Originally published May 2013
I just got an email from a lady who described her 4 year old dog as a puppy, and she wondered if he was old enough to start coming to school because he was driving her crazy. The problem is that her dog is not a puppy. The term puppy is roughly equivalent to the human term infant or baby. Puppyhood is one of the most interesting periods of development of a dog. A puppy, technically speaking is a dog under about 16 to 20 weeks. After that he is a young adolescent.
|This is NOT a puppy. This is an adult dog and it is too late to do puppy classes or puppy socialization.|
The neonatal stage is when puppies are just born and lasts until they are about 13 days of age. From 1 to 3 days, you can start dramatically improve a puppy’s chance to be a stable, resilient adult dog with a great immune system, but it must start in the earliest days. The process for doing this takes the first couple of weeks and is called Early Neurological Stimulation. If you are going to invest in a puppy, make sure whomever whelped the litter you are interested in is doing this because we know that this will improve the likelihood of your puppy having a successful adult life. If your breeder has no idea what you are talking about, you can direct them to http://tinyurl.com/a8clbhw. I am willing to pay more for a puppy who has had the benefit of this procedure because the science on this is very clear; it develops brains that are as much as ten percent larger and immune systems that are significantly healthier, as well as better resilience. Better resilience means that your pup will tolerate handling better, will tolerate frightening situations better and will come back to baseline faster when frightened. They also learn more effectively in my experience.
At about thirteen days to twenty days, the puppies are in a stage called the transitional stage. At this stage, they start opening their eyes and ears and they start to be able to learn about their world. Pups at this age need lots of different footing, and objects to investigate but they really aren’t doing things yet. They don’t walk, although they do begin to creep and crawl in a more organized way. At this stage the breeder should be handling them a lot; several times a day, the breeder can get into the litter box and cuddle and tickle the pups and restrain them. Doing this prepares them to be handled when they are older. Quiet visitors can come in provided they are wearing clean clothes. If you are buying a puppy, you should be able to begin meeting the litter towards the end of this stage. You won’t be choosing a puppy though; you are helping to raise a confident happy adult dog by helping the breeder to gently handle those pups.
Around about 21 to 23 days is a really interesting “blip” in development where the pups have a sudden sensory development period. This stage is called the awareness period and it is during this period that the puppies start to waddle around a lot more and begin forming social relationships with the other pups and their dam. Puppies in pairs can start to be introduced to different rooms in the house, and a variety of different surfaces.
The canine socialization period occurs between three and seven weeks of age; this is the age where pups learn the most about being a dog. They learn that if they bite too hard, their littermates will squeal and mom may interrupt them and make them stop playing. Mom has a very important role to play in this stage and if she is removed from the puppies at this age, they may always have a little bit of trouble with dog to dog interactions. This is perhaps the most important time for bite inhibition and lays the foundations for pups to learn about how to use their mouths appropriately. When pups are separated from their littermates and mom during this stage, big problems can evolve. We have recently been seeing rescues that remove pups from litters of feral dogs in this window and we often see these dogs develop significant problems later on. If you are considering a puppy from a rescue, ensure that the rescue has kept the litter together until at least seven weeks.
The next big stage that comes along is the human socialization period from seven to twelve weeks. In my experience the advantage of the breeder keeping the puppies for a week into this stage is that the puppies have a solid start with a knowledgeable handler and you can use that week between seven and 8 weeks to visit the litter and get to know the pups. At seven weeks, your puppy can come home, and there is going to be little harm in doing so, but in my opinion and experience that extra week with the breeder can really help.
From 8 to 12 weeks more or less is the time when puppies learn about people and how to live with them. Everything you do during that time frame will impact how your pup sees and meets people in adulthood. If you overwhelm and frighten your puppy while meeting someone during this time, he will store that information for future reference, so you need to make certain that puppies have a lot of really positive, happy experiences with a wide variety of people. Concurrent with this phase, puppies may go through a period where they are suddenly afraid of things they may have encountered in the past. Often called a fear period, this developmental phase is about learning about things that are dangerous. It might be better to call this a sensitive period, when the puppy is sensitive to new experiences. This works really well for things like understanding that jumping off a cliff or throwing yourself into a raging river might be dangerous, but it works less well for a puppy living in a relatively safe environment in our homes. Puppies can develop weird fears such as the fear of their water bowl, or fear of the blender in the kitchen. If you notice your puppy suddenly afraid of normal things in his world, don’t worry; this is very normal; you just need to expose your puppy to these things slowly and carefully to ensure that they learn what is actually safe, and what is actually dangerous.
At about twelve weeks, your socialization window starts to close, and by the time your puppy is 16 weeks, it is mostly shut. Occasionally that window will remain open as late at 20 weeks, but the lions share of the work of exposing your puppy to people, places and things must be completed by the time that your pup is 16 weeks of age. If you got your puppy at 8 weeks, that means that you have 8 more weeks to do great socialization. Once that socialization period is over, it is over. At 16 weeks, when the window closes, you are finished. You have 8 weeks, and then, you are done.
More and more often we are seeing puppies coming home later than 8 weeks; some dogs are being advertized by breeders and rescues as puppies as late as 24 weeks, well into early adolescence. These young dogs can no longer be easily socialized to things that are new, and if the puppy’s breeder or rescue hasn’t done the things they should have done to help the dog to learn about the world around him, then you are behind the eight ball and the longer you delay addressing the problem, the more difficult your job will be.
The socialization window doesn’t slam shut at 16 weeks, so you CAN insert some experiences in and still have an effect, but the longer you delay, the more difficult it will be to help your dog to integrate the experiences in a positive effective way, and sadly your dog is well past the time when you can benefit from going to puppy class. This is why most puppy classes ensure that dogs must register in time for puppies to complete puppy class by the time they have reached 24 weeks, when that window is really closed tight.
Another issue we are seeing more and more of in puppy classes is families who come to puppy class for the first few weeks, and then skip a few weeks and then return when the puppy is smack dab in the middle of their sensitive or fear period. Then the puppy owner wonders why their pup is not succeeding in puppy class. That eight week period that immediately follows coming home is the most important time in your relationship with your dog.
Families are busy people and often they have other things they need to do. Kids play hockey and soccer, and parents are involved with choirs and volunteer as youth leaders and coaches. Families want to add dogs to their lives in the hopes of improving their lives. Motivations for getting a family pet vary from family to family, but very few people get a dog in the hope of having an animal who lunges and barks at strangers and who is afraid of the garbage truck and the mailman. If your goal is to have a great pet, then you have to take that eight week period seriously. During the eight weeks after your dog arrives home, putting the time into his training should be a big priority.
Some families try and shoehorn in their puppy’s needs and skip puppy classes when other commitments get in the way. On the other hand, we have had families develop very sophisticated schedules in order to meet their puppy’s needs for class and for out of class socialization. We have seen families arrange for the kids to get car pool rides to lessons and then join the class part way through. We have seen families who have put commitments to choirs and volunteer work on hold for the eight weeks that they are involved in puppy class. We don’t want families to completely shut down their lives during their puppy’s socialization period, but we do hope they will understand that this eight week period is special, and if you miss it, it is gone.
The take home message here is that puppyhood is important and it only happens once. If you don’t have time to socialize and do the early training that you want your pup to have as an adult, if you cannot carve out the opportunities to carefully and thoughtfully expose your puppy to the things that you want him to cope with as an adult, you may want to hold out on getting your pup until you have the time.