Puppies and Learning
During the first two weeks of a puppy's life, also known as the neonate
period, puppies can learn simple associations. However, early experience events
are unlikely to carry over into later periods. Studies indicate that puppies in
the neonate period do not seem to learn by experience. It is theorized that this
is due to the fact that the puppy’s brain, sense, and motor organs are still
undeveloped. Based on its limited capacity to sense and learn it would be
difficult to affect the puppy psychologically, either in a positive or negative
The next period of development is known as the socialization period. This is arguably the most important developmental period, beginning around 3 weeks (21 days) old, and ending around 12 weeks old. The biggest aspect of this period is social play. Social investigation (curiosity), playful fighting and playful sexual behavior (body contact) is very important to developing social relationships during its life. New behavior patterns are directly influenced by the puppy’s interaction with its mother and other puppies in the litter.
This is a time for developing social relationships, both among other puppies as well as with people. These behaviors are relatively easy for any individual who stays with the puppies during this period. However, there is a point where the puppies can develop a fear of strangers. At 3-5 weeks of age, puppies will actively approach strangers. Shortly thereafter stranger avoidance begins and slowly escalates until it peaks around 12-14 weeks of age. (Beaver, 1999) While this natural fear of strangers could serve as a way to keep a curious puppy away from predators, it can also hinder normal relationships with people.
During this period, startle reactions to sudden movement and sounds is now present. This serves to help the puppy learn to differentiate between which events are dangerous, and which events are safe or insignificant. During the socialization period, the development of attachment to certain locations occurs. This is displayed by an extreme disturbance in the puppy whenever a change in location occurs. This is known as “localization”. “Localization” often peaks in puppies between 6-7 weeks old, and then tapers off after that time to the point where a change in location is no longer distressing to the puppy.
Dogs that are handled and petted by humans regularly during the first eight weeks of life are generally much more amenable to being trained and living in human households. Ideally, puppies should be placed in their permanent homes between about 8 and 10 weeks of age. In some places it is against the law to take puppies away from their mothers before the age of 8 weeks. Before this age, puppies are still learning tremendous amounts of socialization skills from their mother. Puppies are innately more fearful of new things during the period from 10 to 12 weeks, which makes it harder for them to adapt to a new home.
Puppies can begin learning tricks and commands as early as 8 weeks of age; the only limitations are the pup's stamina, concentration, and physical coordination. It is much easier to live with young dogs that have already learned basic commands such as sit. Waiting until the puppy is older and has already learned undesirable habits makes the training much more challenging.