You’ve finally found the pup you want and you can’t wait to bring home your new furbaby. But while you might be thrilled to have them, bringing home a puppy who is too young to leave their litter can affect how they react to the world for the rest of their life – and not always in a good way.
The most selfish thing a new owner can do it is try to acquire a puppy for an "ocassion" like Christmas. A responsible breeder will not let an owner take the dog at six weeks because it's a family member's birthday and they promised a suprise, or they want the kids to find the puppy on Christmas morning. The age a pup leaves home is so important that it truly is, all about the dog. Human convenience is not a factor.
Most veterinarians and breeders put the optimum age to leave home at somewhere between 8 to 10 weeks old. According to veterinarian and behaviourist, Dr Sally Foote, however, the socialization period in puppies typically lasts much longer - from between 6 and 12 to 14 weeks of age and new owners should contain their impatience for the sake of their dog’s long-term welfare.
So let’s look at the factors that affect when a pup should leave their home and move out into the big wide world with their new family.
Weaning is critical factor in determining when a pup should leave the litter.
Dr. Jerry Klein, AKC chief veterinary officer, says, “Most pups begin the gradual switch from their mother’s milk to solid food anywhere from 3-to-5-weeks-old. Puppies should not be sent to their homes until they are happily eating on their own. Puppies that are prevented from suckling for food and for comfort can display insecure behaviours later in life.”
Never accept a puppy from a breeder that is under 8 weeks of age, which is the minimum age a pup can be considered fully weaned and you should feel comfortable asking the breeder what their weaning process is.
It is simply illegal in New Zealand to sell a puppy under 8 weeks of age. If you are offered a younger puppy by a breeder, ring the police and report them.
Learning From Littermates
From 3-to-5 weeks of age, puppies go through the primary socialization period.
This is a dog-to-dog thing that happens as the pups become more aware of their surroundings. With their mother and littermates, they start to learn appropriate play behaviour and how to communicate with, and relate to, other dogs. This is the time when you might first hear a teensy little growl or an alarmed squawk from puppies roughhousing (and they can play pretty rough!) as they learn rudimentary impulse control and bite inhibition from the feedback of their siblings and mother.
This is also the reason singleton puppies can be problematic. They have no siblings from which to learn these important limits, so it’s all on mum, and if she’s not up to the job, the dog may have trouble learning some of these lessons later in life.
According to the American Kennel Club, “research shows that puppies removed from their litters very early are more likely to display problems in behaviour and temperament when they’re grown, including being fearful, aggressive, or anxious; guarding their food and toys; and being highly reactive and more difficult to train.”
Socialization and "Fear Periods"
Between the 6 – 14 week-old period, puppies are learning all about the world around them. This is when their underlying temperament becomes obvious to the observant breeder and they develop many of the attitudes, behaviours, and fears, they’ll retain as adult dogs.
What a pup experiences during this critical time, has an outsize effect on their confidence throughout their lifetime. Until now, nature has not burdened puppies with fear of anything. But once they can move, wander off and get into trouble, Mother Nature has a built-in protection system. During this time, pups can learn to be afraid of all sorts of things and it will last a lifetime if they are not given the opportunity to deal with the challenge without harm and learn that it is nothing to fear.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour recommends that during this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli, and environments as can be achieved safely, without over-stimulation.
Every ad you will ever see for a puppy, will proudly claim their pups have been socialized, but what does the breeder mean when they say socialized? “Raised in a loving family home” sounds fabulous, but it often means the puppy has never met anyone other than family members and their littermates, and when you are buying a puppy, one of the most important questions you should ask of your breeder is what pro-active steps they take toward socialisation.
We have a socialisation plan that we follow with all our litters and these are the broad steps we take (there are too many to list them all here).
Around 4 weeks we move the pups out of the nursery and into the living room with mum so they are exposed to as many normal everyday household noises (eek! vacuum cleaners!), smells and people as possible, as well as meeting other members of the pack who have the run of the house.
We add hanging toys to the puppy pen and textured mats and washable puppy pads so the pups learn to deal with different surfaces.
This is the time we start to crate train our puppies. From about 6 weeks the pups have a crate in their pen which inevitably becomes the favoured sleeping place, and something to climb onto for the more adventurous among the litter.
We try to take every litter on at least one long car trip (minimum 2 hours), so they learn that crates and cars are OK and travelling is an everyday event which it is perfectly acceptable to sleep through. This is critical for puppies who will eventually fly to their new homes, as it reduces the stress of the flight. By the time they leave us, they have learned to sleep through long trips, confident they will be safe while in transit.
At around 8 weeks we double the pen size and separate the sleeping and play areas with a low barrier the pups must learn to negotiate if they want to move from one pen to the other. Learning how to get over that barrier on their own is so important to their confidence and after the first few days of some fairly hilarious antics trying to figure it out, they will jump over it like it’s not even there.
As soon as our pups have their 1st vaccination, we take them to our local Puppy Playgroup and even a dog show if there are any about (although they aren’t allowed on the ground unless they are fully vaccinated). The sights and smells of these environments challenge the puppies in a good way. Not only do they expose the pups to the smells and sounds of lots of other dogs with no fear associated with the exposure, but these are also events guaranteed to be filled with people who know and love dogs. The pups get lots of cuddles and attention from new people who know how to handle them and learn to associate this challenging environment with fun rather than fear.
Pups will have their first bath and nail clip during this time and meet the dryer.
Beware the outlier
Despite all of the above, one should never underestimate the role a puppy’s underlying base temperament plays in their development and how they will react to the world.
Our most confident dog, Ava, who is fazed by nothing – not people, other dogs or her environment – is a pup raised during lockdown who was denied almost all of the socialisation we would normally give our puppies. There were no long car trips, no show or playgroup visits, no strangers to meet… nothing. Just what we did in the home, fingers crossed, in the hope that it would be enough.
Ava is an outlier, however, and a breeder would be foolish assume that just because one pup was born with a bullet-proof temperament, no other pups need work on their socialization, figuring that if they do nothing, Mother Nature will take care of the problem for them.
Breeder’s Puppy Care
Some final good advice from the AKC:
“Before buying a dog, it’s important to make sure you are comfortable with the breeder’s decisions about your puppy. Find out how the breeder plans to handle your puppy in terms of weaning, socialization, and timing for sending the pup home with you.
“Early socialization of puppies should be done thoughtfully. Good breeders slowly introduce their puppies to children and other adults, car rides, crate time, noises, surfaces, grooming tools, solid food, the outdoors, and they give them individual attention. They enable puppies to enjoy new experiences, recover from startling situations, and learn to enjoy being handled, while beginning to make connections with humans.
“When the puppies go to their new homes, breeders can coach their puppy owners on how to socialize properly and safely, without overwhelming or traumatizing them.
Bottom line: Talk to your breeder or veterinarian. If they tell you it’s best to wait a week or two longer for the healthy development of your new companion – you’ll be all the more prepared when the big day comes.”
And then it will feel like Christmas, anyway:)