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Orphaned Dogs - Their Mental and Social Needs

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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If women believe it's hard to find a family-oriented man, consider this: For more than 95 percent of mammalian species, the male plays no role at all in raising the young, leaving the entire parenting business up to the mother. So when a young dog finds itself without its mom, it is effectively devoid of all parental attentions and is alone in the world.

A puppy receives a lot of care, attention, and even education from its mother. If a pup becomes separated from its mom, it is clearly in its own best interests to find an alternative caregiving source at the earliest opportunity. But this is not always an option. The worst-case scenario occurs when a pup is left alone with no alternative nurturing resource and no siblings, i.e. is completely deprived of all company and attention. If an orphaned or abandoned pup loses its mom but still has the company of littermates, the predicament less austere. In this latter situation, circumstances may not be optimal, but being part of a group will provide the pup some solace. A problem shared is a problem halved.

Some orphaned pups fall on their feet by being adopted by a caring human foster parent. In this situation, they don't lack care and attention. In fact, just the opposite may occur. They may get everything they want without any direction or correction. No proper instructions or discipline from the well-meaning human caregiver can give rise to a set of problems embraced by the term, "yuppy puppy syndrome."

Finally, it is sometimes possible to raise a young pup with a foster family of the same species if timing, know-how and luck are all favorable.

The Worst-Case Scenario

In nightmarish deprivation experiments, it was shown that young monkeys become depressed, rocking back and forth and sucking their thumbs; isolated pups become markedly disturbed, fearful, depressed or hyperactive; and isolated kittens cried upon separation, became uninterested in their surroundings, became increasingly withdrawn, and were poor learners. The unavoidable conclusion is that moms and littermates are necessary for proper mental and social development.

Littermates but No Mom

This is another far from ideal situation but one that is several orders of magnitude better than being entirely alone. Mom normally provides nurturing support in times of stress. Nursing, for example, is more than simple a way of obtaining food; it is a comfort behavior, too. Being groomed by mom is more than a bath; it builds close bonds and facilitates more rapid and sophisticated brain development. Puppies deprived of opportunities to nurse in times of stress often displace their nursing drive onto littermates' appendages or onto a human caregiver.

Puppies that do not receive the benefits afforded by grooming will develop more slowly and not to their full potential. On the plus side, they will be able to enjoy the friendship and challenges provided by their littermates. Through play and other mutual interactions, even conflict, they often learn appropriate social skills with respect to other members of the same species. Whether people are recognized as friendly and cooperative depends on the degree and type of human-pet interactions that occur at this time. The sensitive period for learning about social interactions for pups is between 3 and 12 weeks of age.

Human Foster Parents

People who have the energy and thoughtfulness to foster orphaned pups deserve a medal. Because of their great compassion, they will probably not fall short in the attention-giving department. But knowing how to interact with puppies is not intuitive. Human-to-animal fostering skills must be learned and foster parents must be prepared to flex and bend in their own learning experiences. The puppy's natural mom gives a lot, but has certain expectations, and sets limits. We must be prepared to do the same if we are to raise young pups to become good canine citizens.

One tip that helps prevent pups from becoming overly cowed is to direct rather than correct unwanted behaviors. Harsh or physical punishment is never appropriate. On the other hand, it is always best to meal-feed youngsters and to try to train them to receive food and treats on cue. This practice keeps you in the driving seat and helps prevent the pup from becoming an overly pushy adult.

Same Species Fostering

This is not often possible but can be done if a receptive, (preferably) nursing mom is available. Under these circumstances, the pup may have the very best chance of a normal development, as long as you arrange for all-important socialization to people during the sensitive period.

Pups mature quickly. Much of their critical learning will have occurred by 3 to 4 months of age. Even their own moms would be trying to encourage them to be independent by this stage because they know that their work is done and that independence is in the best interest of their young. We all have to grow up sometime, but for puppies, the witching age occurs frighteningly early.

Many hand-raised orphan pups have not had much, if any, social experience with other dogs and many grow up to be socially inappropriate. They often don't have much experience with the subtleties of canine etiquette and do not communicate properly with members of their own species. In fight situations, for instance, they may fail to read the deferential signs of a dog they have dominated, and will keep on coming, like the Terminator. On the other hand, when attacked, they may not know how to defer properly or how to acknowledge defeat. The result is that the attacker doesn't back off because the victory is not appropriately recognized.

Other common problems of orphaned dogs include:

  • Overattachment to human caregivers
  • Owner-directed bullying/dominance
  • Displaced nursing behavior – such as self-directed flank sucking

    These problems, and the more dramatic effects of total social isolation during the first few weeks of life, illustrate the importance of moms and littermates in the developmental experience. Our pets' behavior may be genetically programmed to some extent, but proper mental and social development is highly dependent on the correct social influences that a family provides. To foster youngsters unfortunate enough to lose their mom, we would do well to turn to nature for lessons on how to go about this. To this end, mimicking mom and the experiences she provides you can't go wrong. Nature always seems to know what's best.

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