How to socialize a puppy that's not fully vaccinated

February 17, 2023 - 4 min read
socialize unvaccinated puppy two dogs together

Puppies deserve to be both happy and healthy, but is it possible to socialize young puppies while simultaneously keeping them safe from infectious diseases? Yes! In fact, pet parents must do both at the same time.

The Importance of Socialization

Socialization is the process that a puppy goes through to become comfortable in as many different situations as possible. Young puppies are curious and open to new experiences. As long as we make sure these encounters are pleasant, puppies who experience a lot when they are young tend to grow into confident and trusting adult dogs.

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Can You Socialize an Unvaccinated Dog?

Let’s look at how a puppy’s peak socialization period, infectious disease risk, and vaccination schedule overlap.

Puppies undergo a sensitive socialization period when they are very young. During this time, a puppy who has a good experience with something will likely continue to think of that thing in a positive way for the rest of their lives. However, bad experiences tend to have long-lasting negative effects too, and what’s equally detrimental is a lack of exposure. If a puppy doesn’t have a positive experience with something during this peak socialization period, they may find it scary for the rest of their lives. The exact age range for this sensitive period differs from individual to individual but, in general, it occurs when pups are between 3 and 16 weeks old.

Puppies shouldn’t be separated from their mothers until they are 8 weeks old, so new pet parents are typically only dealing with the second half of this socialization period — between 8 and 16 weeks of age. That’s only two months to teach puppies how to make their way through the world!

Unfortunately, puppies are not yet fully vaccinated during this time and are susceptible to many potentially serious diseases including parvovirus and distemper. We can’t let this stop us from getting puppies the socialization they need, but it does influence how we should proceed.

Follow Your Vet’s Vaccination and Preventive Care Recommendations

Puppies generally start their vaccination series when they are 6 to 8 weeks old. They then return for more vaccines every 3 to 4 weeks until they are 16 to 20 weeks old. Most puppies need to see their veterinarian at least 3 times so they can get all of their vaccinations completed on time. The veterinarian will also prescribe appropriate parasite preventives at each visit. Staying up-to-date on a puppy’s preventive care will help them stay healthy as they become well-socialized.

Try At-Home Interactions

Since it’s impossible for a puppy to be fully vaccinated during their peak socialization period, pet parents have to walk a bit of a tightrope. Our goal is to expose puppies in a positive manner to all the situations that they will experience as adults while simultaneously minimizing their exposure to infectious diseases. An easy way to do this is to start at home!

  • Play with your pup in as many different ways as you can.

  • Introduce them to all your human family members young and old. Ask people to dress oddly, carry umbrellas and canes, wear hats… make use of anything you have on hand!

  • Promote positive interactions with other pets.

  • Expose your puppy to all the sights, sounds, and experiences of your household — vacuuming, laundry, car rides, grooming, doorbells, phones, TV, music, hair dryers, delivery people, luggage, strollers, carpeting, hard flooring, going up and down stairs, etc.

Visit Friends and Family

Take your puppy to other people’s homes. There, they will be able to have new experiences that you can’t provide on your own. Make sure your puppy is exposed to people of all ages, sizes, genders, abilities, races, and ethnicities.

It’s ideal if your friends and family also have other well-behaved pets (including other puppies, adult dogs, cats, birds, small pets, and even livestock), but make sure they are healthy and up-to-date on their preventive care and vaccinations before you plan to visit.

Ask Your Vet to Help

If you’re going to the veterinary clinic for puppy visits anyway, ask the staff there to help with your socialization efforts. They can play with your puppy while they are wearing unusual outfits, exam gloves, face masks, etc. Ask if someone is willing to walk with a limp or move in an odd way around your puppy.

Attend Puppy Classes

Many veterinary clinics and dog trainers also offer puppy socialization classes. They are a great way to expose your pup to other people, pets, and experiences under the supervision of a professional who can offer advice if they notice any problems developing. Well-run puppy classes are held in thoroughly sanitized environments and ensure that all puppies who attend have received a minimum of one set of vaccines. Ideally, at least one week should have passed after vaccination to give the pups time to start building some immunity.

Set Up Doggy Playdates

Puppies can only learn how to interact with other dogs by actually interacting with other dogs. Pet parents can set up play dates between puppies who have started their vaccination series and gentle, fully-vaccinated adult dogs, but keep a close eye on your pup’s interactions so that they remain positive. The best setting for a puppy playdate is either indoors or in a fenced backyard that is only used by healthy dogs who are up-to-date on all their vaccines and dewormings.

Minimize Risk Outdoors

At some point, your pup does need to venture further out into the world to experience all that it has to offer. Using some common sense will help your puppy become well-socialized without encountering unnecessary risks.

  • Go for walks, but keep your pup on a leash and away from dogs you don’t know. You should also keep them away from piles of poop and areas that might attract potentially unvaccinated dogs. Pass by schools, construction sites, airports, buses, trains, etc.

  • Visit the dog park. But until your pup is fully vaccinated, just keep them outside the fence — or carry them at all times if you do walk inside the fence.

  • Visit dog-friendly establishments during quiet times.

  • Ride public transportation if it is permitted, but avoid rush hour.

  • Walk across all different types of surfaces, particularly those like gravel and cement, where you can see and avoid potentially contaminated spots.

Of course, opportunities for socialization should continue throughout a dog’s life. Older puppies have another less-intense socialization period that typically occurs when they are around 6 to 8 months of age. And old dogs can learn new tricks as well, it just takes extra effort and time.

Help is available if you have any concerns about your dog’s socialization. A veterinarian or a veterinary behavior specialist can put together a plan based on your pup’s particular needs.

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Veterinarian, Veterinary Writer, Editor, and Consultant

Dr. Jennifer Coates is a writer, editor, and consultant with experience in veterinary medicine, science, animal welfare, conservation, and communications. She has written for outlets including petMD, Chewy, and ManyPets.