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The Stages of Puppy Development

There are five distinct stages of development in a dog's life. Understanding these phases is important to building a confident, well rounded hunting companion. The stages are as follows:
1.) pack socialization  (0 – 7 weeks)
2.) human socialization (7 – 12 weeks)
3.) fear period (~8 – 12 weeks)
4.) independence/early adolescence (4 – 8 months)
5.) late adolescence/early maturity (1 – 3 years)

The first stage, pack socialization is from birth to seven weeks. During this period puppies are developing rapidly both physically, neurologically, and mentally. Dogs first develop their sense of smell, then hearing, then eyesight. That alone should tell us which senses are of most importance in the canine world. During this time, the dogs are bonding to their own kind and learning what it means to be a dog. Particularly between days 35 through day 49 they are more mobile, and this is when a lot of the canine social instruction between mother, siblings and the pup takes place. They learn from mother and from each other what acceptable canine behavior is. They also learn to accept discipline. This period is so critical that often puppies taken from the litter before this learning occurs often become overly attached to humans (which can show up later in dominance, aggression and other behavioral problems) and develop problems accepting discipline and training. The most important thing to remember during this stage is the canine relationships.

During this period the breeder should be handling the puppies and letting them experience new environments (to a limited extent) and novel sights and sounds. Sharp hand claps or similar sharp, but not loud noises while pups are playing and distracted is good training during this period to help avoid gun sensitivity later. Cleanliness of the whelping box during this time is important and will help avoid bad habits later (like coprophagia – eating feces) and will facilitate house training later. 

The second stage is the human socialization phase, which is roughly from week seven through week twelve. During this stage the puppy should be taken from the litter and socialized with you (human beings). Some suggest that day 49 is the magic day. This may be so, but if you can't pick up the pup on that exact day, as long as the breeder has started human socialization in earnest and is concerned for the pups proper development and giving them the one-on-one contact they need, you should be ok. That said, they should definitely not be left with the litter too long. I have seen dogs left in the litter too long and they never fit well in the human world. They are very difficult to deal with and need to be placed in just the right home to succeed. Even then, they are always difficult.

I believe that this is the period where you can have the most impact on your dog. This is where you need to put in the time to build the correct foundation for a confident, happy, dog that loves to work birds (or whatever task you ask of him). During this period, it is critical to spend time with the puppy and interact. Make positive, happy eye contact as often as possible with the pup. If there ever is a time not to lock the dog in a run out back and leave them for days on end, this is it. Putting pup in the run or crate for a short time is ok, but seek to maximize your interaction with the pup during this short, but critical period.

Expose the pup to as many novel sights, sounds, people, places, and things as you can. Do this in a non-threatening way, and help your pup realize that novel is normal; there are endless new things out there and none of them are negative. Think about what the pup commonly sees on a daily basis, and seek out the opposite. For example, if you don't have kids, get the puppy around children, or around older adults, males, females, and people of a different race, whatever is novel, so they learn that these are all ok. Otherwise, the dog may later be fearful, aggressive or unpredictable around children, men, or other unacceptable things which are novel to them. I also think that this is a great time to start to introduce them to birds. Let them see birds, wings, a pigeon tossed out in front of them which flushes away. Whatever is exciting to them yet does not threaten or scare them.

The third phase, the fear stage, takes place within the human socialization period, somewhere between weeks eight and twelve. When this period starts and how long it lasts varies between breeds, litters and individuals. Just understand that it is a natural stage, look for it, and know how to bring your pup through it. 

During this stage, your pup may become fearful of things he did not previously take note of, may be fearful of everything, or nothing. One dog I had was stepped over by a big pair of boots, and was ever after scared (even aggressive toward) of being stepped over by big boots, no matter who was wearing them.

The key during this phase is to make sure experiences are positive for the dog. Don't dock tails, remove dew claws, crop ears, or leave in a boarding kennel during this period. Be very careful of gunfire, fireworks and other sounds during this stage. Remember not to reward the dog (positively with affection, including babying, or negatively with scolding) during an incident (when the pup is acting fearful or aggressive/defensive). The best thing to do is to already have the dog on a leash and turn and walk briskly away ignoring the pup and the situation, and simultaneously bringing the dog along and breaking the situation. Whatever you do, don't give attention when the dog is not in a stable state of mind.

The fourth phase is the independence or early adolescence stage, which is roughly from four to eight months. During this stage the pup begins to gain more independence, similar to a young teenager – realizing that there is more to life than Mom and Dad and home life. A puppy that always came readily when called may pretend to be deaf and go off following a butterfly or new scent. I feel that maintaining the come command through this period of independence is crucial. Keep them on a leash, check cord, or contained in a small enough yard to enforce this command 100% of the time. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to change this behavior later.

Another thing that is happening during this period is the puppy is teething. Understand that they have a need to chew. It is up to you to direct that chewing to something appropriate and away from inappropriate thing (such as your nice leather shoes). Probably the most important thing here is the dog's lack of access to unacceptable items, including clothing, kid's toys, power cords, etc.

The final stage of maturation is the late adolescence/early maturity phase from twelve months to three years. During this stage the dog should be fun, energetic, playful and largely a joy to be around, but remember, just like a sixteen year old, they can act so mature, then turn and do some of the dumbest things. They are still young and can be very frustrating. I think they are so frustrating simply because we see them do so well at times, then so poorly at others. Also, look for sexual maturity during this stage. The female will go through her first heat cycle and the male will become fertile and show great interest in females in season.

During this late adolescent period, it is important to give them lots of exercise, both physical and mental, and opportunities for learning and work. Also understand that during this stage, your dog will likely challenge your dominance. This may be direct and obvious, such as peeing on you or the corner of your bed, physically coming between you and your spouse, or even aggression, or it could be subtle, such as sitting in your favorite chair, blocking your path, or stepping on your foot. Look for such challenges and do not allow them.

During this stage, I regularly, in a playful (but purposeful) way, pin the dog down and lay on them, gently grasping around their neck or muzzle and keeping them there for a moment (~20 – 60 seconds). This is done in fun while petting, scratching or wrestling, but lets them know who is boss. I will also disallow them from charging out the door when I open it. I always go out first, and then call them along if I want them. I also do not feed them if they bring their food dish to me, paw me, bark or what ever other things they do to demand dinner. I turn and ignore them or walk away and feed them in a few minutes so it seems like my time schedule rather than their demand. All of these help to establish and maintain your dominance over the growing adolescent pup.

By understanding these phases of your pup's development, you can work with her to develop into a calm, confident dog that is a pleasure to be around and a real asset in the field. Some of the main keys to keep in mind are to continually give you dog lots of physical exercise and mental stimulation; try to set up every situation for the dog so that it is positive; only give affection or attention when the dog is in a calm state of mind, and always maintain your dominant position with the dog. Look for these phases and follow these suggestions and you will have a first rate companion for years to come.

Chris Colt - Trainer/Owner
Cove Mountain Kennels

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