Critical Periods in Puppies Psychological Growth (Part One )
One of the most important and comprehensive studies on the development and behaviour of the domestic dog from birth to one year old, was researched at the Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Bar Harbor Maine. This groundbreaking series of experiments lasting 13 years, culminated in a book by the two main scientists involved. Drs. John Paul Scott and John L Fuller, published in 1965 called“Genetics and the Social Behavior of Dogs”
The idea behind this massive study by Scott and Fuller, involving many hundreds of crossbreed and purebred dogs. Was to answer a number of fundamental questions about the psychological behaviour of our pets. It also gave us a template to breed, rear, socialise, and train our dogs with more certainty of success. The fundamental issues were not “Is behaviour inherited," but "What does heredity do to behaviour?"
What was clear from these experiments and studies is that puppies have distinct and clear windows of opportunity. If we do not understand or utilise these opportunities correctly then the possible outcome could be the cause of many of the common behavioural problems we see in later life.
The critical periods are well named, yet not universally understood, by many breeders, trainers, and behaviourists. These effectively start from birth; this is known as the neonatal period. The pups are born blind and deaf but with an incredible sense of smell. This period is distinguished by almost constant sleeping and nursing. It is at this time that the pups gain an olfactory map of their surroundings, the nest and their mother.
They cannot even toilet on their own it requires the mother to stimulate them to pass faeces and urine, she then eats and drinks this (nice eh!) These instincts are nature’s way of keeping the nest clean, dry, and free of bacteria, also to cut down possible smells that could attract predators. We know that no predators are going to attack the pups but try telling the mother that.
Early Toilet Training
After three/four weeks the pups can scamper and run around on their own, the nursing bitch then trains the pups not to toilet anywhere near the nest, she instils this discipline quite forcefully this is the time when some initial toileting problems may be caused. The inexperienced breeder may see this as overt aggression towards the pups and separate the mother and youngsters, depriving them of a valuable lesson often causing other behavioural problems later in life. This is also a problem with “Puppy Farmed” dogs as these idle useless breeders are too lazy to clean the mess when mum stops cleaning up they then sell them on far too early.
The action of separating the mother from her pups is one of the main reasons that pups soil in their crates and have difficulty learning toilet training. It is natural for pups to want to be clean in the house. It is both instinctual and learned because of the evolutionary context from which he comes. On the other hand, the chimpanzee is almost impossible to train to be clean indoors. He may be much smarter than the dog but in his evolutionary biology, alimentary functions and control have not been selected. You cannot overcome nature. The same as you cannot teach a pointer to point or a border collie to clap.
The words “clap eyes on” comes from what collies do when they herd sheep: it’s the eye, that hard stare that called a clap, either they do or they don’t, nothing we can do would or could alter that automatic biological action. Once again, this is nature at its strongest and very little to do with nurture. Nature is genetic nurture is socialisation.
Another problem with puppy-farmed dogs is they are rarely handled during this important critical period. The only senses they have until, about three weeks old are olfactory and tactile. Humans handling pups at this time provide a mild stress response, which acts to improve the puppies both physically and emotionally. Pups that are handled during the first two weeks of their life mature and grow quicker; they are more resistant to infections and diseases, are generally more stable, handle stress better, are more exploratory, curious and learn much faster than pups that are not handled during this period.
From about 3 weeks old the pups start to get their other senses, including sight, hearing and balance, eyes start to open first, then about ten days later hearing starts to kick in at the same time as kinaesthesia ie balance and mobile awareness This allows them to move confidently rather than wobble. It at this time they really start to socialise with their mum and siblings.
They now learn to be dogs rather than the mewing, gurgling, cat like creatures we saw in the first few weeks, they also start to understand the big world around them, strangely enough they have no fear at this time only mild startle responses; the fear periods are still a few weeks away. Handling at this time is necessary for human socialisation and imprinting to take place.
First Fear Period
Fear or hazard avoidance starts at around five weeks, it peaks at between eight and ten weeks, which coincides with the time we normally pick up the puppy. Is it any wonder that they become fretful in cars (car sick) which is generally stress not motion related, and end up with a lifelong fear of the Vets surgery, we inject them and sometimes tag the larger breeds during this all important fear period.
This first fear period is probably instrumental in many of the fear and stress related behaviours we see in adult dogs, any startle or fearful stimulus at the crucial 5 to 10 week period could have a long lasting and negative effect.
I have written a further article showing the critical periods from birth to maturity which tells you what to expect from your dog during these vital times. "Critical Periods part 2"
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