The following is an article written by Kate Fulkerson, Ph.D. who is a psychologist, breeds Labrador Retrievers, rehabilitates troubled dogs, and teaches about dogs at Duke University Continuing Studies. Permission to reprint the article was obtained from the author.
By Kate Fulkerson, Ph.D.
In l964 Richard Wolters heralded science-based training for puppies. After studying pioneering research by Dr. J. Paul Scott, Wolters proclaimed that “a puppy should be taken home and started in his training at the exact age of 49 days.” Forty years later Darlene Arden reached quite another conclusion from Scott’s work. In her Book of Wellness and Prevention for Dogs, Arden confidently asserted that “no puppy should leave its mother and littermates before twelve weeks of age.” How could two thoughtful people reach such different interpretations from the same research?
In the l950’s, when Wolters began writing the books that would change sporting-dog training, puppy rearing was heavily influenced by techniques for taming wolves. Dog puppies were routinely placed at 5 to 6 weeks old. Few puppies received socialization training from the breeder, and more dogs lived outdoors. Wolters wanted to improve training for hunting dogs. Educated as a chemist, he looked to science to help him.
From Scott’s research, Wolters learned that distress of puppies when separated from their littermates peaked at 49 days. Puppies were especially distressed if moved to a new environment at the same time. Wolters also learned that the most effective time to introduce retrieving and house training began at about 7 weeks. Wolters reasoned that distressed 7-week-old puppies would look to their new human owner for comfort and would respond to training at a particularly impressionable age.
Although Wolters acted as a bell-wether for breeders, not all puppies responded as hoped to the 7-week placement. Distress at leaving their original canine family sometimes resulted in adult separation anxiety. Spending less time with littermates sometimes yielded difficulties relating to other dogs. Yet Wolters can hardly be faulted. His conclusions emerged logically from available research, and he demanded that breeders do more for their puppies than earlier generations had done. Four decades of dedicated breeders recognized his contribution.
As problems with 7-week placements surfaced, cultural conditions were also changing. Fewer puppies needed hunting training because fewer people hunted with dogs. More puppies were crated long hours while humans worked long hours. More puppies had to deal with dramatic increases in canine populations. More puppies lived stressful lives with humans indoors.
Oddly enough, the research Wolters consulted held a rationale for later puppy placements -i.e., Scott had found puppies naturally left their littermates at between 12 to 14 weeks of age. As part of Arden’s research, the Angell Memorial Animal Hospital Wellness Program confirmed that adequate canine socialization required more time than 7 weeks with the litter and with the breeder.
In response to changing ideas and new interpretations of research, some breeders have been placing puppies at 8 weeks old. Many toy dog breeders have embraced keeping litters intact even longer. So many breeders have heeded these ideas that placing very young, unsocialized puppies has become a hallmark of puppy mills. Some states have even enacted laws prohibiting the sale of puppies younger than 8 weeks old.
Arden and Wolters may not be as different as appears at first blush. Both used science to improve puppy rearing. Arden merely updates Wolters for the 21st century.