Do you look at a newborn puppy and see a little dog? Not me! For their first three weeks puppies are as different from adult dogs as caterpillars are from butterflies. They have different digestive tracts, metabolisms, senses and more. If you consider puppies as just small versions of their adult selves, you are likely to focus on their limitations. However, if you recognize puppies as a different state, you can see them as perfectly designed, fascinating, milk-seeking missiles.
At four weeks, puppies undergo a dramatic transformation, going from fully capable nursing machines to young dogs. Although most people think that is when we can start developing our puppies, there four important things breeders can do to develop their newborn puppies during their first three weeks:
1. Support Mom. Good dog mothers know more than we ever will about how to care for and raise puppies. They can provide all basic care that a newborn puppy needs for its first three weeks–nutrition, warmth, cleanliness, and appropriate stimulation and challenges. Breeders walk a fine line between allowing the mother to raise her babies and ensuring the pups stay safe. This requires respecting the dam’s instincts, even if we do not fully understand them. For example, although it looks rough, when mothers lick and clean their fragile newborns they are stimulating their pups in important ways and forming a bond through taste and scent. Most mothers know when to nurse lying down, sitting up or standing. Through these mom-imposed struggles during these early weeks, puppies grow and develop critical coordination and strength.
Beyond caring for and supporting their mother, breeders can help puppies develop to their full potential in three ways:
2. Developing Scenting. Seven years ago, I developed Early Scent Introduction (ESI). Daily from Days 3 to 16, each pup is presented with a different object to smell for 3 to 5 seconds. Since our dogs are primarily hunting dogs, I offer the pups game birds, such as pheasants and ducks. I also include natural materials, like dirt, wood, leaves, grasses and mosses. I avoid most foods but will let pups sniff fruit. Finally, I offer household objects made of leather, plastic, and metal. Puppies as young as 3 and 4 days show clear likes and dislikes. Most of my pups bury their noses in the pheasant and snuff loudly while a lemon slice evokes head-twisting avoidance.
3. Stressing Through Touch. Even newborn pups should be handled every day, if not multiple times each day, while they are weighed, examined and cuddled. Gentle handling causes healthy stress and imprints pups on people. Handlers should include others, not just the breeder and her family. Once my pups are a week old, I invite sensible friends to help with weighing, cleaning and cuddling. I usually have many volunteers!
4. Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS). ENS is a structured program of six exercises for baby puppies–four positions, foot tickling and a cold surface. Video of Mr Green, Early Neurological Stimulation and Early Scent Introduction. Although I have found no research to support it, I have found that ENS makes puppies easier to handle. Even high energy pups are more relaxed for everything from cutting toe nails to giving medications to safely holding them in your arms. Since golden retrievers are relatively cold impervious, you can see that I use a pie plate that is kept in the freezer.
Battaglia, Dr. Carmen. Early Neurological Stimulation, AKC Gazette, May 1995.