We just got a new puppy and I’m so excited to take her outside! But my Vet told me to keep the puppy inside until it has its rabies shot. I’m so bummed. Do I really have to wait 6 weeks before I can let my puppy explore the outdoors??
This is, unfortunately, common advice from Veterinarians who have not kept up to date with the latest advice from Veterinary Behaviorists, the AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior), and trainers all over the world. Puppies desperately need to be exposed to the world in general and other people and dogs in particular during their first 3 months of life. This is a crucial “socialization period”, which is unique to this time period of their life, where they are accepting of new and novel experiences. After this time period, puppies often enter fear periods where they tend to be more suspicious and/or fearful of new things.Â This is hardly new information, but some vets stillÂ have not assimilated it into their practices.Â Â It has been well proven that your puppy is more likely to be euthanized due to behavior issue stemming from lack of socialization than he is to die of a contagious disease that he could be vaccinated against. In their very informative handout, the AVSAB says,Â
“…the American Veterinary SocietyÂ of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.”
Now this doesn’t mean that you should expose your pup to unnecessary risk either. There are plenty of safe ways to socialize your puppy. Only allow her to play with dogs you know are healthy, up to date on their vaccines, and behaviorally stable. Make sure your pup meets all your friends during this socialization window, and that they all get to give her treats and coo over her! If you have a party, the simple act of having people remove their shoes will almost eliminate any possibility of contamination from outside. You can also carry your puppy EVERYWHERE outside, since the primary risk of contagion is other dogs and their feces. If you put your pup down outside (and I highly suggest you do!), choose an area that has not been frequented by other dogs. A backyard, friends yard, or out of the way park is perfect. To read more on this topic, see the complete AVSAB handout here.
Muzzles for Reactive Dogs
I want my dog to get along with other dogs, but sometimes he is kind of aggressive with strange dogs. He growls and sometimes even lunges at other dogs. My friend told me to get a muzzle to put on him so I can let him go to the dog park or meet my friend’s dog. Is that a good idea?
There is a big difference between a dog who is reactive (growling/lunging/mouthing with no damage) around strange dogs and a dog who has a history of actual injurious bites. It is almost never a good idea to put a muzzle on a reactive dog for introductions or in high energy situations like dog parks. Any dog that shows reactive behavior in a social situation does so because of his own very real fears or emotions. Muzzling your dog will not resolve those fears, and might even make them worse. Here are a few reasons that I would not recommend a muzzle for a dog that is reactive or potentially aggressive with other dogs:
- A muzzle will not prevent your dog from harming other dogs physically or emotionally by body checking, pinning with their paws, snarling, lunging and â€œmuzzle punchingâ€ other dogs. Your dog may also remove the muzzle and bite another dog before you can intervene.
- Most social aggression is based in fear, and using a muzzle will increase the fear that your dog experiences around other dogs, potentially escalating their aggression instead of mitigating it.
- A muzzle will also prevent your dog from properly communicating to other dogs that it is uncomfortable and that they should stay away. Think about how you would feel if you were meeting someone for the first time ever and you were gagged and had your hands tied behind your back before you entered the room where they were waiting for you. This is similar to what we do to dogs when we muzzle them. We remove their main form of communication: body language. For similar reasons, muzzles may encourage other dogs to pick on or harass your dog because he is acting differently and looks different. You can see a good example of this by observing how off-leash dogs will taunt the one dog that is on leash. Your dog will not be able to properly greet other dogs even if it wanted to! It will be too busy struggling with the muzzle and its fears.
Dogs who have a history of reactivity do not belong in dog parks. They need behavior modification to help them deal with their emotional response. Putting a muzzle on a dog when you know they may act aggressively is not fair to your dog or to the other dogs in the situation. Think back to the example of a person gagged with his hands tied. Imagine that person is a child that has been known to call names or hit other children. Instead of temporarily preventing any hitting by tying and gagging him, a better way to deal with the situation would be to teach the child alternative ways to express his emotions, and closely supervise him in social situations until he is only offering appropriate behaviors around others. This is what an experienced dog trainer can help you to do with your dog. Until your dog’s aggression is resolved, use other management tools when your dog has to be around other dogs like crates, leashes, doors, gates or fences. While it can be difficult to give up the dog park because of the great way to exercise your dog, there are many other ways to burn off their energy. Some ideas are: long runs or hikes with you, games of fetch in an enclosed yard or field, learning a dog sport together like tracking, agility, dock diving, Rally-O or freestyle. All of these sports have the added advantage of helping you develop a better bond with your dog and increasing the chance that you will be able to resolve their reactivity.