Pet vet: Puppies undergo fast physical, mental development
Integrative Pet Vet
Nurturing a puppy into a healthy and happy adult requires basic understanding of puppy development. Raising a well-socialized and content dog avoids problems associated with a fearful or aggressive dog. During certain phases of puppy development, puppies are prone to fearful reactions that can imprint for life. At other phases, they are learning and are very receptive to training. Since experiences in the early part of a puppy’s life can have significant impacts on later quality of life and health, understanding puppy development during the first months of life is critical.
Puppies are born relatively helpless, unable to see or hear, unable to control their own body temperature, and barely able to move on their own. They progress from this dependency to eating softened food, responding to taste and smell, and beginning to explore their environment during the first month. Their learning and awareness change rapidly and, by some estimates, a 5-month-old puppy is equivalent to a 10-year-old child. It is clear that there is a tremendous rate of change in a relatively short time.
During the third week of life, puppies begin to learn and remember what they have learned. Since they are becoming aware of their environment, they can startle easily with loud sounds and sudden movements. Startling events at this stage can be imprinted and affect a puppy lifelong. Social bonding begins to occur. Orientation to visual and auditory stimuli occurs and they begin to recognize familiar stimuli. Puppies begin to eliminate in a group elimination area.
From week 3-7, puppies begin to learn dog behaviors like chasing, barking, biting and body postures. They are gaining coordination skills, problem solving, bite inhibition and important socialization skills. In addition, they are learning and accepting discipline from Mom and learning submissive body postures. These skills are critical for later life because they set the foundation for interacting with other dogs and for accepting training from humans.
The amount and complexity of appropriate stimulus in a puppy’s environment can affect on their rate of development. Providing safe exposure to other people, pets and new situations that require problem solving are important during the socialization period that can last into week 12.
Lack of appropriate socialization can lead to difficult fear and/or aggressive behaviors later in life. During this time, a puppy’s mental abilities are fully formed and they are learning fast. Behaviors can be shaped and modified. Training helps increase mental capacity by stimulating brain cells in important brain regions. However, it is vital to recognize that puppies also have a heightened susceptibility to fear during weeks 8-10. This means that emotionally and physically traumatic situations should be avoided. Learning at this age is considered permanent. Training should be short sessions that are kept positive. Necessary medical care should be turned into fun visits.
From 3-4 months, puppies are becoming more independent and trying to figure out who is in charge. This makes it important to continue to provide a safe, structured environment as your puppy works through this transition period. By 16 weeks, it is thought that a puppy’s brain is 80 percent developed but their emotional development is completed.
During the 4-8 month period, puppies become more independent, act out and can be more stubborn. They seem to forget all their previous training and act like rebellious teenagers. Understanding that this stage will occur helps with the transition through it. Continuing to have a calm and safe environment while gently reinforcing training will reduce frustrations during this time.
As you can see, there are significant changes that happen in puppy development over a very short period of time. Recognizing the developmental phases provides an opportunity to help puppy grow into a well-adjusted, well-socialized adult dog. Training requires a gentle persistence. Keep in mind that medical issues such as teething can be a distraction from learning.
Puppies are lots of fun and a big responsibility. During this early part of life, proper veterinary care is important. Veterinary care can be facilitated with home training that includes examining the teeth, ears and eyes as well as handling the paws. Brushing the teeth daily is also an important part of training. Quality nutrition is essential for body growth and support of the developing puppy brain. Contact your veterinarian if you have questions about your puppy.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT, was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his doctor of veterinary medicine, he holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified canine rehabilitation therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.