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Early socialization is important for helping puppies grow up into well-rounded adults. But it’s also important to keep your puppy safe. Unvaccinated puppies are vulnerable to dangerous illnesses like parvovirus, leptospirosis and distemper, which they can get from both contact with other dogs and from feces left on the ground by other dogs. That might sound scary, but it doesn’t mean you’ve got to keep your puppy isolated from every other dog until they’ve had all their shots.

Vaccinations and Socialization

While protecting your puppy’s health is important, many veterinarians and dog behaviorists stress that early socialization is equally as important as vaccinations when it comes to safe-guarding your puppy’s overall health and well-being. “Lots of positive experiences with new scenarios result in an adult dog who is able to happily and confidently navigate their world,” says certified dog trainer and behaviorist Mary Thompson, owner of Happy Hound University. “In contrast, an under-socialized puppy who isn’t taken out until they are five or six months is going to be more apprehensive and pessimistic about novel situations. Sadly, lack of socialization can lead to fearful or aggressive behavior as an adult dog.” The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior agrees. Their official Position on Puppy Socialization states, “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”

That said, vets also strongly caution against any contact with unknown or unvaccinated dogs prior to your puppy receiving their full set of vaccinations. “One vaccination doesn’t cut it,” says Dr. Chyrle Bonk, DVM, veterinary spokesperson for Doggie Designer. “A puppy isn’t fully protected until receiving the entire series of two to three injections as recommended by your veterinarian.” But that doesn’t mean your puppy can’t interact with other dogs. “Socialization can start as soon as you get your pup home as long as it’s in a controlled environment with other [pets] that you know.”

The key to safely introducing your puppy to other dogs or puppies is to be sure you know the other dogs, their vaccination and health history, and whether they’ve been exposed to dogs you don’t know. “The risk comes in when puppies play with other dogs that have had exposure to unvaccinated dogs or feces of infected animals,” says Dr. Bonk. “That makes dog parks and off-leash activities out.”

Introducing a New Puppy to Your Own Dogs

If you’re bringing a new puppy into a home with older dogs, make sure your own dogs are up-to-date on their vaccinations and that they haven’t been exposed to potentially unvaccinated dogs. It’s also important to consider the temperament of your adult dog and their potential for aggression. “If your dog has a proven history of appropriate behavior with young puppies, you may be able to introduce them [during] their first couple of days home,” says Thompson. “If you’re not quite sure how things are going to go, use baby gates and exercise pens to protect the puppy and allow you to gauge how your dog is feeling throughout the introduction. When you start to see play solicitation and friendly curiosity, you can start to allow them access without the pens.”

On the other hand, if your older dog isn’t accepting of the new puppy, you’ll need to keep them separated. “You do not want to risk the first introduction going poorly, as first impressions with young puppies are very important,” says Thompson, who also recommends hiring a professional trainer to help handle introductions between a puppy and an older dog with a history of aggressive behavior. “A negative interaction with a strange dog as a puppy can cause lifelong fear in the puppy,” she warns.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Yorkshire Terrier meeting in the parkCavalier King Charles Spaniel meeting a Yorkshire Terrier at the park.

Interacting with Other Puppies and Dogs

Your puppy can meet and play with other puppies the same age, as long as those other puppies are kept up to date on their vaccinations and haven’t had contact with unvaccinated dogs. It’s best to schedule play dates at your own home, or the home of the other puppy owner, and to avoid public spaces. Similarly, it should be safe for your puppy to meet older dogs of friends and family, provided they’re fully vaccinated, haven’t been exposed to unvaccinated dogs, and are known to be gentle with puppies. But if, for example, your parents’ sweet older dog spends a lot of time at the dog park, keep your puppy away and save introductions for after your pup has completed their vaccinations.

Letting Your Puppy Meet Strange Dogs

You should keep your puppy from meeting dogs you don’t know until they’ve received all of their vaccinations and your vet gives you the go-ahead. This means that walking them in public will have to wait. Once you do start taking them on walks, being fully vaccinated doesn’t mean they can’t still face danger from other dogs. Keep your puppy on a leash and stay with them at all times, even at the dog park, and steer clear of any dogs that show signs of aggression or of bullying other dogs.

What about obedience classes? While some vets and trainers will give the okay to attend puppy classes that screen for vaccinations and sanitize their facilities between classes, other vets, like Dr. Bonk, would prefer that you hold off until your pup is fully vaccinated. “Dog parks and obedience classes are not for young puppies,” she says. “If you are wanting to take your new little one to these types of places, make sure they have had their full series of vaccinations first in order to protect them from exposure to disease.”

Socializing Your Puppy Before They Can Meet New Dogs

Meeting other dogs is only one aspect of puppy socialization. There are many other new people, sights, sounds and experiences your young pup can have that will help them become less fearful and more easy-going. The most important thing is to build a bond of trust with your pup. “While pet owners are waiting to complete their vaccination series, they should be working on building the bond between them and the puppy,” says Dr. Bonk. “Play with them and start to teach basic commands.” Your pup can also meet other types of pets and animals who won’t carry the risk of disease transmission.

The bottom line is that you protect your puppy by following the vaccination schedule recommended by your vet and carefully screening and selecting any dogs or puppies you allow to have contact with your little pup.

Curious puppies get into plenty of trouble during their early months and years. Start off on the right paw by enrolling your pup in a pet insurance policy. AKC Pet Insurance helps pet care budgets go farther by offering reimbursement for eligible funds to puppy owners.

Related article: Most Common Puppy Illnesses
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