Puppy Socialization and Immunization

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Puppy Socialization
and Immunization

Below is an excerpt from my book Puppy Socialization: An Insider’s Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness which discusses Puppy Socialization and Immunization.

You are probably conflicted because your vet has said not to take your puppy outside until he has completed all his vaccines.  So when you talk to me and I say that if you wait, the probability that your puppy will have behavior problems as an adult dog is greater, you’re faced with a dilemma – do you listen to your vet or do you listen to me?  Your vet studied veterinary medicine and has a degree in veterinary medicine.  I studied and continue to study dog behavior and also am a certified dog behavior consultant.  And you talked to your vet first, so what you learned, you learned on a clean slate, so to speak, and now you talk to me who tells you something completely different.  It’s difficult to erase what you learn and replace it with something else.  I get it.  It’s hard for your dog, too, to erase what he has learned – or not learned – and replace it with a different thought process.  The neural pathways to learning in his brain have been formed, and it’s easier for him to make new ones than to change ones that are already there.

You have a difficult decision to make – you have faith in your vet, but you don’t know me.  Let me assure you that I am not alone.  In fact, when I was researching my Puppy Socialization book, I got my information from many sources including directly from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (see more below).   Veterinary Behaviorists are veterinarians who have pass additional tests and are certified on animal behavior.

I did extensive research for my book, going all the way back to the first study on dog developmental periods in the 1950s by Scott and Fuller.  Their conclusion – which has been slightly modified but never has been refuted – was that puppies have 16 weeks before the “socialization window” closes, meaning that anything they learn after 16 weeks will be more difficult and sometimes their behavior will be impossible to change.

For a further explanation, please continue reading this chapter from my Puppy Socialization book which describes how puppy socialization and immunization can coexist, and then call me if you have any questions.

“But My Vet Says I Shouldn’t Take
My Puppy Outside
Until He’s Had All His Shots”

Your veterinarian is likely your first animal care professional you visit after the breeder or rescue, and it is essential for your puppy to be examined medically and then vaccinated.  While you are at  your vet’s office, it is logical to ask him or her about behavior issues with puppies – and there are a lot of them!

I have the utmost respect and admiration for veterinarians.  They try to be helpful by giving advice similar to what worked for their personal dogs or by giving advice on what they think may work.  Most vets when they are in vet school study medicine, not behavior.  There are only 46 Certified Veterinary Behaviorists in the US as compared to 102,744 veterinarians.  It seems logical that some vets refer to other dog professionals because they realize it’s out of their field of expertise.  (Yay, I like these vets!)

At the same time, many veterinarians recommend not taking your puppy into the real world until he’s had all his shots – and those shots are not finished until he is four months old, which is past the important social and environmental exposure periods we have been talking about.  Your vet is interested in your dog from a medical standpoint, and I am interested in him from a behavioral standpoint.  It is crucial to take him outdoors before he has had all his shots so he can become acclimated to the sights, sounds, places, situations, and smells in his neighborhood.  As has been demonstrated first by Scott and Fuller and reiterated by many other behaviorists and clinicians, waiting until your puppy has completed his vaccines to take him outdoors makes it difficult for him to accept new situations in his environment.   Because of this, many vets are changing their opinions and have begun to work in conjunction with trainers to offer classes for puppies.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior in 2003 recognized that more puppies are euthanized for behavior issues than medical ones and officially changed its position, saying that, “The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life….  It should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.”   The entire AVSAB position statement appears here.  http://tinyurl.com/q3u6mpz

So the times, they are a changin’, and veterinary schools and especially veterinary conferences are beginning to reflect the change.  I looked at the curriculum for several veterinary colleges, and there were only one or two classes in their curriculum dealing with behavior out of dozens and dozens of classes dealing not only with veterinary science but also everything from veterinary legal issues to sea turtles.  I was delighted to discover that at the Wild West Veterinary Conference in October 2013, there were 15 seminars relating to behavior out of 82 total seminars.  The 2014 Tufts Veterinary Conference on the Genetic Basis for Canine Behavior was held in conjunction with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants – yippee!  This is a huge leap forward.

True story – I was speaking with a veterinary student, and she said something that had never crossed my mind.  Vet school is four years.  It’s always been four years.  It’s much more difficult to become a veterinarian than to become a human doctor because in four years, students have to learn about anatomy, physiology, surgical procedures, nutrition, and much more for many different species of animals including farm animals, wildlife, and companion animals.  Phew!  The amount that vet students (and veterinarians) have to learn is exponentially greater than just a few years ago, not only in school but also in keeping up with medical advancements in journals and conferences.  Is it any wonder that most veterinarians keep up with current knowledge in their chosen field – veterinary medicine – rather than behavior?

Dr. R.K. Anderson, DVM, Diplomat, American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine and Diplomat of American College of Veterinary Behaviorists was the first veterinary behaviorist to advocate that puppies should become acclimated to the outside world after owners take them home.  Dr. Anderson was instrumental in advocating puppy classes, and he wrote a letter to other veterinarians, which appears below:

TO: My Colleagues in Veterinary Medicine:
Common questions I receive from puppy owners, dog trainers and veterinarians concern: 1) what is the most favorable age or period of time when puppies learn best? 2) what are the health implications of my advice that veterinarians and trainers should offer socialization programs for puppies starting at 8 to 9 weeks of age.

Puppies begin learning at birth and their brains appear to be particularly responsive to learning and retaining experiences that are encountered during the first 13 to 16 weeks after birth. This means that breeders, new puppy owners, veterinarians, trainers and behaviorists have a responsibility to assist in providing these learning/socialization experiences with other puppies/dogs, with children/adults and with various environmental situations during this optimal period from birth to 16 weeks.

Many veterinarians are making this early socialization and learning program part of a total wellness plan for breeders and new owners of puppies during the first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life — the first 7-8 weeks with the breeder and the next 8 weeks with the new owners. This socialization program should enroll puppies from 8 to 12 weeks of age as a key part of any preventive medicine program to improve the bond between pets and their people and keep dogs as valued members of the family for 12 to 18 years.

To take full advantage of this early special learning period, many veterinarians recommend that new owners take their puppies to puppy socialization classes, beginning at 8 to 9 weeks of age. At this age they should have (and can be required to have) received a minimum of their first series of vaccines for protection against infectious diseases. This provides the basis for increasing immunity by further repeated exposure to these antigens either through natural exposure in small doses or artificial exposure with vaccines during the next 8 to 12 weeks. In addition the owner and people offering puppy socialization should take precautions to have the environment and the participating puppies as free of natural exposure as possible by good hygiene and caring by careful instructors and owners.

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. Many veterinarians are now offering new puppy owners puppy socialization classes in their hospitals or nearby training facilities in conjunction with trainers and behaviorists because they want socialization and training to be very important parts of a wellness plan for every puppy. We need to recognize that this special sensitive period for learning is the best opportunity we have to influence behavior for dogs and the most important and longest lasting part of a total wellness plan.

Are there risks? Yes. But 10 years of good experience and data, with few exceptions, offers veterinarians the opportunity to generally recommend early socialization and training classes, beginning when puppies are 8 to 9 weeks of age. However, we always follow a veterinarian’s professional judgment, in individual cases or situations, where special circumstances warrant further immunization for a special puppy before starting such classes. During any period of delay for puppy classes, owners should begin a program of socialization with children and adults, outside their family, to take advantage of this special period in a puppy’s life.

If there are further questions, veterinarians may call me at 651-644-7400 for discussion and clarification.  [Sadly, Dr. Anderson died in 2012.]

Robert K. Anderson DVM
Diplomate ACVB and ACVPM
Professor and Director Emeritus, Animal Behavior Clinic and
Center to Study Human/Animal Relationships and Environments
University of Minnesota

 If your veterinarian advocates isolation of your puppy until he has completed his puppy vaccines, please show them Dr. Anderson’s letter and AVSAB’s position.

This was an excerpt from my book Puppy Socialization – An Insider’s Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness. There are hundreds of suggestions on puppy socialization both for the breeder and the pet parent.

Want More information on Why Puppy Socialization, Habituation and Enrichment are Important

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Click here for the Table of Contents.

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