First steps in the puppy’s development


The construction and maturation of several tissues drives the puppy’s growth. These tissues are different in nature and do not grow at the same rate or at the same time, which explains the variation in the nutritional needs of puppies in terms of both quality and quantity.

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Physical development


We might compare a puppy’s physical development with that of a building site. There has to be a blueprint (nervous system), before the machines (skeleton) are brought in.

In order to make everything function, we need labourers (muscles), who expect health and safety protection (fat).

While this is of course oversimplified, since these stages occur gradually and simultaneously, it nevertheless serves to emphasise the risks associated with each stage of the puppy’s development.

In particular it illustrates:

• The inadequacy of energy reserves in puppies at birth, since fat deposits are formed late in development, despite being the puppy’s main method for storing energy. Puppies can only rely on low reserves of glycogen (in liver and muscles) to cover their needs during the first twelve hours or so after birth and will therefore be dependent on external heating sources until the development of the shiver reflex (after six days), the growth of adipose tissue (end of the third week) and the processes of temperature regulation.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

• The variation in eating requirements from one breed to another and of a single individual through the different phases of development. The body structure changes during growth: water and protein levels drop in favour of increased storage of fats and minerals.

• Obesity, which threatens small breeds far earlier in life than large breeds.

Most breed clubs have average growth curves for males and females that help to contextualise the weight development of a puppy from birth to adulthood. Depending on the breed and sex, the weight of a newborn puppy can vary between 70-700 grams. After post-birth weight loss, which must not exceed 10% on the first day, a puppy normally grows very quickly at a rate of 5-10% per day in the course of the first few weeks. Growth can be monitored by weighing the puppy at the same time every day. Large-breed puppies, whose adult weight is 100 times their birth weight, need very close attention.

Generally speaking, a puppy that fails to gain weight two days in succession requires close monitoring. The breeder should endeavour to identify the cause of any instance of stunted growth as quickly as possible. It may have something to do with the mother if the whole litter is affected (insufficient or toxic milk) or with individual factors if only individual puppies exhibit growth delay (cleft palate, access to teats and so on).

Other parameters worthy of regular monitoring in this period when morbidity and mortality can appear suddenly are whining, feeding and the behaviour of the mother, the puppy’s vitality, rectal temperature and state of hydration.

Behavioural development


Prior to weaning, the mother – much more than the father – participates actively in the puppies’ physical and behavioural development. This is a decisive factor in their development into well-balanced puppies that will be able to integrate into a new social environment when the time comes.

Without going into all the steps in the puppy’s development, bearing in mind that their chronology is different depending on the breed (small breeds develop earlier), a good number of mistakes and disappointments can be easily avoided through a simple understanding of when the puppy is receptive to training and when it is not.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

The puppy is not born with a fully developed nervous system.

It is blind and deaf, with a very rudimentary sense of smell and its nervous system is mostly lacking the myelin that forms an insulating sheath around many nerve fibres, increasing the speed at which impulses are conducted. Knowledge of the different steps in the puppy’s motor, physiological and sensory development plays a part in the early diagnosis of some disorders, but above all, it helps orient the puppy in the direction of their future use.

This means that deafness can be screened in predisposed breeds (Dalmatians, white Bull Terriers, dogs with merle coats or with a lack of pigmentation) from week four.

Generally, in the first two weeks, it is enough to check that the bitch has normal maternal instincts (especially how she grooms the puppies to stimulate their defaecation and urination reflexes) and to supervise feeding to ensure that the less spirited or more submissive puppies also get the opportunity to feed from the rear teats, which provide milk richer in nutrients. The puppies’ nails may need to be checked as they can sometimes injure the teats, which may cause the bitch to refuse to let the puppies suckle.

Behaviourists generally divide the puppy’s process of maturing into four successive stages.

Antenatal period


Les fœtus dans le milieu utérin ne sont pas totalement isolés du milieu extérieur. Le développement des techniques échographiques a en effet permis d’observer leurs réactions à la palpation transabdominale de la mère dès la quatrième semaine de gestation. Leur sens tactile se développe donc très tôt et rien n’interdit de penser qu’ils seraient sensibles aux caresses prodiguées à leur mère pendant sa gestation. De même, le stress de la mère peut vraisemblablement être ressenti par les chiots et aboutir à des avortements, des retards de croissance intra-utérins, des difficultés d’apprentissage après la naissance ou même des déficits immunitaires. Enfin, même si l’odorat ne se développe qu’après la naissance, la gustation apparaît plus précocement : il semble en effet que l’alimentation consommée par la mère pendant sa gestation puisse orienter par la suite les préférences alimentaires des chiots qu’elle porte.

While smell does not develop until after the puppy’s birth, taste is developed earlier. It would appear that the food consumed by the mother during gestation could form the puppies’ future food preferences.

Neonatal period


The neonatal period extends from birth until the puppies open their eyes. It is often known as the vegetative phase as, externally, most of a pup’s life seems to be dominated by sleep and a few reflex activities. The puppy reacts only to tactile stimulations and moves towards sources of warmth by crawling, which is made possible by the development of its nervous system. The myelin sheaths develop first at the front and then at the rear, which means the puppy can use its forelimbs before it can use its hind limbs.

During the neonatal period, the mother and her litter need no more than a warm and reassuring maternity unit. If the bitch’s maternal instinc seems to be lacking or the litter is small, the mother’s tactile stimulation of the puppies could be complemented by checking their reflexes (defaecation, urination, feeding, taste education). Other stimulation (music, toys, colours and so on) sometimes found in breeding establishments should be limited at this age as they merely disturb the litter’s sleep.

Transitional period

Also known as the ‘waking phase’, the transitional period starts when the eyes open (around 10 to 15 days) and ends when the puppy begins to hear, i.e. reacts to noises (in the fourth week). While sight is still not fully developed at this stage, the continuation of such behaviours as burrowing and tactile exploration will suggest possible sight problems.

During this period, puppies usually start to explore, play, follow their mother and recognise their immediate family (imprinting). The owner can take the opportunity to accustom the puppies to humans being around by playing with them and generally touching them. The puppies will grow to recognise and feel safe around human odours.

Socialisation period

As its name indicates, in the socialisation period puppies learn to live with others. It begins with a period of attraction (nothing scares them), generally followed by a period of aversion (fear of anything new). Puppies will gradually learn to communicate and acquire a sense of hierarchy by interpreting the reprimands and olfactory or postural signals of the mother.

EIf, due to lack of time or observation, full advantage is not taken of a puppy’s period of attraction (generally 3 to 9 weeks) to get it used to its future environment, it will be far more difficult to eliminate any bad habits later on.

It is advisable to make the most of this period when the puppy is extremely sensitive and malleable to:

• encourage contacts with future owners (particularly children) if it is to be a companion animal, and other people and animals it will have to tolerate (mail deliverers, people in uniforms, people from different ethnic backgrounds, cats, sheep and so on).

• Accustom it to stimuli it will encounter (noises, clothes smells, gunshots if it is to be used as a setter, pointer or other type of gundog, cars, helicopters, vacuum cleaners and so on).

• Help it to learn the hierarchy by, where necessary, ensuring it adopts submission postures (pinning it down on its back or taking it by the scruff of its neck). The same method can also be used to reinforce desired behaviour and teach the undesirability of inappropriate behaviour. Praise and reward appropriate behaviours.

• Increase play activities between puppies and sanction those that fail to control their biting.

• Observe its behaviour so as to be able to advise buyers on its character. The tendency to dominate is easy to spot at this stage during play, simulated mating and mealtimes. In some breeds – especially Cocker Spaniels and Golden Retrievers – aggressiveness may even be a reason to exclude the dog from shows and competitions due to non-conformity with the breed standard.

Many natural aptitudes can be acquired during this period, especially if the mother is already used to such stimuli and therefore has a calming effect on her litter during the period of aversion.

It is always a good idea to recommend a puppy that will suit the future owner’s situation (see Campbell tests) and provide advice on socialisation, complemented with veterinary leaflets and information during the purchase consultation. To ensure that the dog does not grow too attached to its owner – which can lead to it running amok when it is left alone – it is advisable to refer to the spontaneous natural breaking of the attachment between mother and puppy prior to puberty.

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First steps in the puppy’s development
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