Four Critical Periods of a Puppy's Life Part 2

Four Critical Periods of a Puppy’s Life, Part 2

What are the Four Critical Periods and how do they affect my dog’s physical and mental growth?

Welcome to part 2 of our Four Critical Periods of a Puppy’s Life. If you did not listen to part 1, pause your player and go back and listen. We will be right here when you get back. 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.

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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 2 of 4.

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. On part 1 we talked about the first three weeks of a puppy’s life and this week we are going to dive deeper and cover weeks 3 through 6.

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 life.  This is part 2, I hope you tune in next week for part 3.

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.”

The Second Critical Period, Days 22 – 49

Day 22 – 28: This is the single most important week in a puppy’s lifetime.  The puppy is now aware of self-environment.  The puppy learns he is a dog.  He learns to accept discipline, he learns submission.  He moves around on wobbly steps and show curiosity and begins exploring the environment.  NOTE: Any puppy intended for conditioning as a compulsive retriever must be weaned absolutely by the end of this week.  This is very important for the future obedience dog.

Continue touch conditioning every day this week.

This is the puppy’s first week of conscious life as we know it: they should NOT be disturbed or traumatized in any way except for the two brief daily exercise periods of touch conditioning. Any traumatic experience during this week can have far-reaching, lifelong, unpleasant results.  During this week, you should organize the gathering of “the puppy toys”. These include objects made of ALL of the following: rubber, vinyl, plastic (squeak toys), metal (band-aid rollers, 6” lengths of conduit which later become utility obedience articles, ice cream tin lids bent in half, etc.) glass (small brown vitamin pill bottles, etc. with lids removed), fabric (notably 2 long socks each having two knots tied, one at either end.  These are later rolled into balls and become 2 of your most important tracking articles in your early tracking training.

Leather – use 6 strips of fresh, new cowhide, 6” long by 1” inch wide.  These also become vital later on in tracking and obedience, as well as search and rescue, and Red Cross work.  Rawhide – these are 100% edible treated beef-hide items; the ones shaped like potato chips and called “pup chips” are the ones to provide at this time.  These provide the ideal teething substance and are instinctively more satisfying to puppies than are any other articles. Do NOT include wooden articles at this stage. Do include plastic items such as an old remote control and include items such as keys – these will become guide, service, and therapy training articles.

Do NOT exclude anything from this collection and replace anything that gets lost.  This is being done for several very important reasons, which you will appreciate more and more as you begin serious training, and you find that while other dogs must learn to retrieve, to find by scent, to tolerate metal in their mouths, etc., you have a dog with a custom-built mind, who does these things automatically.  Virtually anything can be incorporated into a puppy program once we know the critical period.

During this period the puppy should be guarded against trauma of any kind.  Make this period a stable period in the puppy’s life.  The puppy can be moved to different areas temporarily to be conditioned to different surfaces, but do not change the puppy’s permanent area, and do not change the schedule.

Day 28: 4 weeks old: Last day of touch conditioning.

Day 29 – 35: This is also a very important week. Begin sound conditioning.  This is the abolition of the startle response, which will otherwise occur whenever loud or sudden noises are heard.  I should not have to point out the vital importance of this.  Remember that dogs do not inherit gun shyness.

4-6 loud bangs daily, when puppies are sleeping, eating, playing but NOT when puppies are looking at you or coming towards you.

This critical period for this is week 4 – 6.  Do these loud noises every day from day 28 through day 42, then review by testing for sound startle once weekly.  The program should include all types of sounds to which the pup will be subjected to while working in its adult job.  Use guns, cap=pistols, saucepan lids; always expose them to the sound of a stock whip being cracked.  Use tape recordings of crowds, traffic, crying babies, trains, heavy machinery, etc. Ideally, the pups should be placed individually in a sound proof booth when they are subjected to the tape recordings.  The real thing is best IF you can gain exposure to it.  The dam should be out of the puppies’ range of vision and hearing while sound conditioning is being done.  Do not omit any type of these sounds.  This is one of the most important parts of the “programmed puppy”.

Introduce a stable male dog as “daddy” to teach the puppies a different perspective from the start.  Introduce puppies to obstacle course, e.g. tunnel, tires, covered balance walk, etc.

Day 35: 5 weeks old: They have better control of their bodies, they can walk over obstacles, walk up and down stairs.  They should recognize familiar persons, and show curiosity about other people, other animals, and new surroundings.  Continue sound conditioning.  Begin reinforcing the “following response”.

Day 36 – 42: Reinforce the “following response” as follows.  Take each pup separately to a large, open grassy area.  Handler places pup on grass and slowly walks away without speaking, or looking back.  Go 10 feet, stop, face pup and wait quietly until the pup begins a distress cry “I’m lost”. Then, clap hands and move body back and forth until the pup sees you and approaches. Hold the pups head in your hands for 3 to 4 seconds.  Then walk slowly away again.  Repeat over and over until the puppy follows whenever you move off.  Limit this to 5 minutes daily per pup – up to week 7 (day 49). NOTE: do not reinforce “following” in areas in which persons other than yourself can be seen or heard by the puppies.  The “following response” will occur towards you in a much-reduced form if other humans or animals are present.  The importance of this will not become obvious until much later in the puppy’s behavioral development.

Continue sound conditioning.

Introduce other people, children, wheelchairs, walkers, cats, other pets, and all else now.

Day 42: 6 weeks old: Test for any residue of sound startle. Last day of sound conditioning.  Reinforce “following”.

Day 43: Socialize. Short car trip. Play with long sock. Play retrieve. Isolate briefly. Go to new location. Reinforce “following.”  Make puppy go through tunnel to follow, also begin training on dog doors.

Day 44: Socialize. Car trip. Play with long sock. Play retrieve. Isolate briefly. Go to a new location. Reinforce “following.” Help the puppy walk on the balance walk.

Day 45: Socialize. Car trip. Play with long sock. Play retrieve. Isolate briefly. Go to a new location. Reinforce “following.” Help the puppy walk on the balance walk.

Day 46: Socialize. Car trip. Play with long sock. Play retrieve. Isolate briefly. Go to a new location. Reinforce “following.” Help the puppy walk on the balance walk.

Day 47: Socialize. Car trip. Play with long sock. Play retrieve. Isolate briefly. Go to a new location. Reinforce “following.” Sit in a swing and swing with the puppy. Call the puppy over a small obstacle.

Day 48: Socialize. Car trip. Play with long sock. Play retrieve. Isolate briefly. Go to a new location. Reinforce “following.” Sit in a swing and swing with the puppy. Call the puppy over a small obstacle.

Day 49: 7 weeks old: Socialize. Car trip. Play with long sock. Play retrieve. Isolate briefly. Go to a new location. Last day reinforcing “following.” 1st vaccination. NOTE: Vaccination using Edmonston-strain measles virus should be given at 7 weeks.  This is assuming that the bitch was vaccinated within 12 months of whelping.  Test for any residual startle to sound. Introduce crate training – allow the pup to walk into the crate with the top removed; placing the top on after a few days; placing the door on; closing the door; and eventually leaving the pup in the crate for short periods of time.

First swim. If weather is ok, swim outside using a small toddler wading pool. If weather is bad, use the bathtub. DO  IT!

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 3 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.


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