The Journey of a Puppy – the Stages of Puppyhood and How to Handle Them

Getting a new puppy is such an exciting time.  All the fun, games and mischief that ensue make it a wonderful period with lots of great memories and plenty of fantastically cute photos to look back on.  It is, however, easy to get carried away with the anticipation and thrill of it all and forget to consider the crucial practicalities and the needs of your new puppy.

It is really important to remember that your puppy will need to be introduced to the big wide world in a careful and considered way.  This helps set them up for the best and most happy future.

It is also extremely important that if you are choosing to get a puppy from a breeder rather than adopting, that you take the time to research very carefully.  The way that the pup has been raised in the crucial early weeks can also have a big impact on the future behaviour of your dog too.

Bringing home a new puppy is an exciting time but making sure you are helping your puppy to deal with their different developmental stages is also vital (photo credit: Pixaby)

Want to know more about your puppies life stages and what they mean?  We have pulled together a handy summary below.

1. The Neonatal Phase (birth to 2 weeks): Mum is key right now

What to look for:  During this phase, your puppy is at their most helpless, they will not be able to open their eyes yet and many people don’t realise that they can’t actually hear when they are first born too.  They are totally reliant on their mother during this phase. She stimulates their bladder to ensure that they go to the toilet and she makes sure that they stay warm and nourished.

Their movement is very restricted although they can crawl a little and you will hear them to start to make small vocalisations when looking for their mother.

What action should you take:  At this stage, the puppies should start to experience very gentle and short periods of handling.  They are more susceptible to germs so it is very important that you thoroughly wash your hands and keep everything very clean and disinfected (with an appropriate product that is suitable to be used around young puppies).  Be respectful of Mum, she will be feeling very protective and worried about her pups at this stage.

Pups are at their most helpless in this stage and need their mum to protect them

2. The Transitional Phase (2 to 4 weeks): The Introduction of novel objects

What to look for: The pups hearing starts to develop and their eyes start to open and they begin to respond to light and shade, although they will not be able to see fully yet.  Their sense of taste and smell is heightened, their crawling capabilities will increase and they will start to stand and try a bit of a wobbly walk. You may even see them start to wag their tail a bit and there will be more definite interaction with their littermates.  Their little teeth also start to come in. They start to defecate without the assistance of mum at this stage too.

What action should you take: Continual gentle daily handling and gentle chatter to get them used to a human voice are still crucial during this phase.  You should also be starting to introduce new, safe items to the puppies at this point, without overwhelming them with too much.  Items like knotted towels and cardboard boxes (if supervised with them).

If you want the puppies to have an increased likelihood of getting on with cats and there is one in the household, this is the time to start careful and highly supervised introductions.

If there is a cat in the household, now is the time to start introductions with the puppy to help maximise the chance of a good relationship in the future 

3. The Awareness Phase (4 – 5 weeks):  Starting the weaning process and have a stable environment

What to look for: The pups are becoming much more independent now.  They don’t need mum to help regulate their temperature anymore and they are little sponges, soaking up all the new experiences around them. This is the phase when learning really begins and you will see them start to play with their littermates.

What action should you take:  It is vital that the puppies have a very stable environment at this stage, don’t make any big changes.  Their learning is starting and bad experiences can have a big negative impact. They should never be separated from mum and their other littermates at this stage.  It is also crucial that, whilst you want to continue exposing them to new things for short periods in their environment you do not want to stress them out by overloading them with too much too soon.

The pups can also start the gradual weaning process from mums milk and onto solid food.

You will start to see puppies initiate play with one another during this stage 

4. Canine Socialisation Phase (4 weeks to 7 weeks): Pups learn to be dogs

What to look for: They start learning about body language, facial expressions, bite inhibition, vocalisation, how to invite play and social hierarchy including learning to use submissive postures and accepting discipline.  The pups will start to develop their own distinct little personalities.

What action should you take: It is really important that pup continues to remain with mum and littermates during this time to allow them to learn all these new social skills.  Some pups can be removed too early to go to new homes and this can have a huge impact on their future ability to socialise with other dogs appropriately.  They may be fearful, not understand how to communicate or read signals from other dogs or not have learned bite inhibition and be too rough.

At this stage making a distinction between sleep and play areas is important. Some breeders will introduce puppies to a crate at this point and it can help with future house training.

The introduction of positive reinforcement training can now begin and pups can perhaps be separated from their littermates for very short periods at this point to spend time with humans only and this can help avoid it being such a startling change when they go to their new homes.

Puppies start to learn to read body language and their social skills with their littermates grow 

5. Human Socialisation Phase (7 to 12 weeks): Making the transition to their new family home

What to look for: pups can form very strong and deep bonds with “their” humans at this stage.  From 8  to 11 weeks the pups also go through what is known as a fearful stage.  They are extremely sensitive to scary experiences.  If something frightens them it can be very traumatic for them and can influence their future behaviour greatly.  If they have a scary experience with a child in this stage, for example, it can mean they will likely carry a fear of children into adulthood that will be much harder to deal with.  See our article on how to have a harmonious relationship between dogs and children.

Puppies learn at an extremely fast rate at this stage and experiences in this phase can have the most lasting impact on their future life.

What action should you take:  It is important to ensure they are continuing to be exposed to new people, environments, objects and experiences but in a very considered and positive fashion.  This is the time, for example, when you may want to take your pup to the vet, just to get everyone to give them lots of tasty treats and cuddles or start getting them used to going into the car, building up to short trips.  

Positive introductions to dogs outside their litter group is also important at this stage.  Consider taking them along to a well-managed puppy class which involves careful introductions and positive training methods.  A puppy socialisation class where all that happens is free for all puppy play is not the right sort of environment for your puppy.

Make sure any training you are doing is short, fun and very positive.  Puppies only have a very short attention span so you don’t want to try to do too much and risk them losing interest.  Go with our much-used mantra of “setting your pup up for success”.

Introductions to children need to be calm, positive and gentle 

6. Seniority Classification Phase (10 to 16 weeks): Pup starts pushing the boundaries

What to look for:  Your pup is going to start to look for more independence and trying to figure out who the boss is, they may start to puppy mouth and bite more frequently.  They will be testing the boundaries.

What action should you take:  it is really important that in this phase you reward the behaviour you want and redirect the behaviour you don’t.  See our article on further tips for dealing with puppy biting.

It is important to discourage rough mouthing and puppy biting which can increase during this stage

7. Flight Instinct Phase (4 to 8 months): Suddenly your pup has no recall

What to look for: We so often hear new puppy owners say they are surprised how good their pup has been when off leash when they first start going on walks.  This is usually just because the pup is in their first fear phase and they stick close to their humans because they are a bit nervous about the great unknown.

This can all change in the Flight Instinct stage as dogs start to really develop their independence and their sense of adventure and go through a puberty type phase.  They might stop listening when they are called, even if you have worked really hard on getting a solid recall, and be more inclined to venture further afield. They may also up the ante with their mouthing behaviour (they will also have their adult teeth coming through).

What action should you take: We would recommend keeping your dog on the leash during this phase and working on loose leash walking, you could always use a long line to allow them a great sense of freedom.  If they keep running off and being rewarded by lots of fun and adventures, perhaps play with other off-leash dogs,  and you are not able to get them back they will learn that running away is more rewarding than coming back when called.  

Keep working on recall training whilst you use the long line and heavily reward any good behaviour.  See our recall article for more information on getting your pup to come back to you reliably.

We would also recommend having lots of safe and appropriate chewing items for you to redirect your dog to if they start becoming mouthy.  See our article recommending some safe interactive toys.

Make sure you have plenty of appropriate chewing toys available for your pup during this stage 

8. Second Fear Phase (6 to 14 months): Your pup suddenly starts to get nervous around things they were fine with before

What to look for:  Your dog is in their teenage phase now.  They are starting to reach maturity sexually and you will start to notice your male dog cocking his leg and female dogs will go into heat.  Your dog may suddenly start to react fearfully or aggressively towards things that they had previously been totally fine with and new things may frighten them more than they did previously.  Their hormones can make them a bit ‘flaky’. During this phase, maturity can take longer to appear in larger breeds.

What action you should take:  If your pup is showing fearful behaviour it is really important not to punish them as this can make their fear even worse.  It is important to reward any positive/ non-fearful reaction or when there is no reaction to something new or that they have developed a fear of.  For more information on how to deal with this please read out fearful dog article.  Try not to overwhelm your pup with too many new experiences during this phase.

9.  The Full Maturity Phase (between 1 and 2 years):  Your little puppy is all grown up!

During this time your dog will reach their full size and their full sexual maturity.  This generally relates to the size of the dog. Usually, the bigger breeds take a lot longer to reach full maturity than the smaller dogs, some can actually take up to 4 years to reach full sexual maturity.

If there have been particular problem behaviours that you have been lax in working on during the puppy phases these can really embed in your dog during this time.

It is really important to keep up the training, positive reinforcement around behaviours that you are looking for and making sure you offer plenty of enrichment and stimulation to keep your dog healthy and happy.  

Larger breeds take longer to reach maturity

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