As a dog trainer, one of the most common questions I am asked by new puppy owners is whether or not they should socialize their puppy before it is fully vaccinated. Before I go any further, I am going to say now that I have a very high respect for the veterinary field and that you, as a responsible puppy owner, should listen closely to what your veterinarian says. There are many illnesses that puppies are very vulnerable to, and vaccines are your first defense against them. Listen, and listen well, because your veterinarian has a wealth of knowledge on the subject and really does have your pup at heart when they recommend keeping her safe.
That being said, you should walk your puppy. You should take her places and allow her to experience the world. You should do this – and you should do it before she is fully vaccinated. While the vaccine schedule varies and is always able to change, puppies typically receive vaccinations at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age. After that, the chances of them getting sick from distemper, parvovirus, and other diseases go down significantly (although it still does happen).
Even though taking a puppy out is risky, socialization is important. Inappropriate behavior is a common cause of a puppy/adult dog ending up in the shelter, and often times it is because the dog has become difficult to manage. Approximately 96% of dogs that end up in shelters are reported to have not had any formal obedience training. Those that end up in a shelter due to fear based behaviors often never make it out – not because they are not good dogs, but because it is a lot of work to re-socialize an adult dog. Puppies are most open to socialization between 3 and 12 weeks of age, which means that the ones that are kept sheltered until they complete their vaccines at 16 weeks old are often less accepting of new things. Whether it be other dogs, new people, loud noises, or simply walking down a sidewalk – puppies that miss this window of opportunity often become more difficult adult dogs.
Socializing should be fun, not scary. Be smart, and be safe. While socializing, do not overwhelm her with large crowds, noisy events, or force her to go into a situation where she is acting nervous. Expose her to new stimuli slowly and use lots of food, praise, and watch for cues that show she is uncomfortable. Most of all, take her places where there is not a heavy amount of traffic. Since she is not fully protected from the horrible puppy diseases, avoid places where many other dogs have been. Take her to a park and hold her in your arms, go to the local Home Depot for a walk, show her uneven surfaces at your neighborhood playground, and have play dates with your neighbors friendly, vaccinated dogs. Let her walk on various surfaces, including tile, wood flooring, concrete, and rocks. Have a relative in a wheelchair? Let her see it now! Encourage children you know to offer her treats in return for a sit, and do not allow them to chase or tease her. Think of all of the different things we encounter in our day to day lives – construction sites, sirens, elevators, shopping carts, cats, and so many other things your puppy probably hasn’t encountered yet. Try to introduce her to something new every day; making a checklist can be very helpful. If you feel stuck, contact a dog trainer so that a professional can give you a hand.
Remember, vaccines are important. The health of your puppy should be a major priority. Watch her for any behavior changes, and if you notice any lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, or any other new symptoms take her to a veterinarian immediately. But please, socialize your puppy… it is the most important thing you can do to ensure your new companion will be a safe, confident adult dog.