The Science – and why it matters
The brain of a 16-week-old puppy has exactly the same number of brain cells as a newly born puppy – but it is roughly 10 times bigger. This extraordinary increase in size has nothing to do with the brain cells themselves however but the number of connections established between them. These connections can only form as a direct result of all the experiences the puppy has in these first critical four month of life. Isn’t that amazing?
Every single thing your puppy sees, hears, feels, smells and tastes, every meeting he has and every new thing he discovers produces literally trillions of new brain connections in those first 16 weeks, and they will last for life. He is learning what things are part of his new life and his new family, what is safe and who his social group is. A puppy who is properly brought up in this period, will be far more likely to grow up to be more confident, calmer, learn new things easier, be less likely to respond to new things fearfully or aggressively – and in short, be the perfect family dog. In contrast, a dog who has not had this good start in life is more likely to be over-reactive, unable to concentrate, fearful, a slower learner, develop preventable behaviour problems – and in fact have a less well developed brain than his well socialised brother.
So why is this? All animals are by nature scared of new things. It is this self-preservation instinct that stops rabbits bouncing up to introduce themselves to wolves and getting eaten. For a newly-born animal to be so cautious and fearful however is counter-productive, as everything is new to them and they would be constantly in a state of stress. So in most wild animals, this fearfulness starts at around three weeks old. What an animal hasn’t met by then is regarded as scary and they will avoid it or if unable to do that, may in all likelihood, behave defensively.
In domestic dogs however, this sets in at about five to seven weeks old depending on the breed or type. What the puppy hasn’t experienced by then, is far more likely to be perceived as scary. For this reason, it is really important that breeders do a lot of socialisation long before the puppies go to their new home.
Up to the first 16 weeks of age however, the puppy is also learning who his social group is. He is learning who the people and animals are that are his family, that he is social and friendly to, who he plays with and who he listens to. The new owner has to carry on this socialisation to teach the puppy about his new family and what his life with them is going to contain.
All cells within the body have a time to grow and a time to stop growing, and at 16 weeks old (sometimes earlier), the window of opportunity for the majority of this brain development rapidly start to close – and so do the puppy’s learning opportunities. Puppies who have not had this socialisation and input in these valuable weeks, because of poor breeding practices or a lack of understanding of this process, will always be playing catch-up, and so much of their potential will never be realised.
Many, if not most, behaviour problems can be prevented through good socialisation and early education – these include aggression, noise phobias, separation anxieties, over-reactivity and much more.
The Puppy Plan has been developed to try and prevent behaviour problems, owners giving up on dogs and handing them over to rescue organisations, returning them to breeders, or having them euthanased for behaviour problems (the major cause of death in dogs under two years old).
The Puppy Plan aims to be completely inclusive – no matter where the puppy has been bred, whether pure bred or crossbreed, or the circumstances surrounding their birth. It aims to help every dog be the very best he can be, give new owners the confidence to know their puppy has had an excellent ‘primary school education’ and raise the standard of puppy socialisation throughout the country – and hopefully the world.
For the breeders or care-givers of puppies in their first eight weeks, the Puppy Plan follows a fairly fixed and quite in-depth schedule, as their job is to give a broad-based early education – as they will not know where life will take the puppy and so they should be ready for anything.
Once the puppy goes to his new home however, the Puppy Plan uniquely can be totally customised by the new owner to make sure their puppy fits into his new life and his new family.