When most people think of puppy training the first things that pop to mind are probably potty training and crate training and then after that the basics of dog training such as stay and sit. But in reality puppy training starts well before that even before you have got you puppy.
Puppy Training Starts With Mommy
There’s a very good reason why puppies should not be separated from their mothers and littermates before a certain age; and that age varies from 8 weeks to 10 weeks depending to whom you are talking but what appears to be universally accepted is that 7 weeks should be the cutoff point at the very earliest.
So why 7 weeks and not before?
Because a puppy needs to be at least 7 weeks of age before its brain is mature enough to properly process the stimuli that it is inputting.
What is more during those seven weeks the puppy needs to be around its mother and littermates if it is going to develop essential dog social interaction skills and behavior that will play a big part in its adult life. Such behavioral lessons a puppy learns whilst still with its mother and fellow puppies include:
Bite Control and Force Constraint
Often when suckling at its mother’s teat the inexperienced and seemingly ever ravenous puppy will pinch the nipple with its small yet sharp teeth. This can be very painful as the puppies get bigger, and since one of a puppy’s foremost activities is suckling and feeding, it is very much in the mother’s interest to nip such errant behavior in the bud as quickly as possible.
This the mother does by letting the puppies know in no uncertain terms that she won’t tolerate such behavior and that if the errant pup wants to continue suckling it better learn how to control its mouth. Such a lesson is invaluable in teaching the growing puppy what bite pressure is okay and what isn’t.
During play with one another the puppies learn more about acceptable bite pressure and force restraint. If a puppy bites another sibling too hard (thereby eliciting an obviously pained squeal) the mother will forcibly intervene showing the culprit that such behavior is not tolerated during play. It is in this way that puppies learn how to moderate their bites from the playful nip to the injurious maul!
Dominant, Submissive and Other Dog Behavior
During the period from the moment it’s born to the moment it leaves its mother and fellow littermates (ideally not before 8 weeks as mentioned previously) other than sleeping, eating and creating copious amounts of pee as well as poo, a puppy spends the remainder of its time playing. But in reality what we humans may view as mere play is actually schooling, because it is then that a puppy is learning proper canine social behaviorisms and interaction.
When playing with its fellow puppies, a puppy will learn its place in the social pecking order through games and interactions that involve both submissive and dominant role playing. Undoubtedly which role a puppy adopts the most will be dependent on the character and nature of the individual puppy.
It is also during such play interactions with both mother and siblings that a puppy learns to appreciate the subtleties and nuances inherent in doggy communication; in other words the puppy learns to differentiate one growl from another, one bark from the next etc.
Brain Development And Puppy Training
How an adult dog will behave is shaped by the sum of its puppyhood experiences which in turn define the shaping of its brain. At the moment of its birth a puppy more or less has all the brain cells that it will ever have, even as an adult dog; yet interestingly the brain size of a puppy is at least one-tenth its adult size. Which begs the question, if a puppy has all its brain cells at birth then how does the brain grow bigger to that found in the adult dog.
The answer is lies in the difference between the connectivity of a puppy’s brain and that of the adult dog. At birth most of a puppy’s brain cells are not connected a situation that changes soon enough as the puppy develops and undergoes new experiences.
The brain like many other aspects of the body requires stimuli to develop and thus much like the atrophied limbs of an individual who has never used them, a brain that lacks stimulation will not develop properly.
In fact an experiment conducted on kittens amply illustrated this fact by showing that individuals raised with horizontally-striped glasses during the development phase of the eyes were unable to see in the vertical plane as adults. An interesting side effect to the experiment was that those cats would walk straight into table legs and poles as if they simply couldn’t see them!
It is now understood that the wiring of a puppy’s brain (in other words the growth and development of its brain) is dependent on the nature of its experiences especially around the Critical Period.
Role of The Critical Period in Puppy Training
The Critical Period refers to that interval when a puppy has the greatest capacity to learn. The Critical Period in dogs extends from 2 weeks to 16 weeks, with a peak of activity around 7 weeks. After 16 weeks the window of the Critical Period has pretty much closed and even though the dog may still learn it will be so much harder. Furthermore once the window of the Critical Period has slammed shut, behaviors that the dog has already learned will be pretty much with it (at least traces) for the rest of its life.
The Critical Period plays an important role in puppy training because it is during such a time that you will find it easiest to mould your puppy into the dog you want it to be. To illustrate the importance of the Critical Period consider the following:
- A dog that has not been socialized or developed around people by sixteen weeks of age will never be truly comfortable or at ease with people.
- A livestock guarding dog that has never been exposed to its target livestock within sixteen weeks will never be good at its job let alone excel, even though it comes from a long line of champion guardians.
- A gun dog that has never been exposed to the sound of gunfire within the Critical Period (note there are other factors at play here such as the onset of fear) will always be gun shy.
In fact it is now well understood and appreciated that early experience is essential not because it is the first instance of learning but because it actually affects the brain’s development! That is why a dog that is raised in a stimuli-deficient environment will have a smaller brain than another dog from the very same litter that developed in a stimuli-rich environment.
What many dog owners don’t realize is that when socializing and interacting with their puppy they are actually influencing the wiring of the puppy’s brain and ultimately moulding it into the dog they desire. This then is the process of subconscious puppy training that happens daily but few dog owners are aware of.
Finally there is another aspect of puppy training that many are unaware which is that even within the same litter some puppies are far easier to train than others. There is actually a very accurate method that shows as early as 7 weeks which puppies will be easy to train while others will be a constant struggle.