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Veterinarian Technician May 2013 (Vol 34, No 5)

Inside Behavior: Puppy Socialization: More Than Just Exposure

by Debbie Martin, RVT, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, VTS (Behavior), Kenneth M. Martin, DVM

    Behavior problems are the number-one cause of euthanasia in healthy animals.1 The percentage of requests for the euthanasia of healthy animals due to behavior problems increased from 72% in 2009 to 86% in 2012.1 It is estimated that 4 million dogs are relinquished each year, and about 2 million of them are euthanized.2 Behavior problems are the number-one cause of relinquishment to shelters.3 Puppies that have inadequate exposure (to various environments and to novelty) or negative experiences during their first 3 to 4 months of life can develop behavior problems and disorders, including fear and aggression. The good news is that measures can be taken to help prevent some behavior problems, decrease relinquishment, and help dogs develop into confident, easy-going patients.

    The Socialization Period

    Dogs experience sensitive periods of development. One of particular importance is the socialization period, which occurs from 3 to 12 weeks of age. This period is somewhat fluid, but the optimal time for socialization is up to about 12 weeks of age. This period is particularly important because what a puppy learns during this time has a lifelong effect on its “personality” and reactions to people, other animals, and environments. The socialization period is a well-documented stage of development during which puppies can readily learn to become comfortable with novelty and develop appropriate social skills.4 Negative experiences during the socialization period, especially at 8 to 10 weeks of age, can cause permanent psychologic damage.5 By 8 weeks of age, a puppy’s learning ability is adult-like, based on electroencephalogram findings and the results of multiple behavior studies.6 Consequently, puppies of this age can maintain long-term memories. During the socialization period, a lack of positive exposure to various environments and to novelty can be as detrimental as bad experiences (FIGURE 1).

    The risk of acquiring disease in young puppies is minimized through early preventive medicine: vaccination and deworming protocols and routine veterinary examinations. Even with the improved efficacy of parvovirus vaccines, 2% to 8% of puppies may not be adequately protected against the virus until 14 to 16 weeks of age.7 These percentages are arguably low compared with the risks of developing behavior problems. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), the millions of dogs that die each year as a result of behavior problems far outnumber those that die due to infectious disease; thus, the AVSAB and the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) have made recommendations encouraging early experiences for puppies. The AVSAB has posted a position statement on the importance of early experiences in puppies. The AVSAB puppy socialization position statement explains, “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age. While puppies’ immune systems are still developing during these early months, the combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination, and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem.”

    The AAHA has recognized the importance of early socialization and has included puppy socialization classes in its “Canine Life Stage Guidelines” for young dogs (FIGURE 2).

    The socialization period for humans is years rather than months—much longer than that for dogs. If a child were only taken to a pediatrician and were not exposed to various environments and people until 6 years of age, the child’s social and developmental skills would be negatively affected. In essence, this is what happens to puppies when they are provided with limited or no exposure to various environments and to novelty until they are 4 months of age. Numerous studies have shown that lack of proper socialization can predispose a puppy to cognitive and emotional dysfunctional behaviors.8–10 However, the risk of infectious disease should not be overlooked completely. The following guidelines for puppy owners can minimize this risk while allowing adequate socialization:

    • Implement early preventive medicine: routine veterinary examinations (every 3 to 4 weeks until 4 months of age), vaccination protocols per the AAHA canine vaccination guidelines, and deworming protocols per the Companion Animal Parasite Council guidelines

    • Avoid taking your puppy to public areas where stray or unvaccinated dogs roam

    • Know the health and vaccination status of dogs that your puppy meets

    • With puppies younger than 14 weeks, avoid high-traffic dog areas such as dog parks or festivals

    • Because most dogs choose to eliminate on porous surfaces (e.g., grass), when in public, restrict your young puppy to concrete or asphalt surfaces to minimize potential exposure to feces-contaminated soil; although concrete and asphalt are not necessarily free of viruses, elimination is less likely on these surfaces

    • Only attend a puppy socialization class that requires proof of vaccination and other health requirements (BOX 111)

    Positive Proactive Socialization and Exposure

    Over the past decade, the importance of early environmental exposure for puppies has been recognized. However, all exposure is not the same. Positive proactive exposure is an active process that takes preparation and planning. When most people think about socialization, they think about habituation and exposure: taking the puppy to various places and allowing it to habituate to new environments. The problem with this is that without positive proactive socialization, a puppy may become sensitized to environmental stimuli, resulting in a negative association. Socialization is not simply about habituation, it is about making exposure fun and positive (FIGURE 3).

    Rather than providing a neutral experience or, even worse, an overwhelming experience, new experiences should be made positive with the use of desensitization and classical conditioning or counterconditioning:

    • Classical conditioning is the process of replacing a neutral emotional response to a stimulus with, in this case, a positive emotional response. With dogs, this can often be accomplished by using treats.

    • Classical counterconditioning is the process of replacing a negative emotional response to a stimulus with a positive emotional response. With dogs, this can often be accomplished by using treats.

    • Desensitization is the process of reducing sensitivity or reactivity toward stimuli through gradual and controlled exposure.

    Although desensitization and counterconditioning techniques are used retroactively to treat existing fears or aversions, it is important to also use these techniques proactively to help prevent fearful associations. During positive proactive exposure, treats are used extensively. In this approach, a puppy is not placed in a situation that is overwhelming or that produces a fear response. Instead, novel experiences are made positive from the start through desensitization and classical conditioning. Prevention is the key: it is much better to be proactive rather than reactive (FIGURE 4).

    Clients can be taught to use desensitization by gradually exposing their puppies to novelty and new environments. In classical conditioning or counterconditioning, treats should be used liberally. For example, treats can be given throughout a physical examination. VIDEO 1 shows how positive proactive handling can be used during a puppy’s veterinary visit and examination. Please note that this puppy already had extensive clicker training before this examination. It is not recommended to introduce an animal to clicker training during an examination. The animal should have already learned that the click precedes the delivery of a treat.

    Exposure to novelty should be approached as potentially frightening to a puppy. In VIDEO 2, two puppies are exposed to the same toy truck during a Puppy Start Right Preschool class. The first puppy is tentative, so movement and sound are not incorporated; instead, the puppy is allowed to explore at its own pace and is given small food treats. The second puppy has already explored the truck and is comfortable with it. The puppy is moved away from the truck before sound is introduced. Sound and movement are incorporated into his experience, and positive associations are continued by giving small food rewards.

    What Is a Puppy Socialization Class?

    Just as puppies are vaccinated against infectious diseases during their routine veterinary visits, they also need to be “vaccinated” against behavior problems. The best way to do the latter is to recommend enrollment of every healthy (BOX 111) 7- to 12-week-old puppy in a good socialization class.

    Puppy socialization classes can provide a safe and controlled environment for exposure to novel people, dogs, and stimuli. The focuses of these classes are positive proactive exploration of novelty, problem solving using positive training methodology, and exposure to different phenotypes (appearances) and play styles of puppies to help develop good social skills. Classes teach puppies that not all dogs look alike: they vary in size, color, facial features, and tail length. In class, puppies learn how to communicate and play with other healthy puppies. Even if adult dogs are in a puppy’s household, puppies need to have opportunities to play with other puppies to develop normal canine communication skills. A puppy socialization class should include the following components:

    In positive proactive exposure, puppies are exposed to novel environments, people, objects, surfaces, and sounds in a fun, positive manner so that they learn not to fear new people or situations (FIGURE 5).

    Puppy play sessions are short, controlled, off-lead play sessions with puppies of different phenotypes (appearances) and play styles. Puppies develop the social skills and confidence to interact with a wide range of dogs and learn bite inhibition through play (FIGURE 6).

    Health and handling training prepares puppies to accept, and maybe even enjoy, routine procedures at home, the veterinary clinic, and the groomer (FIGURE 7).

    Puppy parenting tips teach owners how to recognize normal canine body language, how dogs learn, and how to be a good teacher for their puppy.

    Introduction to foundation training and problem prevention teaches owners how to address common puppy problems (e.g., biting, jumping, chewing, stealing objects), how to implement exercises to prevent food-bowl guarding, and how to housetrain using positive techniques that can enhance the human-dog bond. Positive training methods (e.g., clicker training) are taught to puppy owners (FIGURE 8).

    For a puppy to reach its full potential, early socialization is paramount. A good group puppy socialization class can provide a safe environment for positive experiences and takes measures to minimize the spread of infectious disease (BOX 1). Taking their 7- to 12-week-old puppies to a good puppy class may be the most important action that new puppy owners can take for their dogs’ behavioral well-being.

    The Benefits of In-Hospital Puppy Socialization Classes

    In addition to the behavioral benefits of proper early socialization for puppies, in-hospital puppy socialization classes can have multiple benefits for veterinary hospitals. With their veterinary knowledge and client-communication skills, veterinary technicians can make ideal instructors of puppy socialization classes.

    Prevention of Relinquishment

    Puppy socialization classes can help to develop and enhance a client’s bond with his or her puppy. In the class, owners have fun and learn about normal canine behavior to help them understand why dogs behave the way they do. Dog owners who have fun with their dogs and empathize with them are less likely to relinquish them.

    Through early prevention exercises and positive exposure, dogs are less likely to develop problematic behaviors that might result in relinquishment during their adolescence (6 to 18 months of age). One study showed a higher retention rate for puppies adopted from shelters that participated in puppy socialization classes conducted by the Humane Society of the United States.12 Addressing and preventing behavior problems in general practice can decrease the relinquishment of pets and, therefore, the loss of patients and revenue. Each year, 15% of pets are relinquished or euthanized because of behavioral issues.13 This is difficult for pets and their owners and adversely affects veterinary hospitals. A veterinary hospital that loses 5% (a conservative estimate) of its canine patients to pet relinquishment can experience significant financial loss. For example:

    A hospital has 3000 active canine patients.

    A loss of 5% of patients equals 150 patients.

    The average annual veterinary cost for a healthy dog is $300.a

    Therefore, the total annual dollar loss is $45,000 (150 dogs × $300).

    If 10% (300) of dogs were lost, the dollar loss would be $90,000. If 15% (450) of dogs were lost, the dollar loss would be $135,000.

    aThe average veterinary cost is based on a healthy dog that did not require major medical treatments. From AP poll, November 2011. http://ap-gfkpoll.com/uncategorized/ap-petside-com-poll-8-in-10-pet-owners-visited-vet-in-last-year.

    Bonding of Clients and Patients With Your Hospital and Staff

    Puppy socialization classes can help clients and dogs bond with your staff and facility. Puppy class can be a fun visit to the veterinary hospital because it is associated with treats. Nothing aversive should happen to puppies during puppy class. Puppies that have early positive experiences at your hospital are more likely to enjoy coming to your facility as they age, in turn increasing the likelihood that their owners will continue to use your services. Clients are likely to seek veterinary assistance more often if their dogs enjoy visiting your hospital. Teaching puppy socialization classes in the hospital where I worked helped me get to know the clients and their dogs better.

    Improvement of Handling, Restraint, and Responsiveness to Taught Cues

    Puppy socialization classes teach puppies to enjoy being handled and restrained, making routine examinations more enjoyable and easier for them and you. This saves time in the examination room and reduces fear and aggression. Owners are introduced to foundation training in puppy class, increasing their dog’s responsiveness to taught cues.12

    Additional Income

    In addition to maximizing your patient retention rate and, therefore, retaining revenue, puppy socialization classes can have financial benefits for hospitals and veterinary technicians that teach the classes. Selling behavior-modifying and training products (e.g., head collars, harnesses, treat bags, dog-appeasing pheromone collars/diffusers) can generate additional income. Dog-appeasing pheromones can be useful for helping to reduce any potential anxiety or fear in puppies during puppy class, possibly improving socialization.14

    Increased Job Satisfaction

    After a long day of handling life-or-death situations in a veterinary hospital, teaching a puppy socialization class can be an enjoyable way to unwind. Cute puppies and happy new puppy owners can make teaching puppy socialization class the highlight of a veterinary technician’s week.


    Socializing a dog is an ongoing process that does not end when the socialization period ends. The optimal and most important time for canine socialization is during the first 3 months of a dog’s life. This window of opportunity should not be overlooked. Providing puppy socialization classes in your hospital can be beneficial for you, your hospital, your clients, and their puppies!

    Suggested Reading

    Hays LD. Effects of a standardized obedience program on approachability and problem behaviors in dogs from rescue shelters [master’s thesis]. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University; 2004. http://repository.tamu.edu//handle/1969.1/1261.

    Jagoe A, Serpell JA. Owner characteristics and interactions and the prevalence of canine behavior problems. J Appl Anim Behav Sci 1996;47:31-42.

    Kass PH, New JC Jr, Scarlett JM, Salman MD. Understanding companion animal surplus in the United States: relinquishment of nonadoptables to animal shelters for euthanasia. J Appl Anim Welfare Sci 2001;4:237-248.

    Ledger RA. The temperament assessment of dogs in rescue shelters [PhD thesis]. London, UK: Brunel University; 1998.

    Martin KM, Martin DA. Puppy Start Right: Foundation Training for the Companion Dog. 2nd ed. Waltham, MA: Sunshine Books; 2012.

    New JC, Salman MD, Scarlett JM, et al. Shelter relinquishment: characteristics of shelter-relinquished animals and their owners compared with animals and their owners in U.S. pet-owning households. J Appl Anim Welfare Sci 2000;3(3):179-201.

    Salman MD, Hutchinson J, Ruch-Gallie R, et al. Behavioral reasons for relinquishment of dogs and cats to 12 shelters. J Appl Anim Welfare Sci 2000;3(2):93-103.

    Segurson SA, Serpell JA, Harl BL. Evaluation of a behavior assessment questionnaire for use in the characterization of behavioral problems of dogs relinquished to animal shelters. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2005;227(11):1755-1761.

    Serpell JA. Evidence for an association between pet behavior and owner attachment levels. J Appl Anim Behav Sci 1996;47:49-60.

    Wells DL, Hepper PG. Prevalence of behaviour problems reported by owners of dogs purchased from an animal shelter. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2000;69:55-65.

    Debbie Martin is a veterinary technician specialist in behavior and the president of the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. She is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP) and faculty member of the Dog Trainer Program. In 1997, she started her path toward a behavior career by teaching after-hours puppy socialization classes in the veterinary hospital where she worked full time as a registered veterinary technician. Teaching comes naturally to her: she had been a preschool teacher before becoming a veterinary technician. Recognizing the profound effect that proper early experiences have on dogs, Debbie has become an advocate for teaching others how to teach puppy socialization classes. Debbie works with her husband, Kenneth Martin, DVM, owner of Veterinary Behavior Consultations, LLC, which exclusively focuses on preventing and treating behavior issues in pets. In 2009, Debbie and Dr. Martin wrote the book titled Puppy Start Right: Foundation Training for the Companion Dog. In 2012, in conjunction with Karen Pryor Academy, they launched “Puppy Start Right for Instructors”—an online course on how to start a puppy socialization class.

    Kenneth M. Martin, DVM, completed a clinical behavioral medicine residency at Purdue University’s Animal Behavior Clinic in 2004 and is board eligible for the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. He graduated from Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. He is the recording secretary for the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.

    1. Scheidegger J. Veterinary practices performing more euthanasias despite increase in stop treatment point: expert practitioners discuss possible causes for apparent discrepancy. DVM Newsmagazine October 24, 2012.

    2. Patronek GL, Glickman LT, Beck AM, et al. Risk factors for relinquishment of dogs to an animal shelter. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1996;209:572-581.

    3. Salman MD, New JG, Scarlett JM, et al. Human and animal factors related to the relinquishment of dogs and cats in 12 selected animal shelters in the United States. J Appl Anim Welfare Sci 1998;1(3):207-226.

    4. Scott JP, Fuller JL. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 1998:101-108, 117-129.

    5. Fox MW. The development of learning and conditioned responses in the dog: theoretical and practical implications. Can J Comp Vet Sci 1966;30:282-286.

    6. Lindsay SR. Development of behavior. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Volume One: Adaptation and Learning. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press; 2000:63.

    7. Meyer EK. Early puppy socialization classes: weighing the risks vs. benefits. Available at http://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/vetmed/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=646902. Accessed December 2012.

    8. Thompson WR, Heron W. The effects of early restriction on activity in dogs. J Comp Physiol Psychol 1954;54:77-82.

    9. Thompson WR, Melzack R, Scott TH. “Whirling behavior” in dogs as related to early experience. Science 1956;123:939.

    10. Fox MW, Stelzner D. The effects of early experience on the development of inter and intraspecies social relationships in the dog. Anim Behav 1967;15:377-386.

    11. Martin KM, Martin DA. Puppy Start Right for Instructors. Karen Pryor Academy; 2012. www.karenpryoracademy.com.

    12. Duxbury MM, Jackson JA, Line SW, Anderson RK. Evaluation of association between retention in the home and attendance at puppy socialization classes. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2003;223(1):61-66.

    13. Tremayne J. AAFP pens behavior guidelines for DVMs, staff, clients. DVM Magazine April 1, 2005. Available at http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/dvm/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=155730.

    14. Denenberg S, Landsberg GM. Effects of dog-appeasing pheromones on anxiety and fear in puppies during training and on long-term socialization. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;223(12):1874-1882.

    References »

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