The first twelve weeks in any puppy’s life are called the critical period, they must be exposed to all types of stimuli and scenarios in order to be both at ease with them and learn to cope with new situations. This critical period can be divided into three stages.
The first stage being The Neonatal period. This period lasts from birth until approximately two weeks old. In this period the puppies are solely dependent on their mother for everything. Firstly their brains are not properly developed and there is almost no EEG activity if we compare a puppy to a human baby the puppy is less developed. As a result of the under- development of the brain their eyes & ears are not yet functional and their movements are very uncoordinated, moving around in a kind of “swimming” manner.
They do however have a sense of smell although at this stage it is anosmic (they are able to smell but do not have the intelligence to make any form of connections with it). It is with this sense of smell that puppies can recognise their mothers and littermates; this “imprinting” begins at birth. As the puppy enters the world the dam will break the sack that has contained him/her in the womb and begin licking her newborn, consuming the after birth & umbilical cord. As she does this she is imprinting her puppy on herself, reducing rejection and beginning the strong mother/child bond. This imprinting then continues as the dam aids her puppies with urinating & defecating ( a necessity a puppy cannot perform unaided) as she is licking the genitals and indeed licking her puppies to keep them clean she is in turn imprinting herself onto her young. In doing this imprinting her young will find it much easier to locate her if they become separated and if they cannot find her they will whimper until she comes to the rescue.
The newborn litter cannot regulate their own body temperature and rely on mum and indeed one other for heat. One thing a puppy can do is feel, they will react to pain although sluggish there is still a reaction (hence why tail docking in young pup is cruel).
Puppies at this stage have no teeth so therefore show no interest in solids and relies completely on the dam for all their nutritional needs.
Neonatal puppies are helpless with their mothers and if something was to happen to her i.e. illness or death, it could have a very detrimental effect on them even into adulthood and beyond, however, It is essential for them to be exposed to gentle handling from humans. This handling will help the development of the Adrenal-pituitary system; this system controls reactions to stress, mood and emotions as well as body processes such as digestion, the immune system and energy use.
It is during this Neonatal period that all breeders have the puppies in the home rather than a kennel or garage and are handling them sensibly when possible. This is very important to aid their development. It helps accelerate maturity and also prepares them to cope with stresses. This exposure to mild stress, handling and being away from the litter warmth does benefit puppies massively at this stage and for life!
The next phase of the Critical period is The Transitional Period. This period covers from two weeks of age to around four weeks old. This is when all the puppies’ sensory abilities come on line; by sensory I mean touch, taste, sight, sound, smell and movement. “The eyelids open and the optic nerve becomes Myelinated”. Myelin is like an electrical insulator essential for the proper function of the nervous system.
The eye sight develops rapidly with the beginning of vision at around ten days old and by approximately fifteen days old it is nearly adult-like. Along with the visual abilities the ear canals also open and the puppies can hear the environment around them, because of the rapid maturity of the brain they can also respond to the sounds and respond quicker to pain. The brain is now pushing out in all directions with the ability to learn at an adult capacity by just four weeks of age.
Body heat can be controlled by the youngsters now which comes along just in time for entrance of movement. A puppy at two weeks old can sit, by three weeks stand and by four weeks walk, because of the maturity of the brain and also the ability to move they now become slightly more adventurous. Much less dependent on their mother, they can toilet un-aided so now is a time it is beneficial for the breeder to ensure that the “whelping-box” has enough room to not only allow for safe movement but a toilet corner so that good toileting manners can begin.
Interactions with littermates now become important. They can wag tails and growl, their relationship maybe agonistic at times, this is important as will help shape the puppy’s personality for the future. Because of the sudden growth in social needs now is the best time to start gently introducing different people & children (well behaved kids only!). Breeders should provide a stimulating environment for the young this is important as not only will it increase their happiness but also their intelligence. Exposure to sounds that every house hold contains TV’s, Hoovers, microwaves etc will help prepare them for the homes ahead. At this age they will show little fear to noises as they will have the complete security of their mother, brothers & sisters to help them out.
The Transitional period also marks the development of teeth and the introduction to solid food, puppies’ can now chew and lap. There is endless amusement in watching a puppy discovering food for the first few times!
Although the Transitional Period has a lot of mile stones both mentally & physically it is only a preparation to the next stage.
The Socialisation Period. This period lasts from four weeks up until eight weeks of age, this period will inevitably mark huge changes in a puppy’s life one of them being adoption to a family. They will have to take the leap from the world of being a littermate to being a family pet with all the requirements and responsibilities that come with being “our dog”.
On the physical side of things they are fully functional and coordination will increase in improvement. Male puppies will already be masculinised and maybe mounting other puppies, they will get a further hormone surge during puberty.
It’s the learning and emotional responses that really define this period.
This is when the social responses to dominate or submit come into play, the relationship between dam & puppy goes from epimeletic-care giving(mum), et-epimeletic-care seeking(puppy) to one of dominance-mum, submission-puppy. This can be a subtle as the puppy going to nurse and the dam walking away.
How the dam teaches the art of dominance on her puppies will be paramount in their future social skills. If she is too aggressive with her responses her puppies will more than likely be over-submissive in interactions or if she is too soft her puppies may not clearly read boundaries in the future. Like any mother the perfect balance gives the best security for growing infants. I do like the manner that Roger Abrantes describes this as “subdominance” it gives it a more complex angle than simply black & white. Dog social patterns are not unlike ours and different dogs have strengths and weaknesses that help their “pack” in the whole, just as in our families & communities every person has a role to perform.
Alongside the relationship change with a puppy’s mum the importance of role play with littermates is a great practice run for helping a puppy’s etiquette in the future. Through the interactions they have with one another they begin to learn how to express themselves and also how they are best perceived. All the arts of play make for a situation to learn. Obvious ones are improving physical movements, coordination, timing, balance, problem solving, confidence and intelligence. It also aids in learning by making mistakes (experiential learning), learning to make bonds with others and lets a puppy practice his/her dominance for the future.
At approximately five weeks old a puppy’s fear response develops, they are still young enough to recover from frightening sounds etc very quickly it is later on around eight to ten weeks of age that fear attachment is established, around the time the average pedigree dog in the UK is sold on. Unfortunately for the puppy this is the period when he/she should be getting their first vaccinations, probably why so many dogs are frightened with a trip to the Vet. As an owner it is your responsibility to make this as stress free as possible!
Between six to eight weeks of age a puppy’s instinct to make friends with others overcomes their natural instinct to be cautious of strangers; this definitely works in the favour of his/her new family.
In a nut shell the Socialisation Period does what it says on the tin, it is all about learning and trying new social skills. Breeders should expose puppies to all sorts of stimuli during this period, in my opinion too much is not enough. From getting them accustomed to having their nails clipped to hairdryers (for dogs that will need to visit the groomers!), putting them into papooses and taking them outside to see & hear traffic to short happy journeys in a car, letting them experience the feeling of different textures on their paws ( concrete, grass etc) to children handling them. To me socialisation has a greater influence on your dog’s future behaviour than their breed type does and it’s always better to socialise than try to correct un-desired behaviours in the future!
Photograph courtesy of Andy Biggar