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How Good Breeder's Raise Good Pups

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Puppies are a lot like children in the sense that much critical, life-altering experience and learning takes place in the very early stages of life. Children, it is said, have figured out the rudiments of language by 6 months of age before they have even uttered a word. In an article entitled, Starting Small, Thinking Big, in the American Prospect [1996], Irving B. Harris claims that the most cost-effective spending in education should focus on early childhood learning, from conception to age 5.

Most dog breeders know that the sensitive period of learning in pups occurs prior to 12 or 14 weeks of age. But how many appreciate the critical significance of the period between birth and 8 weeks of age prior to a puppy's adoption? And even if they do recognize the importance of this early stage, what measures do they or should they take to ensure that new owners adopt a flawless pup? Also, I wonder about how much instruction on proper socialization of pups they give to new owners and how emphatically they stress its importance?

The most rapid learning occurs in the infantile and transitional period spanning the first 2 to 3 weeks of life. A pups overall rate of learning may have halved by 8-weeks, although some specialized types of learning (fear learning) may be peaking at this time. Thereafter, imagine that the rate of learning is halved again by 3 to 4 months of age and then again by 6 months. This somewhat hypothetical depiction of the sharp decline in a pup's rate of learning over the first few weeks or months of life stresses the importance of providing ample opportunity for positive learning experiences in the early part of life and the corollary to this is also important; that pups should be shielded from any negative experiences. This is something all breeders should know and should be actively striving to achieve.

There are three main areas to address when considering the impact of early learning and all of these should be being addressed from the time the pup's eyes open and its ear canals are fully patent following the transitional period [14 to 20-days of life]. The three areas are: socialization, acclimation to novel stimuli, and acclimation to novel situations. In order to determine exactly what social cues, novel stimuli, or situations to begin working with, it is only necessary to project forward in the pup's life as to what it is likely to encounter.


The start of the socialization period is generally regarded as being 3-weeks of age. From 3 to 6 weeks, pups are learning about their littermates and mother. Left to their own devices and desires, they will normally accomplish this admirably, as nature has planned, and will turn out to be socially proficient within their own family circle.

But stop to consider for a moment, if you will, the feral situation, when a pup is raised by its mother with its littermates in the wild. Such a pup will not grow up to fit well in the fabric of society as one would wish and expect of a pup to be adopted into a person's home. In fact, pups raised without human contact until 12-weeks of age will never be good with people whatever happens after that. It is as if the window of social learning has been closed or the blind pulled down.

So, how important is the first 2 months of life with respect to socialization? It is vital. And how important is the third month of life immediately following adoption – it is also extremely important. It is not sufficient for breeders to simply leave a bitch and her pups in the whelping room or in an outhouse to learn for themselves. They will learn - but not about everything that they will later need to know. One breeder said, "Oh yes, I socialize my pups. Each day I spend about 10 minutes playing with them." This is simply not enough time and not a broad enough spectrum of socialization.

The concept of 'puppy parties' was first entertained by Dr. Ian Dunbar of Sirius Puppy Training in Berkeley, California. Word about this technique has percolated through breeder ranks but not far or fats enough in my opinion. All too frequently, I am brought dogs with behavior problems that were raised by breeders in isolation and without proper socialization. And all too frequently, this omission is at the root of the problem that I am trying to address and I cannot undo the past. It is far better for breeders to make themselves fully cognizant of all aspects of socialization and then to conduct it properly and diligently for the benefit of their puppies and for future owners.

Puppy parties involve inviting an assortment of benign friends around the house for refreshments and have them handle and address the youngster or youngsters in a gentle and positive fashion. Novelty food can be introduced once the puppies have begun to show an interest in solid food. The more puppy parties the better. The greater the assortment of people, the better, and the greater the assortment of garbs, the better. Puppy parties should continue from the end of the transitional period through the breeder's tenure and through the new owner's tenure up to at least 14-weeks of age. But wait, there's more! What about other dogs as opposed to just littermates? They should be introduced, too, at this sensitive time for social learning.

Of course, it is the breeder's responsibility to make sure that any dogs introduced to young puppies from the earliest time are under control and are of a benign disposition. Negative experiences with other dogs may cause a permanent setback. Finally, there are other living things with which puppies may need to cohabit in later life. Not the least of which is cats. Just to be on the safe side, especially if a new pup is to be adopted into a home containing a cat, it is important to introduce cats to the pup at this sensitive time for learning so that they, too, may come to be appreciated as insiders, not as foes and certainly not as prey items. Again, the prerequisite is that the cat should be a suitable, calm and composed disposition, and should be stage-managed so as not to cause the new pup any alarm.

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