Puppies and kittens are, I must admit, my favorite part of practice. Seeing these cute little bundles of energy for the first time always makes me smile. I am excited knowing they will have good homes and be cared for very well. One of the many things which fascinates me about these little ones is how fast they grow in size and how their behaviour matures with age. Every puppy and kitten is born with almost a full complement of neurons in the brain but the brain itself continues to grow during the first year of life. This growth is caused by the formation of interneurons or connections between neurons or brain cells. These connections form whenever puppies and kittens learn something so, in essence, the more they learn the more connections there are and bigger their brains become, to a certain limit. Research shows developing brains form connections at a rate of 50,000 per second (yes that many) so this suggests learning is happening at a very rapid rate.
Puppies and kittens learn different things at different ages. They learn to suckle right at birth, they learn to see and hear after 10 days when their eyes and ears open and they learn to socialize with the world between 8-16 weeks. If any one of these ‘learning times’ gets interrupted there is permanent mental impairment for the growing kitten or puppy. Those animals raised in the dark never learn to tell the difference between faces (animal or human) those raised in soundless areas cannot differentiate different sounds and become nervous when loud noises occur and those dogs and cats who are not exposed to many different people, animals and situations during the first 8-16 weeks of life become fearful and distrusting. Early socialization is important.
This seems to be more important with dogs since we, as their care givers like them to travel with us. Dogs who form those important brain connections at the right time of life handle change well, greet other dogs during play and are not afraid when exposed to different people or situations. Dogs can still learn after this 16 week period but they never gain the trust they would have developed if socialized early.
What does this all mean? Well, for puppies who are going to grow up and interact with people in and out of the family, they must be properly socialized early. Early being 8-12 weeks so any learning can be re-enforced during the 12-16 week time period. Puppies need to meet and play with other friendly dogs, they need to see many different people and have those people give tasty food treats. Puppies need to see the vet and learn we are not horrible people. The car for road trips, stores, loud noises, walking on a leash, getting used to a crate, all these things puppies need to experience in order to help them become well rounded, social members of your pack.
Early socialization of dogs to things they will be exposed to later in life encourages proper brain development and helps improve the quality of their lives. We only have small window of opportunity and we must take full advantage of it, for our dogs’ sake.
Written by: Dr. David Kerr, DVM