GUN DOG Q&A: How to Properly Wean Puppies

Reader Question

"We enjoyed your article in last year's March/April/May issue but are very confused about how to go about weaning our female Lab of her seven, 8-week-old puppies. Our vet suggested we pick a day to wean the pups. We decided on seven weeks.

At six weeks we began decreasing mom's puppy chow and switched her back to regular adult food. The pups were seven weeks old on Monday, August 26.  She nursed the pups two times that day, once on Tuesday, then none on Wednesday. But she still wants to get with her pups. How does this "dog language" work if mom isn't with the pups?"


You really don't need to wean mom. She will wean the pups when she is ready. This is usually around the late sixth and early seventh week. All you need to do is start supplemental feeding of the pups when they are 5 to 6 weeks old. Start with a pablum-type baby food mixed well with warm water or warm milk or dog substitute milk.

By the end of the sixth week mom's hormone picture is considerably changed from the first week after the pups arrived. Estrogen is way down, progesterone is dropping off and prolactin is diminishing. These are the hormones essential for lactation.

This change in the hormone picture is why mom starts to wean. You should not totally separate mom from the pups until week 10 when the pups should go to their new owners. Both mom and the siblings are essential for primary socialization.

In wild canids like foxes and coyotes, mom and dad bring food in their stomachs in a semi-digested form and regurgitate it for the pups from the fifth week on. Supplemental feeding of a gruel-like food to the pups simulates regurgitated food.

In domestic dogs, dad is not there to bring a stomach load of partly digested sustenance for the pups or a dead rabbit for mom to convert to partly digested food, so you, the breeder, must intervene with soaked up and mashed puppy chow.

Pups should be held in a whelping box with sides high enough to keep them in but allow mom to enter and leave the box as she pleases while the pups remain contained. By seven or eight weeks or earlier, some of the pups may be clambering out of the box. Then you can start paper training them to keep the whelping box cleaner.

Depending on the weather, mom and the pups can be outside. However, you can forget about a flower garden and other decorative or food-producing vegetation. They will surely destroy it.

Gradually, mom will spend more time away from the pups so that by 10 weeks when pups are ready for their new homes, they will have learned all they need to know from their mom and even more from their siblings. You can read or download four articles I wrote for GUN DOG: "The Forty-ninth Day," "Producing Behaviorally Sound Pups," "Giving Pups a Head Start," and "New Pup Coming, Now What?"

Another excellent source of information on puppy rearing is Puppy's First Steps, a Proven Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, Well-behaved Companion, written by veterinarians of Tufts University and edited by Nicholas Dodman with Lawrence Lindner. The articles and book should give you the information and insight you need for rearing puppies.

Reader Question

"I am expecting a litter of pups from my English cocker, and was wondering if you could answer a few questions. What are the best conditions, both physical and mental? What should the environment be like?

How much should pups be handled at birth, at one week, at two weeks, and so on? When is the best time to wean, and how? What kind of training and at what age? When is the set time to sell the pups to interested buyers (8 weeks, 10 weeks)? What books, DVDs, etc., should I look into?"


Rather than trying to give you specific answers to your first five questions, which would require several hundred pages, I will provide some suggestions to address questions six and seven, which will address your other questions. Please refer to the solution in the previous problem regarding the four articles I wrote for GUN DOG.

These articles were intended as a sequence and the first three will answer most of your questions.

If you have more questions, email me ( and I will get answers right back to you.

Another very good source is the excellent book referred to before, which you should be able to purchase online or from a major bookseller. It is the best book I have ever seen on puppy care and rearing.

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