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Compendium November 2007 (Vol 29, No 11)

Understanding Behavior: Socialization Classes for Puppies and Kittens

by Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, DACVB

    The early weeks of life are an important time for dogs and cats to learn about the world around them, become socialized to humans, and learn species-specific social "etiquette." While isolating a puppy or kitten until it is several months old and has received all of its vaccinations prevents exposure to infectious disease, it also prevents social learning during the time in the animal's life when it is most receptive to learning social skills. Therefore, it is desirable to find an appropriate balance between concerns about infectious disease and concerns about developing normal social behavior (see the box on page 675). Socialization classes are not obedience training classes, although it may be beneficial to include a small amount of education in simple positive reinforcement techniques. (For Simple Obedience Lessons for Puppies, see the Compendium Web extras at vetlearn.com.)

    A benefit of offering socialization classes in veterinary hospitals is that some of the lessons can include habituating puppies and kittens to unfamiliar stimuli present in the hospital, thereby helping to prevent the development of classically conditioned fear responses to the veterinary hospital. Another benefit is the ability to educate groups of owners about appropriate pet care. The group size will depend on the size of the room in which classes are held (e.g., waiting room, conference room) and the number of personnel available to teach and supervise. The space must be sufficient for people and animals to move around freely without frequently getting in each other's way. As a rule of thumb, one teacher for every four owner-animal pairs is a good ratio.

    When to Start

    There is some debate about the best age for socializing puppies and kittens, and, to some degree, practical issues affect the acceptable age range in classes. For kittens, 7 to 14 weeks is generally a good age range, while puppies may benefit from participation at ages up to 16 weeks. While these are considered ideal ages, socialization is a process that continues after the primary socialization periods, and holding classes for juveniles may be beneficial as well.

    Scheduling Classes

    There are two main ways to organize a complete series of classes. One is to have a group of puppies or kittens start at the same time and continue through a set sequence of classes together. Another is to have a fixed rotation of classes (Table 1) and allow individual animals to begin at any time. In this schedule, different animals will be starting and completing the class series at different times. The size of your practice—particularly the number of puppies and kittens coming to the practice at one time—and the personnel available will determine which is the best arrangement for your practice.

    Class Goals

    Socialization classes should be organized with specific goals in mind. One goal is to expose kittens and puppies to humans other than their family members in a friendly, nonthreatening environment. Exposure to many different people—for example, people of both sexes, different ages, and different races, or people dressed in various ways—is ideal. In this way, puppies and kittens will better accept a diverse range of humans to be a normal part of their environment. Encourage participation by all family members, including children, unless they are too young to follow simple instructions regarding the gentle handling of young animals. If there is sufficient space, volunteers from youth organizations can provide additional diversity.

    Another goal is to expose kittens and puppies to other members of their own species and to members of other species in a supervised, safe context. It is through exploration, greeting, play, and other forms of social interaction that kittens and puppies become comfortable with other animals. Kittens and puppies not exposed to members of their own species during the socialization period are likely to have abnormal responses, such as excessive timidity or excessive aggression, when meeting other members of their own species at a later age. A critical skill learned by cats and dogs during this time is the inhibited bite. When a puppy or kitten bites a playmate too hard, the playmate will generally cry out and stop playing with the offender. This serves as negative punishment for biting too hard. However, it may be beneficial to initially separate animals with very different temperaments (see the box on top left of page 676).

    While most socialization classes tend to focus on socialization to humans and members of the animal's own species, socialization to other species can be very beneficial. For puppies, the presence of a friendly, adult cat that is calm around dogs can assist in this process, while for kittens, exposure to a friendly, calm dog can do the same. Early exposure to species other than dogs and cats (e.g., a large rabbit that is comfortable around dogs or cats) can also be considered. All such interactions must, of course, be carefully supervised, and all safety considerations must be addressed.

    A third goal is to expose kittens and puppies to a variety of objects, such as metal tables, stethoscopes, tricycles, bicycles, books, and buckets. With the exception of objects common to the hospital, the exact items are not very important. Exposure to a variety of novel stimuli without experiencing pain or other unpleasant consequences can decrease the intensity of the response to novel stimuli in the future. A puppy or kitten that grows up in a barren environment with ­little exposure to novel stimuli is likely to overreact to novel stimuli when it is an adult. The response may be so severe that the animal has neophobia (fear of anything new). It is extremely difficult and stressful for these animals and their human caregivers to travel, move to a new home, or even adapt to new objects, such as furniture, in the home. In contrast, puppies or kittens that experience a wide variety of novel objects in a fun or at least neutral context will readily accept novel stimuli. It can be useful to give families homework assignments, such as a list of objects to expose their pets to during the week, and review their progress at the next class.

    In addition to specific goals for the puppy or kitten, educational goals for the pet owners should be identified. These can include appropriate ways to pick up and carry the pet, housetraining or litterbox management, basic first aid, appropriate ways to medicate and groom the pet, suitable toys and games, crate training, and simple training techniques using positive reinforcement. In addition to discussing what is best to do when raising a puppy or kitten, it is beneficial to discuss what not to do. There are many harmful myths in the public sphere regarding how to raise puppies and kittens (see the box above). Educational handouts can be provided on topics that you find are common sources of client confusion.

    Conclusion

    Socialization is optimally learned when kittens and puppies are young and should ideally be instituted as soon as they are old enough to begin developing an immune response to diseases that are preventable through routine vaccination. Socialization classes can be considered a form of vaccination against future behavior problems.

    Downloadable PDF

    NEXT: Abstract Thoughts—Iatrogenic Sciatic Nerve Injury in Dogs and Cats

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    These Care Guides are written to help your clients understand common conditions. They are formatted to print and give to your clients for their information.

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