The Importance of Socializing Your Dog

What things are necessary to provide a healthy life for your dog? Most owners would answer nutrition, regular vaccinations, parasite control, and regular veterinary exams. Few, if any, would answer socialization. But socialization is a key to the overall wellness and health of dogs.

Last week a friend visited her daughter out of state. Of course, she brought along her beloved dog. Her daughter has dogs too, but they have all been together in the past without incident. This time, however, there was a problem. My friend’s dog spends most of his days in the house with her; he really doesn’t get out to socialize and is not comfortable with other settings. This particular incident led to an altercation that injured another dog and her daughter.

According to Dr. Ken Tudor of Pet MD, improperly socialized dogs risk their own health, pose an injury risk to others, and often jeopardize the ability to provide ideal medical care when it is needed. He lists four reasons why socialization should be a part of a dog wellness program.

Fear and Its Unhealthy Hormones

Poorly socialized dogs are fearful of unusual or new circumstances. This sets off neurological signals that result in hormone secretion by various glands in the body. Adrenalin hormones increase heart and respiration rates and blood pressure in anticipation of “fight or flight.” Corticosteroid hormones also contribute to heart rate and blood pressure. They also increase awareness and responses. But corticosteroids also decrease blood flow to the kidneys and intestines, promote muscle breakdown, and suppress immune system function.

It is these consequences that lead to stress related conditions in poorly socialized dogs that are frequently engaged in stressful situations. The addition of children to the household, frequent show and event competition, frequent grooming, and daycare and boarding can all cause chronic stress hormone release for poorly socialized dogs and affect their health.

Difficult Veterinary Exams

Next to a thorough history provided by a dog owner, veterinarians rely on a complete physical examination to evaluate a dog’s health or determine the extent of an illness. Poorly socialized dogs that respond to fear with aggression make a complete physical exam impossible. Even the simple solution of a muzzle to prevent biting prevents a veterinarian from using gum tissue to assess dental health, red blood cell production, blood oxygen content, and an estimation of hydration.

Struggling animals also make it difficult to objectively evaluate the heart and lungs. Palpation of joints, muscles, and abdominal organs are very difficult in these dogs. And even worse, fear sensitizes the heart to potential life threatening heart arrhythmia if sedation or anesthesia is needed for a more complete physical examination. This risk cannot be determined in these animals prior to drug administration.

Many owners of poorly socialized dogs forgo veterinary care for their dogs due to embarrassment of their dog’s behavior and/or fear of injury to others.

Limited Exercise

Owners of poorly socialized dogs are often reluctant to provide their dogs with exercise. This is especially true for large dogs that are strong and could get away from their owners to engage another dog. Such “altercations” could actually end up costing owners of poorly socialized dogs large veterinary bills from the owners of “victim” dogs. By limiting walks, runs, fetching, or other forms of rigorous exercise, poorly socialized dogs are at increased risk of health conditions associated with being overweight or obese.

Inadequate Grooming

Many breeds of dogs require frequent and detailed grooming to maintain proper skin and fur health. This requires the dog to maintain an even composure for a period of time so the groomer can provide the proper “cut.” Poorly socialized dogs make such a procedure impossible. Either drastic restraint that might injure the dog is necessary, or the groomer is faced with performing an inadequate cut and the threat of their own bodily harm. Neither is an outcome acceptable to most dog owners.

The use of veterinary prescribed tranquilizer in these cases is not an option. The selection of drugs that can be prescribed for these situations has the potential for a “paradoxical effect.” This means the drug can actually make the dogs more aggressive and dangerous. This poses a legal responsibility for the prescribing veterinarian. For this reason, I will not dispense tranquilizers for grooming to owners of poorly socialized dogs.

Good health includes early socialization. The age window for socialization is 3-12 weeks of age. Puppies need to be exposed to people, other puppies and dogs, social situations, and car rides early and often. A prudent recommendation suggests 7 new social situations each week until 12-16 weeks of age. Puppy obedience or play classes should be started immediately.

The veterinary notion of waiting until the puppy has had all of its vaccinations before socialization is completely outdated. Vaccines are not complete until 16 weeks of age and this is too late for proper socialization. Studies have shown that puppies with one set of vaccines are at no greater risk for parvovirus than fully vaccinated puppies in socialization classes. Proper socialization is a key element to your dog’s health.

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