Puppy events within veterinary clinics

Tiny yawning white Staffordshire Bull Terrier puppy

Puppy socialisation or habituation events (commonly promoted as ‘puppy parties’) can be an engaging way to provide puppy owners with valuable information regarding health, behaviour, and welfare. They also provide puppies, and their owners, with an opportunity to begin to build a positive association with the veterinary environment. 

What happens at puppy socialisation events?

Commonly, puppy events comprise a small group of puppies and owners presenting at the clinic out of consulting hours, for up to an hour at a time. This allows for the puppies to enjoy being within the veterinary environment, meet the clinical team in a positive, enjoyable way and for owners to be provided with general information about caring for and training their puppies. 

Socialising puppies

Puppy owners are likely to be familiar with the term socialisation, although they might interpret this as their puppy needing to interact with a wide variety of people and other dogs whenever the opportunity presents.

However, socialisation should be a carefully managed exposure to a range of different people and other dogs or animals in a positive and gradual process. (See our resource on habituation and socialisation appointments for puppies.)

This aims to ensure that socialisation is accepted comfortably as a normal part of life and removes the risk of puppies suddenly becoming completely overwhelmed by the experience and learning to feel worried by other people or animals.

Puppies who expect to interact with every person or animal they encounter, regardless of the situation, may become frustrated when this is not possible. It is important for owners to teach their puppies to be polite around people and animals and wait calmly before being introduced, if the owner and other party feel it is appropriate. These types of ‘meet and greet’ exercises are commonly facilitated by accredited dog training instructors in puppy training classes, which owners may be directed to for this purpose. 

Within the veterinary clinic, puppies will benefit from learning to relax with their owners despite there being other puppies present, mimicking a standard waiting room scenario.

Owners should be directed to individual seating areas, away from other owners and puppies, and shown how to encourage their puppies to settle using prepared food-releasing toys. This will give owners and puppies something to do and hold their attention.

This will benefit from being carefully managed and puppies kept more than a lead’s length away from each other, so they are unable to interact or become entwined, which might make them panic. 

Puppy events within a veterinary environment will benefit from careful and considerate planning and be delivered by practised, knowledgeable staff. This will ensure owners receive the key messages the clinic wishes to impart in a meaningful and lasting way, while they and their puppies experience an enjoyable time together within the clinical setting. 

Safety considerations for puppy events at veterinary clinics

It can help to create a safety checklist for any event happening within the clinical environment. This ought to include a risk assessment, including delegation of responsibilities to specific clinical team members and, depending on availability of space and numbers of clinic staff/volunteers present, agreement on maximum numbers of puppies/accompanying family members to admit per session.

For example, to optimise the opportunity to communicate effectively with attending clients, a maximum of 4 puppies presents a manageable group that can also be efficiently provided for by the clinical team.

Although it’s important for puppies to be exposed to a variety of puppies and dogs of different shapes, sizes and breeds (and their owners), achieving this in a wholly positive manner within a relatively small indoor space such as the veterinary clinic waiting room could prove challenging.

Even though the aim is to keep them happily entertained at a distance at which they’re unable to physically interact, you might wish to consider managing the sizes of puppies attending each session, if possible. This will more effectively manage the available space, and also avoid a potential scenario in which a very small puppy is overwhelmed by three large-breed puppies.  

As part of planning your event, ensure the following is in place:

  • agreement on length of the session — puppies will struggle to concentrate for long periods so aiming for a maximum of 30–45 minutes is likely to be optimal 
  • the means to screen between puppies to avoid interaction 
  • the means of positively reinforcing desired behaviour, for example, making a selection of treats with ingredient lists available
  • adequate space for practising training techniques such as a puppy responding to their name and returning to their owner when called 
  • a bowl of fresh water — one per puppy
  • agreement on cleaning and disinfection protocols pre- and post-event 
  • agreement on minimum age and/or vaccination status of puppies attending
  • timings for the session to avoid consulting hours
  • agreement on where the event will take place, for example, a particular waiting area 
  • contingency plan to treat any patient presenting with an emergency during the event, particularly should the event be taking place when the clinic is closed
  • non-slip matting for each puppy should the event be conducted in an area without this
  • client seating arrangements — ideally allowing space in between each puppy so they may share the space without interacting with each other
  • a preconceived plan for welcoming puppies and moving them through the space to their designated seating areas, ensuring they do not interact with each other
  • refreshment and toilet availability for clients attending
  • means of cleaning up any urination or defaecation
  • prepared activities or equipment for any children attending 
  • availability of supportive materials such as leaflets or equipment that might be used during the event, for example, the weighing scales or a stethoscope.

Roles and responsibilities for puppy socialisation events

It can help to have one main facilitator leading the session. Ideally this will be someone well-experienced with qualifications and/or accreditations in dog behaviour and reward-based training, as well as a good understanding of the necessary healthcare factors involved in puppy rearing. This leaves additional team members available to host and assist owners and puppies as necessary. 

To enable each owner to enjoy some one-to-one time with a member of the clinic team, ideally a minimum of two people should be present for an event involving four puppies. Additional assistance, where possible, can be beneficial. 

General content that may be covered at a puppy socialisation event

There is a vast amount of information available for puppy owners, however, it should be noted that puppies have a limited ability to concentrate for long periods of time and therefore the information shared during these events needs to be prioritised, focussing on the needs of the group. 

Below are two common subject areas which are often discussed during puppy socialisation events.

Health-related messaging

Puppy events provide a means of consolidating information already provided during vaccination and health check appointments, as well as offering an opportunity to respond directly to questions that might have arisen meanwhile regarding:

  • parasitic prevention
  • vaccinations
  • neutering
  • general health and how to monitor – routine checks
  • toothbrushing/dental care
  • grooming and nail care.

Standard advice provided will depend upon individual clinic protocols. 

Behaviour/training-related messaging

A puppy event provides the opportunity to help provide owners with advice that might become the foundation for establishing their continued relationship with their dog. However, given the necessary time constraints it is important to ensure that key messaging is delivered. 

Owners should benefit from being provided the key pieces of information listed below.

  • A general introduction to understanding how their puppies communicate their feelings (as discussed in canine communication). This should provide owners with the skills to recognise when their dog is beginning to feel uncomfortable, excited or frustrated, and to learn how to respond to help their dog to feel safe and relaxed.
  • A basic introduction to how dogs learn
  • How to use reward-based training to teach puppies valuable skills that will enable them to lead safe, relaxed lives 
  • An explanation of why punishment can be unhelpful (common misconceptions regarding dog behaviour.
  • Example training plans for toilet training, learning to wear a collar or lead, as well as preventative advice for resource guarding.

Practical exercises

You could also include some practical exercises within the puppy event (time permitting), such as:

  • returning to owners when called  
  • being handled all over their bodies
  • settling quietly by themselves.

Including these types of activities at the event provides owners with the opportunity to apply the principles of how dogs learn and how to use positive reinforcement to teach their puppy in an enjoyable way.

Emphasis can be placed on the fact that this application is transferable across conditions, so owners can continue to use these techniques throughout their dogs’ lives. 

Video tutorials demonstrating how to teach these, and other valuable exercises can be found via the training section of the website and, where clinic resources permit, they could be shown to attendees during the puppy event. 

Creating a plan for the puppy socialisation event

Balancing the desire to provide information that meets both owner and clinic need within the allotted timeframe can be challenging, so it will help to create a tailored plan for the event that includes opportunities for both messaging and discussion along with practical activities.

Should puppies be permitted to interact and play within a puppy event?

There can be many benefits to dogs from playing with other dogs, and it is an activity they can thoroughly enjoy. Dogs are social animals and can enjoy playing with each other and their owners, and indeed do throughout their entire lives.

However, for play to be a mutually positive experience for all parties involved, certain criteria must be met, such as requiring an atmosphere of familiarity and emotional security in a safe environment. 

Owners might arrive expecting their puppies to be encouraged to interact and play together, particularly if the event is termed a ‘puppy party’, so this title might be misleading for clients. However, there are risks involved with this, which potentially outweigh any benefits within the veterinary context:

  • engaging in highly arousing play or activity within the veterinary clinic might create an expectation for this activity the next time the puppy visits the clinic
  • puppies might quickly become overwhelmed, and play might not always be mutually consensual between those involved
  • some puppies might find engaging in play with other puppies extremely rewarding and become frustrated when their owners then wish to handle them and halt the interaction
  • some puppies might find interacting with other dogs worrying and therefore feel that they have no means of avoiding this interaction
  • puppies might practise inappropriate behaviour around other dogs
  • owners might be concerned for their individual puppy however not feel confident to interject or ask for someone else’s puppy to be removed if they appear to be overbearing
  • owners might perceive their puppies to be enjoying themselves when in fact they are not comfortable
  • owners might interpret this type of facilitated activity as endorsing dogs to be encouraged to play with any other dog

Although the veterinary environment isn’t a particularly appropriate place to introduce play with unfamiliar puppies, owners can be signposted to their nearest accredited puppy training class provider. Skilled, experienced accredited dog training instructors will be able to facilitate positive interactions between puppies they have assessed as well-matched to engage in play together. 

Accredited instructors are also able to coach owners through understanding when it is appropriate and safe to allow their puppies to engage in play with other dogs, how to assess whether this is the right thing to do or not, and how to interrupt should they become worried about how any puppy involved in an interaction is behaving.

This is an invaluable lesson for dog owners, therefore better placed to be facilitated within training classes without risking any puppy struggling within the veterinary practice.  

The option of providing a short course of puppy events

If a veterinary clinic is resourced to do so, in terms of staffing experience and facility availability, it might be appropriate to plan a short course of sessions for the same small group of owners and puppies to attend. However, attendance is reliant upon client commitment, and with many other demands on time, isolated events might prove preferable for clients. 

There are several main benefits to offering a short course - such as three 30-minute sessions delivered over the course of three weeks. These are:

  • the ability to spread out the delivery of information so as not to overwhelm owners
  • the opportunity for puppies to have repeated positive exposure to the veterinary environment
  • for progression to be noted/any concerns to be addressed.

Owners can be signposted for further behavioural or training support if they would like or if they are struggling.

We hope you enjoy setting up puppy socialisation events within your veterinary clinic.

Lunch+Learn session on socialisation events

As an additional resource, Dogs Trust’s Dog School coaches are able to provide ‘lunch+learn’ sessions on Delivering Puppy Socialisation Events within Veterinary Environments.

If you would like to organise a session for your clinic, please contact your nearest Dog School.

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Disclaimer notice: The advice given on this website [in these materials] is intended for your general information only and should not be relied upon as specific advice for any veterinary practice or clinic. Each veterinary practice or clinic will be unique in its physical environment and each dog attending the veterinary practice or clinic will have specific needs and requirements, which the veterinary practice or clinic is solely responsible for. Unless prohibited by law, Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Behaviour Association do not accept liability to any person veterinary practice or clinic relating to the use of this information.

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