How to Build Vital Resilience Skills with Puppies

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

How to Build Vital Resilience Skills with Puppies

September 5, 2023 Uncategorised 0

In the this short series, we have been looking at the factors that contribute to an adult dog’s coping skills as far as life is concerned.

We know that genetics plays a role in building emotionally stable adult dogs. Most people understand that parental traits can be passed on to puppies. It’s no different with emotional stability, anxiety, optimism, curiosity, pessimism and fearfulness.

Gestational stress also plays a complex but intriguing role. Although the jury is far from out where prenatal stress is concerned, it can definitely affect unborn puppies.

In the last post, we looked at the importance of the post-natal period. The period from birth to movement is often overlooked in terms of development of resilience and emotion regulation. It’s tempting to think of puppies being physiologically and psychologically cocooned from the world because they can’t hear or see yet.

That said, we know that maternal care styles and early neurological stimulation play a role in puppy development. It’s not just the body that’s affected, but the brain. That’s especially true when it comes to coping skills. This is perhaps even more important when the sex of the puppy is taken into account. The complex interplay between sex hormones and maternal care is not fully understood but it’s clear that it’s important.


I can’t ever really remember a time when I considered the importance of weaning. Sure, mum gets up and starts to leave the litter for progressively long periods, sometimes going completely out of sight or reach.

But can it really be that important?

In many ways, weaning sets a template by which puppies are exposed to gradually longer and longer absences. Interestingly, reflexes that encourage the puppy to move towards warmth and nourishment start to fade around this point. Others reflexes start to develop, preparing the young dog for their life ahead. Reflexes that facilitate physiological regulation by mum also start to fade.

Mum stops having to lick the abdomen and perianal region to stimulate the young puppy’s anogenital reflex. They no longer need mum there to eliminate. This reflex starts to disappear between 16-18 days just as other reflexes develop for adult life. Yet mum may still clean puppies’ urine up to 5 or 6 weeks, and may continue to clean puppies’ feces until 9 weeks or so. This is just one part of the gradual move from being regulated by your mum to regulating your own body.

As soon as puppies can move out of the nesting area, they may start to eliminate elsewhere in the whelping area. Not so easy to do that before you can move, of course, hence the vital role that mum plays.

Even here, we begin to see puppies moving to physiological self-regulation. When they need to eliminate, if they can move away from the nesting area, they will do so increasingly.

Expanding social support

At the very beginning of life, the puppy litter cannot regulate temperature well and depend on their mum. As they age, they are much more able to do so. This is especially true because they can move around, finding warmer spots and cooler spots if necessary. As mum may leave for brief periods, the puppies are less dependent on her to regulate their temperature.

The litter itself becomes an important regulatory mechanism. Puppies can sleep together or move away, for example. This is not just about thermoregulation but also about soothing. A distressed puppy will calm in the presence of mum, and as they age, the puppy litter provides a similar function in itself. Even with older litters, it’s not unusual for them to still sleep together even if it’s uncomfortable for them to do so. All puppies are different: I’ve known more independent puppies move away from puppy pools from 6 weeks of age, but this seems rare.

In the absence of mum, puppies are learning to depend on other social beings for physiological and emotional support. Of course, that can go both ways! Social contagion is also visible in puppy litters, where behaviours like feeding and play seem to spontaneously happen across the whole litter.

The fear period

When ethologists explore the difference between the onset of fears in other juvenile members of the canid family, they tell us that the dog has the longest delay between birth and the onset of social fears.

Precocial animals have the shortest gap between birth and the onset of fear periods. This makes sense: many of them are prey species and although they can depend on mum to do her best to defend them, life is different when you’re someone else’s lunch. A blue wildebeest has one of the shortest periods between birth and movement. That makes sense given their need to outrun hyenas.

Altricial species like dogs or much larger herbivores who can be carried like primates take longer to become self-sufficient. Rats are also an altricial species, meaning that research into rats can be quite a useful model for considering development in dogs too.

That long delay between birth and the onset of fear periods is perhaps what makes dogs (and cats…) most likely to be able to live in our human world. What they experience as their sensory processing networks develop helps habituate them almost entirely without fear.

This makes it a useful first exposure period for young puppies. No fear and an abundance of curiosity. That said, the startle reflex starts early. This means we still need to take those early exposures carefully and gradually. Even so, we have a window where puppies are ripe to experience the sounds of the home, the people and dogs within it and to have other positive experiences that help establish a mental schema that the world is a benign and interesting place.

The ‘socialisation’ window

Socialisation is such an unhelpful term. In many ways, exposure to non-social stimuli like noises and odours, objects and machinery, is more about thoughtful habituation and familiarisation.

It’s also unhelpful because so many people consider it to take place in the window between 8-12 weeks. This is largely based on the work of John Paul Scott and John Fuller, whose experiments on behaviour genetics in the mid twentieth century established most of what we understand about this time.

In reality, we can see puppies becoming more and more hesitant around novelty from much earlier. For instance, one litter I fostered from 6 weeks had a terrible car journey and took 48 hours to recover. I had to do a lot of work around transport crates, cars and movement over the next three weeks, and I had my work cut out.

8 weeks is actually a pretty vulnerable time. Thinking back to my boy Heston, his first real fear response was at 9.5 weeks, and his second around 13. As an adult, he was a dog who happily put himself to bed as soon as he’d had enough of us all. But as a puppy, we co-slept. Tilly, Noireau the cat, Heston and I, all on the bed in a pseudo puppy litter. He was an adult before he slept through the night in a bed beside mine.

Socialisation would be much better termed as ‘early familiarisation’. That includes familiarisation to absence too.


In normal circumstances, the gradual process of weaning supports the very gradual move from dependence to independence. This is as true for physiological regulation as it is for emotional regulation. Although the time from birth to indepencence is very brief, it is a critical development period that forms the first true blueprint for how the puppy handles a number of early frustrations. That includes progressive absences as well as having to wait for brief periods for nourishment. Mum is also not present at all times to intervene in social disputes with siblings or to soothe puppies through contact.

Like other periods of intense development, weaning is a period of high risk, especially from 21-28 days.

During that time, three key reflexes disappear in most puppies other than orphans and developmentally immature dogs.

The first is the rooting and sucking reflex. The puppy’s body no longer needs to depend on biological reflexes to find nourishment. This is not to say puppies no longer need nourishment, but that their bodies are preparing for adult life.

The second fading reflex is the anogenital reflex, because puppies are learning to regulate their own bladders and bowels.

The third fading need is that for external thermoregulation.

By day 28, many puppies should voluntarily begin eating moistened solid foods.

Factors of captive upbringing that affect weaning

Raising puppies is tough. Many people use doors and gates to keep mum with puppies almost in permanence until mum starts to show signs of distress. Where mum can move out of the whelping area for very brief times before the puppies can follow her, this changes as soon as the puppies are mobile.

Because mum cannot naturally take time away from the puppies and often cannot even create distance, she may then be forced to rely on escape behaviours such as growling or snapping to stop puppies feeding from her. Thus, tensions arise in the puppy’s primary relationship.

It’s easier for human family members to help in small in-house puppy rearing. We can watch out for signs mum needs a break and we can step up ourselves to help. We notice which puppies need encouragement to move to solid food and we can keep the puppies busy, intervening in dysregulated play. Our other adult family dogs may also play a role. My boy Heston enjoyed his role as ‘uncle’ although most of my other dogs did not.

This isn’t true of puppies raised in kennels with outdoor runs. Mum is never able to move away from the group. Some kennels use automated barriers to separate mum from the puppies to force weaning.

We also notice that puppies begin to notice mum’s absence as they come to understand that NOT HERE means SOMEWHERE ELSE. This key developmental milestone is known as object permanence. It coincides with the onset of early separation anxiety and fearfulness of strangers, beginning to emerge around 35 days. Thus, when mum is absent, puppies may cry.

In the home, we can be sensitive to this. We can step up to support the puppies.

This isn’t true in commercial establishments and puppy farms.

Street dog family dispersal

What makes things tougher is that we don’t have good models from dogs. Wolves parent puppies with both parents where possible. The chances of a litter of puppies surviving if mum is killed before they are weaned is zero. Without their father, the rate of survival is no doubt much lower. With an extended family group, relatives will also support the puppy group as they move to weaning.

That means that mother dogs depend on us to step into that breach.

We can’t even take much guidance from street dogs either, since information is scant or idealised. By all accounts, some ‘fathers’ disperse as soon as they have mated. Others stick around. There is definitely no pattern, but it’s not helpful to suggest that “naturally”, dogs would co-parent as other canids do.

Even in situations where the parents form a stable and monogamous pair, there is no extended family in general. The reproductive and maternal biology of dogs is so different from other canids that we need detailed studies on what happens in free-roaming situations and that information is most definitely lacking. Thus, for the majority of the time from what we know, mothers provide care on their own.

The litter also disperses early. Many puppies are killed by disease, starvation or accident. We have no real, reliable data on this across different situations in order to form generalities about what dog parenting looks like.

Wolves that make it to adulthood may disperse at sexual maturation, usually from 18 months to 24 months. They certainly don’t disperse as young as street puppies may do. Neither are they taken from the family group at 8 weeks.


Weaning is not just about a permanent shift in nourishment. It is also about physical separation from the mother. It’s about relying on a widening group of ersatz family members, including individuals from other species. Because separation anxiety and fearfulness of strangers coincides with the weaning period, it means that young puppies are particularly vulnerable to developmental disruption (e.g. Lawler, 2008). Where weaning is forced or involves a lot of traumatic interactions with mum, it is likely to do more damage than we currently understand.

The best case scenarios will involve supportive humans and other adult dogs. Sensitive responses to anxiety, separation and emotional needs will help puppies enormously. Anticipating and supporting weaning needs can make a huge difference. Monitoring and minimising separation anxiety is vital. Minimising the stress of eating is also important. Providing plenty of feed spots and a variety of textures and tastes also helps to minimise potential learned aversions to food and feeding.

On the other hand, leaving mum to fend for herself or forcing weaning is likely to have a lasting impact in all manner of ways. That can include learned aversions to food and eating. It can created learned anxiety around eating as well as separation.

Since weaning is the puppy’s first experience of minor deprivation related to mum, and having to tolerate delay, in many ways it can be said to form a template for successful coping in the future.

Join me in the next post where we discuss what socialisation is, what it isn’t and how we can best support our puppies as they develop resilient responses and learned optimism.

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