Puppies’ early development

2013-05-30 00:00

ERIK Wilsson, a Swedish researcher, studied 17 litters of German shepherd puppies, concentrating specifically on social interaction between the mothers and the puppies. The pups ranged from three to eight weeks of age. Initially, while still in this transitional developmental stage, the relationship was strictly one of caregiving by the mother, and care-seeking from her offspring.

Maternal caregiving is influenced by various factors such as genetics, hormones, sensory and environmental elements. The mother provides for the pups by:

• licking the ano-genital region and consuming their waste products;

• licking their faces and generally grooming their bodies;

• positioning them with her nose for warmth and feeding;

• fetching and carrying those that have strayed back to the nest;

• guarding them;

• lying on her side to allow suckling; and

• carrying and regurgitating food for them.

Care-seeking behaviour from the pups is also a result of genetic and sensory influences, but is much simpler, and initially consists of:

• whining; and

• rooting around the mother; i.e. crawling forward with necks extended searching for warmth and a teat.

During the socialisation period, care-seeking behaviour becomes more sophisticated and consists of:

• tail wagging;

• yelping;

• licking the mother’s face, nose and lips;

• jumping up;

• pawing; and

• staying close to the mother.

The obvious beginning of the change in relationship from care-dependency to dominance and submission occurs when the mother starts to walk away from the pups as they try to nurse. This usually occurs from the fourth to fifth week. Wilsson observed that the amount of nursing, the time for final weaning and the evolving interaction between the mother and her pups during this period, could have a permanent effect on the minds of the pups. He looked at six different maternal behaviours: nursing time, number of inhibited bites, growls, warning snarls, and the nibbling and licking of the puppies.

He noted that when the pups tried to suckle, some mothers communicated more with inhibited bites than others. These pups displayed submission by lying on their backs to be licked sooner than others. Growls and displaying canines (large upper and lower molars) also led to submission. Incidents of inhibited bites and mouth threats from the mother reached their maximum by the time the pups were seven weeks old. The care-dependency relationship had evolved to one of dominance and submission.

The severity that the mother used in altering this relationship had a direct bearing on how that pup would ultimately behave with humans. Some of the mothers were excessively aggressive and continued in this manner even after the pups withdrew from her. Others were more benign, showing less aggression, and grooming the pups vigorously afterwards. Wilsson noted that there were stronger social bonds in these litters, and that the mothers were more inclined to paw their pups into submission. He concluded that the pups from litters that had been subjected to an excess of inhibited bites were less socially gregarious with people than other pups, and were less likely to approach a passive person.

The way a mother alters the care-dependency relationship to one of dominance and submission has a lifelong effect on the canine mind. Learning about dominance and submission through maternal behaviour modification is absolutely necessary for puppies. In part two of this article, I will look at the impact that humans have on puppies during the critical period when they leave the litter and we take over the caregiving role.

• Steve van Staden is a canine-behaviour specialist and can be contacted via www.dogtorste

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

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