Originally published May 2013
With our new puppy program we have been hearing from more and more puppy owners and a surprising number of them are bring home their pups at six weeks of age, often without their first set of shots. Puppies from pet stores may be older when you meet them, but may have been taken from mom as early as four weeks of age. Many of the people who are getting these puppies have been told by the people producing them that six weeks is the age at which they have always sent their puppies home. While this may be true, we have had studies since the 1960’s that show us over and over again that puppies need to stay in their litter just a little longer.
|This bulldog puppy is shown at one day, one week, two weeks, three weeks, and four weeks of age. Image credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_Cole123RF’>Cole123RF / 123RF Stock Photo</a>|
Before the studies done by Fuller and Scott in the 60’s at Bar Harbour, almost everyone brought their pups home at six weeks. Then we started to look at the best time for puppies to come home based on how their behaviours develop. Puppy development is a fascinating topic that we know a lot more about now than we ever have before. One of the things we know is that puppies who stay in the litter until they are 7 weeks do better than those who leave before then. 8 weeks is often the standard and is really a better time for most puppies. What do I mean by “do better”?
Let’s start with bite inhibition. Puppies who stay with the litter until 8 weeks of age have better bite inhibition. They are more careful with their mouths, possibly because they have had the chance to learn from their littermates and mom that when they bite hard, they lose the chance to do things they want to do like play. Bite inhibition training must continue once the puppy gets home, but if you have a puppy who hasn’t learnt from mom to bite gently, your job is going to be much tougher.
Puppies who leave the litter too early are also much more easily frustrated. When faced with things they want and cannot get they are more prone to temper tantrums, barking, and throwing themselves around. This in turn is frustrating for the people who have to live with the puppy. Impulse control, or the ability to disengage from one stimulus and re-engage with another is often difficult for these dogs and that may manifest as frustration too.
Leaving the litter early may also impact your dog’s ability to interact with other dogs. These pups often did not have the chance to learn about being a dog from their siblings and mom. We see this in play sessions where the pup who left the litter early may not read the metasignals that the other dogs offer. When a puppy yelps and asks the other puppy to stop biting, the pup who left the litter early may not recognize this signal and may continue to bite or harass the other puppy. The result is that the normally developed puppy may behave defensively. These puppies are often described as the underdog by their families; always being the victim of the other dogs in the dog park. Often this underdog role is the result of not listening to the more subtle signals that are offered.
Reactivity is an issue for these puppies too; they tend to be more reactive and harder to settle down. This means that when sudden things happen, they don’t cope as well and they may even be anxious. Signs of anxiety include things like over grooming, licking things like people and floors, and circling or staring at shadows or reflections. Anxious puppies can grow up to be anxious dogs.
The biggest issue we see in our puppy classes with these dogs is handling issues. When pups leave the litter too early, they often have more difficulty with things like veterinary examinations, nail clipping and grooming. When restrained they are more prone to wiggling and struggling and may bite when you insist on handling them.
These problems are even worse in pups who are brought home even earlier than six weeks. Possibly the most behaviourally damaged dog I ever met had been pulled off a dump at 2 weeks of age and raised alone. They could not introduce him to other dogs due to disease risk-they did not know if he was healthy enough to expose. They did not know if he was carrying something that other dogs could get. His eyes and ears were not open at all. He was a very reactive, needy dog, with serious separation anxiety and was dangerously aggressive even to his family. More and more we are seeing puppies pulled off beaches in the Caribbean, off garbage dumps in the far north in an effort to control local populations, and placed in homes local to us. The resulting dogs that grow up are not completely normal.
So what should you do if you brought home a puppy before you should have? If the puppy is under six weeks, take it back as soon as you can to mom. If you cannot do that and you know that the puppy is healthy, try and cross foster it with a litter the same age. There is nothing we can do that will equal the experience that mom and the rest of a litter can provide. We can try, but we will never be as good as what nature intended.
If your puppy came home from the breeder at six weeks, and you cannot return him there to stay until he is seven or even better slightly older than seven weeks, then there is a lot you can do, but it isn’t going to be easy. First, your pup is going to need a tonne of sleep. Don’t worry if your pup seems to wake up, be really active and then after twenty minutes, crashes into sleep where ever he lands. He may do this for 20 or more hours a day and that is just fine.
Your puppy is going to need to be fed four times a day. He should be getting a moist puppy diet because his digestive system cannot handle kibble well. Consult your veterinarian for information on what the best alternative might be, and make sure his food is soaked so that it is mushy. At about seven weeks you can start letting it get a little harder, and he should be able to handle kibble by about 9 weeks of age. You need to feed frequently for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he has a very short and under developed digestive system, so transport time isn’t very long for him. This means that he will need to have food more often in order to be able to get the most nutrition out of his diet. Do not free feed however; mushy food goes bad quickly and if you make up a bunch of mushy food and leave it out once a day you could make your pup sick.
|Very young puppies need to eat soft food more often. If you have a six week old puppy you will need to feed him soft mushy food, four times a day. Image credit: laures / 123RF Stock Photo|
Next you are going to have to provide the kind of play, feedback and support that mom and his littermates would have supplied, at least four times a day. This means getting down on the floor with your puppy when he wakes up, and playing with him with your hands. You can play fairly roughly but any time that your pup grabs you hard with his mouth, you will need to squeak and then stand up, walk away and pretend to do something without him for between 15 and 90 seconds. Then you have to go right back to playing again. This feedback is going to help your puppy to learn bite inhibition which is his best bet for growing up to have a safe mouth that won’t hurt people. Do NOT pin him, grab his mouth or do any other behaviour you think a mother dog might do if he is naughty. You are not a dog and you will not be able to do it nearly as well as another dog would do it. If you have an older, proven to be safe with puppies dog who can help you to amuse the puppy, so much the better, but remember that the older dog is not mom and will not have the hormones she would have to help her to modulate her behaviour towards the pups, so always supervise.
Twice a day, you should practice gentle but firm restraint and handling and you should groom your puppy with a soft brush all over his body. You should look in his ears and open his mouth and check his teeth. Handle his genital area and look under his tail at his anus every day; you want to teach your young puppy that handling is a normal part of his day and that he has nothing to fear when you do so. Don’t be surprised if he resists at first; be firm and gentle and teach him that wriggling and squealing won’t end the activity. If you let go when he is tiny, he will learn that when he is frustrated and squealing, he can get away from you. Also teach him to wear a muzzle so that if he needs one, it isn’t an unpleasant surprise when he is sick or injured. You can do this simply by taking a small cup or plastic container and teaching him to take treats out of the bottom of it.
And then there is toilet training. A six week old puppy will go to the toilet pretty much where ever he is. He doesn’t have muscular control over his bladder and bowels yet and if he were in the litter mom would be teaching him to take it outside. The drill of take the puppy out on waking and when he has toileted, play with him works well with eight week olds, but not as well with six week olds because they just don’t have the control over their bodies that older puppies do. Ideally, you would provide an absorbent organic surface such as a boot tray with wood chips, or a piece of sod for the puppy to use. They will often choose absorbent surfaces when they can get to them, which means that if you turn a six week old puppy loose in your home, the living room carpet is often a first choice for toileting. Substrate preference or the understanding of what to pee and poop upon develops before 20 weeks, and really develops even earlier, so you want to avoid providing that Persian Rug as the puppy’s first experience lest he develop a preference to use that over outdoor surfaces. Chastising a young puppy for toileting on the rug is an exercise in frustration and futility, so just don’t do it. The only result you will have is a puppy who either pees in fear when you approach or who hides to toilet and then toilet training becomes nearly impossible.
|If a very young puppy toilets in front of you, name the behaviour, and then clean it up. 6 week old puppies don’t have much control over their bladders. Image credit: alexeys / 123RF Stock Photo|
There are many recipes for providing an environment for a six week old puppy to live in and explore but all the good ones have a few things in common. First, they must be safe for the puppy. A three metre by three metre area is more than large enough, and can contain everything the puppy needs. He should have a shallow pan of water available at all times. Don’t give him a giant water bowl because if a tiny puppy got into it, he might drown. I like ceramic ramekins such as you might use to bake custard in; they are not deep and if a puppy gets all the way into one, he can get all the way out. He should as mentioned before have an organic toileting surface available to him. He should have dozens of toys to play with, and they can be rotated every day. Ideally he should have two or three mirrors in there so he can see another dog moving around and so that he isn’t surprised the first time he sees a dog he doesn’t know. These mirrors have to be secured in such a way that they won’t tip and break or break if he crashes into them. The flooring should be easy to clean and disinfect, but should also incorporate different surfaces in them. PVC lattice work laid down over a towel can provide an easy to clean obstacle, as can a towel rolled up and covered over with a rubber yoga mat. Ideally you should have a low platform for the puppy to get onto, and a small dog crate or cat carrier for him to get into.
As a final note, if you have a puppy who is eight weeks old, but who had the misfortune to be very ill shortly after coming home, all of the above advice will help you to help him to be as well socialized as possible. If you have any specific questions about supporting a young puppy or an older puppy who is ill please post questions to the blog and I will respond to them. We can make life better for these pups even when they are at a developmental disadvantage.
Raising a younger puppy can be rewarding, but it is a ton of work. This is part of what you are paying for when you purchase a puppy at eight weeks. When people sell pups at 6 weeks, a big part of why they sell them at that age is to save themselves the time and the money related to the final two weeks of properly raising a puppy. If you thought that you were going to save money by buying a younger puppy, you have to understand that the saving is going to cost you somewhere else. If you want to do it right, keep your puppy with his litter and his dam till he is eight whole weeks old, and either way start puppy class at eight weeks for the maximum benefit as an adult.