Q: I’ve been told that its crucial to socialize my puppy, Sal, at an early age but also that she shouldn’t play with other dogs until she’s had all her shots. I don’t want her to miss the crucial early socialization window. What do I do? —Lonely in Louisville
A:The Critical Period of Socialization—the optimal time to socialize puppies—begins to close at 13 weeks of age. Consequently, you want to make sure that Sal is fully socialized by 3 months of age, so that she can continue to socialize in puppy class and dog parks and on walks. However, socializing Sal to people is far more important than socializing her to other dogs.
Most puppies have spent sufficient time socializing with their mother and litter-mates to tide them over during the social doggy vacuum in their new home until they have had sufficient shots to visit areas frequented by other dogs. Puppies should avoid high-risk areas until they have had at least two series of shots and are at least 3 months of age. The most hazardous areas for young puppies are: 1. the sidewalk and car parking areas immediately outside veterinary clinics; 2. veterinary clinic waiting room floors. (veterinary clinics are the go-to place for diseased dogs and waiting room floors are seldom cleaned more than once a day, while sidewalks and clinic car parks are rarely sterilized at all. Keep your puppy in the car until time for your appointment and then carry your puppy to the examination table and do not put it on the ground anywhere outside or inside the veterinary clinic.) 3. dog parks; and 4. sidewalks.
However, socializing Sal to people cannot be put on hold. Hopefully, the breeder introduced her to at least a hundred people, especially children, men, and strangers. Now it is your job to introduce her to at least another one hundred people while she is between 8 and 12 weeks of age. Socialize her to people in the safety of your own home, with, of course, the precaution that outdoor shoes remain outdoors (to prevent fomitic infection). Once Sal is 10 to 12 weeks old and has had at least one full series of puppy shots, it is urgent that you attend puppy class. Puppy class venues are usually relatively safe areas.
Puppy classes are essential for learning bite inhibition (via dog-dog play-fighting), continued socialization with people (during off-leash play), handling by strangers, and for you to learn how to train your pup in a controlled yet extremely distracting setting. By integrating training interludes into play, rather than being a distraction to training, play with other dogs now becomes a reward for training. And of course, puppy classes are a fun night out for you and your gal Sal.