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Early Learning in Dogs


Extensive research has shown that there are critical periods in the emotional development of dogs. Failure to socialise dogs during the first twelve weeks after birth can lead to long-term behavioural problems.

Developmental stages
The critical period early learning in dogs can be divided up as follows:
1. Neo-natal period: 0-2 weeks
2. Transitional period: 2-4 weeks
3. Socialisation period: 4-6 weeks to dogs
4-12 weeks to humans

Neo-natal period
During the first two weeks pups are almost wholly under the care of the mother and the way she behaves with her pups will influence their behaviour in later life. Imprinting after birth ensures bonding between the bitch and her pups – as the mother licks her pups dry after giving birth, she imprints the pups into her mind, while chemicals in the mother’s saliva enables the pups to imprint their mother on their minds. (This is why pups born by Caesarean section are more likely to suffer rejection because the mother can’t carry out this imprinting procedure.)

Maternal behaviour in bitches is partly stimulated by hormones; genes and learning are also responsible for maternal behaviour. There are differences between breeds in their mothering abilities – selective breeding for certain behaviours and body shapes has unintentionally impaired normal mothering abilities in some dogs.

Sensitive handling of the pups during this early period can actually be beneficial for their long-term development. It creates mild stress which stimulates the adrenal-pituitary system. Mild stresses will accelerate body growth, reduce emotionality and may even improve the pup’s resistance to certain diseases. (Too much stress will, of course, be detrimental to the pup’s development.)

Transitional period
This is the start of the most important period in the young dog’s life. During this period the pup’s sensory abilities start to develop. The pup becomes aware of sight, sound, pain and touch. By the end of this period pups can see their mother (and humans) from a distance. Their temperature regulation mechanism is improved so they can move away from the nest.

Socialisation period
At four weeks of age the pup’s senses have matured and his brain can process information quickly and efficiently. Over the next 8 weeks, he is at his most malleable and his interactions with humans and other dogs during this period will greatly influence his long-term behaviour.

The pup’s care-dependency relationship with his mother changes to one of dominance-submission, as the mother weans her offspring. The mother commences weaning by walking away from her pups as they try to nurse. Over the following weeks, the mother nibbles, growls and bites her pups into submission. This ‘maternal punishment’ is necessary, not only as part of the weaning process, but also because it makes the pups responsive to training. (Pups that are raised in non-punishing conditions are extremely difficult to train as they have not learned about dominance submission.)
Play activity with other pups in the litter is the pup’s most important interactive activity in this period. Playful activity has very important functions:
• Play stimulates communal behaviour, creating social bonds with other dogs.
• It affects their adult social behaviour, as they learn to communicate through the trial and error of play.
• It promotes co-ordination, physical dexterity and mental flexibility.
• It teaches co-operative behaviour.
• It allows for safe exploration of their environment.
• It teaches problem solving and sequencing of events.

Pups that are isolated from other dogs during this period are often hyper-aggressive towards other dogs in later life. They may be excessively attached to humans and fearful of other dogs. They do not learn the ‘inhibited bite’ – the soft mouth, nor do they learn greeting rituals. They are generally fearful and are reluctant to explore. They are poor learners and make poor mothers.

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