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Puppies: Key Stages of Development

28 Feb 2023

Just as you might expect, a puppy, as he or she grows, will go through various developmental stages. Like humans, they learn as they grow – and each stage is an important step in their healthy development. As their guardians, part of our job is to make sure that our puppies are being nurtured properly and allowed to grow through each stage with our support and understanding.

It is important for us to recognise where our pups might be struggling or showing signs of unusual behaviour. So, if you feel that your puppy is going through some behavioural issues that don’t seem in line with the information below – please speak with your vet. They may advise you to speak to a qualified behaviourist, moving forward.

But for now, let’s look at each developmental stage, and what you might expect to see:

Approx 0–7 Weeks Old

Socialisation. The early development stage, where your puppy learns to socialise, is essential. It is in the first few weeks that puppies learn social cues from other animals, their siblings and parents (and, later, humans). And, with some breeds, the window of social development is even smaller, so please seek the appropriate advice around your specific breed.

Social cues from others in the litter, as well as their mother, teach puppies ‘bite inhibition’ (learning to moderate the strength of their bite, otherwise known as having a ‘soft mouth’). During this developmental window, puppies will also learn to be receptive to and ‘ask for’ attention, as appropriate to being nurtured and fed, as well as play. It is during the first seven weeks that puppies find their confidence. In essence, they are learning to be a dog, and to interact appropriately with other dogs.

Approx 7–8 Weeks Old

Into the world. It is usually at the eight-week mark that puppies can be separated from their mother and litter. They have learned important social cues already, and they should be mentally mature enough at this age to adapt their social behaviours and learn how to apply them to their interactions with humans. At this age, they will also tend to form strong bonds with their new guardians (us).

Approx 8–10 Weeks Old

Fears and overcoming them. Between 8 and 10 weeks, puppies will go through what is sometimes referred to as, ‘fear stages’. At this age, puppies are inquisitive and impressionable. So, associations that they make with sounds, people, objects, and so on, will leave a lasting mark. You might notice, at this age, that your puppy seems fearful of everyday sounds and objects in the home, other people and animals. This is normal. The key thing for us, as their guardian, is to help the puppy associate all of these interactions with a positive experience. They may also take their cue from us. So, if we react fearfully, or even overly excitedly, around those objects, sounds or people your puppy is showing fear around, we risk negative consequences. It is important to stay calm and neutral, and rewards your pup for calm, relaxed behaviour and relaxed play.

Where new experiences are uncomfortable for your pet, such as vet visits for jabs, etc, stay positive and give praise. But avoid overly-soothing your pup, or acting upset or concerned. Your soothing and showing concern, will teach him to quickly associate the interaction he is having as something unpleasant and which causes worry.

Approx 10–16 Weeks Old

Training. Of course, you will be training your puppy from as young as eight weeks. But from ten weeks on, you might consider giving strong focus to the basics: sit, stay, come, etc. Now is the time, if you’re looking, to enrol in a puppy class. Always use positive reinforcement (reward and praise desired behaviours and ignore undesired behaviours).

Talk to a behaviourist or trainer who uses positive reinforcement or do a little online research to learn how this technique works, and why it is successful.

Stay positive. Your puppy is trying to understand you. He won’t get it right overnight, so be patient, and enjoy the bond and the rewards that come with watching your puppy learning. And, in turn, you will be getting to know more about how your pup learns, and how he communicates.

Approx 4–6 Months Old

Finding their feet. We’ve hit pre-adolescence. This is the age in which your pup will be finding his own feet in the world. Curiosity and independence will grow; he will explore more and venture further. Keep up your training – it is at this age where you can increase training skills by introducing challenges and distractions for your puppy to navigate. This will keep them mentally stimulated, and that ever-increasing bond will persist between you and your pup.

At the six-month mark, speak with your vet about getting your pup neutered. Although this is the recommended age for your puppy to be castrated/spayed, every puppy is different. So, speak with your vet if you have any questions or concerns.

Approx 6–12 Months Old

The teenager. During this time, you may see changes in your pup’s interactions with you. His need for you to play, keep him stimulated and give him attention will likely be at a higher level at times. He may become more easily frustrated through boredom and will seek stimulating activities frequently. This is the age in which your dog will reach sexual maturity. Remember, if your dog is not yet neutered, keep them on a lead whilst out on your walks. If you are training lead-work, do this either indoors, or in a private, secure areas.

It might be a challenging time but stick by your pup – he is going through a natural, behavioural stage of development. Your positive attitude will pay off.

Approx 12–18 Months Old

Emotional maturity. From a year, to 18 months, your dog will be finding his place within the home. He will be learning boundaries and adapting his behaviour from all of the social cues and training he has picked when he was very young. He may even test his boundaries from time to time. This is where all the work you have put in to learn his ‘language’ and for him to understand yours, pays off. Stick to positive reinforcement patterns. Take notice of what your dog is trying to communicate in his body language etc. If you are worries, at any stage, that your dog’s behaviour is becoming overly challenging or concerning – speak to your vet, who may recommend seeking advice from a behaviourist

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