What are the Four Critical Periods of a Puppy’s Life and how do they affect my dog’s physical and mental growth?
I have been involved with the physical health and well-being of dogs since I was 15 years old. At that time there weren’t many VHS videos about dog training and there certainly was not a search engine called Google or a YouTube channel that can literally teach you anything you want to know in minutes. I learned by trial and error, by talking to others and eventually gaining a mentor or two over the years, all the while reading books about learning theory and doing my best to stay up to date. In the late 90’s I stumbled upon a book called the New Knowledge of Dog Behavior by Clarence Pfaffenberger. This book set in motion not only a viable career in dog training but shaped my approach to it and my understanding of it so that I could help people make better choices when choosing their own dogs and has assisted in the development of my own breeding programs with German Shepherds and Siberian Huskies and eventually Alaskan Huskies.
If you are a canine enthusiast, dog trainer, dog breeder, or just someone interested in how dog’s learn then this is the program for you. If you know someone that may benefit from this information please share this podcast, Dog Works Radio with them. Let’s get started with Part 1 of 4 of the four critical periods of a puppy’s life.
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Are you one of the few people that train your dog? As a professional dog trainer, I find it interesting that every inquiry I receive is always about unwanted dog behaviors that I immediately recognize as starting during the Four Critical Periods of life for a dog. If only the breeder whether a professional or an amateur had just taken the time to learn about canine development and behavior and had then incorporated it into their breeding program, even if it was just a one-time breeding or accidental then the dogs they are producing would actually gain a better start in life that would stick with them far into adulthood, thus producing a well-rounded adjusted pup that owners would be highly unlikely to be wary of and ready to give up on.
I often do breed referrals for people looking for the right dog for their family and I am the one who choses your pup for our Lead Dog Service Dog Program. Over the past two decades I have trained several hundred dogs, in fact, I average about 250 new dogs every year. That’s a lot of dogs! I have bred my own litters and trained each and every one of them up to the age of 12 weeks; but I have also trained many them into adulthood. I have trained many other puppies and rescues and I have seen many mistakes made by breeders, pet stores, shelters, fosters, and even the new owners themselves. Puppies have four critical periods of a puppy’s life. This is part 1, I hope you tune in next week for part 2.
Again, I have used the information I am sharing for years in raising puppies and preparing them for life. It is my hope that the novice and the expert in raising and training of dogs appreciates the information being shared and utilizes this information to raise well-balanced better trained puppies.
Reminder: The purpose of the puppy program is to condition the puppy to learn, and that learning and doing things are fun. The program aims at preventing problems rather than correcting problems later. This purpose of “puppy program” must be fully understood. Therefore, I recommend that you DO NOT attempt to program any puppy until you are familiar with Clarence Pfaffenberger’s “The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior.”
Day 0: Puppies are whelped. Be sure you have notated each puppy in order of birth. The record taking begins now.
Day 3: Begin taking puppies outside on a clean blanket for a couple of minutes a day, and then take them inside again. If the weather is inclement then take them to a blanket near a large window or patio door, preferably one that gets sunlight.
The first critical period, Days 1 – 21:
Newborn puppies are undeveloped. They do not hear or see. Their senses of smell and touch are functioning. The puppies should be handled a little bit, like for weighing every day. Subject the puppies to small amount of stress, e.g. different under covers, cold temperatures. Also, they can be conditioned to certain smells at this age.
EEG (Electroencephalograph) tracings show that the puppies waking brain-wave pattern is identical to their sleeping brain-wave pattern. This means that they do not have true consciousness – and they will remain so until the 20th day of their life. While their “conscious” brain cannot yet be programmed, this is not so with certain reflex pathways in their spinal cords (work researched since Pfaffenberger’s book). The first reflex which can be conditioned is the pannus (or cutaneous) muscle reflex. Conditioning of this reflex, so that it becomes abolished, or inactive, or non-responsive to human touch, begins its critical period at Day 14 and finishes at Day 28. We call this “The Critical Period of Touch Conditioning”.
Cutaneous muscle, under the skin, all over the body, will twitch (startle response) when skin is touched, throughout life, by human beings of whichever sex that do not take part in touch conditioning. In adult dogs (over 4 months), we see this as a dog which will not stand still and be willingly touched (examined) by any men, or by any women, whichever it lacked in its conditioning in this period of 14-28 days. This is the dog (or bitch) which has to be shown “only under female judges” or “won’t let a man touch him/her”. No type of later “training” will reliably bring a touch-shy dog out of this too frequently seen behavior fault. So do not fail to program your puppies for both male and female touch! This is imperative for pets, show trials, guides, police, etc.
Take the puppies outside on a clean blanket for a couple of minutes each day.
Day 9-12: Eyes open during this period, but puppies cannot focus, nor is there any conscious awareness of anything “seen”.
Day 11-13: Ear canals begin to open for function, but are not “hooked up” for conscious interpretation of sounds. No sound conditioning is possible until Day 23.
Day 14: 2 weeks old: Begin touch conditioning. This is done by having a man and a woman each handle each puppy for 2-3 minutes twice daily. Handle head, muzzle, neck, body, legs, and tail. Touch and rub back against hair gently. Children should also participate but a shorter amount of time for handling is acceptable. Remember to WASH hands first!
Day 15-21: The puppy goes through a lot of physical changes. The baby teeth erupt at about 15 days. Do touch conditioning and expose the puppy to mild stress. Take the puppies outside every day.
Day 20: On this day all puppies brains are slowly (some faster than others) awakening. Begin observing continuously. Note: which of each sex “wakes up” first. Mark these two, for example by cutting a small patch of hair on their backs, or marking with nail polish.Day 9-12: Eyes open during this period, but puppies cannot focus, nor is there any conscious awareness of anything “seen”. Click To Tweet
Day 21: 3 weeks old: CONSCIOUS LIFE BEGINS NOW. Touch conditioning. When you do your touch conditioning on this most exciting day, watch the faces! For the first time they react consciously to your presence. You have looked at the puppies many times, but today you are seeing them as never before.
Note: Prepare early. It’s easy to set up your phone or a GoPro and do a video journal. You’ll also want a Calendar with ample space to take notes. These items make it easy to archive your notes and recording each puppy in its critical periods. This can be helpful when you go to place your puppy in his/her new home. You can share these archives with your new puppy owner and be sure to go over your training program so that it can be followed.
Be sure to join us next week for part 2 of the Four Critical Periods of a Puppy’s Life series.
Michele Forto is the lead trainer of Alaska Dog Works and works with service dog clients from around the country.