Puppyhood and Beyond
Puppies are growing animals. When they are young, they learn much and what is learned has a lasting impact. Even sexual patterns, which emerge as puppies mature, can be affected by early experience. All dogs, regardless of breed, pass through various stages as they grow and develop, physically, mentally, and psychologically. Psychologists use the term critical period to describe a specific time in an animal’s life when certain experiences have a lasting effect upon their psychological development. Understanding these critical periods and a dog’s stages of development will better help you to understand your dog’s behavior and how to handle him during these special times. Additionally, puppies benefit greatly when their owners understand their development.
Puppy Toddlers (3 - 6 Weeks)
During the Toddler period, puppies open their eyes. Though they still sleep a lot, they venture into the surrounding environment and they begin to play. This emergence from the litter is a gradual and continual learning experience. During this stage of development puppies learn basic behavioral patterns specific to dogs. While playing, they practice different body postures, learning what the postures mean and how they affect their mother and littermates. They learn what it is like to bite and be bitten, what barking and other vocalizations mean and how to make and use them to establish social relationships with other dogs. Such learning and activity tempers their biting and vocalizing.
From the age of five weeks, the mother teaches her puppies basic manners. They learn to be submissive to her leadership and what behaviors are acceptable. If necessary, she growls, snarls, or snaps at them as a form of discipline. When weaning the litter, for instance, the mother will discipline her puppies so that they will leave her alone. Because the mother disciplines them in a way that they clearly understand, after a few repetitions, the puppies will respond to a mere glare from her. If a pup has not learned to accept leadership (and discipline) in its early interactions with dogs, its training will be more difficult. Puppies that are removed from the nest too early tend to be nervous, are more prone to barking and biting, and less responsive to discipline. Often they are aggressive with other dogs.
Generally speaking, a puppy taken away from it’s mother and litter mates before eight weeks of age, may not realize its full potential as a dog and companion. To maximize the mental and psychological development of puppies, they must remain in the nest with their mother and littermates until that time.
Socialization Period (7 - 12 Weeks)
It is at this age that rapid learning occurs. At seven weeks, puppies can learn and what they learn will have a lasting impact. Everything he comes in contact with will make a lasting impression upon him like it never will again. Not only will he learn, but also, he will learn whether he is taught or not. Though he has a short attention span, what things he learns are learned permanently and resistant to change. Therefore, owners need to be careful about what their puppies are learning at this time.
Your puppy is very anxious to learn how you want him to behave and react, and he needs to be shown what is expected of him in his new role as your pet. There are rules you will expect your puppy to obey. Establish those rules NOW while behaviors are easy to establish. For instance, the ways your pet interacts with you are determined during puppy hood. What he does now is what he will likely do later. So, don’t allow your puppy to do things that will be unacceptable when he becomes an adult dog.
During this time, you and your puppy will also begin to know and understand each other. You will get to know about your puppy’s particular temperament and personality whether he is strong-willed or eager to please, gentle or rambunctious, shy or outgoing, and just what else makes him the endearing individual that he is. For the puppy, this is both an exciting and somewhat confusing time. There is a whole new world of things to learn about and all sorts of new experiences to digest. Remember that the environments you put your puppy in are more complex than those he would encounter naturally.
Puppies must now learn a new set of rules. They need to know learn how to interact with humans and other animals that live with them or that they meet. Puppies must adapt to the patterns and tenors of their new homes. All of these experiences and the behaviors, which accompany them, must be learned.
Because you are imposing such important demands on your puppy, you must help him to make the transition into the human environment. You need to lay groundwork for a trusting, happy mutually satisfying relationship. Keep in mind that puppies are less likely to broaden their experiences if they are insecure. In natural environments, puppies approach new things cautiously.
By giving your puppy brief, repeated experiences in new situations, you give him a chance to become familiar. If you don’t expose your puppy to a variety of situations and new environments, inappropriate ways to adapt may be learned.
During the Socialization period, there is a fear imprint period from 8 - 11 weeks. During this time, any traumatic, painful or frightening experiences will have a more lasting impact on your pup than they would if they occurred at any other time. An unpleasant trip to the veterinarian, for instance, at this time could forever make your dog apprehensive about vets. To avoid this, take some treats and a toy with you. While you wait, play with your puppy and offer him treats. Have your vet give your puppy treats along with lots of praise and petting before and after the examination. Avoid elective surgeries, such as ear cropping and hernia repair during this time. In general, avoid stressful situations.
Remember, dogs are social animals. To become acceptable companions, they need to interact with you, your family, and other people and dogs during the Socialization Period. Dogs that are denied socialization during this critical period often become unpredictable because they are fearful or aggressive. It is during this time, that your dog needs to have positive experiences with people and dogs. Therefore, you need to socialize and teach your puppy how to interact with people and other dogs in a positive, non-punitive manner.
You should gradually introduce your puppy to new things, environments, and people. Care must be taken in socializing your puppy with other dogs or in areas where many “unknown” dogs frequent, prior to the time that your dog has had three of its booster vaccinations against contagious diseases.
Shopping centers, parks, and playgrounds are good places to expose him. Begin by taking your puppy when there are few distracters. Give him time to get used to new places. Make sure he is secure. If you have children that visit only occasionally, have your puppy meet children as often as you can. If you live alone, make an effort to have friends visit you, especially members of the opposite sex so that your dog will become accustomed to them.
If you plan to compete with your dog, take him to dog shows, obedience or agility trials. If you plan to travel with your dog, get him accustomed to riding in the car. Take him for brief rides, at first. Go someplace fun. Remember, if new experiences are overwhelming or negative, the results could be traumatic. Regardless, all dogs need to learn how to behave around other dogs.
Puppies see these games as situations in which they have been allowed to dominate. They do not understand that these are games designed by humans to entertain them. You can continue to play with your dog during this period, but the relationship between you during the play must change. No mouthing of your body should be allowed and when your dog does mouth, you should respond with a quick and sharp “NO!” or “No Bite!” Play that does not get rough is best. If you cannot keep the dog from getting overly excited during a game and he persists in biting at you, don’t play that way. This will only stimulate additional dominant behavior in the future.
For these reasons, this is the stage when serious training should begin. Training establishes your pack leadership in a manner that your puppy will understand. By training your puppy, you will learn how to get him to respond to commands designed to show that you are in charge.
Seniority Classification Period (12-16 Weeks)
It is during this critical period that your dog will begin to test you to see who the pack leader is going to be. He’ll begin to bite you, in play or as a real challenge to your authority. Such behavior is natural in the pack and not necessarily undesirable. What is undesirable is an inappropriate response on your part. It is important, at this stage, that you establish your position as pack leader and not just another sibling.
Behaviors, such as grabbing at the leash, are attempts to dominate you. Biting, in particular though, should always be discouraged. Therefore, you should not wrestle or play tug of war. Such play is aggressive-inducing. Your dog sees this type of play, as a situation in which he has been allowed to dominate while you perceive it as a fun game.
Wrestling, of course, communicates to your puppy that he is allowed to bite you. Tug of war sets you up in a dominance confrontation over an object. He learns that he can keep objects away from you. During tug of war games, puppies will often growl. Growling is a dominance vocalization, designed to warn another pack member that they better not confront the growler or he will bite.
Flight Instinct Period (4 - 8 Months)
This is the age when puppies become more independent of their owners and are likely to venture off on their own. Puppies that have always come when called or stayed close to their owners will now ignore them, often running in the opposite direction. This period can last from several weeks to months. How you handle your puppy’s refusal to come or stay with you will determine whether or not he will be trustworthy off leash.
It is important to emphasize here that NO puppy this young should ever be off leash except in a confinement area. Therefore, keep your puppy on leash when this period arises and keep him on leash until he readily returns to you or shows no inclination to leave you. The privilege of being off leash outside of a confined area, is reserved for dogs whose owners have trained them to the point where there is no potential for them to run and fail to obey to stop or come on command.
Releasing an unleashed dog in an unconfined area that is not well trained off leash is irresponsible and dangerous! Even well trained dogs make mistakes or become distracted by something in the environment so that they do not respond to their owners’ commands.
So, how do you respond when your puppy suddenly develops the urge to bolt? First, you must, for his safety, put a leash or a long line on your dog whenever you are not in a confined area. Second, work hard on training your puppy to come on command. Use the recall game and the spontaneous recall. When walking your dog, suddenly run backwards and encourage your puppy to come. If your dog still continues to bolt or run away, then your dog probably does not view you as the dominant figure in this relationship and you may require special help to resolve this problem. Even if your puppy appears less inclined to bolt, this does not mean that he is reliable off lead without more maturity and a lot more training.
Adolescence Period (5 - 18 months)
Adolescence can appear in smaller dogs as early as five months. In larger breeds it can start as late as nine or ten months. In giant breeds, adolescence doesn’t take place until twelve to eighteen months. In general, the larger the dog, the longer it will take to physically mature. Some breeds can remain adolescents until they are two and a half, or three years old.
Adolescence is expressed in male dogs by scent marking behavior. Scent marking behavior is stimulated by the release of testosterone into the dog’s system. At this time, males may become macho. Male dogs may become less friendly and even somewhat aggressive to other male dogs. They may begin lifting their legs in the house. They may become very interested in girls, tend to roam, and certainly not interested in listening to you! Some males at this age become totally unruly.
In females, adolescence is marked by the onset of the heat cycle, estrus. During this three-week period, your bitch could become pregnant. So, keep her away from all male dogs. Bitches exhibit erratic behavior during estrus. Some get real moody and insecure. Others become quite bold or even aggressive.
Adolescence is a very difficult time for pet owners. They are surprised when their cute little puppy becomes a free and independent thinker. Behaviors associated with adolescence also include ignoring you, testing you, and/or being very distracted and inattentive. It takes more than patience alone to survive your dog’s adolescence. It takes perseverance and a keen recognition and understanding of the accompanying behaviors.
It is important to recognize this stage and to work through it. Adolescence is certainly a good time to start (or reintroduce) rigorous training. You must work hard NOW to mold the dog of your dreams. The FUNdamental Behavior course will teach you the training methods you need. These methods are based on sound knowledge of dog behavior. You will learn about dog behavior and training. This knowledge will help you to get through your dog’s adolescence.
You cannot help your dog to become a well mannered, enjoyable, and reliable companion if you do not train him because you view him as too stupid, too old or stubborn or too spiteful.
Second Fear Imprint Period (6 - 14 Months)
The Second Fear Imprint Period is similar to the one that occurred during the socialization period, but it is much less defined. It occurs as dogs enter adolescence and seems more common in males. It is often referred to as adolescent shyness. Your dog may suddenly become reluctant to approach something new or suddenly become afraid of something familiar. This behavior can be very frustrating to the owner and difficult to understand because its onset is so sudden and, seemingly, unprovoked.
If you notice this behavior, it is important to avoid the two extremes in response: Don’t force him to do or approach something frightening to him and don’t coddle or baby him.
To get through situations that make your dog fearful, be patient, kind, and understanding. Desensitize him to the object or situation by gradually introducing him to it and using food rewards and praise to entice him to confront the fearful object or situation. Do not coddle or reassure him in any way that will encourage his fearful behavior. Do not correct him either. Simply make light of it and encourage him give him food rewards as he begins to deal with his fear better. Make sure you lavishly praise his attempts! This phase will pass.
Mature Adulthood (1 - 4 Years)
During this period your dog may again become aggressive and assertive. For instance, he may become more turf-protective, barking when someone comes to the door. Temper his protective behaviors by teaching him how to accept strangers into your home. His friendly play with other dogs may escalate to fighting with other dogs. Teach you dog to ignore other dogs that he sees if he can’t be friendly towards them. Take him to places where there will be a few dogs at first and train him there. Then, train him in areas with more and more dogs. Next, allow him to interact with non-threatening dogs. Puppies and bitches are good choices, if he is a male.
Always praise his positive efforts to interact or if he displays no reaction. Gradually move onto male dogs.
At bit of caution here, adult members of the same sex, no matter what animal’s species, tend to compete with one another. Putting together two strange adults of the same sex could result in a fight. Watch for behavioral signs of playfulness before allowing two dogs to play together. Also, be alert to the posturing of aggressive behaviors. Watch for circling behaviors, walking on toes, stiff tail wags, intense staring or and tense facial expressions.
Closing Remarks About Dogs’ Developmental Stages
Be realistic about your expectations. You cannot expect young dogs to grow up overnight. Learn to appreciate your dog’s adolescence for it is a truly wonderful time. At this time of their lives, dogs are very energetic and exuberant in their responses. They can be full of beans, but still, delightful playmates.
This has been a cursory look at some of the behavioral changes that often occur during puppy hood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Other problems may arise at these stages, which are not the result of the developmental period itself, but are caused by something in the environment or the dog’s basic personality. Even so, they are probably aggravated by immaturity and you cannot afford to overlook them. Understanding, and professional help with training are the keys to success.
All dogs are different. Some dogs will not exhibit the behaviors we have discussed and others will pass through them at varying rates. Smaller dogs mature faster than large dogs. Remember that your dog needs you to play a role in his development and you can do that with knowledge and commitment to training.
You must channel your dog's energy and exuberance into learning, working, exercising, and playing games. It is never too late to train (or retrain) your dog to help him to become a long-lasting companion.