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Puppy Benchmarks: Critical Periods in Puppy Development

Puppy Benchmarks: Critical Periods in Puppy Development
Missteps during the weaning process can cause problems you don't want pup to have.

Behavior problems avoided are problems that don't need to be fixed. In the case of dogs, most behavior problems are created, or at least abetted, initially by choice of parents and more often by mistakes made during the pup's first 12 weeks of life.

Pups have several benchmark periods critical to good behavioral development. The first of these periods occurs the moment a sperm penetrates an ovum to create the zygote with its random assortment of genes. These are the behavioral traits rooted in the genetics of the dog.

Behavior Genetics is a whole field of study unto itself, based primarily on probabilities and not on absolutes. A breeder and potential buyers can do little more to control the genetics of behavior than to control what comes up on the toss of dice. Behavioral evaluation of the parents, all the progenitors and their close relatives would be required, after which the probabilities of heritable characteristics would have to be worked out.

Breeders have to do lots of detective work, do the best job they can of predicting and be very lucky. Breeding dogs is not your average exact science.

Optimal Conditions

The next critical time period is the 63 days of gestation, particularly the last month. The direct control at this time is the chemistry and flow of blood carrying oxygen and nutrition to the developing pups nestled snug in the uterus. The control the breeder has is once removed, in that he is the supplier of nutrition to the mom-to-be, and he has to keep environmental factors as perfect as possible for the bitch to minimize chemical, physiological and environmental stress on her in order to maintain the best in uterus environment for the pups.

During this period developing pups are influenced by blood chemistry, signals transmitted across the placental barrier and by vibration (sounds) of blood rushing, heartbeat of the mom and her gut rumblings. These are essential mom-identifying signals, necessary to attract and guide pups to the milk bar when parturition finally comes along.

Then comes parturition and the start of the most important developmental period. Both dam and breeder will now play critical roles for the next 10 to 12 weeks. This is the period when all socialization occurs. Chemical associations formed during gestation now become the smell signals that direct the pup to a nipple to start feeding. Gut sounds detected in the uterus as vibrations are soon heard as sounds and help guide the pup to mom's milk.

From the pup's birth, and daily from then on, the breeder and everyone else should tenderly pick up, hold, and examine each pup. Gentle handling provides a mild stress that helps speed development and prepares the pup to adapt to social and environmental changes more easily later in life.

Eyes open at 10 to 14 days of age, enabling visual associations with the previously formed tactile, auditory and olfactory associations. The pup can now add shape to the things it previously only bumped into, smelled and heard. Fear has not yet developed, so all things seen, smelled, heard and felt are considered good stuff, just like when pup was in uterus.

Because fear only begins developing in week six, these associations formed from two to six weeks will last as "good stuff" associations for the pup's entire life. For this reason, prospective buyers should visit, pick up and handle any litter of pups they might be interested in. Olfactory imprints made prior to fear assure a lifelong positive relationship between pup and owner, because the pup forever identifies the smell of all individuals met at this time with low anxiety — again, good stuff.

Get Movin'

Mobility kicks in during the fourth week when pups get their legs and begin investigating the immediate environment.

At this time pups should be provided with obstacles to go over and around in order to obtain some goal. See-through ramps and steps will give

the pup confidence as well as teach it to work for a living, a "you have to do something to get something you want" philosophy.

In wild canids, fox and coyote, the parents move pups from the natal den to one with rocks, tree roots, or fence rails to give the pups a challenging playpen during the fourth week for this same reason. Mobility also gives pups more latitude for interactions with littermates and mom. It is the beginning of the pup learning that it is a dog.

Removal from the litter at four or five weeks will cause hardships for the rest of the pups' lives, because they have no dog-on-dog socialization, so they know nothing of being a dog. Similarly, they've probably had little or no dog-with-people socialization. The puppy mills, producing all those fuzzy little dogs with weird compound breed names for the pet store trade, thrive on this early removal of pups. Pups don't.

Handling pups at this age can become more energetic; rolling them over, holding them back or away, looking in mouth, ears, at teeth and between toes will be very beneficial for things later in life like toenail clipping, cleaning ears and examining teeth. The rough-and-tumble competitive and combative play behavior among pups coincides with mobility.

No matter how vigorous it appears, mom must be the one to intervene if it gets too rough. People interference here will quickly teach the pup help will be there if I complain long and loud enough. Pups quickly learn during this period so running to their rescue teaches them to screech until someone rescues them. They will forever lack self-reliance. They learn to be wimps.

Mom will begin the weaning process during the seventh week, a very important milestone. Mistakes made during this period will result in problems you don't want to have your dog learn.

Fear starts to develop during the sixth week, escalates rapidly through the seventh and by the eighth, the rate of increase starts to decrease, to max out in the tenth week. But if properly prepared during the low anxiety period prior to the escalation of fear, pups will show a startle response to some fearful event but will quickly return to a normal level because of the preformed associations with only good stuff.

Handling the pups at this time reinforces the people bonding they got in their first six weeks, but the major learning during their last four to six weeks together has to be from the mother and littermates.

The period from mobility to 12 weeks is the most critical for pups to interact with the dam and the littermates. This is the time when pups learn the subtle body language, the postures and the messages to be used in all social situations their entire lives. All dog social amenities are learned during this short four-to-12-week window of opportunity. This is the time a pup learns to be a dog, discovering what starts fights and what stops them. And learns all the social signals in an adolescent way so they have them available as adults.

If this period is cut short or missed, it can never be regained. And it can only be obtained in the litter with mom and the siblings. The window for socialization on dogs and on people closes forever at 12 weeks. Everything after that is practice, honing the social skills of a well-based pup, all set to take on training.

For solutions to your dog's behavior problems or behavior-related training problems, you can contact Ed Bailey at

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