Puppyhood can be divided into four main periods:
This period starts at birth and lasts 14 days. During this time, the pup is essentially defenseless but perfectly adapted to his environment. He has been fitted from birth with many traits that allow him to do what he needs to survive: feed and get his mother’s attention. His nervous system is still predominantly underdeveloped, and while his sense of smell, touch and taste are present, he is blind and deaf.
One important mechanism is the distress call: it is a very distinct, instinctual call which the pup makes when he experiences discomfort, such as getting lost. Puppies are born equipped with this call and the instinct disappears a maximum of five weeks after birth. The mother’s instinctual response to the call starts at the birth of the last pup of her litter and ends two weeks later, at the end of the neonatal period of her litter’s life. Only she will answer to her puppies’ calls, and only during the specific period of maternity. Should a puppy get lost before the last one is born, his cries will be ignored, just like when a 17 day old puppy makes the same call.
The pup is able to clumsily roll about, generally in a circular direction, so as to never stray far from his mother. Since puppies at this age are still blind and deaf, their sensory system doesn’t allow for much learning. This being said, it has been shown that pups (even wolf pups) handled by humans during this period are more apt to handle stress in adulthood, friendlier to humans and all around better learners than pups who have been handled very little or only after the neonatal period.
This period starts right before the end of the neonatal period and ends at more or less 30 days of life (two weeks in duration). During this period, the pup’s eyes (between day 10-16) and ears (between day 18-20) open. This marks the transition from completely dependent newborn to more independent puppy. Adult behaviours (tail wagging, growling, various play behaviours, pouncing…) start to form at this time and the mother stops responding to the distress call of her pups. The startle response to loud noises is present and although eyesight is poor, the pup can still follow moving objects. The puppies start to walk and in the wild, this is the age where the now ambulatory puppies emerge from the den for the first time.
This period, also called the imprinting period, goes from the third week of life all the way to the 12th. It is important to note that in wolves, this period lasts just under three weeks, that’s about 30% of the time it lasts dogs. This fact allows humans to desensitize shepherds to animals they’d normally feel inclined to hunt and eat (sheep, horses…) and instead instill in them the inclination to guard and protect these animals.
The terms socialization and imprinting have become very hot words within the training community, and with good reason! This crucial period in an animal’s life essentially defines the individual they will grow up to be.
Learning ability and socialization are at their peak during this time, the pup learns what species he belongs to based on the social interactions lived during this period. He starts to move around less awkwardly, gains more dexterity and a willingness to explore everything and everywhere.
During this time, the pup becomes attached not only to individuals, such as his littermates and handler(s), but also to places, his environment and inanimate objects, thus imprinting is not limited to living beings.
Given a puppy’s inherent curiosity at this age, and elevated learning ability, handlers and trainers need to be very careful when it comes to traumatic events because fear towards something instilled at this age is understandably hard to alter, as is everything, good or bad, that is learned during this time.
This age is the best time to start housetraining a puppy, as they become attracted to the smell of urine and feces, and thus start preferring to eliminate where these odours are found.
As far as behaviour is concerned, this is definitely the most important period in the puppy’s development. Most ethologists and behaviourists agree that even though the imprinting period is rather long in the dog, the puppy is most receptive between the third and fifth week of life. During this time, the pups will not oppose to being handled. After the fifth week, they start to become increasingly more stressed. After the 12th week, handling an inadequately socialized pup becomes very difficult.
This period goes from the end of the socialization period up until puberty (between 6-12 months of age). Ethologically speaking, dogs can be considered permanent adolescents. They retain juvenile behaviours (such as the ability to bark) right into adulthood and become sexually mature without ever becoming completely mentally mature.
While it is true that the imprinting period is over, pups this age are still sensitive to new things, aversive or not, therefore care must be taken to avoid social regression that may lead to fear and timidity. Harsh treatment (for instance harsh “corrections” in obedience training) can be especially detrimental, causing, in all likelihood, irreparable damage.
Studies seem to attest to the presence of a fifth period, the prenatal period, which is influenced by the environment the gestating female is in and how she reacts to it. It is well documented that stress negatively affects both the mother and her unborn pups, but the exact effects in dogs have not been extensively studied.
For an effective socialization process, the handler should expose the puppy to as many safe situations and environments as possible. Armed with high-value positive reinforcement (toys, treats…), the handler should introduce the pup to many people and dogs, rewarding a good reaction and approach.
Needless to say, the dogs the puppy meets need to be well socialized and not reactive or aggressive. One must keep size and energy level in mind when looking for suitable playmates for the young pup; a seven week old Miniature Pinscher and a five month old Rottweiler may not be the best match!
Vaccinations also have to be kept in mind. Before the complete vaccination series had been administered, it is best to keep the puppy out of high-risk places such as dog parks and puppy classes. The dogs deemed appropriate for socializing a puppy must be healthy and up-to-date on their shots as well.
Vaccine schedules vary greatly, but generally the protocol starts at eight weeks and is complete at around 16 weeks. A lack of exposure to the outside world and all of its myriad stimuli has a detrimental effect on an imprinting puppy and will result in a dog who is withdrawn, lacks acceptable social behaviour and resists anything new.
This brings us to a very highly disputed argument: when is a puppy ready to be adopted out to its new family? Some experts argue that earlier (around six weeks of age) in the imprinting period is better, it allows the puppy to still be psychologically malleable when it moves into its new environment. Others argue that taking a puppy away from its littermates before 7-8 weeks of age makes them more socially inadequate because it robs them of time with other dogs. Studies have shown that puppies that are weaned by their mother and not rehomed until about 12 weeks of age have much better social etiquette (such as greater bite inhibition) than those placed in new homes earlier.
At whatever age you decide to get your puppy, remember that socialization is a life-long affair; and while it is true that “erasing” a faulty upbringing is very difficult, with the right tools it isn’t impossible.
Make it fun, keep it positive and you’ll have a well-adjusted and happy dog!
Good luck, and happy training!