He’s a jowly little butterball — bright, shiny-eyed and cute as can be. He’s your brand-new Bulldog puppy, and while he’s just a little thing now, don’t let his small size fool you. Big things are going on inside his mind. Your job, as your new puppy’s special person, is to build on what he’s already learned to help him grow up to be the healthiest, happiest Bulldog he can possibly be. To do that, though, you need to understand what he already knows and how he’s acquired that information. That way, you’ll have a more complete understanding of this adorable puppy you’ve committed yourself to raising and loving for the rest of his life.
Connecting the Dots
Remember drawing dot-to-dot pictures when you were a little kid? In front of you — maybe from a coloring book — would be a piece of paper with numbered dots. Your job was to draw lines between those dots to create the outline of a picture. You’d draw a line from dot No. 1 to dot No. 2, dot No. 2 to dot No. 3 and so on, until you created the outlines of one or more objects.
You and your breeder play similar roles as you raise your Bulldog puppy. Instead of dots, though, your puppy has nerve cells, all of which have been present since birth. But the nerve cells alone don’t help to grow your puppy’s mind, any more than the dots alone create a finished picture. Just as you need to connect those dots to complete the picture, so must the nerve cells be connected to each other if your puppy’s brain is to develop fully.
According to Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger, authors of Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution (Scribner), those cell-to-cell connections cause your Bulldog puppy’s brain to grow exponentially. At birth, his brain may be only 8 cubic centimeters in size, but just two months later, that same brain is 50 cubic centimeters. By the time your puppy turns 1 year old, his brain is likely to top out at 100 cubic centimeters. But after that first birthday, his brain is not likely to grow very much, if at all.
This means that puppyhood, especially early puppyhood, is the time when your actions will have the maximum impact on your Bulldog’s social, emotional and mental health. Bulldogs are certainly capable of learning new behaviors after they emerge from puppyhood — but if you want your puppy to be a happy, healthy pet who reaches his full potential, you need to start working with him as early in his life as possible.
The Earliest Weeks
No matter what breed a dog is, the growth of his brain follows a similar progression. “Bulldogs are much like other breeds in their mental development,” says Bulldog Club of America Hall of Fame breeder Nancy Newcomb, D.V.M., of Elk City, Okla.
In their book Genetics and Social Behavior of the Dog (University of Chicago Press), scientists John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller described these stages of mental and social development. Other experts have tweaked these descriptions somewhat, particularly with respect to when they occur, but most are in agreement as to how a puppy’s development proceeds.
The first stage, the neonatal period, begins at birth and continues until the puppy is about 2 weeks old. During this initial fortnight, the puppy is blind and deaf, and his ability to understand the world around him is limited. “Early on, puppies have the basic instincts that all pups have — that is heat seeking, the suckle reflex and urinary and defecation reflex,” Newcomb says.
Despite the limitations posed by the inability to see and hear, the puppy’s other senses are in good working order and need stimulation. To that end, some experts suggest that breeders gradually expose their neonatal puppies to being physically handled (gently, of course!), but also to mildly stressful events such as briefly placing them on a table or other elevated object. That recommendation is based on research that shows such exposure — as long as the breeder reinforces that exposure and provides plenty of opportunities for rest and relaxation — can help a puppy become more resilient later in life.
At around 2 or 3 weeks of age, the puppy’s eyes and ear canals open, and he begins to move around more easily. When those events occur, the pup’s world widens considerably, and he enters what’s called a transitional period.
Previously, his only means of locomotion were to crawl on his belly; now, his four little legs can get him where he wants to go considerably faster than before. Moreover, he can rely on his newly opened eyes and ears to see and hear what’s going on, instead of trying to make sense of the world only through his senses of smell, taste and touch.
“The Bulldog brain seems to activate at about day 21,” Newcomb says. “One day, Bulldogs are just big slugs lying there eating, sleeping, peeing and pooping. Then, on the 21st day, they seem to magically become aware of their surroundings. They begin to bark and growl and play with their siblings and mom.”
Experts recommend that breeders also use this period to expose the puppy to the world beyond his mom and siblings. Now’s the time when a good breeder starts familiarizing the puppy with new sounds and sights, such as those that come from the radio and television. This period is also when the breeder should introduce toys and take the puppy to different areas of the house where he can experience the textures of different types of flooring under his feet and see sights that are different from what he can see from the whelping box.
That’s exactly what Bulldog Club of America Hall of Fame breeder Harrold McDermott and his wife, Teresa, from Indianapolis, Ind., do when they raise a litter. “Our puppies are raised indoors with our family,” McDermott says. “We expose them to all kinds of noises and new surroundings on a regular basis. We use a radio and change the station every day so that they are exposed to all types of music and voices. We use a TV for the same reason. In our home we have carpet, wood floors and tile, and we make sure they get exposed to walking on all three floor types. They are taken out on our concrete porch and grass in the backyard. They also get a variety of toys to play with so they become familiar with different things around them.”
That world beyond the whelping box also needs to include people and other non-canine species, and behaviorists strongly advocate beginning intensive exposure to both during the transitional period. From that point on, a Bulldog puppy needs to meet lots of other people and animals in addition to those who reside in his household. “It’s great if the breeder has children to play with the puppies,” Newcomb says. “And approved visitors are great, as well as cats and all kinds of other animals.”
The age of 3 weeks to as late as 16 weeks is what experts in puppy development call the socialization period. During this period, a conscientious breeder and an equally diligent owner can help ensure that a Bulldog puppy grows up to be an emotionally healthy adult dog. They work together to further acquaint the puppy with human society, canine society and the world around him.
Learning about canine society starts with the puppy’s interaction with his mother and littermates. But meeting other dogs is also important. Newcomb recalls that one of her dogs, E-Lou, “was grandma to all the pups in the household. She would play with them but gently discipline them, as well, if they got out of line. It was fun to watch.”
The breeder should continue this socialization process until you are ready to bring your Bulldog puppy home at about 8 or 9 weeks of age. McDermott says he waits until 9 weeks to allow puppies to go home to their new families because “we strive to get two sets of shots complete before the puppies travel and go to new homes.”
In any case, once your puppy crosses your threshold, you need to take up the socialization process where the breeder left off. Fortunately, you’ve got a good seven or eight weeks in which to do so.
During those several weeks, McDermott suggests continuing the process the breeder had begun. “Puppies need to be exposed to people, other dogs and new things as they grow, including other types of animals in different situations and various surroundings, so they become properly sociable around others,” he says.
And for Bulldogs, sociability is especially important. “Everyone who sees a Bulldog wants to interact with him,” says trainer Victoria Schade, author of Bonding with Your Dog: A Trainer’s Secrets for Building a Better Relationship (Wiley). “During puppyhood, they stop traffic because they’re so adorable, and as they grow up, they turn into the lumbering team mascot everyone wants to meet. Helping a Bulldog feel comfortable with that kind of attention — and making sure he appreciates it — is key.”
Your job, then, is to bring attention to your Bulldog puppy and help him learn to love it. Take him to pet-friendly stores, run errands with him in the car (but don’t leave him alone in the car!), and sit with him on a city bench or at an outdoor restaurant not only to watch the world go by, but to bring that world to him. Have people come to your home to visit him, and enroll him in puppy kindergarten and/or puppy socialization classes.
Once your puppy reaches 16 weeks of age, the socialization period is over, and your puppy’s brain has formed almost all the cell-to-cell connections that it will ever have. But that doesn’t mean you should ease up on providing him with mental stimulation. As he moves into his juvenile period (4 to 6 months of age) and adolescence (6 months to as much as 3 years of age), he needs your continued guidance and opportunities to meet and greet. In fact, many experts believe that socialization is a use-it-or-lose-it enterprise: without continued exposure to the wider world, an older puppy or adult dog might lose the social savvy he acquired earlier in life.
Now that you know what goes on in your Bulldog puppy’s mind, you can do what’s needed to ensure his future emotional stability and mental health. Although he’s born with all the mental equipment he’s ever going to have, you and your puppy’s breeder have the power to make the connections that put that equipment to work, and help him become the dog of your dreams.