A new puppy creates many opportunities and challenges for breeders and owners. The interaction with a puppy in the first few months can help influence whether or not the dog develops to its full potential; and, if the puppy is to be a pet, whether or not the owners will keep and cherish their pet. As the first humans that puppies encounter, the breeders' role in socialization is important. Interactions, especially those during the first three periods of a puppy's life, can have a lasting impact on behavioral growth and development.
Canine behavioral development has been divided into five stages. These stages and approximate times are:
Neonatal (newborn) period - 1-2 weeks
Transitional period - 3 weeks
Socialization period - 4-10 weeks
Juvenile period to sexual maturity - 10 weeks
Adult - puberty onward
The Neonatal Period
For the first 10-14 days the puppy is deaf and blind. Nursing takes place using tactile and olfactory cues. The majority of time is spent eating and sleeping due to limited motor ability. Urination and defecation take place when the bitch stimulates the anogenital area.2 Research studies have shown handling in the neonatal period seems to have a beneficial effect both behaviorally and physiologically. Animals that are handled early in life show a more rapid rate of development in organ systems, motor coordination, and earlier eye opening. Excessive handling should be avoided, but the normal incidental handling that occurs between owner/breeder and newborn puppies can be beneficial.
The Transitional Period
This developmental stage is short, but packed with activity. The eyes and ears have opened. The amount and type of sensory stimulation increases. Urination and defecation begin to occur spontaneously. Locomotor skills increase, and puppies begin to walk. Early play behavior between litter mates begins. Handling during this time aids in locomotor development, and begins the socialization process. Interaction with human caregivers allows puppies the opportunity to learn about people. Once puppies are mobile, breeders can stimulate and aid development by enriching the environment. This can be done by creating easy climbing situations for puppies, varied surfaces to walk on, boxes to explore, anything that will stimulate puppies to be active, inquisitive and mobile.
The Socialization Period
This time has often been called the "critical or sensitive period of socialization." What occurs, or conversely what does not occur, during this time can have a large impact on later behavior. This is the time when puppies learn about their litter mates, the bitch and humans. This is a fluid time period - the beginning is fairly clear cut, but the ending is not. Immature dogs can still learn and be exposed to new and novel situations throughout life.
In this stage, puppies need to spend time with other puppies and adult dogs to learn appropriate social interactions in the canine world. Play behavior allows a young puppy to practice and learn locomotor and perceptual skills needed as an adult. Play biting behavior helps a young puppy learn to inhibit its bite through modulating the pressure of its jaws. This is an important behavioral lesson for later canine and human interactions. The interaction between litter mates helps puppies learn social skills and social organization that are used in adulthood. Puppies that are removed from the litter early (4-5 weeks) often can have difficulties around other dogs when they are adults. They may be fearful or respond aggressively. Therefore, it is socially important to keep puppies with their litter and/or other dogs until they are 6-8 weeks old.
Exposure to humans is critical during this time. Lack of exposure to people prior to 12 weeks of age can result in puppies who may always be fearful and wary of human interaction. Positive exposure to humans at a young age seems to result in dogs treating people as conspecifics, i.e. as other dogs. When well-socialized, puppies approach people using the same submissive postures and gestures that they use to approach other dogs.
Yet, simple human contact is not enough; the quality of that interaction is important. Puppies benefit from exposure to adults, children, and elderly or physically-challenged individuals. Those types of encounters will help reduce or eliminate fear reactions should the puppy encounter similar people in adulthood. These encounters should be pleasant, combined with play opportunities and gentle interactions. New people can offer puppies treats to remind puppies that human hands bring good things. Care should be taken to monitor these interactions to avoid stress and fear. Traumatic experiences during this time can have lasting effects on later interactions. Avoid harsh discipline, strong punishments and stressful situations. This is also a good time for owners to begin to get control of their puppies. This can be accomplished with training, handling and controlled play time. Puppy classes can aid owners in accomplishing these tasks.
Additionally, this is a time when puppies can bond to other animals. Puppies that are raised with cats usually will not chase them, and the same can be accomplished with other species.
The controversy still rages over what is more important in development of temperament - nature (the genes) or nurture (the environment). Breeders can influence temperament through attention to behavior and personality of potential parents. Also of value is the temperament of litter mates followed over time. These two things can help breeders develop breeding stock with known "good" temperaments. Both environment and genetics interact extensively. Puppies from parents with wonderful temperaments can become problem dogs with improper socialization and handling, and puppies from "problem" backgrounds can become wonderful pets. Early handling, exposure to many new and novel circumstances, and attention to temperament in breeding decisions all can influence the temperament of puppies.
A breeder can have an impact on puppy training in three main areas - housetraining, socialization, and the transition to a new home. Once puppies have begun to eliminate on their own, if the weather permits, outdoor elimination training should begin. If it is necessary to use an indoor elimination location, it should be as small as possible, with a consistent covering, such as newspaper. This will help puppies learn to keep elimination in one area and ease housetraining in the new home.
To facilitate socialization, exposure to many new things is a must. Examples include stairs, different textured flooring, people of differing ages, trucks, vans, bicycles, and children; the list is endless. Also of importance is getting the puppy used to being handled by people. This means being picked up and having the feet, face, tail and abdomen touched. If the puppy is of a breed that will require extensive grooming, early introduction to grooming sessions and tools is most helpful.
To aid in the transition to a new home, information about housetraining, socialization, crate training and discipline should be given to the owner when they get their new pet.
Helping Owners Choose a Puppy
Ideally, prospective owners will familiarize themselves with the characteristics of the breed in which they are interested. Breeders should be prepared to discuss with a new owner the characteristics of your breed, including activity level, trainability, guarding behavior and excitability. Other considerations are size, coat care, and exercise needs.
Try to match puppies to families. Assertive, independent puppies may do best with older children and adults who can all participate in training. Shy and quiet puppies may do well in households without a lot of noise and disruption. Helping a new owner realize what kind of temperament a puppy has, can help guide them to the right individual.
Puppy testing for temperament is an area that is not well researched. There is no evidence that the behavior a puppy exhibits at 6-9 weeks is a reliable predictor of adult behavior. What can be learned from puppy testing, however, is what areas may need attention. These include overly assertive puppies, shy puppies, extremely active puppies, and fearful puppies. Puppies that are assertive may do better in homes where everyone is committed to training and interaction.
A family with very young children may not be the best place for an assertive dog. Shy puppies could be helped by consistent and patient exposure to many new things. Fearful puppies need gentle encouragement to explore and learn. Extremely fearful puppies may always be that way, even as adults. Harsh punishment with all types of puppies may result in fear reactions and perhaps aggression. These categorizations can be used to place puppies with families, to guide training goals, and to identify areas that need extra attention.
Breeders offer the first real human experience for puppies and hold the tools for creating great dogs. Attention to early socialization, training, and proper home placement can help assure that new owners keep their puppies until they grow up to be "great dogs."
Dunbar, Ian., Dog Behavior: Why Dogs Do What They Do, TFH Publications, Neptune, NJ, 1979, pp.16-34.
Houpt, Katherine Albro, Domestic Animal Behavior, Iowa State, University Press, Ames, IA, 1991, pp. 197-207.
Hart, Benjamin, The Behavior of Domestic Animals, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 1985, pp. 242-263.
Advice for Home Integration
Preparing the puppy for a new home and maximizing the interaction is essential. The optimum time to go to a new home is between 6-8 weeks of age. This allows the puppy to learn from its mother and litter mates, but still be open to new experiences. At 6-8 weeks, the puppy still will be willing to bond to new people, and every effort should be made to facilitate this process.
Encourage families to be prepared with a quiet, safe, puppy-proofed place. A crate or a small puppy-proofed room is acceptable. Explain to owners that appropriate confinement can minimize destruction and maximize housetraining.
Encourage new owners to set aside time to bond with their puppy. Puppies are impressionable at this time and are willing and able to bond to people. New owners should provide calm, patient and consistent attention. Give the puppy adequate time to become familiar with the routine for eating, voiding and playing.
Housetraining is a subject of great concern to many owners. Puppies need to eliminate when they first wake up, about 20 minutes after they eat and after they play vigorously. Let owners know that dogs seem to learn location and surface preferences when they are housetrained. This means that dogs learn where to go and what to go on. Paying attention to the timing and the place where the dog eliminates can help owners housetrain dogs more easily. A key phrase also facilitates housetraining. Owners should say the same thing each time the puppy goes outside, and the puppy can learn to eliminate on command. Teach the puppy to eliminate first and play second, this helps it learn what outside is for and avoids the puppy that "forgets" to do its business outside, comes back inside and eliminates in the house. Explain that accidents do occur but, punishment is not helpful if the animal has already eliminated. Instead, the best action is to remove the puppy, perhaps outside or in its crate, and clean up the mess. Accidents usually occur due to lack of supervision before the puppy has learned the appropriate toilet area. Harsh punishment may only serve to scare a puppy and will not necessarily speed up housetraining. In fact, it may inhibit the process.
Young puppies are very impressionable and easily intimidated. Owners need to keep this in mind when disciplining young puppies. Harsh physical reprimands are contraindicated. They can scare a puppy and make it fearful. Puppies are easily disciplined with vocal intonation and loud noises. Ideally, it is much easier to teach what you want, rather than discipline what you don't want.
Part of being a responsible breeder and kennel operator includes practicing early socialization techniques and communicating key socialization techniques to prospective owners. Attention in both areas can only enhance the experience of breeders, owners, and pets.