A Brief Overview of Puppy Development

Dogs have three main socialisation periods which they go through prior to reaching sexual maturity. These periods are commonly known as: the primary stage, the socialisation stage and the enrichment (or juvenile) stage (Howell et al, 2015). There is fluctuation around the distinct end of the socialisation stage, with some stating the 12th week of life, while other sources noting the 16th week (Overall, 2011). Puppies who are introduced into their new homes directly from their dams, are widely known to leave at around the 7-10 week range. A study by Pierantoni et al (2011) found an increased risk of unwanted behaviours such as excessive barking and destructiveness in puppies who were removed from their litters prior to the 8 week mark, therefore we can hypothesise that these puppies would have a very high risk of continued behavioural issues well past the socialisation period and further on into adulthood. Studies into the primary weeks suggest that this early time frame, in addition to the follow on socialisation period (range from 3-16 weeks), is the most critical in a dog’s life (Hargrave, 2013). During the socialisation period it is imperative that puppies are developing positive associations to the world around them in order to prevent fear and anxiety to unfamiliar stimulus, resulting in deep-seeded behavioural problems which carry on into adult life (Miklósi, 2014). The introduction of a puppy into a new home within the socialisation period poses the potential for serious long-term risk, if suitable desensitisation does not occur by the new owners.

Modern life in many households includes busy work schedules and thus dogs being left alone for extended periods of time during the day. Puppies which encounter isolation during this critical time in their development can begin to formulate fear responses leading to an increase of different stress-related behaviours (Tiira & Lohi, 2015). One such common fear response is that of separation anxiety. Thielke & Udell (2015) define separation anxiety as a prolonged period of great fear and worry which is the result of an animal being removed from it’s attachment figure, it is a follow-on condition developed from separation distress (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Separation anxiety can lead to owners relinquishing their dogs to rescues as the symptoms which manifest (destruction of items, excessive vocalisation and or improper elimination) are often upsetting and costly (Shin & Shin, 2016). In a study conducted by Storengen et al (2014) a link between separation anxiety and noise phobia was found to have occured in 81.9% of the 215 dogs in their survey, concluding that some behavioural issues co-occur, compounding the problem for owners and dogs. While a study by Mariti et al (2018) found that petting a dog before leaving it for a period of time can reduce their stress levels, however the ultimate recommendation remains to be prevention in gradual and systematic desensitisation training for an owner's absence.

Introductions to the outside world are just important as getting departures right within the home. The innate behaviour of a puppy is to survive, so when brought to a new home for the first time at around 8 weeks, every novel experience produces a fight or flight response, if a puppy’s environment does not support opportunities for escape fear responses take over and fight becomes the only option (Hargrave, 2018). Poor or the lack of positive experiences with the wider world during this vulnerable period in a puppy’s life can lead onto aggressive tendencies based around repeated fear responses (Wormald et al, 2016). This defensive behaviour can often be directed at humans as well as other sources. Becker et al (2018) state that a study conducted by the University of Bristol found that puppies who attended at least two puppy foundation classes before the age of 12 weeks had reduced risks of developing fear-based aggression to unfamiliar humans both inside and outside the home. The quality of life is found to be much poorer for dogs which suffer from aggression as these owners may avoid taking their dogs out into spaces where other dogs may frequent leading to less environmental enrichment and physical activity overall (Wormald et al, 2016).

Puppies go through various stages of development involving their relationship to the world around them. One of the most important stages (socialisation) can help to determine how a puppy interacts with its environment as well as those within it, such as humans. When a puppy arrives home during the socialisation period it is incredibly important to get the balance right concerning human companionship. When done correctly this can lead to a puppy feeling at ease in both and extended absence of its familiar humans and also the introduction of new ones.


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