Socialisation between Vaccinations: The Big Debate

Swift went to her first puppy party at the vets on Tuesday. There were five other sets of owners with their puppies attending, all different breeds and different sizes, and all around 11-12 weeks old. Now, here’s the thing, as people began to talk and discuss their pups there were a lot of remarks about how this was the first time their dogs had met another dog since they had left their litter mates at 8 weeks old. Some were talking about how their pups were worried at meeting another dog for the first time, while others were so overjoyed to finally see another pup they became rambunctious. And I sat there, listening to all this, and desperately wanting to say something and yet knowing it was all too late.

What was it I wanted to say? Well, it would have run along the lines of how much time had been lost for those pups, how it would have been so much better to get them out into safe environments to enjoy a range of experiences before 12 weeks old. How there was a risk, that now they had almost missed that window, they would develop fears and phobias about new things, or people, or other dogs.

Puppies learn through play (C) Flickr: Carolyn

Maybe what I really wanted to say was that Swift had been out and about socialising with people and dogs since she was 6 weeks old, that she had met other dogs nearly every day during her first and second set of jabs. That it had all been done in a safe, responsible way and that it was my hope this would set her up for being a confident, self-assured adult dog. But I didn’t say that, and since I will likely never see these people again after the puppy party course ends, I will never know how their dogs turned out.

You see they might turn out just fine, then again they may have issues. Behavioural scientists have identified that between 4 and 14 weeks a puppy is in a prime phase for social development. After 14 weeks this window closes and it never reopens. This developmental phase is so important that puppies that miss out on socialising during this time are liable to be fearful of new things. Depending on the pup’s natural personality, these fears may be extreme, creating a reactive dog, or just a nervous ill-adjusted dog. In contrast, the puppy that has experienced many new things during this 4-14 week period is likely to be super-confident and happy in new situations, around new people, places, etc. Basically a better balanced individual.

You might think this is all a load of nonsense, that puppies are always learning about new experiences, and that is not untrue. But they are MOST receptive to new positive stimuli during those 4-14 weeks. Miss those and you could be cursing your dog to a lifetime of behavioural issues.

Ger Dekker
Meeting friendly adult dogs helps pups learn vital manners (C) Flickr: Ger Dekker

Yet so many puppies are kept confined to the house from 8 – 12 weeks or longer. Prior to that they have probably only known their breeder’s home, meaning their world of reference is very limited.

Why does this happen?

Well, it comes down to people trying to be responsible, well-meaning puppy owners, which you cannot blame them for. People buy their new precious pup and they want to do the best for them, so they go to the vets and get their first vaccinations and the vet explains that the puppy will need a booster in 4 weeks time (this is in the UK) and that the pup is not fully vaccinated until then. So the pup is kept safely away from any bugs and germs in the house. Then that fourth week comes along, puppy gets their second vaccination and the vet says, give it another week before taking them out. So that’s five weeks gone before puppy can go out. At best they are 13 weeks when they finally stroll out into the world, giving you one week left to hit that socialisation window. At worst they are past 16 weeks and that vital time is gone for good.

Vets give valid information. They don’t want you to take your puppy out and have it contract something nasty like parvovirus. When your puppy goes for their first vaccinations at 8 weeks they should still have immunity passed to them from their mother, this can impact how well they uptake the immunity from the vaccine. Their natural immunity may stop the vaccine working, which is why a second vaccination is given several weeks later. (check out Ridgewood Veterinary Hospital’s page for more info). Natural immunity lasts around 16 weeks, but weakens every day. Once this immunity is gone the vaccination immunity takes its place.

During that period between the first and second jab your pup could contract an illness (bear in mind that dogs can catch parvo even if they have been vaccinated against it, but will not get so ill), but the risks are relatively low because most dogs are vaccinated. Outbreaks of parvo are thankfully rare, distemper and canine hepatitis, the two other main diseases vaccinated against, are pretty uncommon too. In fact, despite being in contact with hundreds of dog owners, and in a lot of online dog groups with thousands of members, I have not heard of a dog suffering distemper or hepatitis in the UK. I do know of a case of leptospirosis, another nasty that is routinely vaccinated against in puppies.

When you look at the risk factors for these diseases you may begin to wonder just why you are keeping your dog at home and missing so much vital socialising time. Parvo is probably the disease that scares people most. It is a highly contagious virus transmitted through infected dog poo. It is also very resilient and can survive on clothing and in the ground for months. This means that if you have other dogs that go out regularly they could bring the virus home on their coat or paw pads, or you could bring it home on your shoes. Unlikely, but possible. Fortunately, because of vaccination, parvo crops up only occasionally and by avoiding high dog traffic areas (such as parks) it is unlikely a puppy will contract it. You can also keep track of parvo outbreaks and avoid certain areas using the ParvoAlert Interactive Map

Canine hepatitis is spread in a similar fashion, but according to The Future of Vaccination website it is fairly uncommon in the UK. Similarly distemper is rarely seen. In contrast leptospirosis is quite widespread and comes in a variety of forms. Puppy jabs only vaccinate against the most common strains, much like the human flu jab, so cannot provide 100% immunity. Lepto is transmitted through an infected animal’s urine and is carried by rats. Since rats routinely go into urban gardens, especially where food might be left out for birds or hedgehogs, even keeping a pup at home may not prevent them catching this nasty. If you have other pets such as chickens, rabbits or guinea pigs in the garden, these will all attract rats.

So you can’t eradicate the risk of disease. Even just taking your pup for his jabs could expose him to illness, especially with bigger pups that cannot be carried into the vets’ office.

Meeting a variety of people helps build confidence in a puppy (C) Flickr: Zolakoma

Naturally people are really worried about their pups getting sick, so they keep them away from everything in the hopes of raising a healthy dog, but, as American vet Dr Marty Becker DVM puts it “Keeping a puppy protected from exposure to potentially deadly diseases will help get him to adulthood, but socialising him properly will protect him for life from other potentially deadly problems. Over the course of a lifetime, a dog is more likely to die from behavior problems than disease.”

How many dogs end up being put to sleep because they are reactive towards people or other dogs? In many of these cases these dogs are suffering from fear aggression caused by a naturally nervous or fearful dog missing out on the vital socialisation period. People are trying to keep their pups safe and end up causing lifelong problems.

I don’t blame puppy owners. I do blame vets for not explaining the big picture to new dog owners coming in for their first jabs. The vet says keep your puppy away from other dogs, and that is exactly what the owner does and the puppy ends up going nowhere for fear of it meeting another dog. Why wouldn’t they follow the advice of a professional? But it is unbalanced advice, it prevents one problem while potentially causing others. Some vets are aware of this and do explain the need for sensible socialisation, but those vets are few and far between. I have had five puppies over the space of nine years, no vet ever explained about socialisation when I went to get their jabs.

What is safe socialisation? Actually, it is relatively simple to socialise your pup without putting them at risk. First, carry them everywhere. If they are too heavy to carry, buy or borrow a doggy pushchair to transport them in. Carry them near roads, sit outside the local cafe and let them watch the world go by. Take them around the town centre, visit the pet shop, take them to meet friends. When it comes to other dogs, take them to meet friendly, vaccinated dogs that you know, or join a puppy class (make sure they keep the venue clean and only allow vaccinated dogs). Many vets run puppy parties that you can join from 8 weeks. Never put your pup down in a high dog traffic area such as a park until they are fully vaccinated, but do carry them about the park so they can see other dogs of varying breeds at a distance. Don’t leave it too late! Don’t keep your pup isolated!

Balance is the key. No one wants their puppy to get sick, and I am not going to tell you to just get out there and get on with it as soon as the first jabs are done. But you can socialise in a sensible, healthy, low-risk way that will make such a difference to your pup’s life. There is so much for your puppy to see and hear in that big wide world, so many things that have the potential to be scary if your pup does not have positive early encounters with them. Playing it safe in the short-term is not the key to a happy long-term. Just bear that in mind.


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