Its been 8 years since we last welcomed a puppy into our family. One of the side effects in investing a huge amount of time into education is that the more you know, the more you understand the potential pitfalls so it is not an exaggeration to say that I am feeling a large amount of aprehension along with my excitement. There are some things which we have decided to do very differently than previous times based on this knowledge though. Through doing Dr Amber Batson’s basic and advanced aggression, separation and abnormal behaviours plus her brand new Puppy Power courses, I have been digging down into attachment theory for a few years (something that I wish I had learned about many more years ago as my own child is now approaching 30!) This led to reading many of the studies that indicate there is something broken in our approach to puppy rearing (and human child rearing).
Our boy is now 8 weeks old. This is the upper age that traditionally we are taught to believe the puppy should be taken from their parent(s) and siblings in order to best socialise and bond with them. In fact in the current model many puppies are significantly younger than that when first being separated from their mothers at 4-6 weeks for part or all of the day and then are sold into new homes at 6-8 weeks. In the wild it has been observed that many puppies are still intermittently nursing until up to 12 weeks of age. They are not receiving much of their nutritional requirements this way but there is still an important process happening. Skin contact, pheromone release, comfort and reassurance. If that opportunity is removed at 4 weeks, what is the impact on that baby?
Young dogs don’t typically begin to disperse from the family group until after 5 or 6 months of age, the average is around a year and a significant amount remain with their family group for the rest of their lives. These other adults will provide an important social role for the new puppies. Firstly they protect them, puppies who are left without the protection of an adult have a very high mortality rate. They provide for them by bringing back and regurgitating food, females other than the mother may lactate and allow puppies to nurse. They provide education, puppies learn from the adults around them. They learn what to pay attention to and what to ignore, they learn how to find and access resources and most importantly they learn how to use their language. Dog communication relies on body language and pheromones with some vocalisation, most of this rich language seems to be used to allow social contact while avoiding the risk of conflict and actual aggression. If we are taking puppies at 6-8 weeks and placing them in a home where they are the only dog, who is going to spend all those months teaching them how to communicate effectively?
Why is all this relevant? Firstly we need to think about what we are priming the brain to do. As said above, babies are vulnerable, baby mammals particularly so they rely so heavily on the protective relationship of their parent(s) and in many social grouping species the other members of their extended family. The world is a dangerous place so when that protection is absent or removed, the brain activates threat detection pathways to respond (fight, flight, freeze and fiddle) but the infant body hasn’t the strength or the ability to be be very effective in either of the first two responses, think about how often we see freeze and fiddle in puppies and misinterpret the reason? By separating them from their primary care giver we can see that there is a chance the brain is already being primed to be better at seeing danger. Experiencing those fears and dangers without the solid safe predictable presence of mum (and other adults) means those threat detecting pathways are active more often and for longer. The brain develops in the directions that are relevant based of experience, so if there is more scary stuff, you need to become faster at identifying scary stuff in order to survive. Increase your tools to drive away and protect yourself from scary stuff. The problem is these are often the very behaviours that see dogs become unsuitable for pet homes, reactivity, separation anxiety, aggression, barking. All of these may be traceable at least in some part to these early experiences training the brain to be worried and pessimistic about new stuff. To quote Amber Batson ‘what we learn first, we learn best’.
We are very lucky with our breeder, she practices a natural approach to weaning so the babies were introduced and offered liquid food, semi soft and then textured food from 3 weeks onwards but they were never separated from mum. Once they were mobile they were introduced to the other adults which includes dad, aunties and uncles, grandparents and great grandparents. The grannies both began to allow the puppies to nurse from them and at 8 weeks they are still occasionally doing so. The puppies are gaining a education into communication that I can’t provide (even though our boy will be joining our other two dogs) so we took the decision that we wanted him to have longer with his parents, siblings and his extended family, we won’t be collecting him until he is almost 11 weeks old. Puppies are so adorable and they change so fast that it’s incredibly tempting to want to collect them as early as possible but this is a period we cant do over so we want to take every chance to stack the deck in our puppy’s favour 🐾