The third week in the puppies' lives marks a big shift here at Madcap - we're entering the puppies' critical socialization period, and now the real fun begins. Things are going to begin flying fast and furious at us as far as developmental periods and windows of opportunity go, and we're thankful that we mapped out a plan from the time we confirmed Pippi's pregnancy. The next 9 weeks will be the most powerful ones in the puppies' lives and what we choose to do or not do during this period can completely change the outcome for their futures. Getting all the bases covered in a timely fashion and scheduling all the activities and visits the puppies will need is a much bigger job than most new breeders anticipate!
Why should this be so? We go into this in depth in Puppy Culture, but suffice it to say this is an adaptive evolutionary strategy tied to the mobility of the puppy. Puppies don't have the mobility to travel too far from the protection of their family too much before 8 weeks old, so it stands to reason they should trust everything they meet. By 8-12 weeks old, they have the wherewithal to wander off and get into trouble - it's a very good thing, from a "survival in the wild" point of view, that they should mistrust and fear stuff they encounter at that point. Bobcats, high and unstable surfaces, bodies of water - the world is full of dangerous stuff and, in the wild, at least, fear of the unknown is an excellent adaptive strategy. Not so good when your dog goes to your daughter's soccer game and perceives the bleachers as monsters and the other children as a threat...
So It's a "race against nature" because the puppies' biological clock is ticking and that window of opportunity is closing a little more each day. Contrary to what you might read on the internet, you don't have until 4 or 5 months to get this socialization work done - a great deal of the most important and irreplaceable socialization experiences should take place when the puppy is still with the breeder. Sure, if important things were missed by the breeder, you can try to make up for it later, but it's a long hard slog up a steep hill, and the hill gets steeper and steeper every day after 12 weeks old.
I know, I know, people will tell you that the socialization window is more flexible, but in my experience, touching hundreds and hundreds of puppies, there is a vast difference between working with a 11 week old and a 14 week old puppy. Your experience may be different, but that is mine. And that doesn't even take into account all the protocols that should have been done during early developmental periods - protocols which can never be done effectively at any later point in the puppy's life. There are windows of opportunity that close as early as five weeks old. I hate to sound like a broken record but that's why we made Puppy Culture - it's five plus hours on this topic so if you're interested in learning more, it's all in there.
So, our core task as breeders is to teach puppies to be enrichment/novelty seekers, and to trust that the world holds good things for them. To that end, in this first week of the socialization period we begin inviting potential puppy owners over to meet us and help begin the socialization process. We also introduce at least one new toy, visual object, or experience to the puppies each day during this week. In practice, we usually are introducing several new things to the puppies each day, but we make a note of at least one new thing just to keep the record straight, because it's easy to get mixed up when you're so tired ;o).
It's important to note that we take the enrichment items out of the whelping box after the puppies fall asleep. I don't believe in cluttering up the puppies' environment with a lot of stuff that's just going to get dirty, anyway. They're learning how to walk now, so they need unobstructed space in which to move. Also, in my observation, the most productive enrichment at this stage involves the presentation of novel objects so you get the startle/recover/curiosity/exploration cycle. Of course, as they get a few days older and move in to their weaning pen, they will have toys and objects to play with all the time. But that's a different class of enrichment and is not as effective (in my observation) for building enrichment seeking/emotional stability.
New toys are great "novel" items - we buy them by the box full from Pet Edge. It's amazing how you can put three toys down, one of which is new, and the puppies will swarm the new one. But something as basic as being taken out to walk on the living room rug for a minute is equally novel and good. Just a sheet of foil in the bottom of the whelping box for a minute or two, or adding a potty area with pet litter, are new experiences that trigger the startle/recover/ curiosity exploration cycle very nicely.
Breeders tend to get "Gadget Envy" when it comes to enrichment items. They see all the cool "stuff" that other breeders are using, and they feel like they might be falling behind or letting their puppies down in some way. Not to worry. I freely admit that I love scanning our Puppy Culture Discussion Group to see what kind of new and cool enrichment items people have dreamed up, (and yes, I spend stupid amounts of money on stuff). But I want to put your mind at rest on this point - it's not rocket science, and many great enrichment items cost nothing and don't have to be fancy.
- Ambient Environmental "Centering" sounds. A recent study has shown that classical music has a de-stressing effect on shelter dogs, and hard rock music has the opposite effect. So we play a soft bed of classical music in the puppy room all day. Here are some of the Pandora stations we like -this is what we play for the puppies almost all day:
Classical Dinner Party
Bucky Pizzarelli & Frank Vignola
(OK not classical but honestly so awesome it has to be good for the puppies ;o))
Stephane Grappelli (ditto above)
- Sharp, sudden, sounds during the 3-4 week period to encourage the startle recovery cycle. This is to build emotional resilience as we discuss in Puppy Culture
- "Habituation" noises, both live and potentially recorded, of things like show noise, babies crying, other animals noises, machinery, engines, etc.
- Put a dish of warmed milk in just before you let mom in to nurse. Give it a good 10-15 minutes before you let your bitch back in. Sometimes the whiners just get hungry enough and jump in.
- Add a little sugar to the milk. I know, not the best for them, but they do love it and it can get them over the hump.
- Because they want to nurse, you can offer the die-hard hold outs their cake, and let them eat it, too. Offer them your finger to nurse on. Allow them get engrossed in nursing on your finger, then slowly lower your finger to the milk dish. Nine times out of ten, the puppy will be happy to lap the milk if you keep your finger resting next to their mouth. Seems to satisfy the emotional need to nurse, even though they're lapping.