Early Puppy Development

This puppy is learning so much already!

When owners get a new puppy they typically have a vision for how they want they puppy to be as an adult dog. Some people imagine themselves sitting at the park on a blanket reading as their dog relaxes at their side, others picture weekend hiking buddies and almost everyone pictures long leisurely evening strolls with their dog.   What people don’t imagine is owning a dog that barks because he is scared of people or having to isolate their dog when someone comes to visit, because their dog doesn’t like strangers.

Puppies aren’t completely blank slates, but how you raise them will have a huge impact on their adult behavior.

A puppy’s first 16 weeks can influence its behavior more than most people realize. Puppy brains are very special. The results of many behavior studies and EEG measurements demonstrate that a puppy’s brain is better equipped to learn about new experiences with less repetition and to retain those memories and early learning experiences longer. The ease with which they learn begins to decline noticeably around 14-16 weeks. This is when the “critical period of socialization” window closes.

It is why the process of teaching your adult dog to accept new people, animals, or experiences is no longer considered “socialization” but is instead considered behavior modification or counter conditioning.

Dr. Ian Dunbar holds a veterinary degree and a Special Honors in physiology and biochemistry from the Royal Veterinary College of London University, a doctorate in animal behavior from the psychology department of UC Berkeley, and a decade of research on olfactory communication, social behavior, and aggression in domestic dogs. He also has decades of dog-training experience that revolutionized how we teach puppy classes today.  

Dr. Ian Dunbar states, “Temperament problems, must be prevented during early puppyhood because rehabilitating adult dogs is complicated and extremely time-consuming. For example; whereas it takes just a few days, or a week at the most, to resolve incipient signs of shyness, fearfulness, intractability, or aggression towards people in a two- to three-month-old puppy, it would take several months to resolve similar problems in a five-month old adolescent and one or two years to rehabilitate a fearful/aggressive eight-month-old, (provided that the dog is not dangerous, i.e., has never actually harmed a person).”

Preventing behavior problems is easier than fixing them. It saves you money on expensive behavior modification and allows you to create more enjoyable memories with your dog. If you’re anything like me, you would rather take your dog along with you to your friend’s barbeque than leave him home alone. A socialized dog with good manners is going to be more suitable for those types of social events. This is easier to teach and instill before your puppy is 16 weeks.

Terrier learning the texture of grass

When should you start to socialize your new puppy?

About 12 years ago it used to be standard practice for veterinarians, groomers, breeders, and shelter staff to recommend waiting until a puppy’s vaccine series is complete. This is no longer the case.  

According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement “It should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association also features the same position statement adding, “In, general puppies can start socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up to date on vaccines throughout the class.”

At 8 weeks a puppy is halfway through its socialization window. Since most people bring home puppies at 8 weeks, I recommend finding a puppy who has already had a head start in socialization. Look for one that has been raised in a home setting with a whelping box that sets the stage for good house training and exposure to different surfaces, people, and sounds. A puppy who has had their socialization started could have been raised by an experienced puppy foster or a reputable breeder. I recommend looking for a puppy that was raised following the Puppy Culture program then continuing socialization when you bring your new puppy home.

Learning good manners out and about

What about parvo and other infectious diseases?

According to the American Animal Hospital Association “Puppies born to healthy, properly vaccinated mothers and engaged in an active vaccination program have a low risk of contracting infectious diseases. There is no medical reason to delay puppy classes or social exposure until the vaccination series is completed as long as exposure to sick animals is prohibited, basic hygiene is practiced, and diets are high quality. The risks attendant with missing social exposure far exceed any disease risk.” 

You can further limit the risk of infectious disease by choosing a puppy socialization class that uses a parvocidal cleaner like Rescue or bleach-water mixture of 1 part bleach to 30 parts water to clean which will help to ensure that your puppy is safe. Puppy classes that asks for current proof of vaccinations for each puppy and have puppies that are no more than 2.5 weeks apart in age will also decrease risk even further.

Both the AVMA and the AVSAB feature this statement on their website, “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”

If you are dreaming of an ideal family dog early puppyhood is the time to start.

Here are some safe ways to start socializing your puppy during early puppyhood.

  • Puppy socialization classes that check vaccines and have good cleaning procedures are the safest and most effective way to socialize your puppy.
  • Invite friends over to the house to meet the puppy. Welcome children as well, but have a rule that they stay sitting. If the puppy jumps on them or uses their teeth they can stand up and ignore the puppy. Playpens are great for this. Be sure not to overwhelm the puppy. In my experience, it is ideal to teach both puppies and children to be calm in each other’s presence.
  • Take your puppy for a car ride and let them watch other people, bikes, dogs, and children out in the world.
  • Use a stroller to keep your puppy off the ground. Take the puppy to places like outdoor malls, walking paths, and other locations you might want to enjoy with your puppy in the future. If you are using a stroller to socialize your new puppy it’s important that you don’t allow people or dogs to approach. Allowing them to approach the confined puppy may cause the puppy to feel unable to get away.
  • Take your puppy to a café and use a mat as a barrier between the ground and your puppy.

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