Thanks to COVID-19, the whole world is suddenly asking the question that savvy puppy owners are all too familiar with: “How likely is it that this experience will lead to an infection, and is this particular interaction worth it?”
There is a period in puppyhood – up to about 4 months – when puppies are usually vaccinated multiple times, but cannot be considered fully immunized against parvovirus and distemper due to the possibility of maternal antibody interference. (You can find detailed information on serial puppy vaccinations under “Puppy Vaccines”, WDJ, October 2016.)
Unfortunately, a compelling research strip has determined this exactly the same amount of time as the almost magical (but fleeting!) time pups are open to new experiences that set them up for a life of confidence.
The tension between these two scientific truths poses a dilemma for owners after bringing home an 8 week old puppy. Staying home for the first two months is the only way to keep a puppy 100% safe from infectious diseases. However, this could lead to debilitating behavior problems.
What can an owner do?
EDUCATIONAL OPTIONS ENABLE SECURITY AND SOCIALIZATION
My own complicated answer is that the safest all-round approach is to thread the needle, work hard on risk assessment, and make informed decisions. Fortunately, this just got easier thanks to COVID-19, which is keen to provide the canine world with more than its share of silver linings. Suddenly, the instructions that used to be too difficult to follow become second nature:
- Are you avoiding likely locations and / or people with high exposure? Yup.
- Think about all interactions? Done.
- Store in a known safe “pod”? For sure!
- Ask awkward questions about exactly where and when everyone was. Indeed.
As a dog trainer who specializes in puppy coaching, I think COVID-trained people will find it easier to make the differentiated decisions for puppies that result in wonderfully confident, friendly adult dogs.
BEHAVIORAL VETS SAY: Don’t wait for socialization
Parvovirus and distemper are two deadly canine diseases that thankfully contain powerful vaccines. The catch? The shots are given in a row during the puppy’s first few months of life, and you may not know exactly when a shot will be “taken” and provide immunity. We must therefore approach the entire period with caution.
In the past, veterinarians have advised owners to leave their puppies at home until they are fully immunized. (Just keeping your distance from other dogs isn’t good enough, as disease can lurk in the environment.) However, over the past few decades science has become very clear about how harmful it is for a puppy to miss its prime of socialization time. In fact, the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior (AVSAB, Veterinarians whose Behavior is Board Certified) published an official statement in 2018 which, in part, says:
“The most important time for the puppies to socialize is the first three months of their life. During this time, puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli, and environments as can be safely reached. It should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated. “
While some vets still feel more confident giving the black and white instructions on how to wait – after all, it’s much easier for customers to follow – most now advise careful socialization. “Make no mistake, parvo and distemper are still out there, all over the place,” says Dr. John Hunt, veterinarian, writer, and host of the Maine radio show. “But there should be an urge for adequate, safe socialization from weaning for up to 16 weeks.”
The consequences of a puppy’s lack of socialization during this key period can be heartbreaking. In fact, AVSAB points out that the leading cause of death in dogs under 3 years of age is behavioral problems rather than infectious diseases. In extreme cases, frightened dogs can become aggressive and bite; In some cases, they can be handed over to shelters or emergency services, and sometimes they are ultimately euthanized. It’s terribly sad – and often preventable. As? With a little “vaccine” called socialization.
From the moment puppies are born – and maybe even earlier! – The potential to learn about the world begins. The more positive interactions these pups have with novel sights, smells, sounds, people and animals, the more confidently they will be approaching new things for the rest of their lives. The following benefits cannot be emphasized enough: it means happy walks among other dogs and people, ease of hosting and gatherings with extended families, quiet vet visits, and the joy of taking your friendly dog on vacation.
In contrast, if you wait for all of the recordings to finish, it may be too late. From around 4 months of age, biology tells a puppy that anything new and different could be a threat. You may have a dog that is hideous (or worse) around new people, different dogs, unfamiliar places forever. Until you live with such a dog, you may not understand how sad and difficult it is. Everything is hard.
I care for litters of puppies and safely expose them to everything I can with me in their time. I’ve seen firsthand what happens when socialization abruptly stops after adoption and the puppy is “safely” in his own predictable home for the next two months. After 6 months the well-intentioned owners are devastated by their now frightened puppy and explain: “We noticed that two months weren’t very long to wait and we thought we could make it up later. “Unfortunately, biology disagrees.
THE EASY PART: SOCIALIZATION AT HOME
Everyone agrees on one thing: the simple first step in socialization is making the most of the puppy’s time at home. If you work on it, even your own house can offer novelty.
Note: Be careful not to overwhelm your puppy with it! The point is to help him learn that the world can be loud or unpredictable, but it’s always safe and can be a lot of fun. Go at your pup’s speed. If he seems concerned – perhaps not taking treats or revealing his tension by grasping them much coarser than usual – increase the distance between the stimuli and the pup and / or decrease the intensity of the stimulus.
* Do not protect your puppy from “scary” noises such as vacuum or leaf blowers. Instead, look for these experiences for the pup – but control the stimulus using your pup’s response as a guide. Start at a distance and combine the charm with lots of little treats. If he’s scared, increase the distance between the stimulus and the pup. Ideally, he’ll keep playing happily and interacting with you.
* Sit outside if your street is busy and help your pup enjoy passing trucks, bikes, strollers, or other dogs by offering tiny pieces of chicken or cheese each time.
* Play dress up! Let everyone in your household practice wearing “weird” things: hats, masks, hoodies, big, lumpy boots, backpacks. Keep your voices happy and light and playful. Do you have old crutches in the attic? Use it! You have the idea.
* Let the puppy walk on every possible surface in and around your house: carpet, tile, hardwood, grass, stone, dirt, yoga mat, pillows, wobbly cardboard. Make it a fun game – you guessed it! – Treats or your puppy’s favorite toy.
* Use the radio, television, and even specially designed dog soundtracks to make sure your puppy hears babies crying, small children screaming with joy, tall men speaking in deep voices, etc. and doing well.
* Invite about any category of people you can: a cute preschooler, a grandmotherly neighbor, an oversized man. A three-minute visit already makes the difference. Is the puppy nervous? Add spacing, squat, lower voices, add treats, be patient.
* Turn any visits to the plumber or electrician into a random socialization opportunity. Ask if they mind tossing your pup a treat or handing it over when the pup is confident and curious.
MAKING NUANCED CHOICES IS HEAVY WORK
Doing as much at home as possible is a wonderful start, but it doesn’t compare to having your pup out and about. This is where your COVID learning starts. Be smart. Plan ahead. Minimize risk.
The first rule is simple: avoid unfamiliar dogs and the places they are often. No dog parks, pet shops, or shelters until your puppy is fully protected with this final vaccination.
Everything else falls into the “well it depends” category, which means you have to put your thinking hat on. As you think about each situation, think outside the box. How about bringing a blanket to cover the floor while you and your pup sit and greet people in your local park? Or, use a stroller or luggage rack to expose your puppy to new people and noise on the main street of your town so the puppy can enjoy without their paws touching the ground. (Get the puppy used to it at home first so the stroller itself doesn’t get scary!) Only a positive 15-minute visit like this one at this key time can dramatically affect a puppy’s view of the world. The work is worth it.
REDUCING THE RISK OF PUPPY GAME DATA
Puppy play data is a part of socialization that deserves a special mention. They can turn early puppyhood from a challenge to a joy by providing a suitable exit for this bite-sized game and helping to wear down our little friends who tear up furniture. Playdates also dramatically improve a puppy’s dog communication skills, which will help a dog defuse potentially unsafe encounters later in life. So look for these game dates – but do your homework because unlike game dates with adult dogs, these friends are not fully vaccinated yet. If their owner isn’t careful, they can expose your pup. So only play with puppies who:
• have been in their homes for at least two weeks (and outside of a high risk place like an animal shelter or puppy mill),
• show absolutely no symptoms,
• are in the middle of their vaccination series with a veterinarian,
• Belong to an owner who is careful with exposures.
Remember, if you make nuanced decisions about who your pup will meet and where to go, you can stack the deck in your pup’s favor. “Good nutrition, regular deworming, flea and tick control and good hygiene during this time are of the utmost importance for a puppy to develop a healthy immune system,” says Dr. Hunt.
This COVID-19 is terrible – and yet it has increased the time people can spend with their dogs, resulted in an increasing number of foster and adoption interventions, attracted many people to foster care, and increased many owners’ interest in dog training. I believe it will also Help puppy owners practice the assessment skills that are critical to disease risk management. Then more people can confidently take their little puppies on the road and create the lifelong impression that the world is full of new and wonderful things.