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Puppy Care and Training

Puppy Rearing Techniques:
Can We Influence Performance?
Barbara Pepin, DVM

For centuries man has tried to measure and change performance. Some of the methods have stood the test of time while others have come in and out of popularity. Some estimate that performance/trainability is 35% genetic and 65% management, training and nutrition. The first conducted research on this topic showed that the early age was the most important time for stimulation because of the rapid rate of growth and development. It was noted that the immaturity of the newborn made it very susceptible to a restricted class of stimuli. The newborn pup has its eyes closed, and with its limited capacity of the digestive tract, requires the bitch to lick them periodically to stimulate digestion and elimination. They are only capable of smelling, sucking and crawling. Body temperature is maintained by contact with the mother or in “puppy piles”. It was then recognized that the underdeveloped canines were sensitive to thermal and tactile stimulation, motion and locomotion.

One experiment with rats showed that by removing them from the nest for 3 minutes each day for the first 10 days allowed the body temperature to decrease. This “stress” stimulated the hormonal, adrenal and pituitary systems. When tested as adults, they responded to stress in a graded fashion while the non-stressed littermates responded in an “all or nothing” way. From this and other data, it has become accepted that stress in small amounts can produce adults who respond maximally. The non-stressed littermates showed that they became easily exhausted and would approach death if exposed to prolonged periods of stress. For example – when the rats were tied down for 24 hours, they developed severe stomach ulcers. The “stressed” rats did not develop ulcers.

Other experiments along these lines documented earlier sexual maturity, stronger adrenal glands, more tolerance of stresses, more resistance to infectious diseases, improved and stronger heart rates and resistance to certain forms of cancer. They also could withstand terminal starvation and exposure to cold for longer periods than the non-stressed littermates.

EEG (Electrical Encephalogram) was used for measuring the electrical activity of the brain because of its extreme sensitivity to excitement, emotional stress, muscle tension and changes in oxygen and breathing. When puppies are given early stimulation, they outperform non-stimulated littermates in certain problem solving tests and in reaching sexual maturity faster. This resulted in adults who were better able to cope with stressful events in their lives. It was also noted that too much stimulation can retard development.

The US military became acutely aware during both world wars, that foreign raised patrol dogs outperformed US raised dogs. In response, they developed a canine program called “Bio Sensor” or “Super Dog”. Their studies confirmed that there is a specific time frame or “window” for neuro-stimulation that results in optimum results. This window begins at the third day of time and lasts until the sixteenth day. It is believed that this is a rapid period of neurological growth and development and therefore is of great importance to the individual. This program developed six exercises to stimulate the neuro-system. Each workout involved handling the puppy individually, one at a time, and performing six tests for 3-5 seconds each. 1. The first tactile stimulation is accomplished by holding the pup in one hand. 2. Using a Q-tip, tickle the pup between the toes of one foot. It is not necessary to “see” that the pup feels the stimulation. 3. Use both hands to hold the pup perpendicular to the ground so that the puppy’s head is directly up over the tail. The blood moves out of the brain and it also stimulates the ear/balance system. 4. Hold the pup with both hands and then tilting the puppy so that the head is pointed at the ground. 5. Hold the pup in both hands with the back on your palms and the muzzle facing the ceiling. The pup may sleep or struggle. Alpha pups may fight this. 6. Use a damp hand towel that has been in the refrigerator for at least 5 minutes and place puppy on the towel with its feet down. Allow it to move off of it if it can.

None of these stimulations occur naturally in life. What they do is kick the neurological system into gear sooner than normal. The result is increased capacity that later will make a difference in performance. Continue to play with the puppies and handle them because these exercises are not substitutions for normal bonding and socialization. In learning tests, the stimulated litters were found to be more active and exploratory than their non-stimulated littermates over whom they were dominant when competitive situations arose in the whelping box.

Next, three stages of development were defined. The first two, neuro-stimulation and socialization have overlapping windows of opportunity. Most researchers now agree that lack of adequate socialization results in unacceptable behavior, often concluding in undesirable aggression, excessiveness, fearfulness, sexual inadequacy and indifference towards partners. In humans, the window is from 3 weeks to 12 months. In dogs, it is between the fourth and sixteenth week of age. During these critical periods, two things can go wrong. First, lack of social contact can interfere with appropriate emotional development which can adversely affect the human bond development process. This is defined as inadequate handling, mothering and contact with littermates. Secondly, over-mothering prevents adequate exposure to other individuals and stimulation situations that affect growth and development. It increases the risk in humans of an aloof, distant, asocial or sociopathic individual. It produces a dependent and socially maladjusted individual. Attempts later to re-socialize them have met with very limited successes. The third stage is enrichment. It has no time limit and covers a very long period of time. Typically, enrichment simply is exposure to a wide variety of interesting, novel and exciting opportunities to freely investigate, manipulate and interact. Dogs tend to be more inquisitive and are able to perform more difficult tasks. Research showed dogs to be much more difficult to train when they “missed” these early opportunities.

The benefits of early stress are clearly defined. What isn’t defined is how much is too much. Early neuro-stimulation, socialization and enrichment experiences clearly improve performance as adults. Each has a cumulative effect which contributes to the development and potential for individual performance.

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Click here to go to Article on Puppy Socialization By Catherine Steinke, photos by Mike Anderson


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