Tuesday, November 18, 2014

At what age should you take a puppy from its mother?

At what age should you take a puppy from its mother?
The sight of a worried mother searching frantically for her missing pup is not one that is likely forgotten so for a first timer, choosing the right time and also the right way in which to take a puppy from its mother can become quite the quandary. Though ensuring a completely stress free process is impossible, with a little thought and planning, it can be simplified- making a smoother transition for everyone involved.

In order to fully understand at what age this can happen it is necessary to first delve a little into the development of the dog's sensory perception and motor skills. Outlined below are what behaviourists consider to be the most vital stages of development for the newborn domestic dog and what each entails.

From birth to two weeks - The Neonatal Period

Puppies are born with immature brains. Their eyes and ears are closed, they cannot walk and the only movement they seem to make is to bobble their heads continuously and 'swim' along the floor. During the neonatal period, the mother will continuously lick the puppies, familiarising them with her smell and also stimulating them to urinate and defecate- as even this, a newborn puppy cannot do on his own.

In 1937, Konrad Lorenz developed his theory of imprinting, where he found that the image of the mother was 'imprinted' in the mind of young goslings. Similar maternal imprinting occurs with dogs and further studies at the Swedish Dog Training Center at Solleftea have indicated that some behaviours, like whining for example, are not genetically predetermined, but rather a result of maternal imprinting. Even the 'head bobble' of a newborn pup boasts an intricate pattern that is in fact designed to aid the process of imprinting. It can be supposed thus, that the impact of what young dogs go through during this time is indeed tremendous. Any thought of separation during the neonatal period is one that should be swiftly dismissed as even in the case of hand raised puppies whose mother's are unable to nurse due to death or physical injury, extreme behavioural problems have been observed as the animals mature.

From two to four weeks- The Transitional Period

During the transitional period, a puppy's sensory abilities begin to expand rapidly. The eyes and ears open, teeth appear and suddenly his world becomes more than just his mother warmth. His litter mates and environment suddenly become interesting. Puppies will wag their tails, move to and from the nest and growl and bark for the first time. The mother's influence is still significant at this point, though she will begin contemplating weaning them. She may try to walk away when they nurse or start regurgitating food to accelerate the weaning process. As unsavoury as we may find it, eating vomit is quite normal in a dog's world, though many years of selective breeding and human intervention in the weaning process has tried to eradicate this behaviour.

But the most important thing that happens to puppies during the transitional period it they begin to notice us, their human counterparts. How we interact with them now will determine how they see people for the rest of their lives and growing up in a sensory rich environment with lots of human handling has been shown to not only ensure a dog that is unafraid of people but also to physically increase brain size, leading to smarter animals at maturity.

From four to eight weeks - The Socialisation Period

The developmental changes that puppies experience during the socialisation period are so significant that this is often referred to as a 'critical period' by canine behaviourists. As the name suggests, this is when puppies begin to interact with other dogs and play with their litter mates . But just like any toddler must be taught manners from a very early age, mother dogs impress upon their young basic social norms. The most important skill that puppies learn at this stage is to play. Dogs are a neotenized species, meaning that they have been selectively bred to retain many of their juvenile characteristics. Thus, dogs will play for most of their lives and it is during this critical period that dogs truly learn to play with each other.

Play has various different functions in a dog's mind. It serves to engage and stimulate, teaches dexterity, exploration and problem solving- and it is during play that hierarchies are established. More importantly it is through play that dogs truly learn to communicate and a dog deprived of play during the socialisation period will likely turn out to have problems getting along with other dogs for the rest of its life.

Making the decision that's right for you

When dealing with animals, there is seldom a cut and dry approach as most often every case is different. Therefore it is necessary to evaluate the temperament of the mother as well as the temperament of the puppies themselves before deciding the right age. it is however, widely acknowledged that before 8 weeks is a big NO.

In countries that are fortunate enough to have little to no street dog populations and well developed canine education and industry, the notion of giving away or selling a puppy prior to eight weeks of age will seem absurd. But sadly, many countries especially those that have rampant street dog populations leading to dogs being regarded as 'pest' or 'food' as opposed to 'Fido' and where no legislation concerning the welfare of the domestic dog is in place, puppies are often given away or sold at as little as four or five weeks of age. This is far too young and puppies should never be bought from breeders at this age, no matter how cute they seem.

The debate however, lies mainly between the ages of eight to twelve weeks, as some believe that eight weeks is even still too early and others that twelve weeks is too late. A good indicator of when the mother is ready is when she begins to walk away from the puppies when they try to nurse or regurgitate food for them to eat. This means that she is starting the weaning process in terms of food. Nursing takes a tremendous amount out of her and it is in her best interest to do it as quickly as possible. Litter size will also play a part here, as dogs with large litters will likely want to wean sooner than those with only one or two pups. Though the exact emotional state of a dog can never truly be known, subtle signs will shed some light, e.g.: if the mother still sleeps with her head on the puppies she still wants their presence felt.

The temperaments of the puppies will also give a clue as to whether they are ready to leave their mother and face the challenges of a new home. Some puppies will nurse for longer than others, usually the weakest ones of the litter and may display signs of taking a longer time to become socialised. These puppies should be kept for at least twelve weeks. But puppies who are confident and take to solid foods easily can be rehomed at nine weeks, provided they have been separated from the mother for short to longer periods beforehand.

Another thing to consider are the vaccinations, as the ones for viruses such as Canine Parvo Virus are only effective for every member of the litter after the final booster is given at twelve weeks of age. Until then, there remains the smallest of chances that your puppy could contract Parvo so it is best to consult with your vet before making a decision.

The truth is there is no right or wrong way to separate a puppy from its mother and there is no age at which the mother will get less stressed or the puppy will feel less scared in a new home. Like for humans, change is hard for dogs too. But unlike us, our canine companions are marvellously adaptable, with a natural curiosity and a knack for living in the moment. So both mother and puppy should be able to bounce back from a carefully planned and well thought out separation, without too many problems.

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