• View in gallery
    Figure 1—

    Percentage of respondents (n = 145) to 2 surveys (one at enrollment and the other when their puppy reached 20 weeks of age) that reported in the 20-week survey performing various activities with their puppy (1 puppy/respondent) during structured puppy classes.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 2—

    Proportions of puppies (n = 296) with reported exposure over time to various number groupings of other dogs in a survey completed by owners when the puppies were 20 weeks of age.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 3—

    Proportions of puppies (n = 296) with reported exposure over time to various number groupings of people other than owners in a survey completed by owners when the puppies were 20 weeks of age.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 4—

    Proportions of puppies (n = 296) with reported exposure to various factors and their reported reactions in a survey completed by owners when the puppies were 20 weeks of age.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 5—

    Proportions of puppies (n = 296) with reported exposure to various noises and their reported reactions in a survey completed by owners when the puppies were 20 weeks of age.

  • 1. Walsh F. Human-animal bonds I: the relational significance of companion animals. Fam Process 2009;48:462480.

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Puppy socialization practices of a sample of dog owners from across Canada and the United States

Janet H. CutlerDepartment of Population Medicine, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON N1G 2W1, Canada.

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Jason B. CoeDepartment of Population Medicine, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON N1G 2W1, Canada.

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Lee NielDepartment of Population Medicine, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON N1G 2W1, Canada.

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Abstract

OBJECTIVE To identify actions taken by owners to socialize puppies < 20 weeks of age, to determine factors affecting attendance of structured puppy classes, and to examine associations between class attendance and owner response to various undesirable puppy behaviors.

DESIGN Cross-sectional study.

SAMPLE 296 puppy owners (each with 1 puppy).

PROCEDURES Participants completed a survey at enrollment (to gather data regarding owner demographics and puppy characteristics) and again when puppies were 20 weeks of age (to gather information on socialization practices and owner responses to misbehavior and signs of fear in their puppy). Responses were compared between owners that did (attendees) and did not (nonattendees) report attending puppy classes.

RESULTS 145 (49.0%) respondents reported attending puppy classes. Class structure differed greatly among respondents. Attendees exposed their puppies to a greater number of people and other dogs than nonattendees as well as to various noises and situations. Puppies of attendees were less likely than puppies of nonattendees to have signs of fear in response to noises such as thunder and vacuum cleaners as well as to crates. Fewer attendees reported use of punishment-based discipline techniques than did nonattendees. Almost one-third of puppies received only minimal exposure to people and dogs outside the home during the survey period.

CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE A notable number of puppies < 20 weeks of age in this study received few early socialization opportunities, which could lead to behavior problems and subsequent relinquishment. Opportunities exist for veterinarians to serve an important role in educating puppy owners about the importance of early puppy socialization and positive reward training.

Abstract

OBJECTIVE To identify actions taken by owners to socialize puppies < 20 weeks of age, to determine factors affecting attendance of structured puppy classes, and to examine associations between class attendance and owner response to various undesirable puppy behaviors.

DESIGN Cross-sectional study.

SAMPLE 296 puppy owners (each with 1 puppy).

PROCEDURES Participants completed a survey at enrollment (to gather data regarding owner demographics and puppy characteristics) and again when puppies were 20 weeks of age (to gather information on socialization practices and owner responses to misbehavior and signs of fear in their puppy). Responses were compared between owners that did (attendees) and did not (nonattendees) report attending puppy classes.

RESULTS 145 (49.0%) respondents reported attending puppy classes. Class structure differed greatly among respondents. Attendees exposed their puppies to a greater number of people and other dogs than nonattendees as well as to various noises and situations. Puppies of attendees were less likely than puppies of nonattendees to have signs of fear in response to noises such as thunder and vacuum cleaners as well as to crates. Fewer attendees reported use of punishment-based discipline techniques than did nonattendees. Almost one-third of puppies received only minimal exposure to people and dogs outside the home during the survey period.

CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE A notable number of puppies < 20 weeks of age in this study received few early socialization opportunities, which could lead to behavior problems and subsequent relinquishment. Opportunities exist for veterinarians to serve an important role in educating puppy owners about the importance of early puppy socialization and positive reward training.

Interactions between people and companion animals have become increasingly important to society, providing physiologic, psychological, and social benefits for the humans involved.1 Much less research exists on the benefits of the human-animal bond to companion animals, and although it is generally believed this bond is good for companion animal welfare, it can also sometimes adversely impact welfare.2 In addition, development of behavior problems in dogs is a leading cause of breakdown in the human-dog relationship3 and is a risk factor for relinquishment to animal shelters.4 Indeed, 34% to 49% of owners cite behavior problems as a reason for relinquishment.5,6 Early socialization of dogs is believed to be important to the prevention of behavior problems and retention of dogs in the home. Much existing information regarding puppy socialization is based on previous research,7 in which 5 breeds of dogs were observed over a 13-year period. The investigators suggested that a critical period exists for socialization for puppies, beginning around 2 to 3 weeks of age and extending to 12 to 14 weeks of age, during which exposure to other animals and people is necessary for the development of normal social behavior. A lack of exposure to these stimuli during this period is suggested to result in fear of members of the same or other species. In another study,8 puppies raised in fields and exposed to humans only after 14 weeks of age were too fearful to approach humans, even after attempts at habituation.

One venue available to owners for puppy socialization is puppy classes. Typically, puppies and owners attend a series of classes during which owners are provided with information on puppy care and behavior, and puppies are provided with opportunities for exposure to various stimuli and socialization experiences. For example, attendance at puppy classes offered by a humane society from which puppies were adopted increased the retention rate of dogs in the adoptive homes by 14% in 1 study.9 However, no standards exist for puppy socialization activities and understanding is lacking of the factors that make owners more likely to attend. Given that new puppy owners commonly visit a veterinarian when their puppy is young, veterinarians have the opportunity to play an important role in informing owners of the benefits of socialization and attendance in puppy classes.

The objective of the study reported here was to characterize the owner-reported experience of puppies attending puppy socialization classes and the approaches the owners took to socialize their puppies. Another objective was to identify factors that affected owners' attendance of puppy classes and the influence of class attendance on owners' response to signs of fear in and misbehavior by their puppy.

Materials and Methods

Participants

Participant enrollment occurred between June and November 2014. Puppy owners were eligible to participate if they were adults (ie, ≥ 18 years of age) and had a puppy < 20 weeks of age in their household. Participant recruitment was completed by means of snowball sampling10 to increase access to the strictly defined target population of owners with puppies < 20 weeks of age. Recruitment materials were initially disseminated via email through various sources in Canada and the United States, including 3 professional associations related to dogs, 2 online dog forums, 2 retail companies, and 6 humane societies. Postings of study advertisements on researchers' and colleagues' Facebook accounts were also used as seeds for distribution. In addition, formal online advertisement banners were designed and visible across Canada through a Canadian-based online classified advertisement website. These banners were displayed under sections relating to dog sales, retail, and services. Individual text advertisements inviting participation in the study were also posted to the Canadian-based advertisement website under the pet accessory section in the 5 most highly populated English-speaking cities in Canada: Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa. The advertisement included a website link that directed potential participants to the survey site.

Although much of the recruitment was through Canadian sources, there were no restrictions on participant location. The study protocol was approved by the University of Guelph Research Ethics Board (protocol No. 13DC021).

Study design

On accessing the survey site, participants were asked to complete 2 surveys: the first at the time of enrollment (ie, enrollment survey) and the second when their puppy reached 20 weeks of age (ie, 20-week survey). The day a participant's puppy reached 20 weeks of age, the participant was emailed a link to the 20-week survey. Access to both surveys was provided through an online survey tool.a After 7 days of nonresponse to the invitation to complete the 20-week survey, a reminder email was sent to those nonrespondents. Email addresses were given a unique identification code to link the 2 questionnaires while keeping participants' information confidential. No participants completed both surveys for > 1 puppy.

Following completion of the enrollment survey, participants were systematically assigned to receive or not receive the option to complete an online education program based on the day of the month of birth (odd-numbered days received the education program and even-numbered days did not). This education program contained information on normal puppy behavior (eg, chewing, biting, housetraining, activity and exercise, and crate training), strategies for prevention of behavior problems (eg, socialization and methods for prevention of aggression, separation anxiety, and unwanted barking and jumping), basic puppy care (eg, items puppies need, budgeting for dog ownership, obedience and training options, and veterinary care), and life with a puppy (eg, considerations concerning puppy interactions with babies or children and moving to a new home). The education program was offered through the online survey software program, and owners were classified as having completed the program if they finished a quiz at the end of the education program.

Survey development

The 2 surveys used in the study were initially developed by the primary author (JHC), who used the existing literature on puppy development, socialization, and canine behavior4,9,11–13 as well as her personal experience from teaching puppy classes. The surveys were then reviewed by the other members of the research team, who had content and survey design expertise (JBC and LN), and revised on the basis of their feedback. To assess the face and content validity of the 20-week survey, the survey was sent to 3 practicing veterinarians, 3 dog trainers with > 5 years of experience, 4 behavior consultants (2 board-certified veterinary behaviorists and 2 persons with a PhD who specialized in behavior), and 5 dog owners who were known to the authors and had obtained puppies in the preceding 4 months. Revisions were made on the basis of their feedback, then 7 additional puppy owners who were unknown to the authors were recruited during a puppy walk for a local dog-training facility. The puppy owners completed a printed copy of the 20-week survey while providing feedback to the primary author regarding question clarity, meaning, and face validity. Questions were further edited and revised on the basis of feedback received.

Questions

The enrollment survey was designed to gather demographic information (ie, whether there were children < 18 years of age in the household, annual household income, and respondent's geographic area of residence, highest education level, and age) as well as information about the puppy (ie, breed, purebred status, sex, source of acquisition, and date of birth). Participants were also asked whether they gathered information on raising a puppy prior to puppy acquisition and about the source of that information. Participants were invited to provide an email address for further participation in the study.

The 20-week survey was designed to collect information on whether the participant had attended structured puppy classes (defined as regularly scheduled classes with an instructor) with their puppy before it reached 20 weeks of age. If participants responded yes to this question, they were included in the puppy class group for statistical analysis. Participants that reported attendance at puppy classes were asked about the number of classes attended, number of puppies and instructors in the class, and the activities completed. All participants were asked to estimate the number of dogs and people that their puppies were exposed to at < 8 weeks of age and then again at 2-week increments from 8 to 20 weeks of age. The following categorical options were available: 0, 1 to 5, 6 to 10, 11 to 20, 21 to 30, 31+, unsure, or didn't have puppy. Another series of questions asked participants to indicate how their puppy reacted to meeting people or dogs at the same age groupings. Options included scared (puppy may avoid situation, crouch and tuck tail, or whine or shake), indifferent, excited (puppy is more alert, moves toward what is exciting them, and may bark), or unsure. In another question, participants were asked to indicate how they responded when their puppy appeared scared by selecting from a list of options (ie, force puppy to face fear, avoid what puppy is scared of, gradual exposure to what puppy is scared of, and rewarding calm behavior or other). Participants had the ability to choose multiple options. Finally, participants were asked to select methods of discipline they had used with their puppy from a list of 16 options that ranged from positive reinforcement of correct behavior to positive punishment (eg, holding the puppy down on back or hitting and kicking).

Statistical analysis

All statistical analyses were performed by use of statistical software.b Descriptive statistics were calculated as means and frequencies. Dogs that were identified by their owners as having responded in a fearful (scared) manner to ≥ 1 environmental factor were categorized as fearful of environmental stimuli, and dogs that were identified as having responded in a fearful manner to ≥ 1 noise were categorized as fearful of noises. To examine the impact of socialization classes on owners' approaches to disciplining their puppies or dealing with signs of fear, the Fisher exact test with Monte Carlo simulations was used.

A generalized linear model was used to identify associations between the following variables and attendance at puppy classes: categorized participant age in years (18 to 24, 25 to 34, 35 to 44, 45 to 54, 55 to 64, 65 to 79, and ≥ 80), highest education level (high school, university, college, postgraduate, or none of the above), annual household income (≤ $30,000, $31,000 to $60,000, $61,000 to $90,000, or > $90,000; no distinction between US and Canadian values), number of children in the household, whether owners did or did not gather information about puppy care and behavior prior to puppy acquisition, and area of residence (urban, suburban, or rural). Variables were removed from the model through manual backward elimination if they had a P value > 0.05. Completion (yes or no) of the online education program was included in the model, regardless of significance. Confounding was assessed for all predictors to ensure removal did not change the parameter estimate of the remaining variables by > 20%.14 Removed variables were individually added back into the model to ensure there was no effect of order of removal. Following backward elimination, variables that remained in the model were assessed for biologically relevant 2-way interactions. Values of P ≤ 0.05 were considered significant.

Results

Participants and puppies

A total of 296 participants (each with 1 puppy) completed both the enrollment and 20-week surveys. Of these, 90 (30.4%) were recruited through the online classified advertisement website and the remainder through snowball recruitment. Respondent and puppy characteristics obtained from the enrollment survey were summarized (Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1—

Demographic characteristics of respondents (n = 296) to an enrollment survey regarding puppy socialization practices.

CharacteristicNo. (%) of respondents
Area of residence
  Rural120 (40.5)
  Suburban105 (35.5)
  Urban71 (24.0)
Highest level of education
  College111 (37.5)
  University86 (29.1)
  High school49 (16.6)
  Postgraduate49 (16.6)
  None of the above1 (0.3)
Annual household income
  > $90,000107 (36.1)
  $31,000 to $60,00082 (27.7)
  $61,000 to $90,00063 (21.3)
  < $30,00034 (11.5)
  No response10 (3.4)
Children in household
  No212 (71.6)
  Yes84 (28.4)
Age (y)
  45–5477 (26.0)
  35–4469 (23.3)
  25–3466 (22.3)
  18–2439 (13.2)
  55–6439 (13.2)
  65–796 (2.0)
  ≥ 800 (0.0)
Table 2—

Characteristics of the puppies (n = 296) represented in survey responses of the puppy owners in Table 1.

CharacteristicNo. (%) of respondents
Sex
  Female163 (55.1)
  Male133 (44.9)
Breed type
  Registered purebred123 (41.6)
  Mixed breed96 (32.4)
  Purebred71 (24.0)
  Unknown5 (1.7)
Acquisition source
  Breeder169 (57.1)
  Online advertisement49 (16.6)
  Rescue22 (7.4)
  Shelter6 (2.0)
  Newspaper advertisement1 (0.3)
  Pet store1 (0.3)
  Other48 (16.2)

Puppy classes

One hundred forty-five (49.0%) respondents indicated that they took their puppy to structured puppy classes. On the basis of their responses, the most common program duration was 6 classes (n = 39 [26.9%]; response range, 1 to 10 classes in program). Most respondents (87 [59.2%]) reported that their classes had 1 instructor, whereas 38 (25.8%) had classes with 2 instructors (response range, 1 to 4 instructors). The most commonly reported number of puppies in these classes was between 4 and 6 (96 [47.6%] respondents; response range, 1 to 9 puppies). A wide range of activities were taught in puppy classes, with sit, down, recall, loose-leash walking, and “watch me” or attention activities taught in ≥ 80% of classes attended (Figure 1). Fewer than 50% of puppies were exposed to activities such as trading up, listening to noises, and training to go to a mat. Only 101 (69.7%) respondents that attended puppy classes indicated that a specific period was provided for puppies to play together during their classes.

Figure 1—
Figure 1—

Percentage of respondents (n = 145) to 2 surveys (one at enrollment and the other when their puppy reached 20 weeks of age) that reported in the 20-week survey performing various activities with their puppy (1 puppy/respondent) during structured puppy classes.

Citation: Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 251, 12; 10.2460/javma.251.12.1415

Socialization

In the 20-week survey, respondents reported exposing their puppies to an increasing number of other dogs and people as the puppies grew older (Figures 2 and 3). Almost one-third of puppies received only minimal exposure to people (≤ 10 per 2-week increment) and dogs (≤ 5 per 2-week increment) outside the home during the periods assessed in the 20-week survey.

Figure 2—
Figure 2—

Proportions of puppies (n = 296) with reported exposure over time to various number groupings of other dogs in a survey completed by owners when the puppies were 20 weeks of age.

Citation: Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 251, 12; 10.2460/javma.251.12.1415

Figure 3—
Figure 3—

Proportions of puppies (n = 296) with reported exposure over time to various number groupings of people other than owners in a survey completed by owners when the puppies were 20 weeks of age.

Citation: Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 251, 12; 10.2460/javma.251.12.1415

Puppies that attended puppy classes had exposure to a greater number of other dogs from 14 to 20 weeks of age than puppies that did not attend classes (P < 0.05 for all comparisons). The same pattern was observed for exposure to people, with puppies between 10 and 20 weeks of age that attended puppy classes receiving exposure to a greater number of people than those with no class attendance (P < 0.05 for all comparisons).

Fear

When asked in the 20-week survey how their dogs responded to various situations and noises, owners reported little fear toward most exposures (Figures 4 and 5). Attendance (vs no attendance) at puppy classes was associated with a greater participant-reported frequency of puppy exposure to all evaluated stimuli except walking off leash and going to the dog park. Attendance (vs no attendance) was also associated with a lower reporting of puppies reacting in a scared manner or startling in response to thunder (P = 0.03) or noises from a vacuum (P < 0.001). In addition, puppy class attendance (vs no attendance) was associated with fewer reports of puppies reacting in a scared manner to crate training (P = 0.002) and a greater number of puppies reported to appear excited when seeing a bicycle (P = 0.007).

Figure 4—
Figure 4—

Proportions of puppies (n = 296) with reported exposure to various factors and their reported reactions in a survey completed by owners when the puppies were 20 weeks of age.

Citation: Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 251, 12; 10.2460/javma.251.12.1415

Figure 5—
Figure 5—

Proportions of puppies (n = 296) with reported exposure to various noises and their reported reactions in a survey completed by owners when the puppies were 20 weeks of age.

Citation: Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 251, 12; 10.2460/javma.251.12.1415

In the 20-week survey, most respondents indicated that they gradually exposed their puppy to fearful situations (n = 235 [79.4%]) and rewarded calm behavior (213 [72.0%]). Eighteen (6.1%) participants indicated that they used avoidance when their puppy was fearful, and 13 (4.4%) indicated that they forced their puppy to face fear. Owner response to signs of fear in their puppies did not differ between those that had and had not attended puppy classes. Considering all puppies that were categorized as fearful toward environmental factors, puppy class attendance had no association with the number of fearful reactions reported. However, when puppies were categorized as fearful of noises, owners that attended puppy classes were less likely to indicate that their dog was fearful during exposure to noise (P = 0.03).

Puppy discipline

When asked in the 20-week survey about how they disciplined their puppy, most respondents indicated a preference toward positive reinforcement–or negative punishment–based methods, with 89.5% (265/296) indicating they rewarded their puppy's correct behavior and 88.9% (263/296) indicating they redirected their puppy's behavior. Fewer respondents that had attended puppy classes reported use of positive punishment–associated discipline options, compared with respondents with no class attendance (P = 0.02; Table 3). Owners that attended puppy classes were more likely to report use of redirection (P = 0.001), rewarding correct behavior (P = 0.05), and ignoring unwanted behavior (P = 0.001) than owners with no class attendance; owners that reported not attending puppy classes were more likely to report the use of verbal corrections (P = 0.004) and holding their puppy down on its back (P = 0.04). In addition, owners that used punishment to discipline their puppies were more likely to report their puppies had fearful reactions to noise (P = 0.001).

Table 3—

Number (%) of puppy owners (n = 296) reporting use of various forms of discipline in a survey administered when puppies were 20 weeks of age, according to whether they had participated in structured puppy classes.

DisciplinePuppy class (n = 145)No puppy class (n = 151)
Reward correct behavior135 (93.1)130 (86.1)*
Verbally correct119 (82.1)145 (96.0)*
Redirect138 (95.2)125 (82.8)*
Ignore53 (36.6)30 (19.9)*
Startle32 (22.1)49 (32.5)
Avoid29 (20.0)20 (13.2)
Scruff27 (18.6)21 (13.9)
Hold on its back30 (20.7)115 (76.2)*
Poke18 (12.4)23 (15.2)
Grab the muzzle22 (15.2)17 (11.3)
Stare at puppy13 (9.0)19 (12.6)
Spray with water19 (13.1)13 (8.6)
Hit or kick6 (4.1)1 (0.7)
Shock collar0 (0)4 (2.6)
Spray collar0 (0)1 (0.7)
Other action25 (17.2)26 (17.2)

Value differs significantly (P ≤ 0.05) from respective value for the puppy class group, without controlling for other factors.

Included in positive-punishment classification.

Factors associated with attending puppy classes

The final model of factors associated with attendance (vs no attendance) of structured puppy classes included annual household income, information gathered on raising a puppy prior to acquisition, area of respondent's residence, children (yes or no) in the household, and completion of an online puppy education class. Puppies from households with the highest annual income category (> $90,000) had greater odds of attendance than those from lower-income households ($31,000 to $60,000 [OR = 2.87; 95% CI, 1.51 to 5.43]) and ≤ $30,000 [OR = 3.72; 95% CI, 1.53 to 9.04]; P = 0.003). Respondents that reported they had gathered information about puppy care and behavior prior to acquiring their puppy had greater odds of attending classes (OR = 2.62; 95% CI, 1.32 to 5.21; P = 0.006) than did owners that had not done so. Respondents without children in the household had almost twice the odds (OR = 1.90; 95% CI, 1.05 to 3.41; P = 0.003) of attending puppy classes than did respondents with children in the household. Area of residence also influenced the odds of attending classes (P = 0.01), with residents of suburban areas having approximately 2.5 times the odds of attending puppy classes (OR = 2.45; 95% CI, 1.35 to 4.44), compared with residents of rural areas. Completion of the online education class had no association with puppy class attendance (P = 0.14).

Discussion

Early socialization is believed to be critical to healthy social development of puppies. Results of the present study are disconcerting because they suggested that, although most puppies were reported by their owners to have been exposed to a large number of people and dogs early in life, almost one-third of puppies received only minimal exposure to people and dogs outside the home during critical periods for social development, ideally during the generally accepted socialization period of 3 to 12 or 16 weeks of age.9,15 A study16 of the effects of a 6-week puppy class revealed that puppies attending those classes were significantly more likely to have a positive response to strangers than puppies that attended an obedience class or had no exposure to classes of any type. The noteworthy number of puppies exposed to few people and dogs before 20 weeks of age in the present study highlights a population of young dogs that failed to receive the benefits of early socialization.

Exposure to a variety of social stimuli at an early age has been shown to influence social behaviors in adult dogs. For example, research has shown that adult dogs that had contact with children as young puppies appeared to have increased affinity toward children shown through decreased aggressive behavior and excitement around children, compared with dogs with no such contact,17 suggesting that early exposure decreases the potential for conflict between children and dogs. Socialization classes have also been shown to reduce reactions of dogs to other dogs outside the household.18 Although these data suggest that exposure to social stimuli has beneficial effects on adult behavior, no data are available regarding the specific numbers of people, locations, and dogs to which puppies should be exposed to ensure healthy social development. Additional research is needed to identify minimum necessary exposure thresholds so that puppy owners can be counseled accordingly.

Almost half (49.0%) of respondents in the present study reported taking their puppy to structured puppy classes. In a UK-based study,18 27% of respondents had attended puppy socialization classes with their puppies, and a US-based study19 of the practices of dog owners following adoption and found that 13% of dogs of various ages had been taken to training classes in the 1-month period following adoption. These findings highlight an opportunity to encourage new dog owners, particularly puppy owners, to access structured puppy socialization classes. Veterinarians specifically have regular contact with owners of young puppies and are in a good position to educate them about the importance of early puppy socialization and structured socialization classes. Given that current vaccination guidelines20 recommend that puppies receive several core vaccines every 3 to 4 weeks between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks, this period offers veterinarians an ideal opportunity for educating puppy owners in this regard. Ideally, veterinarians would advise puppy owners to socialize their puppies immediately, given that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior position statement on puppy socialization21 states that socialization should occur before puppies are fully vaccinated.

Although a main goal of puppy classes is to provide socialization opportunities for puppies, attendance of these classes also allows new owners to learn how to teach their puppies to perform certain behaviors. Basic commands that are taught are important in the development of a well-behaved dog and have also been associated with an increased likelihood of dogs being retained in the home rather than relinquished.9 In the present study, most of the class programs that participants attended included instruction in basic commands such as sit, down, and recall. Previous research has shown that dogs that attend puppy socialization classes respond better to commands than other dogs,16,22 likely as a result of proper instruction in methods for teaching and reinforcing these behaviors throughout the dog's life. It follows that encouragement by veterinarians and other animal care professionals of owners to provide early socialization and puppy classes for puppies would facilitate the early development of positive behaviors that promote the human-animal bond and, therefore, long-term retention of dogs in the home.

Although evidence exists to support the value of early puppy socialization classes, attendance of puppy classes has been suggested to be affected by various factors, such as highest level of owner education9; however, many of these factors have never been empirically evaluated. Owner financial status may influence puppy class attendance,9 as supported by findings of a study23 in which dog owners residing in lower income zip-code areas were less likely to attend such classes than those living in higher income areas. In the present study, owners from high annual income households had a greater odds of attending classes than owners from lower annual income households after controlling for other factors; however, highest education level had no significant association with class attendance. Given that puppy socialization classes are often provided at a fee, it is realistic to presume that a lack of disposable income may result in lack of attendance.

Furthermore, in the present study, puppy class attendance was less likely for households with (vs without) children after controlling for other factors. In addition, those residing in reportedly suburban areas were at greater odds of attending classes than those residing in rural or urban areas after controlling for other factors. This may have been a reflection of the amount of time respondents had to attend classes and the ease of access and availability of classes in their area of residence. Targeted advertising to puppy owner populations identified as less likely to attend puppy classes, or provision of alternative education programs (eg, online courses or handouts) on socialization practices, may allow owners with access difficulties or financial barriers the opportunity to benefit from being informed about appropriate early puppy socialization. However, it is unknown whether owners would follow through with recommendations or access such programs. Veterinarians therefore have an opportunity to explore a client's barriers to accessing puppy socialization classes and to offer alternative forms of education to clients with barriers.

Completion of the online education program in the present study had no association with puppy class attendance. As this program contained information on socialization, we hypothesized that it would increase the amount of socialization opportunities that puppies received. It is possible that those puppy owners that did not plan on attending in-person classes believed they had enough information from the online program to socialize their puppies.

In the present study, verbal correction and holding puppies down on their back were less common among puppy owners who had attended puppy classes than owners with no class attendance. Use of confrontational training methods, such as holding a puppy down on its back, has been associated with the expression of aggressive behavior in dogs. For example, 29% of dogs placed in a dominance-down position by their owners reportedly responded aggressively in 1 study,24 whereas only 2% reacted aggressively when receiving treats as behavior-modification interventions. Socialization classes offer an excellent opportunity to discuss and practice appropriate management of common puppy behaviors. As identified in the study reported here, there was a considerable number of new puppy owners who did not access puppy socialization classes. Therefore, veterinarians have an opportunity to educate all new puppy owners about the difference between positive reinforcement– versus positive punishment–based training and the association between positive-punishment approaches and certain unwanted behavioral responses (eg, aggression) in dogs.

The prevalence of owner-reported signs of fear in puppies of the present study was quite low, with the most common being when puppies were left alone. Previous research into signs of fear related to noise has indicated that thunder is the most common fear-eliciting stimulus for dogs and that signs of fear related to fireworks and thunder frequently co-occur.18 Fear of thunder was not the most common type of fear reported by puppy owners in the present study; however, the puppies may not have had much exposure to thunder at the time participants completed the 20-week survey, even though most of these surveys were completed during the summer months. Interestingly, the most common noise that elicited signs of fear in puppies up to 20 weeks of age was the noise of a vacuum cleaner, likely because this is a common noise to which these puppies were exposed. The possibility that puppies and adult dogs may have different fears is an area for future research, which may offer further information on the long-term development of fear-related behavior problems in dogs.

Overall, puppies that attended puppy classes were less likely to have signs of fear when exposed to noises than puppies with no class attendance in the present study. This beneficial association may have been attributable to general education regarding appropriate methods for noise exposure or completion of noise desensitization exercises during class. Approximately one-third of puppy programs attended by puppies included noise-desensitization exercises. Conversely, puppies that were exposed to positive punishment–based approaches to behavior management were more likely to have signs of fear in response to noise. Positive punishment and fear-related behaviors of dogs are reportedly linked, whereby use of positive punishment is associated with an increase in the number of behavior problems, including fear responses.25

Given that owners who did not (vs did) attend puppy classes were more likely to use aversive methods of handling and to expose their puppies to fewer people and other dogs in the present study, education of similar owners to improve the training and socialization of their puppies would likely be beneficial to dog welfare and the human-dog relationship. Veterinarians represent a logical channel for dissemination of this information to new puppy owners; however, only 51% to 65% of veterinarians routinely discuss behavior with clients during puppy and kitten examinations.11 Veterinarians are also in a valuable position to provide new dog owners with directions to additional information and resources on dog socialization and behavior, including dog trainers, behaviorists, and credible online information to ensure the socialization practices owners do use are effective and safe.

The recruitment strategy used for the study reported here may have eliminated participation of puppy owners unable to access the internet and also may have selected people with more of an interest in puppy behavior than the typical dog owner. Data collection was performed through self-reporting, which may have introduced social desirability bias, whereby willingness of respondents to report aspects of their actions or pet behavior would have been influenced by their impression of how their responses might have been perceived; however, we could find little evidence of such bias. For example, an association was identified between not attending puppy classes and disciplining a puppy with the use of verbal corrections or holding a puppy down on its back, suggesting that owners were willing to report use of possibly undesirable techniques. One challenge with the observational nature of the study design was that it was not possible to assess whether the observed differences were due to education obtained in the structured puppy classes or more generally attributable to the practices of the type of person that attends such classes. Observation of the development of puppy behavior over a longer period would be valuable to assess the impact of early puppy socialization on the long-term development of puppy and dog behavior.

The results of the present study suggested that although many of the surveyed puppy owners attended structured puppy socialization classes and attempted to socialize their dogs through exposure to various locations, sounds, people, and other dogs, a notable number of puppies < 20 weeks of age received inadequate early socialization opportunities. Owners who attended classes with their puppies provided those puppies with more socialization opportunities than owners who did not attend and also indicated more favorable responses to managing signs of fear in their puppies and to disciplining them. This highlights the need for veterinarians and other animal care professionals to educate puppy owners about the importance of early puppy socialization, socialization classes, and positive reinforcement–based training and assist puppy owners in accessing reliable resources for this information. Future research on the appropriate number of exposures required during puppyhood to effect long-term social development (ie, behavior) of dogs would further benefit veterinarians and other animal care professionals in educating puppy owners on early puppy socialization.

Acknowledgments

Supported by the Nestle Purina PetCare Canada Chair in Communications.

Presented in abstract form at the 52nd Annual Conference of the Animal Behavior Society, Anchorage, Alaska, June 2015.

ABBREVIATIONS

CI

Confidence interval

Footnotes

a.

FluidSurveys, SurveyMonkey, Ottawa, ON, Canada.

b.

SAS 9.2, SAS Institute Inc, Cary, NC.

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Contributor Notes

Address correspondence to Dr. Coe (jcoe@uoguelph.ca).