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Early Training for Good Behaviour

 Dr Quixi Sonntag (BVSc) (Hons)

The experiences of a young child heavily influence what the child will become as an adult.  The same is true of dogs and cats. While genetics provide the foundation of behavioural and physical characteristics, the environmental influences that puppies are exposed to ultimately shape their adult temperament and behaviour.

These influences have and effect from as early as the first week of their lives.  Research shows that puppies that are gently handled from the first week, develop better adaptive skills and are more sociable when they are older, than those that are not handled.

Although traditionally the so-called “socialisation period” (the most sensitive time of environmental influences) for puppies has been said to be from 3 to 16 weeks of age, it is now thought that the most significant period is from 3 to 5 weeks.

What are the practical implications?  Breeders, who are responsible for puppies until at least 7 weeks of age, have an important responsibility in terms of ensuring that the early environmental influences of puppies are favourable for their good behavioural and physical development.

Puppies need to be exposed in a controlled and pleasant manner to those stimuli that will form part of their adult environment.  These stimuli include interaction with people, introducing to new sounds, sights and location.  If young animals, in their sensitive developmental period, are pleasantly exposed to all the stimuli they may come across in the outside world, they will be likely to view new things with interest and positive anticipation, rather than with fear an apprehension.

Breeders can play an active role in ensuring the mental well being of “their” offspring by paying special attention to the following:

  • Gentle handling of puppies from the first week improves their adaptive capabilities.
  • From the second week onwards, puppies need to be exposed to visual stimuli.  As their eyes open at around two weeks of age, it is essential that puppies be exposed to light and other visual stimuli to ensure that the structures of the eye develop normally.  Lack of visual stimulation e.g. being reared in a dark environment such as a garage, will hamper normal visual development of the young dog.
  • The ear canals open at more or less the same time as the eyes, and so puppies should be exposed to household sounds at a normal intensity (not so loud that is causes fear) from early on.  Vacuum cleaners, lawnmowers, children laughing and alarms are examples of the types of sounds that pets would be exposed to in the course of their lives.  Breeders could use cassettes of CDs of normal daily sounds to play to their litters during feeding or playtime to ensure positive associations with these sounds.
  • Social relationships begin to form when puppies can see and hear each other and are no longer solely dependent on their mothers for physical comfort.  Single puppies should ideally be exposed to other puppies of more or less the same age to ensure that they learn proper interspecies social skills
  • Not only the relationships between littermates, but also the relationship with people are important.  Puppies need a lot of social interaction with people of different appearances and dispositions.  Puppies that grow up in a kennel environment must have regular, controlled interaction with different people (of different size, gender, race and general appearance) so that they develop appropriate hog-human social skills.
  • Puppies must be exposed to different location and a variety of surfaces such as grass, soil, tiles and carpet. They also need to be accustomed to crates or cages in a positive manner so that temporary confinement later on (e.g. for travelling purposes) will not be a traumatic experience for them.
  • Exposure to inanimate objects is as important as exposure to living creatures. Get them used to food bowls, collars (particularly puppies), toys, umbrellas, thing with wheels, black plastic bags, brooms and other common household implements.  Equipment such as small ramps and obstacles in the puppy pen helps them develop their movement skills and develop body awareness.  The more pleasant exposure the young puppy gets, the more self-confident they will be as older pets.
  • Toilet training is an important responsibility of the breeder. Puppies must be taken out regularly onto acceptable elimination surfaces.  Puppies tend to eliminate after having slept, eaten or played.  If a breeder is able to devote the necessary time, puppies can be almost fully housetrained by the time they go to their new homes.
  • Teaching good manners should already start from around 5 weeks! A litter of puppies can easily be taught not to jump up against people and to sit before the eat.

The best age to remove puppies to their new homes is at 7 to 9 weeks.  Puppies undergo a huge amount of development during the sixth week of age.  This, the age at which puppies are traditionally homed, is in fact not a good age to place them in a new environment.  Puppies develop a very strong “site” (nesting area) attachment at this age, and being moved to a permanent new location at this age cause a great deal of stress. 

Generally, 8 weeks is a good age to wean puppies, provided they have had their first vaccination, at least one de-worming and have been eating a veterinarian recommended pet food appropriate for their age and size (in the case of puppies) for 4 weeks or more.  Human baby formula, porridge and pap are not appropriate foods for puppies.

If as a breeder you are able to devote more time to instilling good behaviour in your puppies, you will better equip them to cope with what life has in store for them.  This will result in improved quality of life for both pets.. and owners too!


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