Years ago, an experienced colleague used to point out that “there are no dog training emergencies.” She wanted younger trainers to feel able to resist the emotional pressure clients could impose when something was going wrong with their dog. Her point was that every situation had been building for a while, and could be dealt with methodically. Clearly some situations are more urgent than others, and we could argue about this, but generally, I agree with her.
Except for one situation. There is one situation I always treat as an emergency. And that is when a client contacts me with concerns about a puppy under about 15 weeks of age.
Like baby humans, baby dogs pass through a series of developmental stages as they grow and mature. The most critical one for our purposes is the socialization critical period, which starts at birth, really gets going around three weeks when the eyes and ears start working, and ends around 14-15 weeks. During this period, the puppy’s brain is primed to learn the most important lessons it will ever learn: who are members of its social group, the foundations of social behavior (including control over its mouth), and how to handle new things in its world.
Puppies who do not receive appropriate, comfortable exposure to plenty of dogs and people and plenty of varied new things will forever be disadvantaged. They will never be as comfortable around people, dogs and new things as they could have been. It is a matter of degree; puppies who get some socialization will do better than those who get none. Puppies who get pleasant, non-threatening exposures will do better than those who are overwhelmed and frightened by their exposures. And all sorts of factors affect the final temperament, including genetics and other experiences the puppy has from conception on. But all else being equal, socialization is a process over which we have a lot of control, and what we do in this period can make or break, or at least strengthen or weaken, the puppies we see brought into the world.
Very unfortunately, many breeders and veterinarians and others still tell puppy buyers “don’t take him out until he’s had all his shots.” “Had all his shots” translates to the last parvovirus vaccination at about 16 weeks… just after that window has finally slammed shut. It’s a truism… because it’s true. Way more dogs die each year of lack of socialization than from parvo. No matter how hard I try to convince clients of this, some still allow themselves to be scared by their veterinarian’s warnings. I have the greatest respect and sympathy for veterinary professionals, but sometimes I want to shake some of them and ask whether they know they are literally dooming a certain percentage of their puppy clients to death by scaring these dogs’ owners out of proper socialization.
Several years ago, a new client contacted me with a 14-week-old puppy who was showing significant aggression toward strange dogs and strange people. I met him and immediately arranged to have him and his owner seen by a veterinary behaviorist, who fit him in that week (instead of making them wait the usual 2 months). He was on medication by the end of that week and our training continued for months. I believe this fast action saved his life; he’s still alive and able to ignore scary strangers and I think he’d be dead without that response, or at least locked in the house forever, lonely and dangerous.
With my last puppy, I just put her on the ground and took her a lot of places starting at 7 weeks when she came home. We avoided very high-risk surfaces. But she’s a confident, socially appropriate, and generally fearless dog to this day. I would do it again.
Most of the time, when someone contacts me about a puppy, it’s because of an incipient behavior problem: Abnormal-seeming biting, growling, or fear. I always encourage them to make an appointment as soon as possible and when I get there, the first, third and fifth thing we talk about is socialization. I prescribe socialization activities appropriate to that puppy; if she’s scared, we talk about protected exposures at a safe distance. But when people want to know about teaching obedience skills, I tell them the truth. I can teach a 14 year old dog how sit, down, and stay on cue. Heck, I can housetrain a 5-year-old dog. But I can never, ever make up the behavioral and temperament deficits that will result if you don’t take this puppy out today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and let her see dogs and people of different sizes and shapes. We never get this time back. This is an emergency. I basically hijack their perceived agenda to make sure this happens.
I received one of these inquiries today, and it made me so anxious that I’m up at 1:00 in the morning writing this blog. I hope I hear back from the nice lady who so wants to do right by her 10 week old puppy.