Your puppy is not a blank slate

Here’s why…

  1. Your puppy is a product of its parents’ genes.

These provide the blueprint for appearance, temperament and behavior.  This is why a Jack Russell looks and acts like a Jack Russell, and a Labrador looks and acts like a Labrador.  If you want a dog that will look and act like a Labrador, you are going to need to choose a Labrador, not a Jack Russell.

But wait, there’s more.  Within the Labrador breed you will find differences in appearance, temperament and behavior too. They still aren’t Jack Russells, but they aren't clones either.

  1. Your puppy is also a product of epigenetics.

The field of epigenetics has shown that the environment can change the way genes are expressed.  The environment can include a whole range of things; foods, sleep patterns, social dynamics, climate etc.  Your genes (and your dog’s genes) are constantly experiencing the environment and changing accordingly. When it’s time to breed and pass on these genes, some genes might not be completely wiped clean of these environmental adjustments. As a result more than just the basic genetic code is passed down from generation to generation.

Research on humans has found that people who experience feast or famine at critical times in their development can pass on molecular information which affects the genetic expression and health of their offspring (and even their grandchildren!).

This means your ‘clean slate’ puppy already has some hidden chalk marks at conception.

63 days of development before birth … is 63 days in an environment; the womb.  The healthy, well cared for, relaxed, enriched mother is going to provide a much more favorable environment for her unborn puppies than a sick, neglected, bored or distressed mother.

Birth to homing (8 to 10 weeks) … is time in another environment; the breeder's home. The mother’s well being and care giving; interactions with litter mates and other animals in the same household; the sounds which puppies hear; the people they meet; the effort made by the people who are rearing the puppies to keep them healthy, to nurture, enrich and socialize them; all make a difference to the puppy’s slate.

  1. Your puppy has already learnt a lot (or a little).

By the time you collect the puppy to join your family, it has already had many (or few) experiences. There has already been enormous physical, mental and emotional development (or not much at all).

“…early experience is vital not because it is the first learning, but rather because it affects the brain’s development…

Brains grow, just like legs or any other body part. Legs not only can walk, but they must walk in order to grow properly. Legs that do not walk while they are growing (critical period) wither and become useless. The same is true of brains.

Brains grow in two ways: they get bigger and they change shape. How much they grow and which way they change shape depends on the kinds of environmental stimulation they receive during their first sixteen weeks.

The period of the most rapid brain growth is also … the critical period for social development. A day old livestock guardian puppy has a brain volume of about ten cubic cm. By the time the pup is weaned at eight weeks, it is sixty cubic cms. By the time it is sixteen weeks, its brain is eighty cubic cms and rapidly approaching full size at a little over one hundred cubic cms.

At birth, a puppy has essentially all the brain cells it is ever going to have during its whole life.

…how can a brain grow ten times bigger? The answer is that brain growth is almost entirely in the connections between the cells. Of all the brain cells present at birth, a huge number are not connected or wired together. What takes place during puppy development is the wiring pattern of the nerve cells."

P. 111 Ray and Lorna Coppinger in Dogs – a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution.

The less emphasis on constructive development there has been,  the more work you need to do with your puppy and you need to ACT FAST.  Except acting FAST might still mean going VERY SLOWLY with a nervous, neglected or unsocialized puppy. 

These little chaps will need time to adjust to their new home before expecting them to cope with anything in the outside world. Tiny positive steps every day as part of a grand puppy development plan will be CRITICAL.  You are now providing the puppy’s environment and you, your family, your friends, your pets, and your home are part of that environment.

Sadly, your puppy is unlikely to ever be the puppy he or she could have been if the early environment had been more favorable. You can still make a difference, but the longer you wait to begin … the more work you will need to put in, over a longer time period – for very variable results.

On the other hand, the bold, healthy, well socialized puppy has already had a great start and all you need to do is keep building on those strong foundations. You still need a grand plan, and an awareness of your particular puppy’s temperament, strengths, weaknesses and breed traits. You cannot afford to just STOP and WATCH your puppy grow up. You too have a responsibility to help that puppy be as good as it can possibly be and this will take ongoing effort.

My wish is that trainers/ behaviourists would be asked for support to prevent problems, rather than trying to fix them later when so much damage has already been done.

I would like to see:

      1. Support for breeders and rescues who actively strive to rear healthy well balanced puppies. (Check out Jane Killion’s Puppy Culture resources)
      2. New owners taking the time to carefully select healthy, well balanced puppies of suitable breeds/ types for their home. (Avoid impulse buys.)
      3. Owners seeking EARLY support to avoid problems occurring or worsening. (Once problem behaviours  are well practiced and deeply entrenched they are much more difficult to adjust. )
      4. Ongoing socializing, training, enrichment and exercise with those puppies so that they develop into the great companions they deserve to be and their owners deserve to have. (Practice all those valuable life skills which build great human beings too!)

Don’t celebrate that your 6 month old puppy is a ‘finished product’ because it topped its puppy class and is well behaved now. We don’t assume human children are 'finished products' because they topped kindergarten and are well behaved at 5 years old. We know the job is ongoing and will become more difficult. They will change, need more education and more social skills. Heck, I'm well into middle age and still constantly working on self development!

So be creative, be curious, be interested, be proactive and see just how amazing the story and illustrations on your puppy's slate can become!

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Positively Expert: Diana Bird

Diana lives in NZ. She is intensely interested in behaviour, teaching, learning, and self development. She strives to generalise positive reinforcement ideas to her life and relationships with other people.


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