Getting Puppy Started Off Right: Preventing Puppy Behavior Problems
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2017
Kenneth M. Martin, DVM, DACVB
Veterinary Behavior Consultations, LLC, and TEAM Education in Animal Behavior, LLC, Spicewood, Texas, USA

Early experience has been recognized by professionals as the first big step in the prevention of dog behavior problems. Inadequate exposure (to various environments and to novelty) and/or negative experiences during their first 3 to 4 months of life can promote the development of life threatening behavior problems and disorders, including fear and aggression. The good news is that measures can be taken to help prevent some behavior problems, decrease relinquishment, and help dogs develop into confident, easy-going patients.

Socialization is not just about exposure to novel stimuli, but about providing positive emotional experiences for the puppy beginning at an early age. The socialization period can be defined as a sensitive period of development whereby a dog learns to communicate and relate to conspecifics, humans, and the environment.1 It is the most influential learning period of a dog’s life. Socialization can be divided into primary socialization (3–5 weeks) and secondary socialization (6–12 weeks). Lack of experience during the first 3–4 months of life will prevent the puppy from reaching its full potential. By 8 weeks of age, a puppy’s learning ability is adult-like, based on electroencephalogram findings and the results of multiple behavior studies.2 Consequently, 8 week old puppies can maintain long-term memories. During the socialization period, a lack of positive exposure to various environments and to novelty can be as detrimental as bad experiences.

Veterinarians play a pivotal role in making appropriate recommendations for positive social and environmental experiences. Providing outdated or inappropriate recommendations such as don’t take the puppy out in public until it is fully vaccinated (at 12–16 weeks of age) can result the development of behavior problems, damage to the human-animal bond, relinquishment and/or euthanasia. Positive proactive exposure is not without risk, yet the risk of losing a pet due to a behavior problem is far greater than that of infectious diseases. Behavior problems are the number-one cause of relinquishment to shelters and the number-one cause of euthanasia in healthy animals.3,4

Positive proactive exposure can minimize disease risk while preventing many behavior problems, such as fears, phobias, anxiety disorders, and even aggression. The focus on this presentation will be to provide attendees with the knowledge and skills needed to help prevent behavior problems through proper socialization and to solve normal training issues of puppies.

Incorporating Behavioral Medicine

The first step in the prevention of behavioral problems is the incorporation of behavioral medicine into routine veterinary wellness visits. Simply asking questions at each visit about dog behavior and/or training problems will result in interactive discussion.

Understanding that there is a difference between a training problem and a behavior disorder is crucial to providing appropriate guidance. A training problem can be defined as a normal behavior of the dog that humans find undesirable. In contrast, a behavior disorder occurs when the dog suffers from an underlying emotional disorder, manifesting as fear, phobia, anxiety, or aggression. Behavioral problems are not issues which are related directly to training. Behavior disorders, as well as training problems, can be either addressed during the routine veterinary visit or with a special behavior visit pending the presenting problem. In more serious cases of behavior problems, the case may be referred to a qualified animal behavior professional such as a veterinary behaviorist or a positive reinforcement trainer.

Addressing Behavior Concerns

This lecture will review a step by step process to prevent and address problem behaviors of puppies. Problem prevention and solving methods will address some common normal canine behaviors.

Most undesirable behaviors of puppies are normal behaviors related to a lack of training. Common puppy problems include a lack of leash manners, jumping on people, chewing objects, excessively vocalizing, playful mouthing and biting, and a lack of house training. Puppies must learn to wear a collar and leash and walk calmly without excessive pulling. Jumping on people usually consists of standing with the forelegs on a person and rear legs on the ground, yet occasionally the dog jumps up without making human contact. The behavior may accompany normal greeting behavior of dogs. Chewing objects often results in physical damage to the item which may or may not be consumed. Vocalizing in puppies may consist of excessive whimpering, whining, barking, or howling. Mouthing and biting is usually directed toward human extremities and may be interpreted as aggression or lead to aggression depending on how the behavior is treated. Most puppies are not fully housetrained when acquired and they must be taught not to eliminate waste indoors.

Serious behavior problems in puppies encompass fear, phobia, anxiety, and/or aggression. Puppies are unlikely to grow out of serious behavior problems as they get older. The sooner appropriate behavioral training or treatment can be implemented, the greater the likelihood for resolution of the behavior and pet retention.

Importance and Benefits of Offering Puppy Socialization Classes

Puppy socialization classes are intended for behaviorally normal puppies. Puppy classes are not designed to address abnormal behaviors, but their identification allows for early and appropriate treatment. The focus of puppy class is on education and the prevention of problem behaviors. Puppies should be between 7–12 weeks of age when starting a puppy socialization class.

The benefits to offering puppy socialization classes in the veterinary hospital include:

  • Bonding the client to their new puppy and the veterinary hospital5
  • Educating the client on normal canine behavior
  • Addressing common puppy training issues
  • Providing a controlled and safe environment for puppy play

Attending puppy socialization classes can help prevent behavior problems such as inter-dog aggression with dogs outside of the home.6 Puppies may be taught independence and owners may taught to prevent codependence, therein possibly preventing separation anxiety. Many fear and anxiety disorders are related to a lack of socialization. Teaching puppies to enjoy restraint and handling will make the veterinary visits go more smoothly. Puppy classes can also help identify problem puppies or high risk puppies for the development of future behavior problems.

A dog that develops undesirable behavior problems is at an increased risk of relinquishment. While addressing behavior in everyday practice may be somewhat time consuming, the monetary return can be significant. Puppy socialization classes typically include 4 weekly one-hour classes and cost between $100–175 per attending puppy. Ten attending puppies have the potential to generate 1,000 to 1,750 dollars per month or 12,000 to 21,000 dollars per year.

It has been estimated that on average, 15% of pets are relinquished or euthanized annually because of behavioral issues.7 This is difficult for pets and their owners and adversely affects veterinary hospitals. A veterinary hospital that loses 5% (a conservative estimate) of its canine patients to pet relinquishment will experience significant financial loss.

For example

  • A hospital has 3000 active canine patients.
  • A loss of 5% of patients equals 150 patients.
  • The average annual veterinary cost for a healthy dog is $300.a
  • Therefore, the total annual dollar loss is $45,000 (150 dogs x $300).
  • If 10% (300) of dogs were lost, the dollar loss would be $90,000. If 15% (450) of dogs were lost, the dollar loss would be $135,000.

From AP poll, November 2011.

Consider puppy socialization classes as vaccinating against behavior problems. Numerous studies have shown that lack of proper socialization can predispose a puppy to cognitive and emotional dysfunctional behaviors.8-10 When group puppy socialization class requires proof of vaccination and other health requirements, the risk of acquiring infectious diseases is low.11-13


a. The average veterinary cost is based on a healthy dog that did not require major medical treatments.


1.  Scott JP, Fuller JL. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 1998:101–108, 117–129.

2.  Lindsay SR. Development of behavior. In: Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Volume One. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press; 2000:63.

3.  Scheidegger J. Veterinary practices performing more euthanasias despite increase in stop treatment point: expert practitioners discuss possible causes for apparent discrepancy. DVM Newsmagazine October 24, 2012.

4.  Salman MD, New JG, Scarlett JM, Kass PH, Ruch-Gallie R, Hetts S. Human and animal factors related to the relinquishment of dogs and cats in 12 selected animal shelters in the United States. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 1998;1(3):207–226.

5.  Duxbury MM, Jackson JA, Line SW, Anderson RK. Evaluation of association between retention in the home and attendance at puppy socialization classes. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2003;223(1):61–66.

6.  Blackwell EJ, Twels C, Seawright A, Gasey RA. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. J Vet Behav Clin Appl Res. 2008;3(5):207–217.

7.  Tremayne J. AAFP pens behavior guidelines for DVMs, staff, clients. DVM Magazine April 1, 2005.

8.  Thompson WR, Heron W. The effects of early restriction on activity in dogs. J Comp Physiol Psychol. 1954;54:77–82.

9.  Thompson WR, Melzack R, Scott TH. “Whirling behavior” in dogs as related to early experience. Science. 1956;123:939.

10.  Fox MW, Stelzner D. The effects of early experience on the development of inter and intraspecies social relationships in the dog. Anim Behav. 1967;15:377–386.

11.  Martin KM, Martin DA. Puppy Start Right for Instructors Course. Karen Pryor Academy; 2012.

12.  Meyer EK. Early puppy socialization classes: weighing the risks vs. benefits. Accessed December 2012.

13.  Stepita ME, Bain MJ, Kass PH. Frequency of CPV infection in vaccinated puppies that attended puppy socialization classes. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2013;49:95–100.


Speaker Information
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Kenneth M. Martin, DVM, DACVB
Veterinary Behavior Consultations, LLC & TEAM Education in Animal Behavior, LLC
Spicewood, TX, USA

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