Life Stages of a Dog – Part 1

Taken from my coursework for The ISCP’s Diploma in Canine Psychology:

What issues would you expect to be due primarily to the age and life stage of a dog? How would you explain to a carer that it is the dog’s age that is creating the behaviour? What would you recommend that the carer does to harmoniously negotiate this phase with the dog?

Working as I do in a Dog’s Refuge Home, I have often observed how many dogs are adopted by people eager to get themselves a new Best Friend, but who in their human ignorance ultimately forget that the dog they’ve just adopted is not going to just settle in happily ever after in their homes, without any further effort on their part. There are many factors that contribute to this, the main one is the age and life stage of the dog in question. As a consequence of this ignorance, inability or reluctance to deal with the situation, some dogs get returned to the Refuge for rehoming. When they do, they are invariably at a different life stage, and will need to be assessed differently. It’s a whole new ball game when they next go on to the floor as available for adoption.

The various life stages of a dog are:

The Neonatal period
The Juvenile period
The Adolescent period (Puberty)
Old Age

The Neonatal period is short, lasting from birth up to the first 12 days. The puppy is blind and nearly deaf, and cannot defecate on his own but needs his mother to stimulate him by licking his parts. He is completely dependent on his mother for all his nutritional needs and protection. It is inadvisable for anyone to attempt to handrear a puppy at this stage, unless the puppy has been orphaned, as this is a full-on job requiring round the clock observation, attention and special dietary requirements. It has been known for an unrelated female dog to take over the responsibilities of the mother dog, in litters that have been abandoned or where the mother dog has passed away.

The Juvenile period is from the age of 3 months to 6 months. By now the puppy has learnt to stand up and walk, and is curious about his surroundings. He will stay close to his mother for protection and food, but will also be active playing with his littermates, learning bite inhibition, exploring his surroundings. This is the time for socialising the puppy by exposing him to various stimuli such as strange people, other animals, vehicles, noises, different environments, etc. This is the time the puppy learns the boundaries of his world. It is a crucial period for the puppy’s mental as well as physical development, and if for any reason this socialisation period is left out or neglected, it may result in an adult dog that is afraid of loud noises, strange men, or one that will lunge barking madly at vehicles that drive past, or behave badly at dog parks because it simply does not know how to read the signals. That is not to say that an adult dog with these behavioural issues cannot be trained or its behaviour modified; it just takes time and patience, which many people sadly lack. Many people buy or adopt a puppy expecting it to remain cute and innocent, but when it starts chewing the furniture or eating their expensive shoes, soiling on their pristine carpet, they freak out, and rather than investing time in housetraining their puppy, or attending obedience classes, they surrender it to a shelter instead.

This is also the period when the puppy should have had his vaccinations, before he is allowed to mingle with other dogs at a park. Unimmunised puppies may contract parvovirus, which can be deadly and is often fatal. Anyone who has bought or adopted a Juvenile puppy should be aware of the many changes that are happening to the puppy, both physically and mentally, and what its developmental challenges are at this stage, and should be patient and calm about training it at home. Bear in mind that this is the “nippy” age, and the puppy may well bite children if they fail to read its body language correctly. Many puppies are returned to the Refuge at this stage, because their family’s children have handled it incorrectly, over-stimulated it, poked and prodded it or teased it, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

I would recommend to anyone adopting or purchasing a Juvenile puppy, to persevere in training it correctly and using only positive reinforcement. Think of the puppy as a clean slate, which you can impress your own stamp on. The puppy will not know what your house rules are, where it’s meant to toilet, which objects it can chew on or tear apart, where it’s supposed to sleep etc, unless you show him. This stage will pass soon enough.


Tomorrow: Part 2 – Adolescence, oh my!! 😄

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