Are dogs separated from mom too early?

15085451_sIn 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’ welfare.

Depressing, I know, but important.

  • 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. 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? Could separation still be a problem?

What about at 10 weeks? 12 weeks? 6 months?

At some point in a puppy’s life, we go from “wow, that could really influence later social skill sets and stress sensitivity” to “that’s probably irrelevant” when considering the effect of separation from mom and siblings.

At this point I need to add that I think housing social animals alone for extended periods of time is a serious welfare concern. I’m not advocating that. In this post, I’m just discussing effects of early separation on brain development. So, “irrelevant” above refers to whether maternal separation will influence later behaviour, not that it’s OK to leave a dog alone for hours on end. 

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 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?

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.

15427385_sHome-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.

So, here are my predictions:

In 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.

separation and triggers
Untested hypothesis: Separation-related problem behaviour in dogs may be more likely to occur in the presence of certain triggers when the dog is alone. The sensitivity to triggers may be a function of brain organization, in turn influenced by early separations.

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” is reduced to 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 canine 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.

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?

12 or 8 weeks
Kittens sold at 12 weeks, puppies at 8.

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 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

It seems that having multiple dogs doesn’t solve the problem, but that area is not well researched.

How could we potentially prevent home-alone problem behaviour, or, as it’s often called, separation anxiety?

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.

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.

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
pinscher play and alone
Successful prevention involves reducing the number of potential triggers and giving animals control, such as by stimulating the PLAY core emotional system.

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.

I know I’m grossly over-simplifying home-alone behaviour problems. 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.

But still.

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: 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! 🙂

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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.

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.