Why does my puppy chew my shoes? Why does he hide under the bed during a thunderstorm? Why is he afraid of people with glasses? And why doesn’t he like to walk on linoleum?
Behaviors like these vex many new Lab owners. Expecting their pup to be a perfect, wriggling ball of love, they don’t understand why their dog develops a penchant for play biting or a fear of vacuum cleaners.
“Puppies are not little adult dogs,” says Margaret Wilson, breeder and owner of ShadowGlen Labradors in Darnestown, Md. “A puppy’s job is to be naughty. He’ll piddle on the floor when you’re not looking. He’ll chew on the telephone cord. But if you’re diligent and understand why he’s doing what he does, those behaviors can be avoided.”
Believe it or not, there are reasons for these puppy antics. As they grow, puppies go through five distinct developmental phases: neonatal, transitional, social, juvenile and adolescent, with the most critical being their social phase. Each phase has telltale behavioral signs that are normal and expected.
“When owners are familiar with and understand these developmental stages, they can better anticipate and recognize behaviors, and provide support by making them positive experiences,” says Lori Holmberg, a certified associate applied animal behaviorist in Aurora, Colo. “The owner should teach his or her puppy how to respond and to look to the owner for what to do in new situations. Owners are really pet parents, and they provide guidance and direction in different situations.”
Although a third of a pup’s responses stem from his genetic makeup, more of them come from what he learns from his environment. “Researchers have concluded that of the overall mental development of a Lab — his personality, temperament, trainability, reactions and so forth — only 35 percent is genetic,” Wilson says. “It’s hard-wired. Sixty-five percent is environmental, and that’s why these periods are so important.”
How do you guide your Lab through his critical developmental stages? By understanding his fundamental first-year milestones, and by learning what you and your family can do to support him through puppyhood.
“People need to enjoy puppyhood because it’s such a wonderful time,” says Pamela Reid, Ph.D., vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ animal behavior center in New York City. “It lasts for such a short time, and they’re so much fun. Even though they do some things we don’t like, it’s wonderful to lose yourself in their joie de vivre and discovery of the world.”
Birth to 3 Weeks Old
After a puppy leaves his mother’s womb, he’s considered neonatal. During this first developmental stage, he can’t see or hear, and for the next two weeks of life, he relies on his mother to trigger and help him with normal bodily functions. She cleans him. She cues him to eat. She even helps him urinate and defecate, says Katherine Houpt, animal behavior professor at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y.
“They’re essentially little eating machines,” she says. “The turning point is when their eyes open.”
A puppy’s senses of taste, smell and touch function from day one. But at around 10 to 16 days of age, he begins to see well and follow moving stimulus, and at 14 to 18 days, he’ll startle when something is dropped. This is known as a puppy’s transitional stage.
“During this transitional period, a puppy’s eyes open, his ears open and he becomes more aware of what’s going on,” Wilson says.
In most cases, the puppy will still be living with his mother and littermates at the breeder’s kennel. There, he begins to learn how to interact with other dogs. He’ll gradually begin to learn how to interact with people, too.
“There’s an identification period where the puppy learns that he’s a dog, and not a cat or a person,” Wilson says. “That starts at about 3 weeks old. They imprint very strongly during this period, so it’s important that they get lots of the right kind of human interaction. It’s up to the breeder to make sure it’s done safely and appropriately.”
3 Weeks to 12 Weeks Old
As the puppy enters his socialization phase, which runs from about 3 weeks to 12 weeks of age, he learns how to interact with other living beings and situations, says Bonnie Beaver, D.V.M., of the Small Animal Clinical Sciences Department at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
Canine Butterflies: Midway through this third milestone — at around 6 to 8 weeks of age — the pup typically moves to his new home.
“The socialization period is the absolute most critical time for any breed of dog,” Beaver says. “It ends relatively early, so the new owner needs to know a lot about what socialization is.”
In this phase, the puppy welcomes with gusto new people, animals and experiences. Curious and outgoing, he learns about the world and develops his encyclopedia of safe people, places and playmates.
“The puppy is particularly malleable in terms of his willingness to adapt to new experiences, to form attachments to people, to form attachments to others dogs and to be introduced to other species,” Reid says. “This is the period of time were the puppy sees everything as fun.”
Bolstering what the breeder has already begun, a Labrador Retriever owner should expose his or her dog to as many individuals and situations as possible, Holmberg says. Your dog should meet people of all colors, shapes, sizes and ages. He should experience people with beards, wearing hats and carrying canes. He should tiptoe on a variety of surfaces, ride in the car and hear the rumble of a vacuum cleaner.
“In this time frame, puppies aren’t afraid of much. They’re curious and interested in exploring the world,” Holmberg says. “Puppies should be given many good experiences with different sounds, surfaces, people and animals in different situations, so that when something new happens as they grow and become adults, they will have solid coping skills.”
If your pup misses these meetings and experiences, things can go awry. In general, fear, aggression and compulsive behaviors are more likely to occur with dogs who haven’t had adequate socialization.
“It’s pretty clear through correlation or retrospective studies that if puppies don’t get a variety of experiences with different people, animals and places during those first few weeks, they’ll be much more likely to have behavioral problems,” Reid says.
Houpt warns to always balance the social interactions with the health risks. Because the pup may not be fully vaccinated yet, she says to make sure that the places he visits are relatively clean, and the pups he visits have had their shots.
“How much of a problem is distemper and parvovirus in your area?” Houpt asks. “If you live in an area where all the dogs are vaccinated, you could probably take your puppy out very soon where there are other dogs. Otherwise, you have to be careful. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take your dog to places where he’s going to see and hear novel things, walk on concrete and linoleum, or go to the supermarket where he’s not going to be exposed to a lot of dogs.”
My, What Sharp Teeth You Have: Starting at about 4 to 5 weeks of age, a pup plays mostly with his mouth. Part of the socialization process, he licks his littermates, nibbles on humans and chews and tastes new textures and flavors. It’s normal, but it’s a behavior that will need to be controlled — especially with Labs.
“Labrador Retriever mothers are notoriously indulgent,” Wilson< says. “And they don’t teach their puppies that when they bite down, it hurts. Usually it ends up that the people have to teach their puppies bite inhibition and that it’s inappropriate to use their teeth.”
A puppy learns bite inhibition when he plays with his mother or littermates. When he’s wrestling or playing, a bite that’s too hard may result in a yelp, which teaches him that he was playing too rough.
“When puppies play with each other, they learn how much jaw pressure it takes to create a pain reaction in their littermate,” Beaver says. “The littermate yelps and stops play. That’s the signal: That’s hard enough.”
If the puppy’s owner is his sole playmate, he or she will need to teach the pup how to appropriately use those little needle-like teeth. Wilson recommends two chomper-control methods.
“One way is to just remove yourself,” she says. “If the puppy insists on biting while playing, then keep removing yourself. Another one is distraction. Every time he uses his teeth, toss a can full of pennies behind him. He’ll stop and go to investigate.”
Fear Not, Labrador: Toward the middle to end of the socialization period, from about 8 weeks to 10 weeks of age, puppies experience their first fear period. If your puppy endures a frightening or traumatic situation, it will affect his ability to socialize.
“A really bad experience from the dog’s perspective can ‘unsocialize’ him,” Beaver says. “So if he gets hit by a car or a child hits him over the head with a baseball bat, those kinds of things can damage his ability to socialize. He needs the socialization and interaction, but he needs it in a positive way.”
Though the fear phase hasn’t been as well-documented as other developmental stages, these fear responses peak between 4 and 8 weeks of age, and taper off after that.
“Just about the time you want to start vaccinating your puppy is when he goes through this fear period,” Houpt says. “So as soon as he’s vaccinated, start taking him to puppy class.”
While continuing to socialize the pup through the fear period, a Lab owner should pay especially close attention to his or her puppy’s reactions to new things.
“It’s very important to monitor your puppy and expose him to things in a safe, controlled way,” Wilson says. “If something traumatic does happen, try immediately to minimize whatever the permanent impact might be.”