In the age-old discussion of nature versus nurture, nature is, of course, important. When it comes to raising a dog, the dog's genetic make-up determines a tremendous amount, such as breed (or mixture), sex, color, coat, size, structure, how fast it will grow and much, much more. Also inherited, and of greatest importance to most dog owners, is the dog's temperament and personality.
Each dog is born with inherited tendencies toward a specific temperament and personality. At birth, environmental influence - nurture - begins. Starting with early upbringing, the environment might enhance personality and temperament characteristics, creating the best possible dog an individual is capable of becoming. On the other hand, the environment might also create problems. Deficiencies in the environment through lack of socialization, lack of exposure to new activities, new places, people and things can cause what might otherwise be a perfectly normal dog to act shy, timid or fearful.
There are specific times in life, called "critical periods," when the environment has a greater impact than at other times. An event occurring, or failing to occur, during a critical period might profoundly affect a dog's later behavior.
The critical periods of development for puppies are well-documented and very specific. Many dog owners find that understanding what happens - or fails to happen - during a critical period offers information and answers questions they might have had about why their dog behaves as he does. Readers, like me, who are planning to get a new puppy can use this information in both selecting a breeder and in understanding what their breeder and they can do to bring up the best possible dog.
We have decided on what breed we're going to get next, and we've chosen a breeder who pays attention to the important first few weeks of our new puppy's life. The eight to 10 weeks he spends with his mother and littermates profoundly affect the dog he will grow up to be. It was important to me to choose a breeder who makes the most of this time. There are lots of things a breeder can do to enhance our puppy's future, starting with making sure he experiences the full range of interaction with his mother and littermates. Here's why.
Called the "Canine Socialization Period," this period extends from 3 to 7 or 8 weeks of age. This is a short window of opportunity when puppies develop proper "doggie social skills." It's when my puppy learns to be a dog. Why, you ask, must a dog learn to be a dog? After all, if it looks like a dog and barks like a dog, it's a dog. Well, yes ... and no.
Puppies are born with the instincts that enable them to behave like dogs - communicating through body language, facial expression and subtle vocalization changes. But it is only through using these instincts that dogs learn how to express themselves properly and effectively. Through his interaction with his littermates and mother, my puppy will learn the vocabulary of visual communication - to both use and to recognize body language. By practicing play bows, hunting crouches, chasing, wrestling, submissive body postures and the like, puppies learn important lessons.
Through play with his siblings, a dog learns what vocalizations are for - what different barks and growls elicit from his littermates. He also learns what biting feels like - both to bite and to be bitten. He learns that biting too hard results in an unpleasant reaction from his mother or sibling, while biting gently does not. This teaches him bite inhibition, or not to bite down hard, something every dog should learn. And I certainly want my puppy to learn this. Even dogs that are used for police work involving biting, should start out with an inhibited bite and then learn to bite and hold through training. It is far easier to teach a well-socialized dog to bite than it is to try to teach a poorly socialized dog not to. The early lesson of bite inhibition, taught naturally by littermates during the first two months of life, makes our life with our dog much easier. More next week.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.