EVEN THE BEST-BRED DOG WILL NEVER REALIZE ITS POTENTIAL IF IT IS NOT HANDLED CORRECTLY DURING THE CRUCIAL STAGES OF PUPPYHOOD.
Puppyhood is a very sensitive time in a dog's life. Puppies are often sent to their new homes not because they have reached the optimal age to leave the litter but because the time is convenient for the buyer and breeder. Unfortunately, convenience for the breeder and buyer may not always be best for the puppy.
In fact, placing a puppy in a new home too early, before the animal is developmentally prepared for the new experience, can have serious and lasting detrimental effects, such as nervousness, insecurity, and difficulty in adapting to new environments. Show breeders who hold on to puppies until they're nine or ten weeks old - the best time of assessing structure - may actually be doing their puppies a favor.
While each week of a puppy's life is developmentally different, the existence of various physical and emotional stages is fairly standard and has been documented across breeds. Over a period of thirty or more years, the developmental periods of puppyhood have been separated and labeled with a variety of terms by several researchers. Though the terms vary, the developmental stages remain fairly similar. They are now called "sensitive periods", and breeders need to be familiar with them if they are going to raise mentally stable puppies. Sensitive periods are developmental stages where the pups exhibit heightened awareness of particular senses and are responsive to specific stimuli. The first of these periods is birth to three weeks, or the neonatal stage. THE
From birth to three weeks of age, the pup is very sensitive to smell and physical stimuli. Puppies find their way to the puppy pile and the dam (food source) through scent and the radiation of body heat. At this age, puppies are not able to regulate their own body heat; they depend upon the dam and each other for warmth. A heating pad or heat lamp in the whelping box is always second to the dam as a favorite sleeping place of the litter pile. The pups are so keen about sensing the heat that moving the heating pad or lamp around the whelping box always incites a massive migration to the new location.
Even though the pups' ears and eyes are closed and learning during this period appears to be very limited, they are gathering and processing very important information about their environment through scent and physical stimuli.
The dam spends most of her day stimulating the pups to suckle and eliminate by licking them all over their bodies. The licking (physical contact) is also a very important aspect of bonding for this social animal. This is a good time to introduce and imprint the pleasantries of human contact, as well. The feel and scent of human handling introduced form birth is the beginning of a positive and rewarding bond between human and canine. The breeder can introduce positive handling through daily weighing of the pups, which is important to monitor their health and also serves as positive socialization.
Suckling at this age is very strong, and the mere presence of a human finger near the mouth elicits a strong sucking response. A nutritionally healthy mixture of pureed raw liver and cultured yogurt fed from the tip of a finger can benefit all the pups, but particularly those less hearty critters who get pushed away from the most productive teats. In addition, the puppies will associate the tasty mixture with handling. Just as with some humans, some pups take a little longer to acquire a taster for the liver pate' - but few turn down the treat after a few licks. Although it's a messy affair for pup and breeder, feeding a couple of fingersful a day of this gourmet treat can serve two purposes: A) strengthening the motor skills of sucking and head turning; and B) eliciting increased licking of the pup by the dam, who will take much pleasure in tasting the excess treat.
The time you spend feeding the pup this treat is a good opportunity to talk and let the animal experience the vibrations of your voice. All this early handling involves you in the imprinting process, which produces puppies that are comfortable around humans. By the time they're 3 weeks old they'll be so used to the regular handling that they'll congregate in the direction of people who enter the room.
The Natal Stage
The next stage, three to six weeks, is the natal or fun stage. During this period, the pups' ears and eyes are open and their vision, hearing and motor skills (coordination) are improving daily. They can now regulate their own heat.
They also become more vocal. The first bark emitted can be as surprising for the pup as the breeder. Very often after letting out that first bark the puppy will be so startled that it will fall back on its haunches.
Between birth and six weeks of age some researchers and breeders recommend adding mild stress to the pup's life to facilitate the process of coping with stress in adulthood. Gauging the amount of stress pups are exposed to based on their age and individual personalities is far from an exact science. Stress overload can be very damaging to the animal's mental health. Therefore, breeders must be very cautious about introducing artificial or excessive stimuli. The conditions and structure of the litter provide an abundance of natural stress. The pups are often bowled over topsy-turvy by the dam's licking - and when does a bitch ever give a puppy that's attached to a teat forewarning that she is going to get up and move about? Puppies are abruptly detached from the teat several times a day, not to mention that getting the best teat can be at least difficult and, often, stressful.
Natural stress also occurs during weighing and when the bedding is changed or the dam decides to take a short walk during the pups' snack time. These experiences are low-intensity stress situations and make for healthier pups without risking emotional damage. There is plenty of time for the pups to naturally experience a variety of stressful situations.
Age 6 to 7 Weeks
Age 6 to 7 weeks
Most dams wean their puppies around six weeks of age. The natural weaning process is an important time for the pups; it's when they learn discipline from the dam who reprimands them for their attempts to suckle, thus exposing them to important body language from adult dogs. If the puppy misses the signal or warning, the dam is unlikely to cause serious damage when she follows through with a correction. If a pup misses a signal when interacting with a strange dog, it may provoke the dog to cause more harm.
The 6-week-old pup is still quite dependent upon the dam and litter. If the pup is removed from the litter at this stage, it may compensate for the separation by becoming overly dependent upon the new owner. An over-dependent dog often experiences severe episodes of separation anxiety.
Puppies removed from the litter too early may also experience fearful reactions, such as backing away from people or objects, or displaying exaggerated startle responses. If these reactions are not successfully handled, the dog may remain fearful throughout its life.
Age 7 to 8 Weeks
Age 7 to 8 Weeks
The neurological system of the 7-week-old puppy is almost as mature as that of an adult canine. By the seventh week, the puppies are eating dog food and are active, hardy little animals. At this stage, the social structure of the litter becomes very observable. Many breeders believe seven weeks is the prime age for the bonding process to begin between the puppy and the new owner. The truth is, this is the primary time puppies form strong social bonds, but so long as they are exposed to humans and positive contact, the learned social behavior will transfer to a new owner no matter how old the dog.
Puppies placed at seven weeks to optimize bonding to a particular person may be robbed of crucial social litter experiences. Consequently, these puppies may have emotional difficulty socializing with other dogs.
Pups begin to display independence and increased exploratory behavior at 9 to10 weeks, steadily and gradually showing more confidence, curiosity and willingness to learn. Inter-litter social relationships are in place. The dog that has been regularly exposed to human contact eagerly seeks out social relationships and contact with any person present.
The primary socialization period for canines as defined by researchers, three to sixteen weeks, specifically means dogs that have not been exposed to people of other dogs during this period run a very high risk of being fearful of humans and canines. This does not mean puppies should be overloaded with exposure to everything in this short period of time. Regular and positive short periods of exposure to new stimuli are sufficient to maintain a confident canine temperament. Survival for canines and all living organisms depends upon their ability to continue to learn and adapt to their environment throughout their lives. If a puppy is not regularly exposed to humans, other dogs and a variety of surroundings, there is a very high probability that it will always be fearful.
Today, through the work, writings and observations of a great many people interested in the welfare of canine companions, we know that the socialization period does not end at sixteen weeks. Socialization is an ongoing process that must continue throughout the dog's life to maintain a stable and suitable temperament. Isolation will cause de-socialization episodes.
The Sensitive Period
At eight weeks old the dog moves into the puppy fear or sensitive period, which usually lasts one week. At this time, the most ordinary events may frighten the puppy and have a profound and possibly lasting effect on its personality. Breeders can minimize stress to the pups by keeping the litter together for another week or two and maintaining the familiar, stable environment.
This does not mean the pup should be deprived of new stimuli. On the contrary, the breeder must sensitively and systematically introduce different objects, people and situations. The pups will be less threatened and have a greater chance of coping with the new stimuli if their surroundings are familiar and comfortable during the critical fear period.
Interactions between littermates during this week become more intense and serious in forming the submissive and dominant hierarchy. What used to appear as playfulness over a toy now literally becomes tug-of-war and a serious challenge for social position. These interactions involve complex body language and vocalizations, and prepare the animal for future canine relationships.
A Lot to Like About Litters
Prolonging the litter experience may cultivate a secure, confident and calm adult dog. The litter environment is usually a nurturing, socially enriching and very educational experience for the pup. The litter is where the pup can learn how to interact with other dogs, interpret body language and feel secure and comfortable until developmentally mature enough to cope with other conditions. The litter is the place for puppies to learn and develop a strong and stable temperament that will enable them to excel in all aspects of companionship, obedience and/or breed competition - as well as the tasks for which they were specifically bred.
While socialization or exposure to dogs, people and places is very important for the mental development of the young puppy, there are health risks in exposing the puppies to other animals before they have received their complete series of inoculations. Another good reason for keeping the litter intact until the pups are older is so they can safely socialize with each other and reduce the risk of exposure to disease.
The breeder who understands the developmental stages and maintains the litter intact until the pups are nine to ten weeks old can provide timely and appropriate enrichment for the pups to maximize the soundness of temperament.