There are few things more magical than watching a puppy grow.
If you’re really in on all the action from day one, you’ll watch in awe as they open their eyes, carefully (and sometimes not so carefully) explore the environment around them with their nose and gradually grow into those oversized paws.
To help you know what to expect during the most adorable weeks of a puppy’s life, we asked Dr. Carlo Siracusa, veterinarian and associate professor of Clinical Behavior Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, to share key happenings and care information through the early stages, from day one to 48 weeks.
Stage one: Newborn to 3 weeks old — Silent senses
You may think interacting with a puppy early on only serves you — by optimizing the cuteness on all your social media channels — but, according to Siracusa, there are benefits for the puppy, too. During the first three weeks of life, a puppy is almost devoid of senses. Its eyes, ears and nose won’t work properly until week three, and they won’t respond to stimuli from humans until then, either. Puppies sleep most of the time, which is vital for a newborn’s development. Nevertheless, tactile stimulation can still foster the puppy’s development.
“Tactile stimulation is something that should happen,” Siracusa says, adding that there should always be respect for the puppies’ mother. “There are actually studies that show that a few minutes of stimulation and handling the puppies favors development. It makes the puppy more resistant to stress. Whether this is the fact that the puppies are touched, or another hypothesis is that touching puppies stimulates the mom’s licking of them. Whatever it is, handling puppies is important.”
Training during this period
You won’t actually be training this adorable ball of fluff for many, many weeks, but there are ways you can set puppies up for success, specifically by exposing them to background sounds that are typical of their environment.
“They should gradually be exposed to the stimuli that will be part of their life,” says Siracusa. “For example, we see that if a dog is born in a very quiet environment, like the countryside or the suburbs, and then moves to the city [later], then there are problems adapting to the environment.”
He recommends playing smart with your puppy during this time.
“If I play with my hands and the puppy goes bananas, I know that at some point the puppy is going to bite me,” Siracusa says. “The little teeth of a puppy are really sharp; they are painful! So at that point, punishing the puppy might promote some anxiety and stress for the puppy. So the best way to set the puppy up for success is, if you know the puppy is going to bite you, play with something else, not with your hand.”
Stage two: 3 to 8 weeks old — Socializing with siblings
If the first three weeks of life were the sleepyhead phase, this is the phase of awakenings! By the fourth week, the pup should be able to walk. There are important goings-ons between mother, puppy and siblings — strengthening the case for puppies staying with their mothers as long as possible early on. Mom begins weaning the pups and starts teaching discipline. The pup will socialize with its siblings and learn bite inhibition through puppy play-biting — skills that will come in handy later as they age.
“The senses, the sight, the smell and the hearing — they start to be more mature, so the dog can reach for stimuli from the environment,” says Siracusa. “This is when the socialization starts. Their fear threshold is still very high. Like children, they are not afraid of anything. They see something and immediately they throw themselves into it, whether it’s a big dog or another animal. Very young puppies are the same, because Mother Nature keeps this threshold for fear high, so the puppy can be exposed to the stimuli that would be part of the normal environment. Still, maternal care is the most relevant component here.”
Don’t forget to start your puppy’s vaccinations during this time. Consult with your vet to determine the right schedule for your pooch.
Training during this period
To help the puppy grow into a well-adjusted dog, Siracusa says it’s important to start to expose him or her to stimulation, under the careful supervision of mom.
“Hold it, handling it briefly, and start to have them used to being touched and our smells,” he says. “Around 8 weeks, they start to be more playful, so [engage in] gentle play with them.”
Careful interaction is key here.
“We want to keep our handling and interaction below the threshold for fear,” Siracusa says. “If there’s something that we do that the puppy thinks is scary, this is not a good form of socializing a puppy. It means exposing a puppy gradually to an environment that he has to get used to but always keeping the puppy below threshold. This is crucial in period three, because after eight weeks is when the threshold for fear starts to decrease. Puppies start to be more and more wary of stuff.”
Socializing with other dogs will usually start within the same litter, he notes, and once a puppy leaves its siblings — usually occurring between this stage and the next — socialization with other puppies can begin.
“It should be done, however, in a safe environment where puppies are in good health conditions,” Siracusa says. “Dog parks should be avoided, but reputable puppy classes in a clean environment can be a great opportunity for socialization.”
Stage three: 8 to 12 weeks old — Fear of the new
That adorable ball of fluff is becoming more independent and starting to really get the hang of physical coordination. They will continue to learn about everything around them, like what’s safe and unsafe.
“The puppy soaks up everything, like a sponge,” says Siracusa.
He recommends that the puppy’s adoption take place between state two and this stage, around 8 weeks old.
“Because [8 to 12 weeks old] is when the fear response starts to become more pronounced,” he says. “So if we wait too long, then it’s going to be more difficult to acclimate the puppy to our environment.”
The owner or care provider should try to make the puppy’s experiences during this period as positive and comforting as possible, because they can be hypersensitive to upsetting incidents.
Training during this period
From about 7 to 8 weeks of age, owners can start promoting some independence in their puppies.
“At the beginning, it can be as simple as having the dog chewing on a treat or toy while on a mat away from the owner, but in the same room,” Siracusa says. “This time of independence can then progressively be increased. But it is important to keep in mind that puppies need plenty of social interactions and should not be left alone for many hours.”
If a dog owner plans to get a puppy and then go to work for eight to 10 hours a day, “then he or she should reconsider the opportunity to acquire a dog,” Siracusa says.
Housebreaking can begin at 8 weeks old, and training by 9 weeks old. Negative experiences can have an impact on the pup, so take care, just like their mother would.
“Many people think that having guests come in and having everybody handling the puppy and picking up the puppy, we make the puppy good around people, [but] it’s not true,” Siracusa says. “If someone handles the puppy and he gets scared, for example, because we pick him up too quickly and he loses contact with the floor — or inadvertently while handling him, a young child causes some pain — these are not positive experiences. The same way positive experiences leave a long-term mark, negative experiences do. Negative experiences might even leave a more profound impression. So this is very, very important [to know] in stage three.”
Don’t encourage forms of play that are inappropriate, Siracusa says.
“The puppy has to learn that there is a way of playing with humans that does not imply biting their hands,” he says. “Instead of roughhousing with a puppy with your hands, use toys.”
Stage four: 12 to 24 weeks old — Chewing everything in sight
With the puppy’s first permanent teeth making their appearance now, chew toys are a must-have.
“Chewing is an exploratory behavior, so they chew a lot,” says Siracusa. “They start to be extremely proactive. Now they are more likely to leave the mother’s side and just go around and explore.”
He recommends an exercise pen or limited area where you can supervise the goings on.
“Provide the puppy with enough stimulation, enough toys and [human] contact and interaction,” he says. “Fill toys with some food inside to stimulate this chewing.”
This is also when you can enroll your puppy in its first training class, like a puppy socialization class.
“This is a good time to have exposure to people again in a controlled way,” he says. “Observe your puppy a lot. Start to pick up his body language. Start to understand when he’s feeling uncomfortable in a situation.”
Training during this period
This is the age to start practicing some easy training, Siracusa says.
“Start to work, for example, on calling the puppy with a happy voice,” he says. “Puppies and dogs, in general, are much more likely to listen to us if we use a happy tone of voice. There are studies that show this. They want to go for positive stimuli where they expect the outcome is going to be good. Work on gentle recalling and then giving a treat.”
This is also a very important time for house-training. Take them out when you anticipate that they are going to go potty, usually every two to three hours, definitely after meals and when they’re excited or when they wake up.
Crate training can also start during this stage and can help with potty training and separation anxiety.
“If he pees or poops in the crate, just clean it,” Siracusa says, adding that this is the time puppies should get used to staying in the crate. “Getting upset doesn’t fix anything.”
He suggests making the crate a fun place in the beginning to enforce the positive rather than negative.
“The dog should not be locked in the crate and left alone, because the dog will not associate the crate with a fun place,” Siracusa says. “He will associate the crate with a prison. We want to put in interesting toys, water — never deprive dogs of water, especially puppies. The crate should be a nice environment, not a timeout.”
Stage five: 24 to 48 weeks old — Teenage doghood
At this age, your pup is old enough to have regular walks outside, and the potty training may be complete. The more the dog matures, the more the training can become intensive, because his or her attention span has increased.
Exploratory behavior is important right now and all a part of the learning process.
“Allow the dog to sniff the environment when you bring the dog out for walks,” Siracusa says. “It’s OK for your dog to explore the environment, starting to recognize the smells, because dogs communicate through smells. He will learn how many dogs there are in the area. Allowing the dog to explore the environment at this age is very important.”
Typically, spaying or neutering of your puppy is done at 6 months old. Talk with your vet about timing.
Training during this period
“At this point I think you can move to more advanced training,” Siracusa says. “We might try to start exposing the dog to more professional training, for example, if we want him to be a working dog or want him to be an agility dog.”
It’s important to help your puppy acclimate to receiving regular veterinary care.
“When the dog goes to the vet for its first vaccines, then it should be exposed to positive things,” he says. “We use baby food a lot with our patients. While they are eating some baby food, that is when the veterinarian is doing the vaccines. This type of gradual exposure should continue throughout the other stages.”
Try getting the dog used to the waiting room by doing what Siracusa calls “happy visits.”
“Sitting in the waiting room, giving some treats to the dog and go back home,” he says. “We need to get the dog used to it now, when it’s easy to handle. Otherwise, when its big, then it might actually be trouble.”
The challenges and excitement of owning and caring for your new dog don’t end after 48 weeks. Check out The Complete Guide to Owning a Dog, so you are always prepared to provide the best care possible for that special member of your family.