Stages of Development

Stages of development

I have found that in order to properly troubleshoot behavior issues you must 1st understand what should have taken place in a dog’s development and why. Over the course of my career as a breeder and trainer I have found this information to be invaluable in helping to get a dog on the right track. This information also is critical in knowing when and how much a dog can be lead or pushed in a course of behavior modification. I believe renowned trainer John Rodgers to be correct in saying “Dog training is much more of an art than a science”. Information is extremely important but being able to make a judgement call of when and by how much to apply that knowledge is even more important. It is my hope that in supplying this information in a concise and easy to understand format it will help you realize how easy it is for a dog to get off on the wrong foot in life. And in doing so deepen your patience in helping your dog adapt to your environment.

They are an amazing creature, their ability to adapt to different environments really is something to marvel at! But as you will see through these stages “A ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!” There are unfortunately some things that occur during the course of a dog’s life that cannot be undone! Again, it is my hope that by careful examination of these stages you will see why.

Stage 1: 0-21 days

Zero to 21 days is the 1st critical period. During these 3 weeks the pup’s mental capacity is almost zero. The puppy reacts only to his needs-warmth, food, sleep, and it’s mother. If anything at all could be taught, it would be strictly in the area of survival, such as a simple test of getting food. Abruptly on the 21st day his senses start to function. He’s like a house that’s been built and wired for all the electrical appliances but has not been hooked up to the current. Then on that specific day the current is applied and everything starts to function. In all breeds of dogs this happens on the 21st day of life. This leads immediately to the second stage critical of development.

Stage 2: 21-28 days

The 21st to the 28th day is the time when it absolutely needs its mother. During this week the dog’s senses start to function, the brain and nervous system start to develop, and the world around him can be a very frightening place. The emotional and social stress of life will have the greatest impact on him during this week. Removal from the mother at this time would be catastrophic.

Stage 3: 28-49 days

Slowly the dog will start to react to his surroundings at this phase. He will venture away from his mother to explore the world around him. It’s at the end of this stage that the dog’s nervous system and his brain will have developed to the capacity of an adult dog, but of course without the experience. He’ll be ready to recognize people and respond to the human voice. He’ll have spent enough time in the litter to know that he’s a dog. Strange as this might sound, it has been shown that puppies taken from the litter too soon were difficult to breed later on. It seems they never got the idea they where dog’s. It’s also during this stage that the social order or pecking order of the litter starts to form. This means the pups that learn to get in a fight for their food will tend to become bullies and those that are cowed by the more aggressive pups will become shy and develop wallflower type personalities. It is desirable for the pup to stay in the litter long enough to get a little competitive spirit from his family life, but too much is harmful. The puppy is now ready to learn the things that will mold the type of personality that you want the dog to have. Up until this time the dog was too young to take away from the mother, and does benefit from the social enviroment of the litter. But when the dog is exactly 49 days old, although he will be physically immature, his brain will have attained its full adult form.
[I hope that you can see from the details of these early stages why it is so critical to get a dog from a good experienced breeder! Most behavior issues start in these early stages, long before the dog gets to what should be his forever home. It is also why I believe a temperament test on the parents prior to breeding is so extremely important! Some very simple steps prior to 8 weeks could so easy forgo so many problems! A good breeding program by a good breeder in my opinion is the ultimate answer!]

Stage 4: 49-84 days

Ideally the person responsible for training the dog should be introduced at this time, not a week later or sooner. Research as shown that the 49th day is the best time in the dog’s life to establish the dog-human relationship. The person who’s going to train the dog will essentially be replacing the roll the mother has taken up to this point. Through feeding, playing and general care of the dog at this age – seven to twelve weeks – a bond will be established that will have a permanent effect on the dog. At no later time in the dog’s life will the puppy have the ability to achieve as strong a bond or rapport with humans than at this critical age. The research at the Jackson Behavior Laboratory showed that human contact in this 7 to 12 week period is almost the whole key to the dog’s future prospects. Puppies that where completely isolated for as little as the 1st fifteen weeks of life grew into dogs that were incapable of being trained, let alone of becoming companion dogs.

Simple commands like sit, stay, come, focus and heel can all be taught at this age. But the teaching should only occur in the form of games. There should be no discipline, by the time the dog is twelve weeks old – the end of the preschool or 4th stage of his development is complete.
Getting settled in the new home is a very important part of his education. A secure puppy will be a happy dog and will respond to learning and correction.

Note: 8-11 weeks is believed by most researchers to be the 1st fear imprint period and it is why no discipline can be used in this stage of training, any type of force can have permanent damage in the mind of the dog. The second fear imprint has a much larger range, anywhere from 6-14 months. Though the young dog will not typically be as sensitive to correction, a word of caution is well advised.

Stage 5: 84-112 days

This 5th stage, 12-16 weeks is when the play type of training can stop and formal training can begin. The dog is now ready to learn disciplined behavior. It is also the beginning of the teenage period in the dog’s development and is when most of the challenging from the dog will happen. Training during this period of time is critical, it is also the beginning of the time frame in which most dogs that get sent to shelters occur. Having secure boundaries being developed in the dog’s mind is critical to a life of happiness with his new family. Patience is the key here, and remember it only last for a short period of time when handled correctly.

In conclusion, it is my hope that you as the reader will understand that I am very supportive of rescues and all the wonderful people that do such great work through them. But the fact still remains that in spite of all of our best efforts that millions of dogs are still going to be euthanized over the next few years. It is my belief that if we could get a handle on these early stages of development that almost all behavior issues could be solved in the next two decades, leaving the shelters all empty. It is my intention to be part of developing an educational system to resolve this heart-breaking problem in our culture.

 Many excerpts for this article where taken from “Water Dog” by Richard Wolters [Dutton], which he took from Dr. J.P. Scott’s and Dr. J.L. Fuller’s study. The full results of that study are published in a book entitled “Dog Behavior, The Genetic Basis” [University of Chicago Press] for those of you that want an even more exhaustive understanding of what incredible creatures dogs truly are!

Brian W. Woodcock
The Dog Mechanic

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