Vital Strategies for Canine Resilience: Nurturing Puppy Growth

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Vital Strategies for Canine Resilience: Nurturing Puppy Growth

August 29, 2023 Uncategorised 0

In the past two posts, we’ve looked at key components to resilience in dogs. Genetics plays its role. Stable personality traits like anxiety, pessimism, curiosity and optimism have heritable qualities. We also looked at the role played by prenatal stress.

Unfortunately, with commercial breeding establishments and puppy farms, it’s more likely that looks are prioritised over personality. These environments are often very stressful too, and that impacts on adult resilience.

For those of us in the shelter world, we can’t control the genes or prenatal experience puppies have. Some puppies arrive only days old, sometimes orphaned. With the best will in the world, not all shelters or associations are clued up on what they can do to make a difference when the puppy is born.

Sadly, the first five weeks of a puppy’s life are often overlooked as critical development points. Certainly, most literature prioritises the sensitive period from 6 weeks onwards. Better programmes might even start around three weeks. Even so, from the moment a puppy is born, critical biological and social processes are at work that help build – or undermine – their natural resilience.

Altricial and precocial species

Many domesticated animals are precocial. They are ready to move around almost the moment they are born. Their critical development period is short, and the pre-natal environment plays a much more fundamental role. For animals like horses, cows and sheep, the impact of the first weeks of life is arguably less critical than it is for species who depend on their mother for longer.

Key processes like DNA methylation are still continuing for more dependent species, like cats and dogs. The environment has more time to affect the kind of animal they’ll need to be. The term epigenetics is one many of us are now familiar with. One of the best understood processes is that of DNA methylation. Although this process never stops, when species who are dependent on a mother’s care are born, Nature leaves a little room for that care to influence physiological, emotional, cognitive and social development.

This process is closely linked to the type and quality of early maternal care.

Maternal care styles

How much time a mother spends caring for her infants is very important in altricial social species. Postnatal care can stabilise DNA methylation, gene expression and neural function in young animals. Of course many of these processes start before the puppy is even born.

Licking and grooming regulate the development of biological, endocrine, emotional and behavioural responses to stress in newborn puppies. This care creates a template for how the puppy will cope with stress in later life. Of course, we know that puppies are unable to regulate for themselves as they are born. Temperature regulation, nourishment and elimination are three ways in which the puppy needs their mother to survive.

But the mother isn’t simply providing biological and physiological regulation. In the early days, caregiving is intense but it’s important that mum has room to move away for brief periods and also to move the puppies if necessary. Little by little, the puppies begin to experience small absences and microdoses of difficulty. Of course, this can only happen in the right environment. Where dogs are unable to move away from the litter properly, it can really interfere with the very gradual process when mothers don’t have this opportunity.

Having fostered nursing cats and dogs, one of the things I notice at this time is that mum will move away as time goes on. When animals don’t have this opportunity, it no doubt has a huge impact on puppies and kittens later. Abrupt ruptures during sensitive periods can do so much damage.

Sensory systems of the young puppy

We tend to think of puppies whose eyes haven’t opened or whose ears are not registering sound as almost immune to sensory stimulation. This is far from the truth.

Their sense of smell is already at work, creating associations of comfort and warmth with particular odours.

Young puppies may not be able to see, but their nose registers heat as well as odour. They’re able to orient towards the warm bits by their nose. The fact that they can register thermal radiation is vital in many ways. Not that they’re like little heat-seeking missiles seeing the world through thermal imaging googles, but their ability to pick up heat signatures is sufficient to keep them moving towards mum and their littermates by both smell and warmth.

Beyond smell, very young puppies are also about balance and pressure. They’re sensitive to pressure from licking, and many of their early reflexes relate to tactile sensations.

How the body relates to emotion

Young puppies are calmed by their mother’s presence. In the absence of a mother, their littermates will do, but this is nothing on the care that a mother can provide. Physical contact with their mother calms distressed youngsters. The puppies respond in kind: the rooting reflex means that they will push their nose into warmth. The first way that puppies learn to self-soothe is in seeking out social who bring them calm and help them settle.

The mother’s presence is not just about nourishment. Anyone familiar with Harry Harlow’s grotesque experiments with monkeys knows this. When Harlow took infant monkeys from their mother and provided them with a ‘cloth’ mother (a wire model covered with cloth) and a ‘nourishment’ mother (a wire model with a bottle), the infants spent most of their time latched on to the cloth model.

The attachment is not just about physiological regulation and support. It is about emotional regulation and support.

The role of weaning

There are many myths about puppy weaning, including the fact that mothers force puppies to wean from 3 weeks in. This is not true. What is true is that commercial breeding establishments, puppy farms and some uneducated foster homes for shelters may purposefully or accidentally force weaning.

Where the mother is able to spend a little time away from the puppies and return to them when she pleases, weaning tends to happen much more naturally. The mother is, in fact, systematically desensitising the puppies to her absence gradually. Human intervention alters that. Like many mammals, puppies have a period where they have both food and milk from their mother. Gradually, the mother will spend less and less time with her offspring.

Give mum a younger litter, and she’ll return to intensive weaning again. A dog’s body knows what to do and on what timescale. Unfortunately, humans mess with that.

Sometimes we do that because we can’t provide spaces for mum to get away. I’ve taken on unfortunate mums who’d spent 6 weeks with their puppies, unable to move away. Mums were sore and fractious. They growled more at their puppies and they tended to use harsher methods to stop them nursing. Although food had been provided, the foster carer had selected large and indigestible adult biscuits. These had been pre-soaked but even so, they did not have the nutrients or the calories to nourish the puppies.

When people see mums trying to get away from the litter, they often encourage this, meaning that mum spends longer away from the puppies than they would otherwise. Thus, very early in life, the puppies learn that separation is distressing.

Commercial breeding establishments

By the time the puppies are mobile, under normal circumstances, mums will be able to move away gradually. Their absence is not too distressing and their puppies learn to habituate. This helps them gradually develop physiological and emotional coping skills. They also learn to depend on other social beings like their siblings or a family of humans.

Unfortunately, commercial breeding establishments struggle to provide natural absences for mothers. If mum can get out, then the puppies can often follow her. Thus she too learns to depend on growling and snapping at the puppies to get some space, just as the mother kept in an outhouse or spare room.

Because commercial breeders then want to move dogs on quickly, they then force weaning by deliberately separating the mother from the puppies for long periods. Better environments will try to do this gradually and incrementally, but this takes resources that many do not wish to spend on staff.

As you can see, it’s not that puppies wean earlier than other mammals, it’s more that human constructs like kennels and puppy spaces do not facilitate gradual weaning and absence on the mother’s natural timetable.

To some degree, this is easier to see with cats: mum cats can jump where kittens can’t. It’s easy to see that gradual growth in time mum spends out of reach.

Human support

For puppies born to anxious parents or who underwent significant prenatal stress, the early days offer us vital time to intervene. This can happen in very diverse ways.

The makers of Adaptil have done some studies into their own pheromone products. Although results weren’t evident until adolescence, they found that using an Adaptil plug-in from 3-5 weeks meant mum spent more time with the litter and that there were long-term benefits. The more ways we can support mothers could certainly be good to offset other factors or to support the development of resilience.

Other studies have looked at Early Neurological Stimulation – a series of small, short exercises to do with very young puppies in a systematic way. Although these seem simple, the emotional and cognitive benefits of microdoses of very mild physiological stress and reflex development certainly seem to have benefits too.

The five exercises were performed from birth to three weeks. These influenced puppy development in five ways: improved cardiovascular performance, stronger heartbeats, stronger adrenal glands, more tolerance to stress and improved immune function. They were reportedly more active and more exploratory at an earlier age. They coped better with challenge and they did so in what one researcher called a ‘graded’ manner, rather than ‘all or nothing’. I take that to mean early impulse control, that they’re learning the shades of behaviour.

Some puppy packages such as Jane Messineo Lindquist’s Puppy Culture programme make the most of this pre-movement time to build up tactile and olfactory skills.

Early development

By supporting mum in her role by facilitating care and in supporting puppies themselves, we have opportunities to build up skills that have long term benefits. Early development gives us a small space to make a difference. This is particularly true for vulnerable puppies or dogs that will need to be extremely robust. These methods are ones used in programmes for working dogs and assistance dogs. Tthere’s no reason we shouldn’t also use them with puppies born in less auspicious circumstances.

This has particular relevance for puppies born in shelters or in foster care.

It’s also perhaps another reason why we should think to move away from commercial breeding establishments and back to hobby breeding in homes. At their worst, commercial establishments are litle more than puppy farms. Even at best, they do not allow for human support. They also make it difficult for mothers to gradually move from puppies by any other means than aggression.

Although some governments prefer commercial breeding as somehow easier to regulate for hygiene, this cannot make up for the damage done, especially if little care goes into the selection of parents or providing optimal levels of prenatal challenge and support. Yes, hobby breeders can be harder to regulate for financial and hygiene reasons, but often a good hobby breeder is there to support mum as well as the puppies. At their best, they are more able to pay attention to temperament and gestational stress too.

Shelters can also have a lot to learn from great puppy support. It’s no longer enough to say a warm home is enough.

Does this mean puppies are damaged without mum?

Having spent so long in the shelter world, it’s hard to say. My own motherless boy Heston was no more or less robust emotionally than any other dog I know. For a shepherd, he was pretty good in his skin and I certainly didn’t notice any strange behaviours.

That said, he had great canine Aunties in Molly and Tilly, so it’s hard to know how much they were able to restore.

He may have had emotionally robust parents (I suspect a Lady & the Tramp scenario myself) and his postnatal care was good. The litter was split up and that may have been a good thing or not.

Just as we should never blame one missing piece like socialisation for our dog’s sensitivity and challenges, so we can’t really say that this one single area is responsible either. In reality, the combination of factors is what makes a puppy into a robust adult. Missing two or three will no doubt have a deleterious effect. That’s why, if we’re involved in puppy care, we should pay equal attention to this vital period of development.

In the next post, we look at socialisation: what is it really?

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