Making the Most of Puppy Developmental Stages
We do the very best we can by carefully selecting breeding partners so that we get the best genetic mix possible in the puppies. But once a dog is bred, their genes are fixed. That can’t be changed. But genes can express themselves in a very wide variety of ways. The same gene or set of genes that can cause desired behaviors (such as playing catch or fetching) can also cause undesired behaviors (such as chasing cats or small children). Studies have also shown that the prenatal care a dam gets can affect the health and personalities of her pups. This is true for both prenatal health support and prenatal emotional support.
Puppies have specific developmental stages, and these stages correspond to behavioral markers. A good breeder also needs to understand puppy development, be able to identify these stages, and be able to understand how to properly address these stages. What is highly beneficial in one stage, can be severely detrimental in another, and properly identifying and handling behavioral stages is absolutely critical to producing strong, emotionally sound puppies.
Neonatal stage (0 to 2 weeks)
Some animals, like horses, are born precoccial. This means that almost immediately after being born they can walk, hear, and see. Others, like dogs, are altricial. This means they are born helpless and can’t see, hear, or walk. Puppies don’t gain these faculties until 2-3 weeks after being born. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on in the brains of the little fluffy buttercups. In fact, there’s a lot going on. Instead of just leaving the puppies to develop without support during this period, we use Dr Carmen Battaglia’s neurological stimulation program to help boost and stimulate their nervous systems.
Transitional stage (2 to 4 weeks)
Prevention of common dog-related problems begins at 2-3 weeks old. That’s not a typo. If a puppy doesn’t begin its training at least at 3 weeks old, then it is immediately disadvantaged. The training it needs to receive requires a great deal of tact and finesse, as a puppy can also be irreversibly damaged emotionally at this age. Training of a 3-week-old puppy does not involve using a leash and pulling on it to get the puppy to sit or walk. It involves specific, carefully executed scientifically sound methods of communicating proper and improper behavior to the puppy. It’s at this time that puppies either are imprinted to cooperate with humans, or to be in conflict with them. We implement very specific problem prevention protocols to ensure the best possible start for our puppies.
Since a puppy starts to be able to use its senses and locomote at 2-3 weeks of age, it begins at that time to learn proper social cues and responses. We take advantage of this period by using our decades of training and behavioral experience and education to help the puppies learn what is and isn’t appropriate behavior for living in human company.
Socialization and imprinting period (3-12 weeks)
The critical socialization period begins at 3 weeks and continues until the puppies are 12 weeks old. The work—or damage—that is done (or not done) to a puppy’s social and emotional development during this period determines who the puppy is as an adult and can set the puppy up for failure or success. The work done at this stage can take many, many months, or years to change, if it can be changed at all. For example, a puppy that isn’t properly socialized can easily turn into a fear biter. If you ask any qualified trainer, she or he will tell you that fear biting can take a very long time to merely control, and it often can’t be completely eliminated. This translates to lost quality time with your dog, increased cost of long-term interventional training as well as increased exposure to financial and social liability.
Socialization isn’t merely introducing puppies to people. That’s part of it, but that also has to be handled with tact. For example, I’ve seen breeders who say their puppies are raised in a day care they also run from their home. That can be a great thing, or it can be very bad for the puppies. If the child-puppy interaction is carefully timed according to developmental stage and carefully monitored the entire time the child and puppy are interacting, then it can be a good thing. If the kids and puppies are simply left together—even if the puppies are in a separated pen—it can be very detrimental. Kids can be scary to puppies. They need to be properly introduced in controlled situations. Even if a puppy interacts with a group of children just fine for a week or two, if the puppy then enters a developmental fear stage, then something it was previously fine with can turn into something that is emotionally scarring. We implement very specific socialization protocols with very specific safety guidelines as we begin the socialization process with each puppy.
Socialization also includes specifically timed enrichment, problem-solving, and exposures to help introduce puppies to sights, sounds, smells, textures, and experiences. Truly good socialization requires a knowledge of puppy developmental stages, a knowledge of scientifically sound dog training methods, and a knowledge of how to tactfully present experiences to the puppies.
We take specific steps to help avoid potential future aggression in our puppies. Aggression most often stems from frustration. Have you ever noticed someone working on a car or construction project get mad and throw a tool on the ground? Barring some serious deep-seated psychological problem, that aggressive tool-tossing is almost always preceded by severe frustration. It’s similar with dogs. Frustration typically precedes aggression.
So we have very specific protocols we use with our puppies to teach them frustration tolerance. This includes problem solving experiences. Many breeders put toys in the puppy pen and call it “enrichment.” That’s part of it. But a larger part of enrichment involves planned problem-solving experiences. Teaching solid problem-solving skills to a puppy produces an adult that has a much higher frustration threshold, and therefore reduces the potential for aggression and increases the emotional resiliency of your puppy.
An added bonus of the way we socialize and train our puppies is that it provides a way for puppies and dogs to communicate with us. Obedience isn’t a one-way street. Dogs are not just little robots that listen to everything we say. They are living, sentient beings. They have feelings and emotional needs. Our training methods teach our puppies not only how to listen, but also how to properly communicate with us if they need something. That’s not to say your dog will approach you and say to you “dear human, I am feeling bereft of the ability to discern whether my interactions with you are true and right, or if you care not for me and am facing wanton despair.” But she will, for example, come and sit in front of you and let you know she wants attention or affection. Or to play. Or needs water. Or lead you to the door to go outside. Expression and recognition of a dog’s emotional needs is another way we help avoid frustration and the problem behaviors associated with frustration.
Dogs under about 5 weeks of age do not experience fear. Incredible as that sounds, it’s true. Fear is of no use to a young puppy since it’s altricial. It can’t run away. It can’t fight. It’s not a useful emotion at that stage in its development. But as a puppy develops, fear does become useful and important. Fear will keep a puppy from straying too far from its mother. It will keep a puppy from approaching a large predator. It will keep a puppy from jumping into a deep pit.
Five weeks of age is about the time a puppy goes through its first fear imprinting period. While fear is useful and important, it can also be harmful and damaging. It is critical that a breeder understand this, recognize the onset of a fear period, and know how to properly respond and support a puppy through it’s fear periods. If done properly, support through a fear period can actually produce added confidence and emotional resiliency in a puppy. If done improperly, it can produce fearful, frustrated puppies and contribute to severe future behavioral problems. We have specific protocols and exercises we use with out puppies to identify and guide puppies through this critical developmental window. (An additional fear period occurs in the 7-9 week age range, which is why we typically don’t allow puppies to go home before 9-10 weeks of age, sometimes longer.)
Biting, growling, jumping, resource guarding, and other behaviors are all very natural and normal dog behaviors, and puppies start exhibiting these behaviors as young as 3-4 weeks of age. There can be a surprising amount of vicious-sounding growling that comes from a puppy pen full of itty bitty 3-week-old fluff dumplings! But many of these behaviors aren’t appropriate for dogs who live closely with humans. Our protocols include specific science-based non-confrontational interventions to help teach puppies what is appropriate behavior for living with humans, and what is not.
Training a puppy
We have always said that training a dog is giving it the gift of freedom. The better behaved a dog is, the more it is likely to be able to go places with you, interact when guests are visiting, and have more overall pleasant and enriching experiences, which serve to even further increase their confidence and emotional stability.
People are often surprised that we send puppies home at 9-10 weeks of age that are crate trained, started house training, walk on a leash, sit, and more. There’s a general misconception that dogs have to be older to be trained. Many puppy classes insist a puppy be 4-6 months of age. There are a number of reasons for that, including vaccination schedule* as well as potential pressure that can be put on a dog during training. But we are experienced trainers and behavioral science supports non-confrontational, positive reinforcement training for young puppies. In fact, the science supports starting positive training in the early developmental windows. We also have different training goals for our young puppies than we would have for older puppies. Our main goal is to instill “concepts” into our puppies, so that when they get older, they will be way ahead of any other dog to be able to produce finished behaviors. For example, our puppies go home knowing how to walk on a leash. When they get older, it will be very simple to teach them the finished behavior of heeling on a leash because they already understand the basic concept of walking on a leash, not pulling, and being within a certain distance from their human. One of the best benefits of our puppy training program is that puppies are imprinted to love to learn and work with humans. This is especially beneficial as puppies start to mature and go through some of their “not-so-cute” stages.
*you don’t want to bring an unvaccinated puppy to a puppy class, and rabies vaccinations aren’t done until a puppy is 4-6 months of age.