Early development

2013-06-14 00:00

IN part one, we saw that the communication methods used by the mother towards her offspring during the care-dependency phase have a permanent effect on future relationships. Irrespective of the behaviours that the puppies directed towards their canine mother, she knew instinctively how to respond. Her messages were understandable because they met the requirements of the pup’s mental design. Another significant reason why the mother was such an effective communicator is the fact that her actions were driven by instinct and were not based on feelings.

In part two, we will look at how the care-giving process is transferred from the mother to the new surrogate human family, where there are multiple providers, comprising different ages, genders and personalities.

For example, when a puppy attempted to carry on suckling after weaning, it would be met with a stare, growl, exposed teeth, or all three at once. This was Mum’s way of saying: “No”. She would perform consistently, without being stricter or more lenient because some puppies were cuter or smaller. So her actions were not based on emotions, but rather on an instinctive need to prepare her family for the future.

Let’s look at the post-litter departure with new human care-givers, especially where good intentions to provide a caring, nurturing environment are influenced by human emotions. The new mothers pick up the puppy to hold and cuddle, allow it to sleep on laps, couches and beds, and this without even emitting a whimper. If there is a cry or whine, they respond immediately to reassure. So, from an environment where the puppy learnt about structure from a consistently dominant mother, it now finds that all the two-legged “dogs” behave like mothers one minute and then as “puppies” the next.

Very soon, soft puppy cries become high-pitched shrieks, the cute jumping becomes painful or clothing has to be changed due to muddy paws. Sharp little teeth cause pain, claws scratch and carpets become toilets. A few months later, exasperation results in the puppy being smacked or shouted at. Due to its perception that the humans are lower ranking, it reacts with growls and bares its teeth. Immediately, this causes concern and the reaction is either another smack, isolation, rehoming or, worse, euthanasia, because it is deemed to be dangerous.

So in a sense, based on dominance and submission, the puppy has become a mother and treats the humans like a litter. Canine mothers prepare their puppies by providing the first skills they will need as adult dogs for co-habitation with the same or other species. Ideally, she has eight weeks and will perform this task by instinct. The new human mothers need to carry on the process without having the same tools to do so. It is extremely important that we find out how to provide adequately when meeting our puppy’s physical and mental needs. In conjunction with a vet, the physical aspects are fairly straightforward.

The mental part is not as simple. Successful interspecies relationships mean that because a puppy is wired differently, we as the superior species must be rewired, to make up for the difference. If unsure, it would be advisable to approach someone who understands the canine mind and is able to assist with further education.

In part three of the early developmental stages, I will look at how the mother’s care-giving methods impact on her offspring’s future behaviour in a human-animal composition.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website www.dogtorsteve.co.za Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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