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A Mother's Love

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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When it comes to motherhood, dogs can't read about it in books or learn about it during a Lamaze class. But they almost always get it right, even if they're giving birth to a first litter.

So where does the mothering skill come from? Why nature, of course. By 'nature' I refer to the mental hard-wiring and priming that automatically leads to the correct behaviors in bitches during and after birthing. But what about nurture – the acquired aspect of mothering? That plays an important role, too, but nurture cannot operate in the absence of the correct infrastructure to support motherhood.

Natural Aspects

One of the most powerful pieces of evidence for the inherited nature of maternal behavior comes from studies in mice. In 1999, scientists discovered a gene that controlled maternal behavior in mice. Without the gene, mice showed a striking impairment in maternal behavior that led to the death of the majority of their offspring. Curiously, this nurturing gene was expressed in the adult brain from the paternal component of the gene only. No doubt similar genetic underpinnings exist for maternal behavior in dogs. Even though maternal behavior is innate, it normally requires to be activated by the birthing process. The appearance of a full set of maternal responses requires that the body be primed by appropriate hormonal influences.

Important mechanical events associated with and following birthing include:

  • The delivery - especially pups' passage through the cervical canal
  • The mother's sight of her pup(s)
  • The mother's smell of her pup(s)
  • The pups' nursing activity

    Hormonal priming for maternal behaviors includes:

  • Falling levels of progesterone, the hormone of pregnancy that inhibits maternal behavior

  • Rising levels of estrogen, the hormone that facilitates maternal behavior

  • Prolactin release - responsible for milk formation and maternal protectiveness (increased dominance/protective aggression)

  • Oxytocin release - causes milk let down and has pleasurable, rewarding effects that reinforce maternal behaviors and bonding

    If everything goes smoothly, a pregnant bitch's behavior will change suddenly and completely following the delivery of her pups and will remain so for a long period of time. It's not just puppy love. After labor, she will turn around to inspect her handiwork and will start sniffing and licking the little bundles of joy. Sniffing and licking helps her identify and become attached to her pups, in part due to the influence of oxytocin. It is oxytocin that helps forge the inseparable bond that she forms with her 'babies.' Its presence brings about changes that ensure she doesn't stop thinking about them and constantly fusses over them. Being a mom with pups is like having obsessive-compulsive disorder - except that the constant thought is functional and the consequences are both necessary and natural.

    There is a less normal obsessive-compulsive expression of maternal behavior, referred to as pseudopregnancy, which occurs most commonly in unbred bitches. Following a normal heat cycle, an ovarian structure, the corpus luteum ("yellow body" of pregnancy), persists and leads to hormonal changes that cause the body as a whole to act as if it is pregnant. About 40 or 50 days after being in heat, non-pregnant bitches with pseudopregnancy may start to lactate, build nests, and adopt and protect various toys (puppy facsimiles).

    Nurture – The Learned Side of Maternal Behavior

    First-time mothers have to learn by trial and error and "accidental" success before they become fully experienced moms. But even so, some make better moms than other. Early upbringing, family history, if you will comes to bear in why this is so. It is known that well-mothered pups make better mothers. This is because the very process of mothering causes pertinent neuronal circuits to flourish in the pups' brains, priming them to respond appropriately to the later influence of oxytocin.

    Beginner moms need all the proper mechanical and hormonal events to fall into place flawlessly if they are to assume a correct maternal role. An example of what can go wrong occurs when pups are delivered by Cesarean section from first-time mothers. Since an anesthetized mom does not experience cervical stimulation, does not get an early opportunity to sniff and groom her pups, and may not be suckled for some time, a proper bond may not form. In some sad cases, recovering bitches will attack their pups and may even kill them, apparently viewing them as alien.

    On the other hand, bitches that have had more than one litter take to new pups like a duck to water, falling immediately into a full nurturing role the minute the pups are born and never looking back. The full experience of functional motherhood may have such a profound effect on some bitches that maternal behavior can be "conjured up" when they are not pregnant by the sight, sound, or smell of something puppy-like. I once heard of a bitch that became maternal over a rat that came to stay. So deep were her emotions toward this rat that when it had to go home she became positively depressed and spent hours staring in the direction of the home to which it had been withdrawn.

    Conclusion

    Whatever the mechanics underlying of mothering, it occurs, and is always breath- taking. Scientifically, behaviorists are not at liberty to interpret behaviors but it is tempting to say that bitches, like human moms, are enrapt with their offspring. If the hormone oxytocin is the driving force behind motherly love, it nonetheless is true love.

    Maternal behavior involves more than pumping hormones and reflexive behavior. There is also the cognitive side to the behavior. Pups' appearances, their small size, round faces, and big eyes, stimulate nurturing feelings in the bitch and I feel certain that bitches are every bit as proud of their pups as human moms are of their children.

    The more care and attention their mom lavishes on them, the more confident and well-adjusted puppies will grow to be. Without this nurturing, puppies will be under-confident, over-reactive and slow learners. It's the same for people. All I can say is thank heavens for mothers everywhere. Whether dog moms or human moms, they're adored by their progeny and are an essential ingredient in a happy and well-adjusted life. Let's put it this way, it's a rocky road without a mom, for a pup or person. If life is a journey, mothers give their offspring a road map and the confidence to make it alone.

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