Connecting to the world
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 larger. This extraordinary increase in size has nothing to do with the brain cells themselves but the number of connections established between them. These connections are established as a direct result of all the experiences the puppy has in these first critical four months of life (and often much earlier).
Every single thing a 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 a part of his new life and his new family, what is safe and who is in his social group.
Experience is everything
While we can’t hope to introduce every single thing a puppy will have to accept later in life, the more positive experiences guided by us he gets in this period, the more accepting he will be of novel things and situations. Not only that, but he will also be developing his learning skills, learning how to problem solve and deal with the inevitable frustrations of life, which in turn will help with his behaviour and training in the future.
A puppy who is properly reared in this period, will be far more likely to grow up to be confident, calm, learn new things more easily, be less likely to respond to new things fearfully or aggressively – and in short, is more likely to become a good 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.
Socialising wild puppies
So why is this? All animals are, by instinct, scared of new things. It is this self-preservation instinct that will keep them safe from predators or other unsafe situations. For a newly-born animal to be fearful and cautious 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 potentially dangerous and, as such, they will avoid it, or if unable to do that, are likely to behave defensively.
In domestic dogs this sets in later, 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 potentially dangerous and for this reason, it is vital that breeders work hard to socialise and habituate their puppies long before they go to their new homes.
Up to the first 16 weeks of age, the puppy is also learning who is in his social group, who the people and animals are that form his family, who he is social and friendly to, who he plays with and who he is building a bond with. 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.
Getting ready for the school of life
All cells within the body have a predetermined time to start and to stop developing, and at 16 weeks old (in some breeds and individuals much earlier), the window of opportunity for the majority of this brain development rapidly starts to close – and so do the puppy’s learning opportunities. Puppies that have not had this socialisation and input in these valuable weeks, because of poor rearing 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 at this time – these include aggression, noise phobias, separation anxieties, over-reactivity, poor learning, fearfulness and much more. Waiting until a puppy goes to his new home, or is old enough to start training classes, means that this crucial period is missed.
The role of the Puppy Plan
The Puppy Plan has been developed to try and prevent behavioural problems, owners giving up on their dogs, and reduce the thousands of dogs who are handed over to rescue organisations, returned to breeders, or are euthanised for preventable behaviour problems.
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 beyond.
For the breeders or rearers of puppies in their first eight weeks, the Puppy Plan follows an 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, the Puppy Plan can be uniquely customised by the new owner to make sure their puppy fits into his new life and his new family.