The Case for Dog Kindergarten


When they were three months old, the owner of two Great Pyrenese puppies called New York trainer Nancy Strouss. We discussed the importance of early socialization and training, says Strouss, especially for breeds that can be aloof and difficult if they don’t receive a lot of socialization at a young age. The owner agreed that her puppies would benefit from puppy kindergarten classes.

A few days after registering, the owner spoke to her veterinarian, who was adamantly opposed to the idea, says Strouss. He told her that letting the puppies have contact with other dogs before they are fully vaccinated at 16 weeks is extremely dangerous. The owner got very upset, accused us of encouraging her to risk her puppies health, and withdrew from the class.

Asked to advise puppy owners on the subject of puppy training and socialization classes, many veterinarians warn owners away, describing a frightening scenario in which viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites lurk in the air and on the ground wherever puppies breathe or walk. They say that other dogs and puppies, potential carriers of infection, are best avoided until young puppies are fully protected by vaccinations or their own maturing immune systems. Most veterinarians believe it is safe to let four-month-old puppies explore the outside world, but some recommend waiting until pups are six or seven months old.

The problem is, that conservative approach may (or may not, as we’ll discuss) safeguard puppies from exposure to agents of infection, but it leaves them completely susceptible to the far less easily treated effects of social isolation. Puppies learn important behavioral skills from each other, their mothers, extended families, and any other canine visitors. These lessons, say behaviorists, can’t be learned from humans, however motivated or well-intentioned. They can only be learned from other dogs. Early training and play in group classes enhances dog-to-dog communication at the same time that it helps young puppies adapt to new people, new sights and smells, other animals, and the experience of travel.

So what’s a responsible canine caretaker to do? Do you really have to choose between sending your puppy to school to contract a horrible disease or keeping him quarantined so that he ends up being euthanized due to a dangerous personality disorder? Not really. Although there are some risks associated with each approach, educating yourself about the risks will help you take a moderate path, keeping a lookout for signs of trouble, and helping you guide the development of your pup into a physically and socially healthy pooch.

Understanding immunity

It’s no wonder that so many people are misinformed about the risks of disease; few have an accurate understanding of the dog’s immune system or the reason for a series of puppy shots.

When challenged by an agent of disease (an antigen), a healthy dog’s immune system responds by producing disease fighters called antibodies, which are specific to whatever antigen encountered by the animal. Infant puppies receive temporary protection from disease via the placenta (in utero) and from antibodies in their mothers colostrum or first milk. Later, the mother’s milk also contributes antibodies.

Each mother provides different antibodies depending on her history of vaccination and other exposures to disease antigens. If the mother has a well-functioning immune system, and a thorough history of vaccination and/or exposure to disease, she will likely contribute a powerful dose of protective antibodies. If, on the other hand, her own store of antibodies is impoverished, due to a dysfunctional immune system and/or a lack of vaccinations and/or exposure to disease antigens, her antibody contributions to her puppies may well be insufficient.

The protection that each puppy receives from his mother (sometimes called passive immunity) usually lasts for several weeks and gradually fades; also gradually, his own immune system matures and begins manufacturing its own antibodies when confronted by disease antigens. Usually, this immune system maturation occurs around 14 to 16 weeks. But the exact rate at which the maternal immunity fades is highly variable from individual to individual. This is important to understand, because as long as the mother’s powerful antibodies are at work in the puppy’s system, his own immune system will not produce its own antibodies in response to exposure to disease antigens.

This means that, as long as the maternal immunity is strong, neither exposure to disease antigens nor exposure to vaccines (which are weakened preparations of antigenic material) will cause him to develop the long-lasting antibodies necessary to defend him from disease.

In most puppies, the maternal immunity fades at some point between 6 and 16 weeks. Vaccines that are administered while the maternal immunity is still strong will be effectively erased from the puppies systems by the maternal antibodies. That’s why it’s generally recommended that puppies be given a series of vaccinations separated by a couple of weeks to make sure that he’s not left unprotected for too long between the fade of the maternal immunity and the development of his own vaccine-triggered antibody protection.

The uncertain timing of the maternal immunity fade is also why veterinarians often recommend that puppies stay relatively quarantined until they are 16 weeks or even older.

Say a puppy receives a typical course of vaccinations at 8, 12, and 16 weeks. Conceivably, his maternal immunity could still be strong enough at 8 weeks (or even 8 and 12 weeks) to nullify those vaccinations, yet fade before his next vaccinations at 12 or 16 weeks. That could leave him vulnerable to disease without protective antibodies for a period of a couple of weeks.

Of course, that’s not necessarily the end of the world. Exposure to a disease antigen can make an unprotected puppy sick, but it will also stimulate his immune system to produce antibodies to fight that and future exposures to the disease antigen. However, the older he is, the more mature his own immune system will be, and the better it will accomplish that task. That’s why the potential gap in the puppy’s protection is more dangerous when he’s 8 weeks old than when he’s 12 weeks old.

Understanding socialization

We don’t know a single trainer who feels that early socialization is not important. Indeed, this is one point that the training community agrees about. ”

There is well-documented proof that unsocialized dogs are shy, nervous, timid, tend to be noisy, can be aggressive, can be difficult to train, do not adapt well to new situations, and in the extreme may live in a constant state of apprehension and fear,” says New Hampshire trainer Gail Fisher. It isn’t so much that behavior problems can never be corrected, she continues, since training can overcome most behavioral issues. Rather, the bottom line is that difficulties caused by a lack of socialization are totally unnecessary and can be avoided simply by socializing puppies.

Massachusetts trainer Gerilyn Bielakiewicz agrees: “Go visit any shelter and read the cage cards. Many dogs are homeless because they don’t like children or cats, can’t live with other dogs, are afraid of loud noises, are afraid of men, are afraid of everything, or are unpredictable or dangerous.”

Sue Ann Lesser, DVM, conducts monthly chiropractic clinics in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. About 95 percent of her patients compete in agility, obedience, field trials, and other canine sports.

“My favorite patients were well exposed to other dogs and people during the critical 12-16-week period,” says Dr. Lesser. “They make veterinary visits with confidence and trust and as adults they cope well with the stresses of training and competition. One of my dear friends, Wendy Volhard, has a class at her obedience camps called Foundation Games for puppies with experienced handlers in which the puppies practice the basics of utility exercises go outs, directed jumping, stand for exam, and so on. Years later, they sail through utility obedience training because they were exposed to the exercises at an impressionable age.”

“An early start is so important,” adds Ohio trainer Dani Edgerton. “If a puppy is going to attend only one class in its lifetime, I suggest that it be puppy kindergarten rather than a later class.”

Elizabeth Teal, a behavioral trainer in New York City, adds that creative owners can help any puppy interact with the outside world without an organized puppy kindergarten class, but she warns that you do need its equivalent. “If appropriate positive socialization does not occur during the window of opportunity that opens at three weeks and closes at 12 to 16 weeks, its benefits will never be internalized by the dog…By not socializing puppies during the appropriate time, we create stress factors that can affect the animals health later in life. With certain breeds and certain environmental factors, the result is truly dangerous dogs.”

Making the decision for your puppy: The risk continuum

We all know that people make decisions based on their own experiences, values, and resources. The decision to potentially expose or protect your puppy is notable only for its complexity. You see, the usual far left vs. the far right scale has to be modified to encompass four extremes rather than just two.

Way out on the conservative end of the fear of disease scale are the people who feel that any increased risk of infection is not worth the benefits of the socialization; these are the keep pups home until they are six months old” people. At the other extreme of this scale are the people who are comfortable with the possibility that their puppies could become ill, and who allow their puppies to socialize anywhere, anytime. Some of these people use conventional vaccination protocols; some, you may be surprised to learn, use no vaccines at all.

Then there is the fear of social disorders scale, which also has its extremists. On one end are those who feel that all puppies must be socialized, no matter what. These people feel that the risk of dealing with illness, or even the death of a puppy, is preferable to raising a social misfit. On the other extreme of this scale are the people who either don’t know or don’t care about socialization.

It can be difficult to find a balanced place on this four-ended teeter-totter, especially when you weigh one scale of risks and benefits against the risks and benefits of the other scale. But, people do!

New Hampshire trainer Gail Fisher says, “The risk of contracting a communicable disease is minute compared to the nearly 100 percent guarantee that an unsocialized dog will never reach its genetic potential. Since non-genetically based, distrustful, suspicious, nervous, fearful behavior is totally preventable, why would anyone recommend otherwise? Generally speaking, puppies can recover from contagious illness. Shyness lasts for life.”

Massachusetts trainer Gerilyn Bielakiewicz agrees. The best argument I’ve heard for early training and socialization, she says, comes from Dr. Ian Dunbar (a veterinarian and behaviorist) of Sirius Puppy Training in California. He says that it does no good for vets to tell people not to socialize their puppies before they are fully vaccinated if those same puppies end up dead because they can’t get along with other dogs or people. Lack of socialization kills more dogs than any disease.”

Even people who don’t necessarily take their puppies to formal classes think it’s important to provide a wide array of social opportunities for the pups. Take Connecticut West Highland White Terrier breeder Christine Swingle, for example. She doesn’t take her puppies to kindergarten, she says. “Instead, I socialize puppies by handling them daily from birth. When they’re five weeks old, I start inviting friends and family to play with and handle the pups. As they get older, the pups interact with my adult Westies, and I ask friends to bring their dogs for dog-to-dog socialization. In this way, the puppies get a good variety of exposure to children, adults, and other dogs. If they have the right attitude and character, and if given the right opportunities, puppies will socialize well without puppy kindergarten.”

 More proof of bad behavior than of disease transmission

No one knows what percentage of the millions of vaccinated and unvaccinated puppies that have contact with other dogs between the ages of 10 and 16 weeks contract infectious diseases, or how many die as a result, says New York veterinarian Beverly Cappel; No one has done any studies, she says. She’s not terribly worried about the health risks of puppy kindergarten, however.

“I’ve had a busy practice for 14 years, and I’ve seen only two or three cases of distemper in all that time. Parvo is more common, and it can wipe out whole litters, but even parvo doesn’t occur often. Some illnesses are so rare, they’re practically extinct. For example, I’ve never seen a case of canine infectious hepatitis, and I don’t know anyone who has.”

Dr. Cappel recommends only the distemper and parvo vaccines for puppies, and she usually gives them at 8, 11, and 15 weeks. “Between 12 and 16 weeks, short-term memory starts crossing over to long-term memory, and puppies begin to retain what they learn, so that’s a perfect time to begin puppy kindergarten,” ”she says.

New York trainer Elizabeth Teal argues that there is far too much behavioral science available, such as the extensive research compiled by John Scott and John Fuller (published in their book, Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog), for the puppy socializing question to even be a debate. “I will always risk illness over a lifetime of psychological maiming,” she says. “And I say this after seeing serious illness up close. I nursed a parvo puppy into a happy, well-socialized dog.”

Teal is concerned about the scary illnesses out there, but adds, “the lack of socialization frightens me more…Most dogs in this country are euthanized for behavior problems, and three at the top of the list are inappropriate urination, jumping, and household destruction. We’re killing dogs because we don’t teach them during the most accessible period of their lives where to go to the bathroom, how to greet people politely, and how to coexist with furniture. I don’t know how euthanasia statistics compare with statistics for early death from disease, but I know that for me, the risk of infection is worth taking.”

Also With This Article Click here to view “Getting the Most of Out of Puppy Kindergarten” Click here to view “Understanding Canine Vaccinations” Click here to view “Plan Ahead to Socialize Your Puppy Early”