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How a Common Recommendation for Puppies Can Place Your Pup at Risk

Veterinarians specializing in behavior recommend keeping puppies away from potential high-risk sources of infection but not completely sequestered.
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A dog owners recently said to me, "I will soon be the owner of a lovely standard poodle female and am confused by the suggestions to socialize her to other humans, social situations, and dogs, versus the recommendation to keep her away from parks and other dogs until she's fully vaccinated at 16 weeks of age. What do I really have to look out for regarding exposure to disease while getting her out and about?"

The case of vaccines versus socializations may seem confusing at first, but it turns out that both recommendations are right and once you know the reasoning behind, you can better assess the relative risks.

Vaccinations and a controlled environment are essential to a puppy's surviving past puppyhood. Armed with only a diminutive immune defense, one good microbial assault can wipe her out faster than a wave flattens a sand castle at high tide. This literally means that some puppies can go from dancing playfully to dead within 24-48 hours.

But given that not all puppies, especially those in developing countries, are vaccinated, why are many of these very young pups still walking around? Because puppies drink their mothers milk which is loaded with protective antibodies. During the first half-day of life, these protectants slip through the intestinal tract into the blood where they patrol the entire body for invading microorganisms. Those pups that miss this early mother's milk are easy targets for millions of petite predators that get into their blood. And those pups that don't continue getting milk through their first weeks are more likely to break out with infectious intestinal problems too due to lack of antibodies coating the intestinal walls.

Of course the pup's immune system doesn't stay wimpy forever. With gradual exposure to small amounts of foreign invaders, it builds its strength, flexing and pumping until it's a microbe-fighting machine. We can help the process along by administering vaccines, which contain common killed viruses or modified disarmed live ones. These vaccines give the system practice recognizing and responding to the real thing.

Usually it takes several vaccine exposures to get the full effect. So why do veterinarians recommend a series of three or four? Because the mother's antibodies block the vaccine before the pup's immune system can take a look. As the puppy grows older the maternal antibodies in the blood dwindle allowing vaccines to start taking effect. The problem is that each pup's immune system and initial intake of antibodies is a little different. So we don't know exactly how fast the mother's antibodies will dissipate and how soon the pup's immune system will kick in.

We do know that before 6 weeks the puppy system is not really ready. And by 14-16 weeks the mom's antibodies are practically gone and the pup's system responding at close to full speed. Consequently we vaccinate every 3-4 weeks starting at 6-8 weeks or age and continuing through at 14-16 weeks of age or longer in certain breeds. Dogs in developing countries where vaccination is rare, suffer from infectious outbreaks and high death tolls.

Veterinarians specializing in behavior also recommend keeping puppies away from potential high-risk sources of infection but not completely sequestered. Pups need to get out and about well before 16 weeks of age because this early period is the golden period for socialization to both people and other pups. In fact this socialization is so important that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior issued a position statement last year declaring that the standard of care should be that all puppies get socialized starting as close to 8 weeks as possible.

During the early weeks, puppies learn how to bond with and behave appropriately around other puppies and pets. They also learn to that people outside their family as well as other pets are ok. Puppies (and kittens) who lack human handling start becoming fearful of humans by 5 weeks of age. If this lack of handling continues, by 14 weeks of age they can be as fearful as wild animals. Additionally, those who don't have a chance to socialize with littermates and other dogs when very young often become fearful and aggressive to dogs later in life due to lack of exposure and lack of social skills.

This means that the socialization must start with the breeder. Breeders must ensure that their puppies are handled by different people on a daily basis and that these youngsters stay together as a litter for at least 7-8 weeks of life and sometimes up to 12 weeks depending on the new owner's ability to continue the plan. Once the youngster goes to a home, the clock is ticking. There's a set amount of time during which socialization has a maximal effect. So new owners must continue a strict socialization regimen.

This regimen includes the pup meeting 100 new people of different sizes, genders and ethnicities in 100 days and during these encounters having only good experiences. Bad experiences can teach them to be fearful instead of friendly and calm around new people. For human contact this can be as simple as stopping during walks to let passersby greet your pup while you give the pup a food rewards to help the pup remain sitting. Be sure to include people wearing different types of clothes such as hats, sunglasses, and rain attire since to a dog, these accessories can look like odd human-growths.

Greeting unfamiliar dogs is more complicated. Unvaccinated dogs and places where the dogs of unknown vaccine status go potty are unsafe. So avoid dog parks and other high-density dog sites. Instead, schedule play-dates with well-behaved, fully vaccinated dogs. Also once your pup has started vaccinations, take her to puppy class where she can experience supervised play with other vaccinated pups and appropriate handling by many different people. It's important that during these play sessions she learns to pay attention to you even with the other pet around and that she has frequent time outs where you grab her by the leash or collar and them quickly give her treats, first just so she associates being pulled away with something good, and then for sitting or lying down calmly. Then when she's calm and can focus on you can let her play again. Without these breaks, puppies can learn to blow you off or to get overly aroused instead of learning to get along with other pups in a polite way.

It's also important to take puppies to different types of locations so that they get used to the types of sounds, sights, and environments they may encounter later in life. For instance, just because you live in the country or suburb now, doesn't mean you will never want to bring your pooch to the city on one of your outings. If the pooch is afraid of garbage trucks, sirens, and other loud noises, visiting or moving to a new city may be a huge ordeal. When bringing her to new locations and around new sights and sounds make sure she's having a good experience. Play games with her to keep her acting happy.

Once you puppy is fully vaccinated you can increase her sphere of socialization. Realistically, she should already have a strong start in terms of taking encounters with new people, places and pets in stride before16 weeks of age. This good start is essential. While there is always a risk of infection and signs of infections show up early in life, the risks of ongoing poor socialization can be equally damaging leading to severe fear and aggression and sometimes euthanasia down the road.

To see examples what puppies can learn before 16 weeks of age:

This article is modified from one of Dr. Yin's Pet Tales pet column article in the San Francisco Chronicle. To see more articles go to