In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had influences from two directions that have caused me to consider the age at which dogs are separated from their litter and mom.
I’m not a dog owner, and I’ve never seen puppies mature first-hand, so this post is hypothetical and based on theoretical reasoning rather than observation. I’m counting on you, my reader, to let me know if I’m off track!
But since I’ve found myself returning over and over to this nagging idea, this post has been begging to get written.
Influence number one:
I’ve been reading up on the effects of social isolation and the quality of caregiving during infancy on animals’ future behaviour, personality and wellbeing.
Depressing, I know, but important.
Here’s what I found interesting:
- Extended early social separation has potentially huge influences on later development, social skills, stress sensitivity and whatnot in social species.
- Less-than-optimal care may have huge effects too.
For instance, rats that have been well mothered (licked and groomed) grow up a lot less stress sensitive than their unfortunate neglected comrades. So, although the latter group remained with mom, the quality of care influenced later stress sensitivity.
Monkeys reared without mothers but with extensive contact with other young monkeys develop normal social behavioural repertoires and function well in familiar and stable social settings. But these animals display extreme behavioural and physiological reactions to environmental challenges, such as brief social separations, later in life. If reared by foster mothers, they appear to develop effective strategies for coping with later environmental challenges.
So, it seems that in animals as diverse as monkeys and rats, having a competent parent nearby during crucial developmental periods is important. The same goes for humans, but let’s not go there today… Relying simply on constant companionship and play is not enough.
When challenged by stressful events, animals who have not grown up with a competent caretaker don’t cope well.
What about dogs, then?
Well, studies have shown that the early environment of dogs have long-lasting effects on their behaviour and coping styles in a stressful test situation.
Surprisingly, research about maternal care and maternal behaviour is rather lacking in dogs, but one recent Finnish study found that the largest explanatory factors associated with fearfulness was the quality of maternal care (as estimated by owners) and the amount of socialization during puppyhood.
In dogs, being separated from mom and siblings at 4-5 weeks and kept in partial isolation for 1 week leads to behavioural abnormalities such as hyperactivity.
So, at that age, separation is problematic. That’s not surprising, and perhaps an irrelevant comparison since that’s a highly atypical situation.
In one review on the impact of mother-infant bonds on later social development, it was suggested that the period of 6-8 weeks after birth is the peak of the “sensitive period” in dogs, and that maternal separation of puppies around this period may increase the chances of developing behavioural problems in adulthood.
Hmm. Isn’t that about when they’re typically sold? If 8 weeks is still at the peak of the sensitive period, that suggests a potential problem.
What about if the puppy was instead homed at 10 weeks? 12 weeks? 6 months?
At some point in a puppy’s life, the effect of separation from mom and siblings go from “wow, such an early separation could really influence later social skill sets and stress sensitivity” to “the pup is now old enough so another week with mom wouldn’t make a difference”.
When does that switch occur? When is the impact of separation on future stress sensitivity no longer an issue?
At this point I think we need to know how dogs would behave if they could choose rather than being exposed to current socialization/separation/homing practices. So, how do free-living dogs behave?
Dog mothers nurse their young for 5-10 weeks. Free-living dogs have been observed regurgitating for 10-week-old pups, although this is apparently rare. Free-living puppies start travelling independently for food collection around 10-11 weeks.
In puppies raised normally, at 7 weeks the dam shows more aggression and fewer care-giving behaviours, and the puppies more care-seeking and contact-seeking behaviour.
So, even though the female may start indicating that she’s done nursing, the puppies are simultaneously signaling that they disagree: this is a classic parent-offspring conflict.
I’m sure that every ethologist reading this would be nodding in agreement: when it comes to parental investment, most mammal species arrive at a point where mom says “that’s it, I’m done. I’m no longer serving free dinner, I’m saving that energy for the next brood” and the offspring responds with “WHAT!!! I’m not ready yet!! I have no idea how to fend for myself!!!”
They may not be quite so eloquent. Monkeys throw tantrums, as in this short clip.
Monkeys, again? Seriously, Karolina?
Well, I’m not a dog expert – I’m a primate person. So, if I keep gravitating to monkeys, you now know why.
Do puppies throw tantrums when separated? No idea. In order not to pester my dog expert friends with ignorant questions, I head over to the internet and find a youtube video with the caption:
“Our puppy likes to throw temper tantrums when we’ve been away for the day. This is the result. Enjoy!”
Puppy temper tantrums are apparently considered cute, something to laugh at. To me, it’s possibly the equivalent of a parent-offspring conflict translating “I’m not ready for this change!!”
To me, it’s a potential warning sign. When in the natural context, the tantrumming (is that even a word?) juvenile monkey is still in his group. Sometimes the display pays off, mom allows a short nursing bout. Sometimes someone will start playing or grooming. Sometimes the unfortunate juveniles may just sulk for a while – but they’re still in their familiar social context. They’re not alone. Social animals typically stay in the group they were born until sexual maturation. Then one gender packs up and leaves. Or both.
But we don’t leave puppies in their social context. We separate them, typically at 8 weeks (7 in some places, I’m told).
A complete change of social context, during a period when they’re the most sensitive, need maternal support to develop normally, and when they signal “I’m not ready!”
I hear warning bells.
But hey, I’m not a dog person. Do they take it in stride or is there any data indicating that dogs are at all fazed by maternal separation at 7-8 weeks?
We’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s explore another train of thought.
Influence number two:
At the same time as I was assimilating info on effects of separation and neglect, I was asked to proof-read an article on separation-related problem behaviour in dogs, by a friend who’s finishing her Master’s.
I learned a lot and it’s a pleasure having a complex topic served on a silver platter. Thanks, Eva Bertilsson!
For instance, I learned that separation-related problem behaviour in dogs is not a small problem.
Home-alone behaviour problems is a HUGE problem affecting up to half the dog population at some point in their lives, and about one in six dogs on a regular basis.
Barking, whining, howling, peeing, scratching, digging, chewing, pacing, circling, vomiting, diarrhea.
Some dogs may just whine for a while and then go lie down. Other dogs may jump through windows or mutilate themselves by chewing.
You know where I’m going with this.
I think dogs are fazed by being sold at 7-8 weeks.
I’m thinking that these problems could potentially be linked to premature separation of dogs from their mother. And that, despite our best intentions, it might be difficult to provide what the young pooch needs during those initial crucial weeks as a puppy owner.
The power of predispositions
Being separated from the litter before the age of two months leads to a higher incidence of later home-alone problem behaviour. As far as I know, no comparison has been made with later separations – that would be very interesting.
Five out of six dogs don’t develop regular separation-related problem behaviour, so one may think that if the problem were caused by premature separations it would be more wide spread.
That could be. Or, it could be that the premature separation predisposes some animals to a heightened sensitivity to stressful events.
Trigger stacking is a useful concept when understanding fear-related behaviour, and it seems reasonable that it might help us understand separation-related problem behaviour too.
If that is the case, here are some predictions:
In the absence of triggers, or below a certain threshold, the predisposition involving increased stress sensitivity may never show. The dog doesn’t show problem behaviour when home alone.
With an unfortunate combination of triggers, the problem might surface. The dog destroys furniture when home alone.
Some documented triggers that have caused dogs to start showing separation-related problem behaviour are changes in the daily routine, such as acquiring a new human member, or changing jobs. Sudden stressors such as exposure to high noises or intruders may also trigger the onset of home-alone behaviour problems.
I’m thinking that the sole trigger of being alone (or separated from the Significant Person) may for some animals be enough to prompt separation-related behaviours. For others, it could be when other triggers are present besides being alone that such behaviours surface. And for some, they won’t show any such behaviours regardless of what happens.
What I’m proposing here is that premature separation might shift this balance so that the proportion of animals “not showing behaviour problems regardless” amounts to roughly half the dog population. If brain development has been disturbed by suboptimal rearing conditions, then animals will be predisposed to not dealing too well with stress.
Dogs have been selectively bred by humans and many aspects of behaviour has changed during the process of domestication. Wolves have been seen regurgitating for year-old pups perfectly capable of securing their own food. The modern dog population hardly regurgitates at all; apparently it used to be a common phenomenon just 100 years ago – but that’s a different story. Also, they obtain independence (as in travelling independently) far earlier than their lupine cousins.
This means that we can’t compare dogs with wolves or other canids to understand and make useful predictions about when the optimum time for permanent separation from litter mates and mom would be.
To the best of my understanding, nobody has examined the incidence of home-alone problem behaviour for puppies remaining with mom for another couple of weeks. I know this would be problematic and perhaps unfeasible: those precious weeks are considered necessary for the puppy to attach to his new owner, get used to a bunch of new situations and so on. Indeed, delayed homing has been associated with increased aggression and avoidance, so there might be a cost to be paid for later homing – unless you mitigated that cost (keep reading to see how).
Here’s an interesting twist.
Kittens’ critical window for socialization occurs at 2-7 weeks, and puppies’ is both more extended and starts later, from 3-12 weeks. Judging from those data, kittens would be expected to be “ready” to leave mom and enter a new family earlier than dogs.
And here’s where it gets really intriguing.
In my country kittens are sold at 12 weeks.
Puppies at 8 weeks.
What? Didn’t I just say that we expected it to be the other way around?
Indeed. One of those interesting weird norms that permeate our culture. Let’s sell kittens well after they’re through that sensitive period, and let’s sell puppies smack in the middle of it all.
In fact, a recent study showed that kittens homed at 14 weeks developed fewer behavioural problems than kittens homed at 12 weeks, which suggests that the time for weaning and homing should be carefully considered from many perpectives.
In the literature examining the home-alone problem behaviour phenomenon, the quality of the attachment bond between owner and dog has been studied. As far as I can tell, no one has looked at the most important bond for the young puppy, that with the mother. There are vast implications of premature separation on brain organization, and this may prime the animal for later stress sensitivity.
Prevention of separation-related problem behaviour
Home-alone problem behaviour, or separation anxiety, is an important concern in dogs, and I discuss ways of diminishing those problems in this interview with Eva Bertilsson.
But how could we potentially prevent those problems?
An untested and unappealing hypothesis, but I’ll throw it out there anyway: try allowing a few more weeks with mom.
Yes, I realize that we might be creating other problems, such as a dog that’s not so terribly interested in people. In fact, previous studies have found dogs who were homed after 8 weeks were more aggressive and showed avoidance behaviour, too.
I’m thinking that might be an easier problem to solve, though? Perhaps puppies could be left at the breeders’ and still allowed to form the crucial attachment to future owners. Owners could visit and spend a minimum of 90 minutes with their puppy (enough to form dog-human attachment, according to one study).
Dog breeders would need to take a bigger responsibility for dog socialization, just like cat breeders, to prevent later aggression and avoidance.
That hasn’t been tested, as far as I know.
Strategies that have been tested and found useful in reducing home-alone problem behaviour may include playing games, non-punitive obedience training (that is, training without using punishment), stable household routines, and a lot of daily exercise.
Dogs exposed to a broad experience of different environments and people between the ages of 5-10 months are also at a lower risk.
Looking at the types of interventions that have proven efficient in preventing the onset of home-alone problem behaviour, it seems they fall into two categories:
- They improve coping mechanisms by giving the animal control in other situations
- They help reduce the number of potential triggers
I think staying with mom for another couple of weeks would do the same. A reduced stress-sensitivity thanks to a more stable brain organization would imply both better coping and fewer triggers.
Yes, I know I’m grossly over-simplifying home-alone behaviour problems.
Besides, early weaning probably won’t explain every case of separation anxiety; potential factors that could intensify the situation is that the animal may be rewarded by the owner returning, so any ongoing or preceding behaviours that occurred before the reunion may be strengthened by reinforcement. Some problematic behaviours may be functionally unrelated to the separation or confinement, such as exploration, play, or territorial displays.
The issue of premature separation of puppies from their moms and siblings is a stone unturned in understanding the problem of home-alone problem behaviour.
So I just turned it.
And though I uncovered a few unattractive squirmy bugs, we might learn something. Take a moment to allow the bugs to burrow again (get over the “impossible! Would my puppy ever love me!?” gut reaction), and then take a closer look at this idea. After all, if you’ve read this far, you probably know dogs a lot better than me.
You’ll tell me where I went wrong.
ps. Some of my dog-savvy friends pointed out that this post may come across as if I meant the following:
- If you can prevent the problem behaviour, then leaving your dog alone for many hours on end is not a potential welfare concern
- If your dog is alone for many hours on end and not showing problem behaviour, he’s not suffering
Sorry, that wasn’t ever my intention. Being a scientist, I tend to get hooked on the nerdy details. My intention was to communicate this:
- I think the separation-related problem behaviour to some extent can be explained by premature maternal separation: the puppies’ brain organization is disturbed.
To which I should add:
- Housing social animals (any species!) alone for many hours a day is a potential welfare problem, and not in their best interest.
Thanks, EM and Eva! 🙂
Oh, for those horse people who are still reading: researchers are beginning to question the traditional weaning of foals (a stressful event taking place at four to seven months) and suggesting that we look into more natural weaning patterns (at nine-ten months)…
Clearly, this is something we should examine in all species where we humans jump in and arbitrarily decide when it’s time to separate youngsters from their moms.
I give online courses about how to get happy animals that are reasonably well behaved and thrive with people. Want to be notified whenever that happens? Sign up below, and I’ll also keep you posted on whenever I offer a free learning opportunities such as masterclasses, webinars or mini-courses – or when I publish new blog posts!
Ahola et al. (2017). Early weaning increases aggression and stereotypic behaviour in cats.
Agrawal et al. (1967). Neurochemical and behavioral effects of isolation-rearing in the dog.
Bertilsson (2016). Separation-related behavior problems in dogs – a literature review. (Master thesis).
Foyer et al. (2013). Early experiences modulate stress coping in a population of German shepherd dogs.
Henry et al. (2020). Domestic Foal Weaning: Need for Re-Thinking Breeding Practices?
Jokinen et al. (2017). Homing age influences the prevalence of aggressive and avoidance-related behaviour in adult dogs.
Lord (2013). A Comparison of the Sensory Development of Wolves (Canis lupus lupus) and Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris).
Malm & Jensen (1993). Regurgitation as a weaning strategy: a selective review on an old subject in a new light.
Malm & Jensen (1997). Weaning and Parent‐Offspring Conflict in the Domestic Dog.
Mogi et al. (2011). Developmental consequences and biological significance of mother–infant bonding
Pal (2008). Maturation and development of social behaviour during early ontogeny in free-ranging dog puppies in West Bengal, India
Pierantoni et al. (2011). Prevalence of owner-reported behaviours in dogs separated from the litter at two different ages.
Suomi (1991). Early stress and adult emotional reactivity in rhesus monkeys.
Tiira & Lohi (2015). Early Life Experiences and Exercise Associate with Canine Anxieties.
Weaver et al. (2004). Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior.
60 Replies to “Are dogs separated from mom too early?”
Thank you for this read. As an Finnish person who has been in rescue work I’ve always been puzzled why it’s been 12-14 weeks for cats and 6-8 weeks for dogs. I agree with you personally.
Then again, I know nothing about dog breeding.
I hope there’s going to be new data about this subject soon! And that said – I hope if the data is provided and suggests that longer is, in fact, better, the world is ready for it.
I see too many cases of cats who have been separated far too early (4-8 weeks old) and there really is a myriad of behavioral challenges. Despite those people still separate kitties from their mothers too early. Even, if it’s scientifically backed up and shown everywhere here.
We need the data, for sure! 🙂
“one recent Finnish study found that the largest explanatory factors associated with fearfulness was the quality of maternal care (as estimated by owners) and the amount of socialization during puppyhood. In dogs, being separated from mom and siblings at 4-5 weeks and kept in partial isolation for 1 week leads to behavioural abnormalities such as hyperactivity.”
Can you please let me know which study this is? This is very interesting for me because I see a lot of dogs with hyperactivity and al lot of dogs from puppy mills.
This really confused me for a while until I realized that it’s actually two different bodies of text.
The Finnish study is the Tiira and Lohi one: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0141907
The paragraph about separation at 4-5 weeks is from Chapter 4 in Scott/Fuller’s Genetics and the Social Behaviour of the Dog.
Just to provide some insight as a dog person and breeder, I used to place my puppies at 7 weeks of age. This was back in the 90’s. That’s what was routinely recommended. Then I think it was Dr Karen Overall that recommended keeping pups until 10 weeks of age. So I thought I would give it a try, even though that meant so much more work.
When I used to get numerous calls from frazzled owners during the weeks that followed the arrival of their new puppies, this stopped occurring with the first litter not released until 10 weeks of age. I had to call the new owners, and ask for updates!
Initially the common complaints were involving inappropriate puppy biting, difficulty with confinement training, and inappropriate house soiling. Keeping the puppies an additional 2 weeks made a HUGE difference.
Owners told me it was like the puppy had always lived with them. No complaints about hard bites, they felt the pups were already potty trained(!?), and none showed anxiety when confined.
I’ve kept every litter until 10 weeks now, for the past 20 years or so. Yes it’s a huge amount of work, but so worth it to provide families with puppies that have a seamless transition to their new homes. Pups have amazing bite inhibition, they are confident, and have wonderful seeking skills!
As a dog trainer full time now, it’s so disheartening to work with families who have usually obtained puppies from producers aiming to make a huge profit selling puppies. Puppies that aren’t socialized, are fearful, lack confidence etc.
Very few families do any real homework when planning on adding a puppy to the family. No wonder so many adolescent dogs end up being surrendered.
Thank you so much for sharing this! You’re pointing out other vital early life learning areas: bite inhibition and elimination. Personalities develop when genes interact with the environment; especially important in utero and those precious early weeks. More research needed, for sure!
This is my personal experience as owner and buyer, as well. The dog that stayed longest, for 12 weeks, at the breeder (who was a cross-breed breeder, which I’m mentioning because non-purebreed, non-kennel-club-members tends to get tons of flac – usually for being “ignorant and irresponsible”) “unfortunately” also grew up with his dad. I can’t know what was the biggest positive factor – two puppy parents or getting to stay with said parents until 12 weeks.
He also got an extensive list of all the foods he’d tried. He’s never had allergies, no fears or problem behaviours and training him was a dream. And he’s half Tibetan Spaniel! They notoriously do as they please. He felt exactly as you describe, like he’d been with us all along. We only had night-accidents because he doesn’t like waking us.
I’m expecting my first dog that only gets 8 weeks with mom next week, and honestly I’m really worried. Our most recent dog before him got 9 and is the only one we’ve had in my 30-year lifespan who freaks out about being alone.
(We only ever leave him humanless for 1-3 hours. Once a week, with rare exceptions. With ice cream bribes and bringing him along if he follows over eating the bribe, it’s gotten better. (As in – it’s fine if we’re back under 2 hours, past that means increased chance of destruction per minute.) But the car really only brings him closer to us, so we can check in more often – he’s just as willing to shred that if he feels like we need guarding. I really hope having a dog friend will help, if not I’m switching my weekly appointment to video call permanently even after puppy is ready to be alone.)
Thanks for sharing your story, Linnea! It’s a good idea to keep an eye on that Sepration-related behaviour, those things tend to get worse over time sadly – but there’s help to be had! I did an interview that you might find interesting: https://illis.se/en/separation-anxiety/
Thanks for an interesting read, as always. I believe it’s problematic to lump weaning, separation and socialization, when they don’t have to occur simultaneously (and in many cases shouldn’t).
I’ve been breeding sniffer dogs since 1999, and effective socialization is a critical priority, before and after rehoming. Even after the socialization window closes at approx. 16 weeks (which date depends on the individual puppy, since guidelines are only an average), I help puppy owners to continue positive experiences to people, places, sounds, training, play with appropriate dogs, etc.
For weaning time, I give the dam and the puppies the choice. Some pups and mothers nurse till 16 weeks. In other litters, the puppies climb out of the whelping box and jump into mom’s food bowl (of puppy food) and the dam avoids nursing at 5 weeks. Solid food at 5 weeks feels uncomfortable for me, but I give them a choice. A good thing about adding solid food to the puppies’ diet is that I can use food (and toys) to clicker train them. It’s not practical to use nursing for clicker training.
But, even when puppies are weaned earlier than I’d like, for the reasons you’ve outlined, I’d never separate the puppies from their litter or mother or rehome before 8-16 weeks. For separation/rehoming, the individual puppy is my guide. I recommend that some puppies stay with their litter longer e.g. 16 weeks, when they appear to need additional help. Again, effective socialization and maternal care continue to be priorities. But even during our socialization protocols, I look for triggers, and deal with them via counter-conditioning and desensitization. What exactly that looks like is determined by each unique, individual puppy.
Guidelines are helpful, and so is allowing dogs to exercise healthy choices. Please keep sharing the data.
Dr. Carla Simon, MD, BSc, MBA
Great point Carla about not lumping weaning, separation and socialization – and the importance of taking note of individual differences! Thanks so much for sharing your experience!
I agree that many puppies are separated too early. I’m getting a Cairn Terrier puppy between Dec 5 and 12, depending upon which of two litters the puppy is from. My breeder does not send puppies home before 12 weeks. She follows a puppy raising program called Puppy Culture. By keeping the puppies that long, she undertakes a program of socialization starting at 4 weeks to do her best to ensure that the puppies she raises are well socialized enrichment seekers but have also been taught to be alone and that alone is not the same as abandoned.
Woohoo, wonderful! 🙂
“Perhaps puppies could be left at the breeders’ and still allowed to form the crucial attachment to future owners. Owners could visit and spend a minimum of 90 minutes with their puppy (enough to form dog-human attachment, according to one study).”
This is exactly the experience my puppy and I had. The breeder was wonderful, opening her home for me to visit regularly throughout the litter’s rearing. From 5 weeks old I started simple hand targeting with him, washed him, fed him, fussed him etc… as the bitch gradually reduced her interest in him I was able to step into the breach and take over. But I didn’t actually take him home until 10 weeks.
I know this is purely anecdotal and there are many other variables at play (such as the parents having excellent calm and confident temperaments) but I now have a calm and chilled out 18 month old who loves company (anybody’s company) but is fine on his own for a couple of hours.
I definitely hope that this is something breeder’s start to consider.
Wow, so great to hear that you actually had the opportunity of trying that out! For one, I’m thinking that the potential trauma of moving is very much reduced if a bond has already been established! Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Interesting topic! I guess it is quite difficult to separate all different factors that may be involved. But to me it seems that the first article referring to dogs mentioned, Tiira and Lohi (2015), point in different direction compared to your line of argumentation, ie that pups separated later (after 7-8 weeks I assume given that the study is Finnish) were more prone to SA (according to table 4 and 5 and associated text in the article). But I guess this could also be an effect of breeder, ie less experienced, less engaged and/or less picky about breeding stock have a harder time finding homes for the pups, or eg an effect of variability within litter with pups more prone to behavioural issues staying later with the breeder. Or me misinterpreting the article by Tiira and Lohi. It would be interesting to see additional research addressing this issue!
Realised now that I probably misinterpreted “Age of arrival” as separated from dam, but I guess it means age of rehoming.
Additional research would indeed be welcome! I’m thinking a LOT of responsibility rests on the breeder since the sensitive developmental window will occur during that time. So those extra weeks wouldn’t just be with mom and siblings, but also getting used to more or less everything that might be expected to occur later in life, including crating, travel, people and other social stimuli, visual stimuli, sounds, noises, textures and handling, and alone-time. All of these would need to be done slowly and gradually, and associated with positive emotional states, in order to minimize the risk of flooding and overwhelm. So it’s a trade off between the need for socialization, and the need for more mom-time. I think both should be possible.
I have dogs I am training and I have done feline rescue for years including bottle babies and TNR. So I’m multi spieces and this research is long overdue. I can’t tell you how many kittens are spoiled (in a bad way) by either being removed from a viable mother no matter how feral and given over to human parents or allowed to grow up as a singleton. It’s a behaviorist’s bread and butter.
My dogs came from the same breeder just 5 years apart. The first poodle is a great dog, the breeder had kept him and his brother with the rest of their relatives until past 12 weeks. He had strong bonds with all his dog family.
The second dog (same breeder) came to me as a 8-9 week puppy. He had been left at a kennel before I got him. On pick up he was already shakey and was showing signs of separation anxiety right away. We started positive training and socialization right off the bat. I’m a 100 People/100 Places person. He spent many multi day stays with a behaviorist. Now over 16 months is on Clomicalm and Trazodone, uses a Calming Cap and AKC Calming Coat. I hope that the 2 year mark when poodles traditionally calm down will provide us some relief along with 24 month neutering.
From my cat experience I know that just because kittens are weened kitten school is still in session. They learn how to talk to other cats via complicated body language so they can get along with other cats, bite inhabition, good grooming. Positive/adjusted /confidant cats have fewer litter box issue, get along with other cats and other species and handle change much better. There is no reason to believe other spieces do not need this development time.
Breeders, new owners, rescue people who handle puppies and kittens and those of us who handle litters or singleton orphans should do right by these beings. Same spieces Moms, aunts, select males should be allowed to spend time with orphans of their own spieces. There is so much humans can not teach to these beings that they need to learn for healthy development.
“kitten school is still in session” – such a great expression! Hopefully things are changing, if perhaps slowly!
Just another anecdotal experience, I have a rescue that was 4 weeks when I found her, has fear of many things, loud noises especially and hypothyroidism and aggression issues. She is 13yrs old.
Now that I have more knowledge, I have fostered a few pregnant momma dogs, I did everything I could to make momma dogs feel comfortable stress free. The pups all got to listen to thunderstorms, city sounds, gunshots etc daily, I would make sure they got to experience different substrates, smells etc. took them out in pairs to various places, meeting people, children and other dogs. I wouldn’t let anyone adopt until they spent time with them and they began to get adopted at 10weeks, some staying till 20 weeks waiting for the right home/person. All of the puppies I have raised are reported to be fabulous and confident, some continuing to experience the world and traveling as far as Germany and Bahamas. I turkey feel it’s because they We’re raised in a stress free, knowledgeable home. I work with many private clients who have purchased dogs at 6 weeks old!!! I also run classes at a big box pet store and help out a mobile vaccination clinic and 6 weeks is becoming scarily normal. People need to be aware also that puppies learn “bite inhibition” and appropriate play behaviors during that important time with litter mates and mom. I also believe and research is now showing that diet plays a huge part in behavior. Love your work. Thank you for making me smile and nod.
So glad you enjoy what I do – and it’s always good to get some practical perspectives since my own are basically theoretical. Sounds like a great environment you’re offering to your puppies!! 🙂
We have bred a few litters of large breed dogs, we keep the puppies here with their mother and our other dogs until they are at least 12 weeks. They are socialised by taking them out in ones or twos with one or two of our other dogs (other than their mother). The mother chooses to go in and play with the puppies often, but lets the puppies know when she doesn’t want them to feed any more. The older dogs tell the puppies when they have had enough, our breed rarely growl, but the adults will teeth click and if the puppies still don’t listen, they will take hold of the pups muzzle and hold it, the pup then usually will stop the behaviour and calm down.
One thing that has to be taken into consideration in all of this, is that the puppies themselves, within the same litter may have very different temperaments, some are naturally more soft and loving, others are more independent and some are more confidant than others, they do not all come out the same ready to be shaped.
We see most of our puppies with their new owners at dog shows, all are happy and well adjusted and remember us.
With the ones that stay with us, their mother stays interested in them and will sometimes tell one of our other dogs off if she doesn’t think that they should play with the pups. They often catch mice and voles when we are out walking, the mothers would let the youngsters steal the prize until the pups were around 5-7 months old, then they would not let them have it!
I had my current dog stay with the breeder until the age of 4 months. He developed separation anxiety. We worked on this so it is manageable now. However, he also developed aggression towards dogs and avoidance to people. Plus he is very shy overall and easily spooked by both noises and various objects (has been since the day we got him). He seemed like a normal, happy and curious puppy when I went to see him once (he was 2 months old at that time). And I know the breeder did socialize the puppy with dogs she knew were safe and she did socialize him with a lot of people (she took her litter to a senior house couple of times to spread that puppy joy).
I had 4 other dogs before him, all of them taken at the age of 2 months and they all ended up very social and confident dogs. I do not think that I raised this dog that much differently from the previous ones.
I know this is not big enough data sample to be able to conclude anything out of it. But so far from my perspective that theory doesn’t hold up. I got separation anxiety, avoidance and aggression. And honestly, I personally find that separation anxiety is an easier thing to deal with than aggression and avoidance. I dealt with separation anxiety by controlling the dog’s environment and with a bit of training. But I personally find it very hard and mentally challenging to deal with my dog’s aggression and fear. You cannot control strangers on the streets, you cannot control their dogs, you cannot control the unsupervised kids that run towards your dog screaming “Puppy!”, the yelling drunks going about the streets on those weekend nights, honking cars, rolling trash and forgotten objects laying in your path that your dog is scared of to death.
I will not go into the depressive details of how my dog reacts to all those triggers and the consequences it has on his health. But I will say this – from my perspective, even if taking the puppy away at the age of 2 months is risking the development of separation anxiety, it is much more worth it than increased risk of aggression and avoidance in the dog. I am sorry if that sounds harsh.
Thanks for sharing your experience! I can understand how that makes you hesitant… however there is always variability which is why a greater sample size (with enough statistical power to actually be able to find a statistical difference if there is one) is needed. Until then, it’s hard to know whether your experience was an outlier or representative of the “norm”.
Furthermore, I think the arguments made in the paper below on disruption of natural social context and trauma (and the same arbitrary killing scenarios exist in the Middle East) apply even when the disruption occurs by other means. I think the “problematic” behaviour we see in our captive population can largely be explained by looking at the myriad ways we disrupt the natural order. It’s a very long discussion, really, but just put a few bits down here for consideration.
One thing to consider might be “mothering skill”. That is a skill that partly relies on learning in many species – not sure how well studied it is in dogs. If mom herself was separated at 8 weeks, she has hardly had the occasion of observing (and thus learning from) a full mothering repertoire…
I lived alongside indigenous, free-living dogs in the Middle East for 7 years. I agree with you, and with your proposed solution and would add only that they should be left not just with the mother, but with a pack. Their social skills depend on witnessing and participating in cohesive group activities. In the family packs, the adults of both sexes all participate in protecting, nurturing and disciplining puppies. I think that helps them generalize the rules of appropriate social interaction. There are so many levels to this argument that it is impossible to cover them all here.
Good point about the importance of learning social behaviour from all ages! 🙂
Oh, I’d missed that one, thanks! 🙂
Another factor is the use of ‘Guardian Family’ kept brood bitches, who are already stressed from essentially being re-homed in the height of their vulnerability – right before they are to whelp their puppies.
The brood bitch is then transferring their inevitable anxiety to their puppies, both in utero as well as after on the ground. As a Dog Trainer in an area where Designer Dogs are extremely popular I have seen a huge increase in anxious, high-strung and skittish dogs who were raised this way- usually for many generations back. They are usually placed at or before 8 weeks, sometimes having been spayed or neutered already!
Please investigate and write about this detrimental, profit driven practice! The puppy-buying public needs to be made more aware of this scam, that benefits the Producers, only, as they can breed many more litters than Breeders that keep a smaller number of brood bitches on site.
Oh. The things people come up with… sounds like a spectacularly bad idea!
I have a differing opinion & believe puppies are better off going home between 6-8 weeks IF the new home is prepared to socialize them properly. I’ve owened/trained a lot of dogs. Some I bred, some I purchased to do specific events, some I bought as babies to train & then sell to do specific jobs.
Of the many dogs I”ve had over the past 20+ years which I brought home at 6-8 wks exactly 0 have had any major behavior problems.. They were so “easy” in comparison to those I obtained later. As pup’s they were easier to crate/potty train, far easier to introduce to training & novel situations. As adult dogs they were far more handler/people focused vs dog oriented, they were far better at reading human body language & communicating with people. By contrast of the dogs I obtained at 4+ months some (I’d almost go so far as to say many) had problems….there were some who were fearful (of people/dogs/new things & some seemingly afraid of life itself), separation anxiety, fearful urination, dog & or human aggression. Not to mention the smaller issues like digging/fence jumping/being dirty in the crate etc. NONE of the dogs I obtained at 6-8 wks had any of those issues. They were various breeds & purpose bred mixes obtained from a variety of sources & none of them, not even one, had behavior issues. Either I got VERY lucky or something went right that I was doing by getting them so young.
Maybe it is what I specifically do with my puppies (I do a lot of training & socialization very young) OR maybe puppies at that age dogs are primed to learn & are clean slates that can be painted with either “good” or “bad” habits. Perhaps instead of staying with littermates & their dam (who wants VERY little to do with them once weaned) they instead learn to read & understand how to communicate with people as their “first language” vs other dogs.
Of course this is only my opinion based on my experience so YMMV
Thanks for sharing your experience! There are many factors that contribute to the development of personalities, and as you mention, more data is needed..! 🙂
We are just about to trial these theories.
From a assistance dog population of approximately 130-150 per annum.
Currently the pups are homes at 7-8 weeks of age. In our new trial they will be kept in the centre with their litter until 10-12 weeks of age. They will receive scheduled socialisation, in a variety of environments, exposed to a variety of people and situations and have access to either their mother for longer or a suitable role model at certain times of the day.
We are hoping to see better resilience in the pups, decrease in general anxiety.
I enjoyed reading your material.
Oh! Wow! Will you keep me posted on what you find? 🙂 Such very important research!
Yes, me too please. It sounds very interesting.
There is a huge population of dogs that are never sold or sent to families at 8 weeks of age. Racing Greyhounds remain with their moms until she chooses to wean them. I have seen greyhound farms where moms stay with their litters, even after weaning, until they are a year old and head off for race training. Greyhounds stay with their littermates at least until they go into race training at a year old too. The litter may stay together even at the track. The girls and the boys would be turned out separately there though. So the first time they are separated from their littermates may be when I get them after they retire from racing at 2-5 years old. I have been doing greyhound adoptions for 19 years now and separation anxiety in greyhounds is one of the most common problems we deal with. In the case of greyhounds, it is completely about never having learned how to be alone since they aren’t forcibly separated from their mothers or siblings at a young age. They have dogs around them all the time, and are never completely alone in their lives, until they get to adopters.
Interesting, wasn’t aware of these practices. Separation anxiety isn’t my area of expertise, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many different etiologies explaining that phenomenon: what you describe sounds like one such explanatory mechanism! (and I’m guessing, premature separation another…)
I have an other aspect/problem letting puppies go to their new homes too early and they are physical. I have learned a lot about a dogs immune system in the last few years. What I learned came from Dr. Jean Dodds and Dr. Ronald Schultz experts in immunology. They have done tests with dogs and found that if a puppy is immunized before 8 weeks it looses the immunity from the mother and also the vaccine given will not “hold”. In other words a puppy immunized before 8 weeks is not protected from distemper or parvo virus. Then at 12 and 16 weeks it is given a booster and there is no guarantee this vaccine will protect it. Of course a puppy going home at 8 weeks WILL be immunized before that. I got my puppy un immunized at 9 weeks, immunized at 10, got a booster at 16 weeks and titer tested at one year. The test came back that he had strong anti bodies. So it is not only crucial for puppies to stay with the mother for mental reasons, but also physical ones! This is my own observation but also proven by science (Dr. Dodds and Dr. Schultz!)
Thank you for all the interesting info!
hmmm… makes you sort of wonder what other effects early separation may have that we haven’t considered yet…?
A good read. I used to raise Airedale terriers (30+ years ago – I showed and competed in obedience trials and we hunted with our dogs)..(usually the litters were large…9-12 pups). I started offering additional food for the pups at the end of 4 weeks . Other than that I had nothing to do with the timing of weaning. The dam did that. She had the option of jumping over a minor barrier to go in with the pups or escape from the mob. There was lots more escape behavior by about 6 weeks and usually during the 7th week they were done, maybe a brief pause to let pups give it a try. The moms got way less tolerant of pup’s demands, only doing very short visiting (in-quick sniff-out in less than 10 seconds) during the 8th week and on. There was variance in the mom’s tolerance depending on her personality, one mom would boink pups with her front paws if they got in her way too much. The puppy play area was large, outside access, lots to do, but the mom dogs didn’t want to be in there…might check in if there was a rumpus with squealing or go see if all was well after a walk with me in the woods or see if any puppy food was left in pan. Even though I had reserved/arranged buyers, because of litter size, often pups were around longer than 8 weeks. The work load of socialization was extensive and people then viewed pups as less desirable, because by 11-12 weeks they were not as round and sweet…more leggy and fast. I never had any people who got them identify concerns around separation or aggression and I did keep in touch (although by phone or mail…not Internet). Now I don’t raise litters, during the 90s it became unfashionable and I was traveling too much for work, but I have always offered reward-based training (did Sirius puppy classes in 80s). It’s a new world for the last ?5-10 yrs…lots of separation anxiety (not just isolation distress), dog-to-dog aggression even in puppy classes – which is weird. This is different than it used to be, but the timing of the pups to owners has stayed the same, so I’m thinking other factors might be more influential – like who is raising pups, the quality of the dams, the knowledge base of the breeder, and sure, perhaps the timing adds a stacking point. However on that, currently it seems that breeders of small dogs in U.S. (who mature more quickly than large ones do) are more likely to keep their pups longer…to the 11-12 week time-frame. Just like the kitten rationale (or lack there of).
Interesting observation, so the problem of separation anxiety has escalated..? hmm…
Perhaps the dog-to-dog aggression even in puppy classes could have something to do with the fact that more litters are now bred at puppy farms to dams that have not had a chance to be properly socialised themselves, where years ago it was more pet dogs having puppies in households. Just a thought.
Not *just* a thought – a very important one! 🙂 The mothering skill and stress level of the dam is probably of crucial importance! 🙂
I think longer is better. Thru happenstance i adopted a mother 2 year old dog and her 8 week old puppy. Several years later they are best friends and the most well adjusted dogs i have ever had.
My bitch had all her pups with her for 12 weeks, and we kept one. She did not lose interest in the pup for a good six months and even now a year later, keeps an eye on her.
Interestingly, the pup spends most of the day playing with her father who clearly adores her.
I would have kept all of them together if I could .
I can’t speak to puppies, but I do think keeping them with Mom longer isa good idea. We took care of a neighbours pregnant cat, and were able to keep the kittens up to 10 weeks instead of the usual 6-8, which if I’m not mistaken is the usual time of separation in Canada, where I live. Having been able to keep one of the kittens, and having one adopted by my sister and her husband, and being able to visit them since they’re physically close to us, I think keeping them the extra two weeks with Mom made a difference.
I think so too. Latest research suggests 14 weeks is optimal for cats…
I think most of the questions you ask are answered in Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog Scott JP & JL Fuller 1965 and Pfaffenberg, C. J.; Scott, J. P.; Fuller, J. L.; Binsburg, B. E. & Bilfelt, S.W. (1976) Guide dogs for the blind: Their selection, development and training, Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Puppies are separated around 7/8 weeks of age because it has been studied that at that age they have acquired enough experience as dogs and have enough of the sensitive period left to adjust to humans. “What about if the puppy was instead homed at 10 weeks? 12 weeks? 6 months?”
Well his bonding to humans would prove very difficult if not impossible.
“Free-living dogs have been observed regurgitating for 10-week-old pups, although this is apparently rare. Free-living puppies start travelling independently for food collection around 10-11 weeks. “
Free living dogs are what are better kwon as village dogs. In such context separation usually happens when the mother is expecting a new litter and does not want 6 months old young dogs around. .
I would say that in a village dog the natural design is to have an independent dog that hangs around the village where food is easy to get and where aggressive subject are culled.
A family dog on the other end needs to have a perfect bond with humans and can be habituated to stay alone before the insurgence of separation anxiety before it reaches the five months mark (Karen Overall).
I would say that the real problem is not the 7/8 weeks of age but what exposure to the new world the puppies receive.
The village dog grows in what will be his environment by definition not so for the family dog.
This subject would need much more space than what I have given it in this space but never the less I hope you will find my considerations useful for further thinking.
I haven’t penetrated Scott/Fuller’s data but I can’t find anything indicating that they studied how weaning/homing age after 8 weeks of age affected later development of separation-related problem behaviour…? If you can find it, please let me know! 🙂
Absolutely, many factors will influence the development of problem behaviour. In this blog post I’m merely discussing one potential such factor… 🙂
Great read. I will definitely be posting this to my business page (and yes, I am a canine behaviour consultant who works problem behaviours). I have been quite surprised by the numerous owners I have spoken to recently who have purchased their dogs from breeders as young as 6 weeks. My last three dogs (while living in the US) were all amazing rescues (6 mths, 2 yrs & 4.5 yrs). We only recently decided we were ready for another dog after losing our last one to spleen tumors at 14.5 yrs old prior to returning to Australia. We decided to get an english staffy from a breeder and he was 12 weeks old when he came to live with us. He is amazing. He has super dog/dog play skills, loves everyone (human & dogs) and has done really well with at-home training. We were also able to meet his parents, and his grandfather and it was wonderful to see how he related to them (and visa versa). They were all really amazing dogs. I don’t doubt that the extended period with his family has taught him a great deal about reading other dogs and helped to create quite the calm little staffy. I would certainly love to see more in depth studies on this topic.
more studies needed, for sure! 🙂
I have been a dog breeder for more than 30 years. Early on a veterinarian suggested homing a pup at six weeks of age. Seeing the different maturity levels at six weeks and 8 weeks i decided that To send a pup home at 8 weeks is okay.
However, recently i have read about a
Fear period that occurs around 8 weeks in a puppy. So going to a new home should wait till 9 weeks. Also breeders need to socialize and do some work with pups to expose them to none threatening dogs,
Household things like a vacuum cleaner and a mop, and give them simple puzzles to solve like moving around a barrier to get to their food bowl. Nothing too frightening.
Also I don’t allow my pups to go to homes where they are left alone for long hours.
No dog should be expected to live in isolation. Sometimes something comes up so one day maybe okay. 5 days a week is not unless the owner has someone to let the dog out, a dog walker or dog daycare to go to.
Good point about the importance of the social climate of the new home!
Taking into account proper nourishment, bonding, socialization (with the other pups), etc. 12 weeks (3 months) seems appropriate.
Taking away pups from the mother is stressful for both mother and pups, no matter what the studies indicate.
Breeders charge incredible amounts; the mothers and puppies should get the attention and care they deserve. A well nurtured pup is going to be well adjusted in its new environment, provided it has a loving a family to receive it.
How strange this comes up now.
I have 9 dogs and a litter of 4 puppies that are 5 weeks old that are all staying.
However, I have long said that I think 8 weeks is far too young.
This was further backed up by the 3 puppies that I imported over at various times and from various breeders, all stayed with their canine family until at least 15 weeks and all 3 are the most well-rounded dogs I own.
I have struggled to see how taking a puppy away so early and having humans raising them( certainly in a home where they are the only dog) can help them learn how to be a well-rounded dog?
More data needed, for sure! As you’ll see in the other comments, other people have had the opposite experience..! With shows that there’s variability – which is why we need a large sample size to see overall trends in the data.
This is fascinating! For various unplanned reasons, I got my first puppy at about eleven weeks. His breeder was thoughtful and responsible and the pup was well socialized during that time. He was an unusually confident and calm puppy and became a well mannered, friendly dog who was a beloved family pet with a long career as a visiting therapy dog.
It happens that I am an advocate of allowing human children to nurse and stay close to their mothers for a longer period than is usual where I live. (Canada). I believe they do better if they are not separated before two to three years.
So when choosing my second puppy, I arranged to take him home at thirteen weeks. Again, he became a calm and confident member of our family.
Obviously, there are many other factors involved in the success of these two puppies. I’m sure the scientist in you is cringing!
But, since we know that a strong maternal infant bond is critical to all mammals, why do we knowingly disrupt it for puppies? There is a natural time when mothers are ready to wean their young. It would seem that to respect it would be an easy way to contribute to the puppy’s success.
Science often begins with anecdote…! Two observations are not enough, of course, but it’s a starting point! It would be interesting to see a full-scale study, for sure! 🙂