Puppies are little dogs in training. This is the time when they learn social and emotional skills that will effect their entire lives, from peaceful conflict resolution to recovery from fearful experiences. Yes, tiny two and a half pounds squirts can learn the most profound and long lasting lessons at 4 weeks of age.
Physical Activities And Habituation
Puppies, when awake, are little romping ponies, forever seeking something to do, something to chew, something to learn. All of course within a framework of lots of sleep in between activities. Scientific studies show that physical activity in puppyhood within an enriched environment results in puppies growing larger brains with more neuro-connections. In the name of science and doggy well-being I let them run free in our tiled basement but with frequent trips to the litterbox (airlifted by me). Yes, it’s time consuming and energy zapping but you know, that cuteness factor…
You may remember the concept of habituation from my earlier post. Basically, it is a process of learning from the environment, the exposure to things. Of course, it is virtually impossible to introduce to puppies all the objects they will encounter in their adulthood. However, a breeder can introduce a new object each day, or a slight variation in their environment with the goal of creating a pattern of embracing the novelty later in life, and in effect creating resilience to fear of unexpected things. The contents of our toy box have been cycled through the puppy den already and Amazon should be adjusting its profit projections considering the toy orders we are getting next week- can’t wait for the new ball pit!
Puppies are most content when their environment changes just a tiny bit, enough for joyous excitement but within the safety of a familiar context. This is a week when I set up a couple of dens for them, very similar but in a different context. In wintertime one setup is in my kitchen and the other in a puppy room. For summer litters, like this one, one setup goes on a deck.
Learning to Be Alone
Puppies crave the presence of their families. Initially, that means littermates and their mother. Somewhere around week four for a very human-centric breed like Norwich Terriers, it starts to be redefined as required human presence as well. When allowed to roam a dog room, the puppies follow me like baby ducks. I get a loud wail of complaint when I leave the room. The first time that happens I mark the date in my litter notes. Smaller litters tend to “need” human company a couple of days sooner than larger ones, but by the end of week 4 they all spontaneously crave human presence. And for anyone who knows the breed, the word crave is no exaggeration.
No matter how independent their game, their running, their chewing is, they want for it to be happening with their littermates nearby. And now they absolutely love spending time with people. They love being held. They love being talked to. They love being interacted with. This is the time when it is appropriate to introduce short periods of one-on-one interactions and teaching the puppies that it is OK to be away from the littermates for very, very short periods of time (initially about a minute). Their interest in interacting with people allows for stress-free time away from littermates. I just love that part of early bonding. The puppies are learning to distinguish between canine and human world and to react with emotional response to both. This week they had several visitors, from 3 to 83 years old. They loved them all unconditionally.
Startle Recovery Exercises
At this stage of development the puppies do not experience fear. They have startle reflex but not true fear yet. This is the time to create a very important pattern in their brain of recovery from surprising, unexpected experiences without running any risk of frightening them. Puppies that have a chance to learn recovering from unexpected stimuli during week 3 and 4 of their lives, are not thwarted by unexpected, surprising situations later in life.
I use several everyday objects to startle the pups, like a crinkly bubble wrap and a carton box dropped loudly next to them. They get startled and immediately approach the box to explore, their long tails wagging.
According to canine behaviorism studies puppies that experience mild frustration and overcome it, show mental stability and resilience as adults and avoid risks of developing aggressive behaviors in frustrating situations.
This particular exercise is new to me but I love it instantly. In Puppy Culture DVD Jane Killion illustrates a problem solving exercise where a puppy is presented with a food bowl behind a see-through barrier. The barrier is one panel of x-pen and the food bowl is placed directly behind it. All the puppy has to do is walk around the panel to get to food. It seems very easy but the exercise creates age appropriate challenge.
In trying to duplicate the exercise I quickly discover that Norwich pups are not nearly interested enough in solid food at this time to seek it past frustration. Too much hassle for too little reward. Right now Beanie’s milk is still their main food source and the one preferred over the weaning paste. In a Norwich version of the exercise I put Beanie in a sit-stay behind an x-pen panel and instantly I have 4 very eager boys to solve the challenge.