Anything But Helpless: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Newborn Puppies

January 14, 2013 — 7 Comments

Newborn pups have their limits but are not helpless.

Newborn pups have their limits but are not helpless.

I am always surprised when people, dog breeding books and even veterinarians describe newborn puppies as “helpless.”  Although newborn puppies have limited abilities, they are anything but helpless.  Just ask anyone who has tried to convince a day-old pup to nurse on a particular teat or moved a pup away from its dam.  These tiny babies know what they want and will do everything in their power to get it.  And it’s darn hard to change their minds!

I suspect we consider neonates helpless because they do not have the senses that we humans depend most on—sight and hearing.  Newborn puppies are blind and deaf at birth since neither their eyes nor ears are fully developed until between 10 and 20 days after birth.

Furthermore, young puppies cannot control their own body temperature internally so need environmental help to survive.  However, even puppies only minutes old regulate their body temperature by moving towards or away from heat sources.  They are known as thermotropic.  If they are cold, they crawl toward their dam, littermates (forming what are known as a puppy pile) or other heat sources.  If they are hot, they move away.  If they cannot find the right temperature, they become very cranky.

Hot puppies cry constantly and move around a lot. Cold puppies may or may not be noisy but usually will not nurse.  Happy puppies at the right temperature are quiet and nurse contentedly.  A quick way to tell if pups are too hot is to put them in the bathtub.  The coolness of the tub will quiet them within a minute if heat is causing the problem.  Similarly, to see if they are too cold, put them on a heating pad.  If they immediately become quiet, they need a warmer spot.

The safest place for newborn pups is next to their dam.

The safest place for newborn pups is next to their mother.

The safest place for new pups is next to their mother.  There they are more likely to be warm, well fed and clean.  To encourage this, I adjust the nursery room temperature until mom and babies stay together.  I want it cool enough so the pups seek out their mom but warm enough that they can nurse.  For my golden retrievers, that is usually 70-72°F but may be a little higher for dogs with less coat.  Unlike some breeders, I do not put a heat source on one side of the whelping box because I do not want puppies choosing between milk and warmth.  My goal is to have their mom provide both of those life-sustaining essentials.

Though limited, baby puppies are very capable of meeting some critical needs–finding their mother and her milk. Neonate puppies can crawl and cry, both often quite strongly, and they have two powerful senses, they can smell and feel.  As soon as they are born, puppies can find their mother by scent and touch.  Once they have found her, they can locate her abdomen and then a teat. Within a short time, they can identify it as a milk source and start to suckle. 

Though they can only crawl, puppies can move many feet and even yards, typically in every increasing circles, to find their mother or a littermate. And, when lost, they can make their situation known through a variety of vocalizations, including a “lost-puppy” cry that most dams respond from the time the last pup is born till they are about three weeks old.

They can identify their dam by smell and touch, identifying which parts of her are important to them, and which are not. For blind and deaf creatures, they are pretty amazing and quite determined.

Through these two important canine senses–scent and touch–that breeders can start developing their puppies’ brains soon after birth.  Next post I will discuss the exciting new ways that breeders can make healthier, smarter pups!



7 responses to Anything But Helpless: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Newborn Puppies

  1. Gayle,

    Great post! I know firsthand how difficult it is to change the mind of a puppy who wants to nurse on a certain teat when I try to convince it to nurse on a different one. I rarely win that battle.
    Question: If the mother is going to provide warmth for the pups, I imagine the box should not be so big that the pups can get too far away. So how large should the whelping box be?

  2. That’s a good question, Marcy! Whelping box design could be a whole post unto itself. My favorite whelping box is 5′ x 4′ with sturdy 12″ sides so it is easy to lean into and rest on but not so large that pups get too far away from mom. Obviously, size is breed dependent. Toy breeds should have much smaller boxes and I’d guess some Irish wolfhounds couldn’t even fit in my box! I also think that whelping boxes should not be designed for a litter’s entire puppyhood. Around the time their ears have opened, they should be in new digs!

  3. I seem to remember the phrase “milk-seeking missiles” when it comes to puppies and their determination to survive. Just because they are tiny really does not mean they are helpless. I think determined is a better word than helpless to describe them! Great post!

  4. Gayle,

    I have followed your blog/website for some time but never commented. I definitely appreciate this post and the following one and think it is important to advertise this fact to people. Neonate puppies are different. They are NOT young dogs and are NOT done developing.

    Last fall, I bred my first litter of performance goldens. I was advised by specialists to euthanize a 2 week old puppy who had gotten an infection due to mom licking his umbilical cord a bit too exuberantly at 3 days old. I chose to take my chance on treatment, though I know most breeders would cut their losses since the treatment was more than the worth of the puppy, not to mention we had no way of knowing if he would have long term issues. This 2 week old puppy recovered from a systemic infection, collapsed lung, and an abscess on 25% of his liver. He now has his own case study and at 6 months old is a wild, smart, healthy puppy well on his way to becoming a performance dog. Granted this is a very happy ending to a horrible situation and I would not expect this outcome every time, but it is important to note to go with what you feel is right and that sometimes the specialists do not have all the answers, especially when it comes to dealing with very young puppies. There just is not sufficient research out there and we do not understand their systems well enough. My little guy is living proof that they are fighters and can overcome much more than we would ever imagine. Great post and thanks for sharing!

    • Renee, I am so glad your pup not only recovered but is thriving!! That is fabulous. You are right, there are no canine neonatologists as there are for human babies. We have little knowledge of the workings of these tiny puppies except that they are incredibly fragile in some ways and unbelievably resilient in others. Congratulations on your first litter! I’d love to hear more about them since I’m kind of soft on performance goldens :-).

    • Was there any blood with his collapsed lungs?

  5. Thanks, Gayle. He is a little miracle pup. (Ask Rosie H. about “Percy”…we train together)

    I am just getting my feet wet in the dog sports and breeding world, but am trying to do things “right” if there is a “right.” I am/was a molecular biologist in my day job, so the genetics of all of the various diseases and disorders as well as desirable traits are fascinating to me. I definitely appreciate all the hard work you do in this field. My website is: It is a new thing for me and there is much more I’d like to do, but for now, it is what it is until I can become a more educated and better skilled handler!

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