Puppy being pet in a park

Q. I’ve read in training books that puppies need to be socialized. But my veterinarian says my puppy will get parvo and die if she leaves my house or yard before her last shot at 16 weeks. Who’s right?

A. Your veterinarian is right to warn you about the risks of taking your puppy out before completion of the initial series of protective vaccines. That doesn’t mean you have to neglect the important work of socializing your new family member — but it does mean you have to be careful about where and how. Keeping a puppy protected from exposure to potentially deadly diseases will help get him to adulthood, but socializing him properly will protect him for life from other potentially deadly problems.

Over the course of a lifetime, a dog is more likely to die from behavior problems than disease. The adorable puppy who grows into an out-of-control or aggressive dog becomes a candidate for a trip to a shelter, where he’ll be unlikely to get a second chance. A pup’s best chance at becoming a loved member of a family for life has a lot to do with the effort put into raising him properly.

Behavior experts, such as my friend Dr. Ian Dunbar, say a puppy needs to meet 100 people in the first 100 days of life. A puppy needs at least that many new experiences as well. If you’ve gotten your puppy from a source committed to starting puppies off on the right paw, some of that work is done. It’s up to you to keep it going.  

Places to socialize a puppy in relative safety can be as varied as the outdoor patio at a coffeehouse or the waiting area at a car wash. Take lots of small, juicy treats for friendly strangers to give to your puppy and keep the experiences positive. Visiting friends and relatives who have healthy, friendly dogs current on vaccines is also an option.

Another place to socialize your pup is a good puppy class. Trainers who run them — such as my daughter, Vetstreet dog trainer Mikkel Becker — make sure the classrooms are clean and safe before puppies are brought in. Once in a well-run puppy class, a youngster can safely learn to play nicely with other dogs and pay attention to people, both important skills for a lifetime.

In general, you’re looking for places unlikely to have attracted dogs you can’t vouch for, especially unsocialized, unvaccinated and possibly contagious ones. That means skipping dog parks and other areas with heavy use by a large number of dogs. When your puppy is fully vaccinated, those places will no longer be off limits, but they are at first. Be careful even at your veterinarian’s office; carry your puppy in from the parking lot and keep him on your lap in the waiting room.

So, yes, you do need to be careful with your puppy, but you also need to leave the house before all those shots are done. It’s about managing risk, and the payoff of a well-socialized family pet makes it important to socialize your puppy safely and sensibly.