Early Puppy Development
Dogs are generally still considered “puppies” until they are about a year old. However, every breed of dog develops at a different rate – some are not finished physically growing until they are at least two years old, and the point at which they mentally mature will also vary. All puppies, however, go through several predictable stages during the first twelve weeks of their lives.
Newborn puppies are pretty helpless. They are born blind and deaf; they cannot properly regulate their body temperature and they even rely on mum to stimulate them to go to the toilet. They use their sense of smell and touch to shuffle about the nest and find mum when they need some warmth or milk. They sleep most of the time at this age, and are pretty immobile – their little legs cannot yet hold them up, so they just wriggle around pulling themselves along with their front legs.
At about two weeks, our puppies’ eyes begin to open – the exact day they open can vary from breed to breed and between individuals, but it’s about now! They are beginning to take in more of the world around them, with their hearing also now developing alongside their eyesight. This is a good time for breeders to start introducing puppies to a range of novel things, as they aren’t particularly mobile so there is no evolutionary advantage of them feeling fearful – in fact, they are ready to learn to accept things in their world as normal and safe. Breeders may play audio tracks with noise such as traffic, different animal sounds, babies crying and machinery, as well as introducing them to new people and other household things. Pups will gradually start to become more mobile during this time, so they will need extra space to move around and learn how to use their limbs. They can also begin eating some solid food and mum can start to get some much-needed time away from the pups!
The puppies will still be suckling but should be starting to eat more solid food, now, and the weaning process will be underway. It is at around five weeks that our puppies begin to show a fear response to certain new things – so it’s important that they continue to have positive experiences such as regular, gently handling every day so that they learn these things don’t represent danger. The puppies will be learning how to play with one another and how to interact appropriately – it’s important that puppies continue to spend time with their mum and littermates so they can learn these important social skills that they will need in later life.
By six weeks, they will be almost completely weaned and eating more solid meals throughout the day. In the past, many puppies went to their new homes at about 6 weeks of age – we now know that this is detrimental. Puppies are still learning how to interact with other dogs. At this stage, though, the breeder will need to start giving the puppies more space to run around and exercise as they are much more active and mobile now! They are also starting to develop some control over when they go to the toilet – so the breeder can start to work on some early toilet training.
Hopefully at seven weeks, our puppies’ socialisation is well underway. It’s important that this continues – our pups’ brains are now fully functional and they are entering what is known as the “behaviour refinement period.” They should continue to be socialised with humans, and more structured training to teach them good “manners” can begin. Some basic examples of impulse control, such as offering a “sit” to access nice things like attention or treats, are a perfect way to begin.
At seven weeks, our puppies are entering their “hazard avoidance” or “fear” period (this can be slightly later for certain breeds). This is the age where, if they were wild or feral, they would be starting to venture further – so nature needs them to learn very quickly if something poses a threat to them. This means our dogs are very susceptible to trauma at this age – a scary experience is likely to cause them intense distress and they will learn in one single event to avoid whatever it was that upset them. It’s therefore really important that we are careful to manage our puppies’ experiences, especially to new things, to make sure they are positive ones. Bad experiences at this point could result in lifelong phobias which can be really difficult to overcome.
These days, puppies tend to go to their new homes some time between 8 and 10 weeks. Puppies will need time to settle into their new homes, and to be introduced to all the new sights, sound and smells in a gentle and positive manner. Puppy owners can then begin focusing on the important task of training their pups. They will now be more aware of their environment and can begin to learn contextually – this means they can start to learn what to do and when to do it. New puppy owners should seek to enrol their pups in group classes, to begin as soon as the receive their second set of vaccinations. What our puppies learn at this point in their lives will literally shape their brain, as it is still developing – working on useful behaviours such as recall etc around other dogs will set them up to grow into well-mannered and engaged dogs.
An Extra Note: “Critical Period” vs “Sensitive Period”
You may have heard people refer to either the critical or sensitive period in puppies, and wondered what these are and if there is a difference between them. Usually, they are referred to when discussing early socialisation of our pups. In the past, people primarily referred to the “critical period,” but these days it is more typically referred to as the “sensitive period.” So, why the change in term?
When scientists refer to a “critical period” in development, what they are referring to is a specific point in an animals’ development that is absolutely non-negotiable. For example, there are critical periods in many animals’ early lives when they need to open their eyes and start being exposed to light for their vision to develop properly. This is absolutely essential and must happen during the critical period, otherwise the neural structures needed for vision simply won’t develop.
The reason we now refer to the socialisation windows in our puppies as a “sensitive period,” is because it is not quite as clear cut as this. That isn’t to say that there isn’t huge weight in what experiences our puppies do or don’t have during this time – socialisation is certainly much, much easier during this period of our dogs’ lives – but we do know that there is some wiggle room to still habituate our pups to new things that they didn’t come across during those early days. It may take much more deliberate work and a lot more time to do so, however – and it’s also important that we note that bad experiences during these early days do cause permanent changes to our dogs’ brains which we can only hope to “outweigh,” but can never actually undo.