Have you ever wondered what changes your puppy goes through from the time he is born until he turns 12 weeks old? Puppies go through three main stages of development: neonatal, transitional, socialization. Since development doesn’t follow a strict pattern, these three stages may overlap.
Neonatal stage – 0 to 2 weeks.
Puppies are born with their eyes and ear flaps closed. Their brains are immature, so their sensory abilities are limited and their movement uncoordinated. Their digestive system is underdeveloped, so they rely on their mother to stimulate their anal-genital area through licking in order to empty their bladder and bowels. Regulation of body temperature is also underdeveloped and this is why they depend on their mother to keep warm.
Although the puppies’ sensory abilities are limited, their sense of smell is developed enough to enable them to find their mother’s teats, and the infra-red receptors in their nose allows them to detect warmth from the mother and litter mates.
During this stage puppies spend most of their time feeding and sleeping. They gain weight rather quickly. It is also during this stage that the puppies are imprinted on the mother’s mind and the mother on theirs. This is done mainly through licking and grooming the puppies so that they learn to recognize the smell of her saliva.
Exposing puppies to mild stresses – being stroked and carefully handled by men, women and children to enhance the ability to recognize different human smells – helps them mature faster, accelerates body growth and helps them cope with emotional challenges later on. Touch is comforting, induces a feeling of safety, and plays a very important role in bonding with humans. So the earlier the puppies are exposed to human touch, which should be a pleasant experience, the more sociable they are likely to become.
Transitional Stage – 2 to 4 Weeks
Significant changes occur during this stage: the eyes and ears open; the teeth erupt; the puppies can stand, walk and eventually run; they start wagging their tails, growling and barking; their senses become more developed and attuned to the outside world. This stage is also known as the Transitional Stage.
Play with the mother, brothers and sisters begins. The brain becomes much more active and ready for learning. Puppies no longer rely on their mother to stimulate elimination* and are now capable of controlling body temperature. It is also during this stage that weaning begins. Litter mates* and human influence increase, because puppies engage in playing more with each other and are ready to interact more with humans.
Since this is a stage when puppies are more receptive to external or environmental influences, it is paramount that their first experiences with the outside world be as pleasant as possible. A bad experience during this stage may have long-lasting negative effects.
The more the brain is stimulated the more the learning process will be enhanced. Creating situations in which puppies have to solve simple problems will increase their confidence in facing and solving more complex problems later on. For example, letting a puppy figure out how to overcome a small obstacle will prepare him mentally to rapidly figure out how to retrieve a toy from under or behind a piece of furniture.
It is also during this stage that the puppies should begin to be exposed to different sights, smells, sounds, and to gently begin the interaction between them and humans through play. Careful handling and stroking initiated during the neonatal stage should continue during this stage. The first stages of a puppies development are important periods in puppy care.
Socialization Stage 4 -12 weeks
The socialization stage is the last most significant stage of development of your puppy. It starts at approximately 4 weeks of age and ends at approximately 12 weeks of age.
By now all senses and communication skills are well developed, all movements such as running and climbing are well coordinated, and by 6 weeks of age the puppies are independent of their mother. Their brain waves closely resemble those of adult dogs, which means that they are fully receptive to learning and training.
During this stage puppies remain awake for longer periods, which are usually spent playing with the mother and litter mates. During these play sessions puppies practice their hunting instincts, learn bite inhibition*, and develop social skills. They learn to seek attention from their mother by yelping, pawing, following her, jumping at her, and licking her muzzle. In turn, she stops allowing them to nurse from her by walking away, or growling at them, or delivering an inhibited bite. This is how dogs learn to display dominance and submission towards other dogs.
As puppies become more interested in social interactions, play with humans should be encouraged, besides the stroking and handling. Play and physical contact enhances bonding, and games are small challenges that are extremely important to mentally exercise the puppies, thus enhancing their ability to cope with everyday life situations. Lack of contact with humans will result in a dog that is difficult to train, is fearful of people and avoids them, and may develop anxiety-related problems. I advise you to socialize your puppy extensively to a wide array of people – women, men, babies, toddlers, tall, short, thin, fat, etc. – as soon as you acquire him.
When should you start taking you puppy out?
Puppies should also be exposed to different environments and things such as: shopping malls, car parks, quiet places, noisy places, buckets, vacuum cleaners. . . the more variety, the better. However, exposure to different environments must be monitored, because by 12 weeks of age the vaccination programme isn’t complete and puppies are still at risk of catching contagious diseases. Something that needs to be considered with regard to puppy care.
For example Amy Lee, was a dog rescued from a building site where she had lived with her mother and brother until five months old. She was exposed to the men who worked there, the sounds of the various machines, but nothing else. Three years later, she’s still afraid of objects she has never seen before, or seldom sees.
The stage of development that begins at around three weeks old and ends at sixteen to twenty weeks is the best time to get your puppy used to a variety of things, people and animals. During this period, if your puppy is extensively exposed to different animals, people, smells, sights, sounds, objects and situations he stands a better chance of acting confidently around them for the rest of his life.
Your puppy’s breeder should have begun this process of exposure, but because the ideal age for a puppy to join his new home is at eight weeks, it’s your job to do most of this work. We never run the risk of exposing too much, but always run the risk of exposing too little.
The things to avoid for a small puppy
Just a few words of caution, however: until your puppy is fully vaccinated, there are places he should not go because he’s more vulnerable to disease. Avoid places where there are other animals’ faeces, stray dogs, food leftovers for homeless dogs, rubbish, and flies. All these are potential disease carriers. For example, your puppy may catch parvovirus – a life-threatening virus that survives in faeces and places with residual faeces – or distemper, a virus commonly transmitted by stray, infected dogs, that causes respiratory and neurological problems.
Avoid dog parks – enclosed areas where dogs can exercise off the lead and do other recreation activities. This is because you can’t be certain the dogs that visit such parks are healthy and vaccinated. However, you can visit a dog park with your puppy, provided you carry him on your lap at all times, and avoid direct contact with other dogs. Choose a dog park that’s clean.
Many veterinarian clinics give puppy classes, also known as puppy parties, in a properly sanitised room.
This is a great way for your puppy to play with other puppies; to get used to being handled and touched in different ways and by strangers; to learn to overcome mental challenges – for example, to figure out how to retrieve a toy from a difficult place. In many of these classes, the trainer will give you a grounding in how to understand dog communication.
As for meeting adult dogs, you can ask your friends and family members to bring their dogs to visit your puppy. These dogs should be friendly, healthy, vaccinated, and free of parasites. As far as people are concerned, they come in all shapes and sizes, each person looking and behaving differently. Introduce your puppy to as many people as possible. Encourage them to touch and play with the puppy, and physically handle him. This handling is important for the puppy so that he becomes tolerant to human touch, and won’t try to bite the vet or even you if you have to grab him in an emergency.
Develop your dog to good habits
You may think that introducing your puppy to other dogs and people is enough, but for him to live happily with you, you need to do more. A puppy exposed to a wide array of sounds, smells, sights, places and situations develops better ‘bounce-back’. This means the ability to recover quickly from a frightening experience. It also means that when experiencing slight fear and curiosity at the same time, the puppy is more likely to show curiosity than fear. Some examples are: car travelling, hearing loud sounds, seeing and hearing the vacuum cleaner, hearing the sound of pot lids, seeing buckets. The idea is to get your puppy used to as many different objects, places, and situations as you can. Most bad habits dogs develop at a later age are due to them missing out on these experiences as puppies!
Here are some examples of such problems:
- the dog may avoid contact with strange people and bite out of fear
- may become over-protective of his food and toys and bite if you try to take them away
- may become aggressive towards other dogs or people
- he may develop panic in unknown situations and places, may become so anxious it becomes difficult for him to learn anything
- and finally, he may become so fearful of people that he hides whenever visitors come around
When a puppy isn’t extensively exposed to unknown people, dogs, places, things and situations at the right age he tends to grow into a dog that reacts badly to the unknown. This may show itself in the form of escape, anxiety, or aggression. Such dogs are seldom happy because they are either in a constant state of fear, or feel the need to threaten.
In short, whether you choose to attend puppy classes or parties, or do the exposure training yourself, do it extensively but carefully. It is a good idea to attend classes, even if you choose to do the rest of the training yourself, because you’ll learn valuable lessons and at the same time provide your puppy with opportunities unavailable elsewhere. For example: what’s normal and abnormal when dogs play, and smells found only in vet clinics, which may scare the dog later in life if he isn’t used to them.