Understanding Canine Maternal Behavior

Maternal Behavior in Dogs

For female dogs (bitches), maternal behavior begins even before pups appear on the scene. A pregnant bitch will prepare a nest and become “broody” days before the birthing event. The mothering feelings are the result of powerful hormones, such as progesterone, released from the ovaries, and prolactin, released from the anterior pituitary gland.

This hormonal drive is so powerful that some non-pregnant bitches engage in the nesting behavior during what is called a false pregnancy. In such cases, non-pregnant bitches will lactate (produce milk) and some will gather stuffed toys into a designated nesting area to fulfill a basic biological need. She-wolves also engage in preparatory work starting about 3 weeks before the end of their term. The behavior is referred to as “pre-denning” behavior.

At term, pregnant bitches pace anxiously and lick themselves as they prepare for the big event. Then, returning to their nest area, they finally lie down and push to extrude the fetuses one by one, with an approximate 15 to 30 minute interval between deliveries. Once the pups are born, the bitch’s life is changed as dramatically as if a switch has been thrown. She thinks constantly about her pups and their welfare, and devotes every waking minute to their care. This is how it was in the wild, some 12,000 to 14,000 years ago when domestic dog ancestors gave birth, and this is how it still is today in wolves, wild dogs, and domestic dogs. Some things never change.

Pups are born blind, deaf and helpless. At this stage of their lives, just about the only things the pups know how to do are to suckle and sleep, which they do alternatively. Without their mother’s undivided attention, they would undoubtedly perish. Her job is to provide them with food (milk), to keep them warm, and to protect them from danger. Even first time mothers seem to know what to do without any coaching. So the “know how” seems to be innate though there is little doubt that bitches mothering skills improve with experience.

The brain center that coordinates maternal behavior is the hypothalamus, which communicates with the pituitary gland. The sight, smell and touch of the nursing pup activates the release of various hormones from the pituitary gland, including two hormones instrumental in the propagation of maternal behavior, oxytocin and prolactin. Oxytocin is responsible for expulsion of the afterbirth, milk letdown, and the extremely close bond that develops between the bitch and her litter. Prolactin controls milk production and fosters the feeling of maternal protectiveness. Because moms are primed and programmed in this way, they will carefully guard their pups, keeping them warm and protecting them against danger, while feeding and nourishing them so they develop relative and then complete independence. The latter is the goal and end point of successful maternal behavior.

The First 10 Days of a Puppy’s Life

Sometimes known as the neonatal period, this is the postnatal stage at which pups are most needy and require the most attention. During this period, they are harbored and nursed by ever-attendant mothers who actively provide all the necessary attentions. One of these attentions is that of grooming the pups. Grooming stimulates and cleans the pups but also promotes bonding and more rapid maturation of their nervous systems. It is also the way in which the bitch guides her pups to the safety of her warm underbelly. For the first three weeks of the pup’s life, the bitch’s grooming of pups’ anogenital region is also useful to promote the elimination of urine and feces. The bitch ingests the pup’s solid waste to keep the nest clean and free of telltale odors and disease. Devouring the placenta and fetal membranes is a sanitization duty that the bitch performs immediately after giving birth, and she does this quickly. Recycling the afterbirth in this way is biologically efficient and removes evidence of the birthing from the sensory scope of wandering predators.

The Transitional Period

Following the neonatal period, the pups’ eyes open and their ear canals become patent, allowing them to fully imbibe the wonders of the outside world for the first time. During this time of rapid learning, which occurs between the second and third week of life, the bitch’s attention on her pups remains undivided.

A Puppy’s Socialization Period

The socialization period of a pup’s life spans from the third to the twelfth week. From week three to week six, pups become progressively more active and exploratory and their mother’s attention shifts from one of simply feeding and watching over them to one of policing struggles and herding wandering pups to within a safe radius. Pups become progressively more active and exploratory and more independent. The bitch will encourage independence toward the end of this period by discouraging clingy behavior and punishing some incursions of the pups into her space. While running a tight ship, the bitch will also teach her pups to eat solid food as she progressively severs her ties with them. Transitioning the pups from milk to solid food starts with the bitch regurgitating her stomach contents for her pups in response to their licking of her lips. While it is more common for this to occur in dogs in the wild, it does also sometimes occur in the domestic setting. Initially, during the weaning process, suckling and the ingestion of solid food alternate but eventually solid food eating prevails with only occasional non-nutritional “comfort” remaining.

There are occasional “bad mothers” who have little time for their pups and some truly dysfunctional moms will even kill their pups (a behavior known as infanticide). In these
latter cases, something has gone wrong and the process has not followed on the rails that nature has provided. Cesarean section is one disturbance that can throw the natural progression off track because the normal early visual, olfactory, and tactile stimuli leading to bonding are thwarted. Failure to form an early bond can lead to trouble downstream, including disastrous consequences.

A mother’s role changes during the development of her pups from one of maximal support at their time of greatest need to one of direction, protection and, finally, independence training as they mature. A degree of independence is achieved by the 60th day post partum and it is around this time that domestic dog pups are placed in their new homes. Of course, they still require considerable care from their human guardians at this stage but are certainly capable of surviving without their moms in a protected domestic situation. In nature, wolves and wild dog pups stay with the pack and rely on pack kills for their source of food. They then begin to play hunt and, finally, learn the ropes of their hunting trade for themselves. By this time, their mother’s influence is almost non-existent and within the limitations of their pack life, the now young dogs have achieved relatively full independence. Without their mother’s earlier support they could never have made it this far and while they may not remember it or thank her for it, they owe her their lives.