A puppy’s brain

2014-05-15 00:00

“I WATCHED a TV programme, Googled it, bought books, but ended up giving my dog away!” Many pet owners have indicated their frustrations to me after trying a DIY approach. Getting to understand how the canine mind functions is not that easy. It is not about the number of years one has been involved with dogs, or how many pets have been owned. Because there is such a vast amount of information, from such a large variety of sources, one can easily have difficulty in finding the right answers.

The following is an example of conflicting information. In the late fifties, Derek Freeman, a UK breeder associated with Guide Dogs for the Blind, determined that pups should leave the litter at six weeks, using socialisation and habituation (environmental enrichment) as criteria. In the eighties, Erik Wilsson, a Swedish researcher, determined that puppies should not leave the litter before eight weeks based on socialisation, habituation and the dominance-submission process which occurs from five to seven weeks between mother and offspring. One says six weeks and the other eight weeks, so who is right?

In the sixties, Freedman, King and Elliot found that if puppies were kept in isolation from people and introduced at different ages, their responses to humans deteriorated with age of first exposure. The results showed that pups introduced to humans for the first time between three to five weeks would approach confidently, but those introduced between five and seven weeks of age showed increased amounts of apprehension. This would support the argument for a six-week mother-offspring separation. However, now the dominance-submission process between mother and pups is interrupted. Fortunately, puppies are virtually always bred in a people-controlled environment, which automatically allows for adequate imprinting of the human species. Thus it makes sense to make eight weeks as a benchmark for mother-offspring separation.

In my experience, those two weeks are extremely important and can be seen clearly in the behaviour later on, especially in the continued dominance-submission relationship between people and their pets. Puppies that leave the litter at eight weeks submit more readily to older dogs and their owners. However, this is not the only criteria. Appropriate socialisation and habituation also play an important role when dogs reach adulthood.

Socialisation can be described as the process whereby a puppy learns how to recognise and interact with the species with which it cohabits. In the wild, with wolf cubs, this would be limited to the wolf pack. For the domestic dog, it includes other species such as people and cats, for instance.

Michael Fox, a behavioural researcher, found that three-week-old Chihuahua puppies fostered individually in litters of four-week-old kittens, would at 12 weeks prefer the company of cats over the company of their litter mates that had not been fostered. In another experiment, litters of puppies were split into three groups. The first group was hand-reared from birth and received no canine contact, the second was given an equal amount of canine and human contact and the third only experienced the company of other puppies and their dam. When the three groups of puppies were reunited, those which had only experienced human interaction preferred the company of the pups that had received the same rearing experience. Similarly, the puppies that had been exposed to both human and canine company preferred the company of puppies of the same upbringing, as did the puppies only used to canine company.

In part two we will look at habituation.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website at www.dog

torsteve.co.za Advice is dispensed only in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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