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Puppy Conditioning and Socialisation During Critical Periods

Many people who acquire puppies at eight weeks of age need to consider a lot more than perhaps how cute and cuddly their puppy is.  They need to begin a training process based on effective communication; understanding how and when the puppy develops its character; socialising and conditioning; establishing sound behaviour patterns; and appeal to its wild ancestral instincts or the “Pack Instinct” as it is most commonly referred to.

During the puppy’s life, from birth to 16 weeks of age it will go through four developmental stages, or “critical periods”, and anything that happens to the pup during these periods, will have a determining effect on its eventual standard of temperament and character later in life.


From the dog owner’s point of view, it is important to understand these changes in order to be able to shape the character traits of their puppy. In this manner this puppy will be instilled with confidence and self assuredness. This is important if he is to grow up and be a well adjusted dog. A dog that can adapt to any situation or circumstance he may come upon, and most importantly can confidently live and interact with the human component in his life.




First Critical Period – Birth to 3 weeks

The puppy is totally reliant on his mother for everything; to give it warmth, food and hygiene.


Second Critical Period – 3 to 8 weeks

This is a major change for the puppy because now his senses of smell, hearing and sight, have developed and so has his ability to walk.  The environment he lives in will play a major role in his conditioning, as will the normal playing with his litter mates.  The playing is an important part of his learning process because it establishes an order of dominance or “pecking order”, from top dog down to the most submissive of the litter.  This is part of the “Pack Instinct” referred to earlier. However, the puppy must still have contact with his mother right through to 8 weeks of age. Quite simply, the mother will teach and discipline her young during their second critical period. If a puppy is removed from his kennel before he completes his 6 weeks of canine socialisation it could have an adverse effect on his temperament and therefore never really be able to compensate for such a sudden break. Contact with humans should take place around 5 weeks of age and continue until 8 weeks at which time the puppy is ready to leave his litter.


Third Critical Period – 8 to 12 weeks

The puppy is now ready to go to a new home. He has been weaned off his mother; had sufficient conditioning with his own kind; and has had enough social contact with humans to enable him to readily adapt to them. During this critical period, a great deal of teaching can take place.  Contrary to most peoples’ perception of training, it is not a formalised approach as you would see at an obedience school for adult dogs. This type of teaching is called “training on natural lines”,   whereby the pup owner utilises the puppy’s natural instincts to shape and develop sound behaviour patterns. Socialisation with people must continue as this will lead to the puppy accepting humans as part of his everyday life. The puppy can be taken for very short walks in order to introduce him further, to a complex environment that he will need to adapt to.



Fourth Critical Period – 12 weeks to 16 weeks

This is probably the last chance to condition and socialise the puppy to people and the outside world in order to gain the maximum potential for its adaptability and train-ability.  More complex situations should be introduced as the puppy gains more confidence; this conditioning should continue beyond 16 weeks until the puppy reaches 12 months of age. If the conditioning process is not considered before 16 weeks of age then the puppy will have missed the best chance to grow up as a well adjusted dog; a dog that any one of us would want as a companion.

To develop a sound temperament in your puppy you should pay attention to the following:

  1. a. When handling pups up to 16 weeks old, always move slowly, speak quietly and handle it gently. You should use a soft, coaxing tone of voice, so as not to frighten your puppy. It is going through a critical period of its life and its confidence should be built up.
  2. When using household appliances such as a broom, move slowly or else the pup may get a terrible fright and its temperament may be permanently affected. If visitors or friends come to your place, leave the pup in another room or outside. Seat them first and then ask them to allow your pup to investigate them in its own time. They can then gently stroke it.  The reason for all this is that rough handling by one friend can cause the pup to be suspicious of strangers or visitors for the rest of its life.
  3. When your pup is ten weeks take it for walks with plenty of freedom on the lead. Some vets may advise you to not take puppy out until 16 weeks of age (after it has had all its injections i.e. parvo, distemper, hepatitis & canine cough). However, to do this means risking your pup becoming nervous, distrustful, aggressive and fearful of people and surroundings. Putting it in perspective, more dogs get euthanized each year because of poor temperament than die from any of the aforementioned diseases. So take them out for walks to experience life before they get too old because after 16 weeks of age, it is too late to retrieve anything you failed to do for it earlier. During your walk, if pup shows suspicion for an object, go to that object and touch it whilst talking to the pup.  It will become curious and eventually investigate the object, thereby overcoming the suspicion it may have. The same applies to noises behind the wall or fence. Try to get behind the fence to allow the pup to see the source of the noise. In this way, your puppy gets a wide experience of people and places, and is carefully conditioned in a complex society such as ours, it should develop the good, steady temperament we would like to see in all dogs.