disease that a dog can spread by coughing or even just breathing — and it’s an illness that is contagious before the carrier dog even has symptoms himself.
Veterinarians’ waiting rooms are notorious places for the disease to spread — certainly never let a small puppy down on the floor at the vet’s. Do not let him sniff or play with any other dog in there. Puppies are physically vulnerable and their immune systems are not fully up and running yet. It doesn’t matter whether people tell you their dog has had vaccinations or is in good health — that dog can be carrying an infectious disease that does not bother his strong, adult constitution, but could lay your little puppy flat.
So Should Your Puppy Socialize or Be a Hermit?
What is the truth? Which side of this issue is “right” — or more right? As with so many black-or-white controversies, both sides have a point, but the gray area is where the answer lies.
How to resolve this dilemma for yourself? How precise are those critical weeks in a puppy’s emotional development? How essential is it for her to get out and about — and on the other hand, is the physical risk of mingling with other dogs that great?
Talk to your vet about it, but understand that there are doctors who may know less about the social development of dogs than they do about “disease process,” so their point of view may be skewed toward the physical health considerations. This conservative approach on the part of some vets may be weighed in favor of safeguarding puppies from infectious disease, but it disregards the importance of how a dog can suffer lifelong damage from early social isolation.
For most people the answer will be moderation: don’t live locked away but do be careful where you take the puppy. That doesn’t just mean choosing a puppy kindergarten carefully, it means you need to think twice about taking the puppy into any public place where other dogs will be or have been. Avoiding heavily dog-trafficked areas like parks and sidewalks, doggie-day-care facilities and the vet’s office (unless medically necessary, obviously) will go a long way toward lowering your risk.
CHOOSING A SAFE “PUPPY KINDERGARTEN”
Puppy classes, also known as “puppy kindergarten,” can be an extremely positive part of your puppy’s development, but the setting needs to be reliably safe and clean. Try to get recommendations from dog-oriented people like groomers, your vet, dog trainers, other dog owners and the owners of small pet stores (preferably those that only sell food, supplies and grooming services, not puppies). Unless you live in a big city, it’s unlikely that you’ll have a choice of more than one puppy class, but at least you can get feedback about the class( es) available in your area.
If the timing works out you can check out the puppy kindergarten when your puppy is really small or even before you get your puppy. (Why not? Don’t some mothers check out preschool before their babies are even born?) If you can, visit a puppy kindergarten while a class is going on. That will tell you so much more than interviewing the owner over the phone and asking a lot of questions. Make sure that the teacher demands proper proof from all participants that their puppies have been immunized, which ensures the health of all members. When you see the participants in the class, it will be clear whether the puppies come from homes where they are kept clean, and whether the owners are the kind of people who have their pups on a dependable vaccination schedule.
Puppy classes are held before the traditional age of six months, and can begin as early as twelve weeks. The point of these classes is to socialize the puppy to other youngsters. It also gets her used to the idea of being in a class with everyone doing something together. Most trainers recommend the socialization benefits of these get-togethers.
For suggestions on other considerations when picking a puppy kindergarten, refer to Chapter Ten.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: Raising a Great Puppy, Part 5: Puppy Peculiarities
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Copyright © Tracie Hotchner – Originally appeared in The Dog Bible: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know by Tracie Hotchner