Consequences When Puppies Taken Away From Litter Too Early

Sadly, many new and ignorant breeders don’t understand the consequences when puppies are taken away from their litter too early.

It is of great importance that puppies remain with the dam and litter until they are 8 weeks of age or older.

It appears that they think that once their puppies are no longer nursing, they are ready to go to new homes. This is a huge mistake! Puppies separated from their dam and litter mates too early often fail to develop appropriate social skills, such as how to send and receive signals, what an inhibited bite means (acceptable mouthing pressure), how far to go in play wrestling, and so forth.

Interaction with littermates and adult dogs, as well as the play interactions that occur, are also important for puppies because it increases their physical coordination, social skills, and learning limits. By interacting with their dam and littermates, puppies explore the ranking process (who’s in charge) and also learn how to be a dog.

A study done in Italy and reported in Veterinary Record, the official journal of the British Veterinary Association, provided evidence that puppies should not be separated from their mother and litter mates too early.

The study, entitled Prevalence of owner-reported behaviors in dogs separated from the litter at two different ages, involved 140 adult dogs.1 Half were taken from their litters at thirty to forty days (four to five weeks old) of age. (This is too young, of course, but is common with puppies that come from puppy mills and backyard breeders, who have no care about the future development and life of the puppy.) Half of the puppies in the study were removed at 60 days (eight weeks old).

Half the dogs were purchased at pet shops, a third came from a friend or relative, and the rest came from breeders. The study results indicated the puppies separated early from their litters were significantly more likely to develop behavioral problems as adults than puppies who stayed with their littermates and Dams for at least two months. Research suggests many of the social and behavioral problems seen in adult dogs have their roots in early separation from the litter.

Social responsiveness (Scott 1958)
Patterns of active and passive agonistic behavior (Fox 1966)
General activity levels (Wright 1983)
1 Pierantoni, M., Albertini, F., & Pirrone, F. (2011, October 20). Prevalence of owner-reported behaviors in dogs separated from the litter at two different ages. Retrieved September 18, 2015.

Reactions to separation (Pettijohn 1977)
Approach-avoidance patterns (Fox 1966)
The development of social hierarchical relationships (Scott and Fuller 1965)
Anxiety (Ramos and Mills 2009)
Functional fear responses (Melzack and Scott 1957)
Researchers stated, “Much of what is learned during the sensitive period results in stimulus-specific and long-lasting behavioral changes, potentially providing a foundation for many adult behavior patterns and problems as stated above (Fox 1978, Godbout and others 2007)

They went on to say that when absent from the security of their dam and siblings, the early separated puppies were much more likely than the other group to exhibit avoidance and fearful behaviors. Specifically, they were:

Fifteen times more likely to be fearful on walks
Seven times more likely to have attention-seeking behaviors and noise reactivity
Six times more likely to bark excessively
They also found behavioral problems were more likely to develop in dogs obtained from shelters and pet shops, as well as in strays since it is reasonably assumed that puppies in these groups weren’t adequately socialized.

From three weeks of age through twelve to fourteen weeks of age, a puppy’s brain is primed to accept new experiences with minimal fear. The experiences the pup has during this sensitive time have the capacity to modify the brain. What the puppy experiences (or doesn’t experience) during this stage of development has a profound impact on his adult character, temperament and behavior.

Author’s note: I like to encourage the new puppy families to continue to create fun and different experiences for their puppies the rest of their lives.