The Best Dog in the World, How to Make One
(puppy stimulation)

By Mary Ann Rombold Zeigenfuse

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to get or better yet, produce, the best dog in the world? It can be done, and it begins at birth. From the first day of a dog’s life, we can offer certain elements to a dog’s environment and make a difference on how that dog turns out. A dog’s perception of the world is formed by her natural instincts and just as important, her experiences throughout her life.

We are going to look at the different periods in a dog’s life that contribute to the final outcome of what kind of dog we develop. By recognizing these periods and knowing what we should be doing during these periods, we will be able to make a better dog. This dog won’t be held back, keeping her from her full potential. We can build a dream dog from birth, making not only a healthier dog but a smarter dog too. This well socialized dog will be able to handle dog sports and competitions and be a better family pet. So as a breeder, you can start with each new litter and make better dogs to enhance your breed.

The different periods I refer to are called critical periods of development. A critical period is a specific time during a dog’s life when something that seems insignificant, makes a difference on how a dog will behave later in life. Age can mark the start and end of the critical periods, but there are also physical changes that mark them as well. The critical periods of development are the same for all breeds; so don’t worry if they fit into yours, because they do.

Neonatal Period (0-13 days) (first two weeks of life)

The first period is called the Neonatal Period. It is the first 2 weeks of life or up to 13 days. As breeders you know that life for puppies at this time is all about two things: eating and staying warm. The puppies eat and sleep. They can’t do anything for themselves. They need to be stimulated to urinate and defecate and they can’t see or hear yet. But they can smell which helps them find mom so they can eat. They can make noise too, which helps mom find them. Even though they do little, they do react to touch and move in random circles. Their motor skills aren’t quite developed yet.

What we need to be doing at this time, is offering the slightest amount of daily stress and stimulation to the puppies. This will help them to handle stress later in life. It is important to stimulate them in this way now, offering the enrichments to their development even at this early date.

Here is a list of things to do every day for the first two weeks of life:
1.) Hold each puppy in both hands, head higher than tail for only 3-5 seconds.
2.) Switch the puppy to the head lower than the tail for 3-5 seconds.
3.) Wet a towel, cool it in refrigerator, then place the puppy on the towel once it is removed from the fridge. The pup may squeal for just a second, so take it off again. Remember, we are offering slight amounts of stress for short intervals, just seconds, to introduce and build the ability to cope at this early age.
4.) Hold each puppy on it’s back and cradle it for a minute. Speak kindly and gently while you do this each day.
5.) Using a Q-tip, spread the pads of the feet and tickle the puppy between the toes.
6.) Place each pup on a cold scale once a day. You will be able to monitor the weight too, to make sure she is growing and keeping up with all the other puppies.
Remember to do this list every day for the most positive development during the neonatal period.

Transition Period (14-20 days) (3rd week of life)

We see a tremendous amount of change during this time of life. That is why this critical period is called the Transitional Period, the third week. The eyes open and begin to react to light, but they still can’t focus well. The puppies begin to actually crawl in a specific direction and even begin to walk but not gracefully. The teeth start to erupt near the end of this period and the puppies will begin to bite and chew on things. The most fun development at this point is that the tail will begin to wag. They can startle to noises as they begin to react to sounds, but their hearing is not yet developed enough to be able to find where the sound comes from. This period is called the transitional period because it is when the neonate transitions into a puppy with all the rapid physical changes.

The stimulations you need to do during this period are:

1.) Cut her toenails for the first time.
2.) Introduce her to strange objects, the crate for instance. Make it positive and fun, not a big deal. These objects are new and can be investigated in her own time frame.
3.) Take her to new areas in the house that have various flooring types, different visual stimulants, new rooms that she hasn’t been in yet. These rooms will have assorted furniture and therefore look different.
4.) Put on the table, bend and work her joints, do different exercise routines, like aerobics class.
5.) While on the table roll her onto her back and massage her all over. This is very good for her development and learning, to be touched all over while lying on her back.
Remember to do these things as often as possible during this third week of life, because you are creating the best new puppy in the world.

Awareness Period (21-28 days) (4th week of life)

This is the first week when the puppy is able to use all of her senses, including sight and hearing. Because the change in her sensory perceptions happens so abruptly, in only a 24-hour period, she needs a stable environment more now than during any other period. If puppies are weaned or moved to a new location at this time, it can psychologically scar them for life. Don’t be tempted to do it. It is now that they are becoming active, so plan ahead, by moving them before now. Take into account, this new activity level, by moving them into a bigger spot before the 21st day.

During this awareness period, learning begins. Teach them fun, positive things; make it a joy to learn. Do this by doing the following:

1.) Introduce obstacle, toys, little jumps, and tunnels to the play area. Enrich their environment by stimulating their minds and muscles by giving them things to play on.
2.) It is very important to balance these new stress periods with rest periods. Give them time to rest and re-energize. A healthy mind and body needs both. Don’t over stimulate the puppies; they need to know peace as well as excitement.

Canine Socialization Period (21-49 days) (3-7 weeks of age)

This if often considered the most important critical period. It is when the dog learns what it is to be a dog. To reach her genetic potential, the puppy must stay in the nest with her mother and littermates throughout this time.

During this period she will practice body postures, facial expressions and vocalizations with her littermates. She will learn what effects they have on her mates and which ones work best for different things. She will learn how it sounds to bark and to be barked at by the other pups. She will learn how to bite and the consequences of those bites, to be bitten in return.

She is learning what it is to be a dog:
1.) Chase games, similar to the chase that helped a pack of dogs to bring down prey for food
2.) Greeting behaviors, teaching body postures of greeting
3.) Fight games teach her the use of her body postures and facial expressions to elicit various responses. She will learn that submissive body postures can turn off the aggressions of her littermates.

Discipline is learned during the weaning process from her mother. When the pups bite the mom too hard during nursing, the discipline is swift, to the point and is over as quickly as it started. Inexperienced or first time breeders often misunderstand this learning process, and they will separate the mom from the puppies. This is extremely unfortunate since a lesson learned now, from the mother dog, is one that the puppy won’t have to be taught later by a new owner. Discipline will be understood and the puppy will know and accept leadership from the leader of the pack. Believe me, this is a lesson you want the puppy to have. If you separate the litter from mom too early, she won’t be able to set them up for this lesson. This is part of bite inhibition training. It is taught from mom and the puppies playing together. If you bite too hard, the consequence is that you will be bitten back.

If a dog can’t stay with mom and the litter up through the 7th week, they can end up being nervous dogs. These dogs will be more apt to bite, bark excessively and won’t accept discipline from its owner. A dog that leaves the litter too early can also end up being aggressive with other dogs. These dogs won’t be able to reach their genetic potential as a dog nor as a companion, all because it went to its new home before 49 days of life.

Human Socialization Period (7- 12 weeks)

Now is the best time to get a puppy or send one to her new home. It is also the best time to introduce her to those things that will play a role in her future life. If she is going to be a show dog, take her to dog shows. You always want the first exposure to a situation to be a fun, positive experience, so don’t go to win with her, go to socialize her. If she is going to be a firehouse dog, introduce her to sirens and big trucks and such things. If she is going to be a hunting dog, get some birds and shoot some guns, now is the time for all of these experiences to be introduced to your new puppy. If she is going to be a family dog, give her to a family with lots of kids to meet and play with. She will need to be introduced to all sorts of people during this critical period. This is the time when your new dog needs to bond with people. The people the dog bonds with don’t need to be the dog’s ultimate owner. But each dog needs to learn that people are part of their pack, not just dogs. If you sell two dogs from the same litter to one family, it is extremely important that they spend time, daily, with each puppy alone, not both puppies together. Also, if the litter stays with the breeder during this time, it is just as important that the puppies have individual time with people, in the absence of the other dogs. If littermates are always together, they will simply imprint on each other and never fully imprint with people. This needs to be done before 12 weeks of age. Once this time is gone, it is gone forever, and people will never be able to be as important to this dog as they could or should be. We need to look at life as a long hallway, and when your dog walks down this hallway, windows of opportunity are open only at certain times. Once these windows are passed, they close. You cannot go back and open a window. Make sure you allow your dog to have all her windows open at the right times.

Learning at this age is permanent, too. This is the most rapid period of learning. Start now while small and young and no bad habits are formed yet. Training should be positive and fun. Make training sessions short and happy.

During the 4 – 12 weeks age, the brain is actually growing. It needs nourishment such as food and water, but it also needs environmental stimulation. As the brain is stimulated, neurons are fired and the brain is washed with chemicals such as Nor-epinephrine (which excites) and Seritonin (which is needed for rest.) Brain buds, or folds are increased in the brain when an animal is stimulated and nourished. This actually accounts for a heavier brain and for a greater capacity for learning. If the brain buds are not formed now, they won’t develop later. This can also limit your dog’s potential.

Fear Impact Period (8-11 weeks)

During the Human Socialization period the puppy will go through a fear period. Any frightening or painful experience can have a lasting impact on the puppy. It may not be traumatic in your opinion, but it is the dog’s perception that matters. Be careful not to praise fear. As humans we tend to want to sooth a frightened puppy. Soothing words sound like praise to a dog. This will only confirm to the puppy that indeed this situation is frightening. You will be unintentionally teaching your dog to be afraid. This can happen on a trip to the veterinarians, or during a thunderstorm. Instead of trying to calm the dog, play with it; distract it; train it. Be matter of fact to the seemingly frightened puppy, let it realize there is nothing wrong. You aren’t worried, why should she be? Make life fun and positive and don’t force or dwell on anything that may concern the dog.

Seniority Classification Period (13-16 weeks)

This is when the testing begins for the puppy. She will want to see for herself who is in charge here? Who is the pack leader? If there is no clear top dog, she will decide to take over. Any attempt to bite is an attempt to dominate and should be dealt with as such. Formal obedience training needs to begin, if it hasn’t already. You need to be giving a clear consistent picture of who is the leader and in case you aren’t sure, it is you. Now is the time to do leadership exercises, ones that the dog can understand easily. Teaching your dog to down on command, walk on a leash and come when called are all part of leadership. If it were as simple as sitting down with your dog and discussing leadership, training would be so much easier. But with dogs, basic training simply works; sit; down; stay; heel. Why? Because “I” make the decisions and “I” say let’s do this now. Make your training fun and do it in a positive manner, but be consistent and clear about you being the leader of the pack.

By being aware of these different critical periods and handling each one as you should, you can develop the top prize winning dog you may have always wanted. You can have that high flying obedience dog, the winning agility dog, the sought after field dog and produce the best pet in town. You want dogs you can be proud of no matter what they set out to achieve. You want a dog that can “Reach her full Potential.” Remember a dog’s perception of the world is formed by her natural instincts and just as important, her experiences throughout her life. Let us make those experiences Positive and Plentiful!!

Mary Ann Zeigenfuse is the author of Dog Tricks, Step-by-Step Macmillan Publishing. She is also a Volhard Staff Instructor of the Volhard Motivational Method. For more information about this topic and the Volhard Motivational Method, see Dog Training for Dummies by Jack and Wendy Volhard, IDG Books.

Reference material: The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior by Clarence Pfaffenberger, Howell Book House; Teaching Dog Obedience Classes by Joachim Volhard and Gail Fischer, Howell Book House; Dog Training for Dummies by Jack and Wendy Volhard, IDG Books.

(Permission was granted to reprint material from PEDIGREE BREEDER FORUM, Volume 11, Issue #1, The Best Dog in the World, How to Make One by Mary Ann Zeigenfuse, published by MASTERFOODS, INC., Vernon, CA)

Return to General Articles