Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Puppy can benefit by extra time with mom, littermates

GAIL FISHER August 24. 2013 1:53AM

ON Tuesday, I'll be going to Connecticut to select a puppy. Yes, we've decided on the breed we're getting. To make my selection, I'll be performing some simple personality and temperament tests on a litter of Chinooks - the New Hampshire state dog. The puppies will be almost 9 weeks old when we test them, and at that time I'll select our puppy based on what we learn from the tests. The puppies are about a week older than I would like for testing, but it was the only time we could do it, and it might actually work out well.

I prefer to perform these tests between 7 and 8 weeks and used to believe that the best time to place puppies in their new homes was at that age. I don't feel that way anymore. I now believe that it's better for a puppy to remain with mom and littermates for an additional week or two, up to about 10 or even 11 weeks - that is, as long as the breeder is socializing and giving individual time to each puppy.

For about 30 years, the commonly held belief had been that 7 weeks or 49 days of age was the ideal time for a puppy to go to its new home. This specific day gained significance as a result of research done at the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, in the 1950s and '60s. The team of researchers, led by Dr. John Scott and Dr. John Fuller, studied the early developmental periods in dogs - called "critical periods." Their research focused on specific periods of psychological importance that might relate to humans. Of course, they couldn't rear and test babies, so dogs were their research subjects.

Among the tests that Scott and Fuller performed were EEG tests of the puppies' brain waves. Not surprisingly, they discovered there was a difference between the brain waves of a young puppy and those of an adult dog. They noted, however, that starting at 49 days of age, the brain waves of a puppy matched those of an adult dog.

While a 7-week-old puppy lacks the physical coordination, attention span, stamina or learning of an adult dog, the theory evolved that because the puppy's brain was as fully developed as an adult dog's brain, yet with a reasonably blank slate, the puppy was ripe for learning new lessons. The conclusion was that 49 days must be the ideal moment for the puppy to begin his life in his new home.

Another factor lending credence to this "magic" day was Scott and Fuller's findings that from 3 to 7 weeks of age is the time when puppies learn the species-specific behaviors that make them normal dogs. While it might seem self-evident that if it looks like a dog, barks like a dog, it's a dog, the fact is that dogs do have to learn the body language and practice the social skills that allow them to grow up as "normal dogs." This four-week critical period is referred to as the "Canine Socialization Period."

Because the 49th day marks both the end of this critical period and the day that the puppy's brain is fully formed, for years I recommended that puppies be placed on that day - or as soon thereafter as possible (never before 49 days). A few years ago, I revisited this notion based on some changes that I, and other trainers, observed between 7 and 9 weeks of age.

While puppies might have garnered critically important experience from interaction with littermates, mom and other adult dogs in the household, there are advantages to puppies continuing this interaction, building their repertoire of normal body language and canine social skills. In addition to the healthy dog-dog learning that takes place, these two weeks can make a difference in ease of housetraining. In many puppies, there is a significant improvement in their ability to "hold it" - even if just for an additional few minutes. This can be the difference between an accident in the house and the puppy being taken outside, quickly learning where he gets praised for eliminating.

Note the caveat that the extra two weeks includes leaving a puppy with littermates and mom. Further, the breeder should be providing a variety of new experiences, including meeting new people and individual learning time away from siblings. If the breeder permanently separates the puppies from mom or if most of the puppies are leaving earlier or if the breeder is not providing socialization, I would take a puppy at 7 or 8 weeks rather than wait two extra weeks. Socialization, including being exposed to variety of people, places and things, trumps everything. Its importance cannot be overstated.

Next week I'll describe the puppy tests I'll be performing and the results.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. You'll find past columns on her website. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103.


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