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Caring for the brains of young pups
  1. Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, Diplomate ACVB, CAAB
  1. 10 County Lane, Glen Mills, PA 19342, USA
  1. E-mail for correspondence: kloverallvmd{at}

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VETERINARY surgeons, dog trainers, dog breeders and rescue services frequently, often automatically, recommend that puppies are ‘socialised’. What this means, why it's important and how ‘socialisation’ should be executed are often left undiscussed. In a paper summarised in this week's issue of Veterinary Record, Pierantoni and others (2011) strongly suggest that if we are interested in the welfare and behavioural health of puppies, and in keeping patients in our practices rather than in shelters or our freezers, few discussions are more important.

Classic research by Scott, Fuller and colleagues (summarised in Scott and Fuller 1965) generated the following broad conclusions, which are implicit in our recommendations today.

  • From birth to 13 days old puppies are dependent on rudimentary locomotor skills, and use tactile signals to locate and orientate towards dams and littermates. If separated from dams, puppies vocalise. Olfactory ability is present, but is poorly characterised in dogs at this age.

  • Mild stress of daily/early handling is beneficial for puppies and allows them to better cope with later stresses. Excessive stress should be avoided because chronic, excess secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone has been correlated with a decreased ability to learn.

  • From days 13 to 20 dogs become more coordinated, open their eyes, and begin to startle to sound. The change in motor abilities coincides with eruption of teeth at approximately day 20 and with improved vision.

  • Tail-wagging behaviour appears at the end of this 20-day period, varying greatly by breed.

  • If pups are exposed to passive observers, …

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