When Baxter was dropped off at a local animal shelter, the little Jack Russell Terrier mix was only about 5 or 6 weeks old. Sitting alone in a kennel, Baxter wasn’t getting any human or canine interaction. Luckily, Dr. Crista Coppola, a certified applied animal behaviorist and the owner of Dog and Company Behavior Consulting in Tucson, Ariz., knew exactly what Baxter needed. She took him home and began to teach him how to learn.
Fortunately for Baxter, Coppola found him at a crucial stage, when everything a puppy learns makes an indelible impression for the rest of that puppy’s life. However, this stage of brain development isn’t the only important one in a puppy’s first year. In fact, a puppy goes through four critical stages (neonatal, transition, socialization and juvenile). What happens to the puppy during each stage dramatically shapes his future behavior. If you miss a critical window for learning, that window closes.
As a puppy owner, you have a remarkable opportunity to raise your puppy the right way … or the wrong way. Here’s what you need to know now, so you don’t waste another minute of your puppy’s crucial first year.
The Neonatal Period:
Eat, Sleep, Poop
The very first stage of a puppy’s life, from birth to 2 weeks of age, is the neonatal period. Unless you are a dog breeder, you probably won’t have any access to your puppy at this stage, but this period is nevertheless important for your puppy’s future development. During this time, puppies rely almost entirely on their mothers for survival. They can’t see or hear, but they can smell and feel. They use those limited senses to do three things pretty much 24/7: eat, sleep and poop.
“If we look at all kinds of animals, there is a great variation in how developed they are at birth,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a veterinarian and certified applied animal behaviorist in the college of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. “For example, foals, and in fact most large animals, are basically born with all their senses intact, and literally within hours, they are up and running around with Mom. That’s because these are animals that are preyed upon, so they have to be able to get out of the way or become somebody’s dinner.”
Other animals, Beaver says, spend a lot more time being dependent on their mothers, including dogs, cats and humans. “In these animals, Mom has more time to transfer lessons about the world, such as how to behave and how to watch out for danger, so those infants have the luxury of a little more time to develop neurologically and to learn life skills that are important to their species.”
But that doesn’t mean we can’t influence newborn puppies in positive ways to help them grow up to be better canine citizens, says Judy Fridono, owner of Puppy Prodigies in Escondido, Calif., a program that prepares puppies to become successful assistance dogs. The key is to expose puppies in a positive way to as many different sensory stimuli as possible, right from the start. The more puppies experience, the more they will see the world as an interesting place, rather than a scary place. This helps puppies to grow up adaptable, confident, courageous and intelligent.
Fridono starts working with puppies even before they are born. “We begin the socialization process by providing the pregnant mother with a stress-free, comfortable pregnancy using aromatherapy, low lighting, music and vibration therapy,” she says. “When the birth is relaxing, the puppies have a more positive start.” Unlike human babies, puppies cannot hear while in the womb, but they can feel vibrations, so vibration therapy already provides the unborn puppies with sensory stimulation.
Once the puppies are born, Puppy Prodigies focuses on the newborns’ intact senses: touch and smell. “We start handling them very gently for brief periods, touching them and wrapping them in different fabrics, such as burlap, silk, satin and corduroy, for different tactile sensations.” Fridono also puts the puppies on different surfaces, like sand, tinfoil and burlap. “We focus on textures so they can feel different things with their feet. We also do some aromatherapy, which exposes them to different scents.”
Human touch is important for newborn puppies, as it helps familiarize them with our species and initiates the puppy’s ability to bond with humans. “Assistance dogs in particular absolutely must be comfortable with handling, so we touch between their toes, their tails, every part of their body, gently massaging them, so the puppies already have experienced a lot of touch before their ears and eyes open,” Fridono says. When Fridono knows where the puppy will be going, she also imprints him with the future owner’s smell by putting objects like pillowcases the owner slept on into the puppy’s environment.
Although the average pet owner won’t have access to a newborn puppy to be able to try these socialization techniques, that’s OK.”Many of these techniques aren’t appropriate for pet owners to do on their own,” Fridono says. “However, knowledgeable breeders should be doing these things with their puppies right from the start, to give puppies the best possible chance of adapting well to life in a pet home.”
Talk to your breeder about what he or she does to socialize puppies right from the start, or look for breeders who have a program for early handling and gentle stimulation of their puppies. If your puppy didn’t get this kind of start, don’t worry: The most important stage for socialization is yet to come.
The Transition Period:
Sensing the World
The second stage is a short one, and it is called the “transition period.” This is week three in your puppy’s life (approximately), when his eyes and ears open. Suddenly, the puppy’s world fills up with color, movement and sound. “This is when puppies start to be able to move around and interact with their environment,” Beaver says, “but they are still dependent upon their mothers.”
While the mother has already been doing a lot to keep the puppy alive, this period is when real teaching begins. “The mother and the littermates teach the puppy a lot of important dog skills, such as bite inhibition, how to perceive and accept rank, and dog interaction skills,” Beaver says. Puppies learn dog body language, such as what it means when a dog’s hair stands up on the back or what a vertical tail indicates. “Some of this is instinctive, but when they are with their mothers and siblings, they learn how to interpret their instinctual perception of these body language cues,” Beaver explains. “For instance, if Mom growls at the puppy, he better learn what that means.”
You still probably won’t have your puppy at this stage, but because the mother and littermates are the primary teachers, your role is to let the puppy learn in the whelping box, rather than taking him home too soon. Even so, breeders can continue to expose younger puppies to the world at this stage. “When their eyes open, we begin to show them different colored and moving lights,” Fridono says. “Even though they don’t necessarily see those colors the way we do, they can see light and movement of lights on a wall.”
Puppies also begin learning about sound at this stage. “We start by exposing them to quiet sounds when their ears first open, and as they develop, the sounds become louder,” Fridono says. “The goal is to introduce them to any sound they might ever be exposed to: ringing telephones, doorbells, babies crying, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, airplanes, farm animals, all different sounds, so that later, they will be curious rather than afraid when they hear something unusual.”
This is also the time to begin introducing novelty into the whelping box. “Every day, we put something new in the puppies’ environment,” Fridono says. “If the environment is always changing with different obstacles, toys and things in different places, they quickly get used to the idea of novelty. This is incredibly important for assistance dogs, but it will benefit any dog.”
The Socialization Period:
Don’t Miss This Window!
The next stage, called the “socialization” or “primary socialization” period, starts at 3 weeks and lasts until the puppy is approximately 12 weeks old. “This is the most important time for puppies, and it can have lasting effects,” Coppola says. “They still learn from their littermates at this stage, but this is also when they form human attachments, accepting other species into their circle of friends. Puppies are fearless and ready to learn during this time. Good socialization is crucial.”
The puppy will still be under the influence of the breeder for the first part of this stage, but most people bring their puppies home right in the middle of the socialization period, at around 7 or 8 weeks of age, when the puppy is primed to bond with his new family. “That’s not to say a puppy is ruined for life if he isn’t in the permanent home by 8 weeks, but it certainly helps,” Coppola says. “Reputable breeders who know the particular genetics of their dogs and are providing good socialization may find it necessary to keep the puppies longer, but by 16 weeks of age, the puppy is entering his juvenile period, so in most cases it is ideal to have your new puppy before then.”
During the socialization phase, you can start simple housetraining right away because puppies have already learned to discriminate between the places where they sleep, eat, play and eliminate, and that is the first step, Coppola says.
This is also the time to teach puppies how to learn. “Teach your puppy simple things, so he learns the game of learning,” she explains. “Teach him something new every day.” When your puppy learns that sitting in front of you and paying attention to you results in interaction, fun and rewards, he will eagerly await learning sessions.
Puppies also must learn about separation during this time. “Puppies need to experience independence in small steps during this stage,” Coppola says. “When people first get puppies, they may take a few days off to get the puppy adjusted. They see the puppy as a new toy to play with and they spend two or three nonstop days with them. Then, they turn around and leave the puppy alone for eight hours while they are at work.”
Coppola says that when a puppy goes from having constant littermates to new owners 24/7 to eight hours completely alone, the trauma of this sudden abandonment may generate some anxiety about being left alone, especially in sensitive puppies predisposed to separation issues. “Separation anxiety is very hard to come back from, once it happens,” Coppola says. “It’s upsetting and frustrating to the owners and dogs. It’s much less traumatic to get accustomed to being out of your sight for an hour or two at a time.”
To help prevent the development of separation anxiety, train your puppy, while he is still young, to accept gradual departures. “Gradually increase the time he is alone,” Coppola advises. “Even if you don’t have to go anywhere, leave for an hour or two every day, so your puppy learns that when you leave, you always come back.”
Coppola suggests cratetraining for this purpose. Line the crate with soft bedding and add a familiar toy and a treat, to make the experience pleasant. The crate will also help keep your puppy safe from household dangers, prevent destruction, and aid in housetraining.