Puppy Developmental Stages

Puppies, just like human children, are not born with fully developed brains. Like human children, puppies progress through psychological, emotional and mental stages as they grow. These stages then progress into adulthood and beyond into their geriatric years

Developmental stages are sensitive and critical periods of behavioral development and learning. These limited stages of development allow for the optimal time for stimulus contact, environmental exposure and social experience. These stages are guidelines as different breeds may transition from developmental stages at different rates.

From 3-16 week of age puppies are in the most crucial learning and developmental time of their entire lives. Experiences that they have, or do not have, during this time can have a lifelong effect.

As you will see, your breeder, as well as yourself, as you adopt a puppy, both play a crucial role in your puppy’s behavioral development. Understanding these stages can help you help your puppy get the right start in life and develop into a confident and well-mannered adult who fulfills your dreams as a companion dog.

Prenatal: In Utero. This time when puppies are developing in their mother’s uterus can have a critical effect on the emotional and physiological development of the puppies. The mother’s nutrition can effect physical development of the puppies’ bodies as well as brain development. Puppies born of mother dogs who are repeatedly exposed to fear, stress or anxiety related situations are more likely to be emotionally unstable and reactive.

Neonatal: Birth to 12 days. Puppies are born with their eyes and ears closed. They cannot see nor hear at this time of development. Their sensory perceptions are limited to temperature (warm or cold), pressure, movement taste and small. The mother licks the puppies’ anogenital region to stimulate urination and defecation. During this period puppies spend most of their time sleeping or nursing.

Some rudimentary learning does take place during this period. Approach and withdrawal responses is present from birth. At this stage puppies show an avoidance response to painful stimuli or noxious/unpleasant odors. External influences will long term effects on development and behavior.

Breeders who are well versed in raising puppies via the Avidog or Puppy Culture science based puppy raising practices can start developing stress resistant puppies to adult dogs during this stage.

Transitional: 12 days to 3 weeks/Toddler. During this stage puppies become more active and independent. Their eyes open, at approximately 12-14 days, with poor vision at that time. They may begin to walk, albeit unsteadily, as early as day 12. At about 20 days their ears open. Teeth start to immerge at this time also. Their desire for social contact becomes greater than their desire to nurse. Puppies who are weaned prior to 15 days are predisposed to developing compulsive behaviors such as suckling and kneading on cloth like objects, as adult dogs. Their developing neurologic and sensory abilities influence their ability to learn.

Breeders who are smart on science based puppy raising procedures outlined in programs such as Avidog or Puppy Culture, will start to add novel items for the puppies to explore to the puppy area at this time.

Socialization: 3 weeks to 12-16 weeks. This is a critical period were puppies learn to relate to, communicate with, and feel comfortable with other dogs/animals, humans (male/female/children…) as well as their environment. This is the most influential learning period of a puppy’s entire life! Lessons they learn, or do not learn, during this time will influence their future as an adult dog.

This stage can be broken into Primary and Secondary Socialization Stages.

Primary Socialization runs 3-5 weeks and is in whole influenced by the breeder’s ability to provide novel and safe social learning opportunities.

The Secondary Socialization Period runs from 6-12/16 weeks and is influenced by the breeder and the person(s) who adopt the puppy.

The lack of positive exposure and experiences during this crucial developmental period will prohibit a puppy from reaching his/her full potential and may support fear, stress and anxiety related behaviors in the adult dog.

Based on electroencephalograms (EEG) studies, the puppy brain is adult like at 8 weeks of age and functions on an adult like level of learning at this age. Positive foundation training should begin at this time.

Many puppies are adopted into their new homes at 8 weeks of age. (See Fear Periods below).

Juvenile: 12 weeks to sexual Maturity. This period begins as the socialization period is coming to an end. It continues until sexual maturity begins. Permanent teeth start to immerge by 4 months of age. Puppies become more independent as juveniles.

Continued socialization is important beyond the end of the critical socialization stage. Lack of continued socialization can cause for a regression and support the onset of fearful tendencies. Between 12 and 16 weeks of age puppies become more progressing reluctant to approach unfamiliar people or new and unfamiliar objects.

Adolescent: Sexual to Social Maturity. This period starts at the onset of sexual maturity and progresses to the point of social maturity, at 2-3 years of age, depending on breed type. Consistency and predictability in your relationship, communication, training and generally management is important at this time. Training sessions should be based in science supported positive reinforcement methodologies that build trust and a cooperative learning-teaching relationship. Enrichment via both mental and physical exercise is important.

Behavior concerns associated with fear, anxiety and aggression may become more pronounced at this time. Should this occur, seek out a well-educated science based trainer for assistance.

Adult: Social Maturity to 7+ Years. Dogs become socially mature at 2-3 years of age, depending on breed type. Although small breed dogs generally live longer than large breed dogs, small breed dogs will mature faster than large breed dogs. Adult dogs are generally more confident as they are in the physical and mental prime of their lives.

Senior: 7+ Years: Dogs are considered seniors as they are 7 plus years old, although smaller breeds, due to their longer life spans are considered seniors at 10-12 years of age. This time in a dog’s life may be associated with degenerative processes such as arthritis, reduced hearing capacity, reduced visual capacity, and the musculature atrophy. Cognitive dysfunction may develop and behavioral changes may result.

*Fear Periods: Puppies progress through 2 fear periods as the mature into adult dogs.

The First Fear Period occurs between 8-10 weeks of age. Traumatic experience that induce fear during this critical time can become generalized and create a lifelong concern.

Avoiding possible fear inducing situations during this time can help your puppy develop more confidently as an adult.

The Second Fear Period is not so easy to pin down and predict. The onset of the second fear period can immerge anytime between 6 and 14 months of age and can last from 1-3 weeks in duration. Adolescent dogs going through this second fear period may seem apprehensive and fearful of unfamiliar as well as familiar situations. Fear inducing and traumatic situations should be avoided during this time.