Bringing Up Babies

a look at early socialization

by Cathy Ochs-Cline,  Phi-Vestavia Cardigans, USA

As responsible breeders we all realize the importance of early socialization. How soon do we begin? What are the psychological and physiological developmental stages to consider? How far are we willing to go to make sure that our puppies are properly socialized?

Early socialization begins at birth.

The new born puppies are in the first of the four stages in their early development. This first stage, the neonatal, is the quietest period that our puppies will go through. Their eyes and ears are closed, their nervous system is just beginning to develop, so sensory input is slow to reach the brain. Their brains are very immature, but they will develop very quickly. Their main needs during this period, which lasts until their eyes and ears begin to open, are for food and warmth. They seem to do little but eat and sleep. When mother is not in their pen they cuddle together for warmth, but they are not truly aware of their littermates at this time. They know their mother by the warmth which she gives off, and through a rudimentary sense of smell.

Since the puppies' eyes and ears are not open at this stage, it is a common misconception that a puppy is not ready for sensory stimulation. But we know now that a puppy is basically ready for sensory stimulation from about three days of age. Tactile stimulation beginning at 3 days and continuing until the puppy is 13-16 days old is an excellent idea. The criteria for the tactile stimulation program described below was originally set up by military dog breeders raising pups for the WWII K-9 Corps. It was found that puppies who were put through this tactile stimulation program reacted better in stress situations, including shipping, breeding, whelping and actual war-time activities. 

The program is simple, and takes only about 1 minute per pup per day. The pups are held in several different positions which they would not normally experience if they were being raised in the wild.

First, the pups are held up with legs dangling. Each position is only held for a few seconds, we don't want to frighten the pups. Lift the front end to about a 45 degree angle, then lift the rear the same .

Second, the pup is turned on its back and the process is repeated.

Third, take a Q-tip and insert it gently between the pup's toes. Each foot is done quickly and very gently.

The fourth part requires a little preparation. Place a small hand towel in the refrigerator for about 1 hour prior to the daily routine. After the above procedures are finished, pick up the pup with legs dangling again. Gently lower the pup until its feet are just touching the cold towel and hold it there for a few seconds.

When we begin this procedure at about 3 days of age, the pups will very seldom react to any of the exercises. But, as they get older their nervous systems adjust and they will protest to being held in the unnatural positions, they will pull their feet back when touched with the Q-tip, and most dramatically, they will pull all four feet up when touched to the cold towel. These procedures are forcing the puppy's nervous system to deal with stimuli and thus to develop faster than normal.During this first stage of development, little socialization is needed, since the puppies are basically too immature to deal with it. You can, however, start preparing the pups for the second stage of development, the transitional, when their eyes and ears begin to work.

Early face play is helpful towards the end of the puppy's second week. Touch the pups around the face and neck several times a day (especially when you are cuddling them). As their ears and eyes open they will be sensitive about being touched, especially around the ears, so we must be very gentle. Also, before the pup's ears open we hold them up to our throat while we talk and sing to let them feel the vibrations that our voices produce. As our pups enter the second stage of development the first "startle reflex" appears. We may find that our pups jump and/or screech when they hear loud noises, or when we drop something that produces strong vibrations. Pups who have been handled as described above tend to go through this stage more quickly since they have been already been desensitized by early stimuli.

The second stage of development is fairly short, lasting only from when the puppies' eyes and ears open until the end of their third week. The puppies' needs are the same as in the neonatal period. The major difference between these two stages is that in the transitional stage the puppy is aware of its environment, and it begins to form its primary social relationship - with its mother. The puppies will begin to stand and crawl at about 18-20 days and they may start wagging their tails in this period. Towards the end of this period the puppies will be starting to walk, as well as starting to notice their littermates.The third period in the puppies' development is called the "litter socialization" period, which lasts from 21 -35 days.

This period is the busiest since the puppies are perfecting their ability to walk, bark and are beginning to form a 'pack' within the litter. This is the period when human interaction is very important, and very necessary, since this is when weaning should begin. The puppies can now control their ability to eliminate on their own, and mother is not with them constantly anymore. It is the time to step in and help with litter care.Now is the time to introduce toys to their nest. We make sure that toys we choose are "reactive". We want to choose puppy toys that will rattle, squeak, crinkle, or jingle when nudged or mouthed. Choose different textures - soft cloth, soft latex, hard rubber and plastic are all appropriate. Try not to choose chew toys, since we're basically trying to get the puppy used to different sounds, shapes and textures, not different tastes - that comes later. Infant and toddler toys purchased at a children's store are excellent.

Don't worry about whether the pups will chew the toys to pieces at this point. As the pups get older and become more interested in chewing, then these toys are removed.Also this is the time to begin moving the pups out of the nest for short periods of time. Short trips into different rooms of the house area are a good way to start. Take a piece of bedding from their nest for them to crash on, and keep them out until they wake up in the other room. Don't worry if they are disoriented at first - this is normal. Take them for short trips to a neighbor's house. If your neighbor has dogs, keep the pups in a basket. The idea is to give the pups as much safe, stimulation as possible.Toward the end of the third period, or around 4 weeks, the pups are ready to move out of the whelping box and into their own area. We make sure that the area is large enough for the pups to move around easily. Puppy pens are best divided into several areas, and this helps in their early housebreaking. Pups are naturally clean, and by 4 weeks will always leave the nest area to eliminate. Divide the puppy pen into 3 or 4 areas - one to play in (where their toys are kept), one to potty in, one to sleep in (no toys), and if you have enough room, one to eat and drink in. Since this age is perfect for the puppies to get used to walking on different surfaces, use a different surface for each area - such as newspaper for the potty area, carpet for the play area, and perhaps towels or sheets for the sleep area.

At 4 weeks you might want to use a "cuddler bed" for the puppies' sleep area, since they still need help with temperature regulation, but as they get older you mayuse a cage. This is also early preparation for crate training. A few hints on the set-up of your puppy pen: make sure the puppies can step out of the sleeping area right into the potty area. Put the potty area towards the back of the pen so they don’t step into messes when they come to visit you at the front of the pen.  If your pups don't sleep in the sleeping area, gently pick them up while they are asleep and move them to the sleeping area.  If they wake up there a few times, they will tend to settle there later. It will probably take the puppies a few days to figure out where to go potty. If we keep the potty area clean, but leave a few papers that have been urinated on, they will soon learn where to go.

Four to five weeks is also the age to start separating the puppies for short periods of individual attention. Take one puppy into the kitchen while you cook breakfast or set up a cage in the living room during the evening while everyone is watching TV, or take a puppy into the office while you type. Let the kids and spouse take a puppy into their room with them. Keep the periods brief to begin with, and gradually lengthen their time away from the litter. Monitor the baby closely, but let them roam and explore on their own. This is the right age for investigatory play, and the beginning of the puppy's autonomy. Rotate all the puppies through this kind of experience so that every one gets a few chances during the week.

The fourth period, from the 5th to the 12th week, is called the human socialization period. It is a period of intense emotional development for the puppies. Their brains are fully mature by about 6 weeks, and the puppies are capable of memory and learning by this time. The puppy will also begin to initiate social relationships at this age, and begin to show submissive behavior to its dam and to other caregivers as part of learning pack behavior. Their nervous system is also fully mature at 7 weeks. At this point the puppy is an open book - all the parts are there and working and we only have to teach the puppy what is expected of it in a human dominated pack.This is the age we begin outdoor housebreaking. Puppies will naturally go to the bathroom outside as soon as their feet touch down. After they get used to going outside we can begin the fundamentals of housebreaking. Try to plan the trips outside to coincide with when they would normally be using the potty area inside their pen. Carefully watch the puppies during individual time and make sure they get outside in time in order to reduce inside "accidents".

Concentrate on housebreaking during individual time. After the pups have the idea about going potty outside, reduce the potty area inside their pen to discourage their using it. All of this requires a lot of attention, but if done properly, it will greatly reduce the amount of housebreaking time for new owners.Puppies can also be introduced to other adult dogs in the household during this period. Retired mother dogs and even some stud dogs usually love to play with babies. If the litter is large, separate the pups into groups, since a large group of pups will tax even the patience of the dam. Closely supervise the play sessions. In a natural pack society, pups would come into contact with other adults earlier, but for socialization purposes 5 weeks is early enough. Other adults play very differently than the dam. They are usually more patient with the pups and will put up with more nonsense, but will still discipline the pups if they get out of line. We get a real pleasure out of watching stud dogs and older bitches get really goofy with the babies.Informal 'play' training can start at about 7 weeks. If you have a litter of potential show pups, stacking and baiting can begin now. Since the pup's attention span is very short at this age, keep the sessions short. Leash breaking can be accomplished very easily by putting a control leash on the puppy and holding it while the puppy follows its dam around.

Put the pup up on a grooming table and let it wander around the perimeter and explore the table while you encourage it with treats. Bait the pup with liverwurst on your fingers for the pup to lick off. The baby needs to have almost instant gratification for each success at this age. This helps them to learn to concentrate on you and the task. But remember, they're only babies.

This is also the time to begin to prepare the pups for their new homes. At 7 weeks set up individual crates and start to feed the pups in their own cage for one meal a day. You may also want to start having the pups sleep in their individual cages at this time. Beware: the pups can be extremely vocal when separated from their littermates the first couple of days. If you want them to sleep separately for the entire night, plan on losing some sleep.

By 7 weeks you should also be seeing separate and distinct personalities within the litter. The pups will have established their own pack order. Puppy temperament testing will help to further distinguish the personality differences. Keep track of which pups are dominant or submissive, and tailor their individual time to take their personality differences into account, and to help any that need it. The goal is to have well-balanced pups to go out into good, loving homes.

With the dominant pups you may want to add some dominance exercises into the play training sessions, to help them understand that the human is dominant. With the submissive ones, challenge them with more new and different situations where they can achieve easy successes. Encourage them with lots of vocal stimulation and affirmation, they will respond beautifully.Take a look at what you are doing now to socialize your puppies. Think of things that you do every day that may be incorporated into litter socialization time. The idea is to expose the puppies to as many things as possible to help desensitize them to new things in their current, and future, environments. A well known and extremely successful breeder once said that every 5 minutes we spend socializing our puppies before they are 8 weeks is one hour we don't have to spend after they turn 4 months old. Look at all this work (and it is a lot of work) as an investment in the puppy's future happiness and well being. We can never start too young with socialization, and we can never do too much.


The Howell Book of Puppy Raising, Charlotte Schwartz; Howell Book House, 1987

Understanding your dog, Michael Fox, PhD, DVM; Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1972

How to be Your Dog's Best Friend, Monks of New Skete; Little, Brown & Co.

The New Knowledge of Dbg Behavior, Clarence Pfaffenberger; Howell Book House, 1963

Mother Knows Best - The Natural Way to Train Your Dog, Carol Lea Benjamin; Howell Book House, 1985

The Joy of Breeding Your Own Show Dog, Ann Seranne; Howell Book House, 1984

Puppy Rearing, Peter Vollmer; Hill's Division, Riviana Foods, 1978

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