The past couple of months I have attended multiple (carefully managed) dog events in Tennessee, Indiana, Michigan and North Carolina.
Various skittish puppies and adolescent dogs were at each event. The excuses made by the handlers were, “This is a COVID puppy.” We have a COVID puppy, too. Lilith was born June 10.
I know the challenges posed to socializing during these times. Earlier in the pandemic, I covered socializing and social distancing in this column. Did these puppies get what was needed early on? Or is there something else to consider? Temperament begins at the molecular level, long before the puppy is born.
For decades, we have been taught behavior is all in how the dog is raised. Heck even I taught for years that puppies were blank slates. However, science has proven this false.
Some of my favorite videos are of young puppies showing their inherited traits. One video shows 5- to 6-week-old English Setters in a field and pointing where game birds may be. There is no training yet. This is all genetics at work. Think of this as a building. We will start at the bottom and work up.
Genetics would be the ground. Would you knowingly build where sinkholes are a problem? Sinkholes occur when the type of rocks, such as limestone, are easily dissolved by groundwater. Understanding the importance of good temperaments in dogs being allowed to breed is important. Breeding dogs with behavioral concerns (intentionally or accidentally) is like building on unstable ground. The house may be pretty, but is it going to be as stable as we would like?
There are other influences such as maternal nutrition and stress. If the dam’s stress hormones are high during pregnancy, the offspring can be born with higher stress hormones. Think of this as the way the ground is prepared after a building site is chosen.
The foundation would be the first eight weeks or so with whoever has the litter in their care. We can build a great foundation or we can kludge one together and hope it holds. This includes how long the puppies stay with the mother and littermates and the early exposures. If the person caring for the litter is not doing the work during these weeks, it is analogous to a poorly prepared foundation.
Next is building the framework. This is where the person acquiring the puppy takes over. The optimal window for socializing closes at about 16 weeks of age. Some puppies are sooner; some are later. If the framework is not carefully built, there will be a greater chance of problems into adolescence and adulthood.
From here, for the life of our dog, we keep adding on to what was started. Think of the Winchester House. Throughout her life, Sarah Winchester kept adding on to the eight-room house she bought in California. At her death, the Winchester house had about 160 rooms. We are always building and working with our dog’s behaviors throughout their lives.
What is the takeaway? The behaviors we see are a combination of genetics and environment. Even pet owners should have some rudimentary understanding of breed traits (even if looking for a crossbred dog). Then, understanding the steps needed to build a good canine companion is crucial. The sad thing is many people do not do the research or put in the time with many things in life. Do not let this be you with your dog.
Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.