The first three to twelve weeks of a dog's life is often called the critical, sensitive, or socialisation period. These early months of a puppy's development are crucial for socialisation. A lack of interaction with people and other dogs during this time, can have a life-long negative impact. Puppies need to be exposed to a variety of different environments, sounds, smells, people, other animals, dogs, handling, textures and tactile stimuli. This needs to be conducted in a safe and positive manner. Done correctly, this will likely create resilient dogs, that are less likely to have behaviour problems when older (Appleby, Bradshaw, Casey, 2002; Tiira and Lohi, 2015).
Puppy socialisation classes in the veterinary practice are an excellent way to facilitate this. This allows the classes to be conducted in a safe, controlled, and disinfected environment. Ideally, puppies should attend class after their first vaccination. The risks of infection must be considered; however, the likelihood of a dog being euthanised or relinquished is much greater in unsocialised, ill-mannered dogs (Lambert et al, 2015). Moreover, as clients that attend veterinary practice maintain high levels of preventative healthcare (Lue et al, 2008), combined with infection control measures, the probability of contracting an infectious disease in a veterinary clinic is extremely low.
Staff running the classes need to be adept at reading dog body language, aware of what type of play is appropriate, and competent at knowing when to intervene. However, if staff are not suitably qualified and experienced, classes can end up having the opposite desired effect, and create fearful, unmanageable dogs.
Nurses frequently run puppy classes, and a lot of the time, puppies are all off-lead, uncontrolled and chaotic. Depending on the puppies' experience, personality, and current emotional state, this could be fine. Conversely, puppies could feel overwhelmed, frightened, or anxious, and may learn that other dogs are scary.
It is crucial to ensure that puppies are initially introduced in small numbers, and have positive, mannerly interactions. Play needs to be well-controlled, and officious play needs to be mediated.
Many veterinary staff struggle to interpret what a dog is trying to communicate. This may be the result of vets and nurses having a limited amount of canine behaviour taught at university. Yet, this should be a day-one skill, and should be a fundamental part of the syllabus. Not only for dog welfare, but for human safety.
If staff do not feel confident or competent enough to manage classes, CPD and further qualifications are available.