Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Happy Golden Retriever Puppy

Just like most mammals, dogs are born at a relatively early stage of development, exposed to the world before they can live independently, or indeed, before their senses have fully formed. During the exciting period of a puppy’s first few months, they must learn to feed, think, gain control of their body, and integrate with other dogs and humans.

Puppyhood is a time when positive experiences can pave the way to a life as a well-adjusted and happy adult, while negative experiences can lead to long-term problems. Having an understanding of the rapid transitions between stages of development during this period can help owners support and nurture their pet through puppyhood and adolescence.

Neonatal Period (0–2 weeks)

Newborn Golden Retriever

Newborn Golden Retriever

The newborn puppy is blind and deaf, with eyes and ears that are neither fully formed nor fully open. His thin and sparse coat and rotund body shape mean he is unable to regulate his own core body temperature, and must rely on his mother’s and siblings’ warmth to prevent hypothermia. This stage is all about growth and survival, and the pup spends all his time either sleeping or feeding.

In the first 48 hours, the permeability of the newborn’s intestine allows him to absorb vital antibodies from the mother’s milk. These antibodies will endow him with some immunity from serious illness for the next 6 weeks, at which point he can mount his own response to vaccination. The mother must stimulate the bowel and bladder to empty by licking the perineal region under the tail, as the pup cannot control this himself.

Transition Period (2–4 weeks)

Golden Retriever at 4 Weeks

4-Week Golden Retriever

As anyone who has every bred a litter of puppies will tell you, one of the most exciting experiences is seeing the young pups open their eyes for the first time. Although their vision is blurry, and consists mostly of shadows and light, they clearly begin to respond to visual stimuli around two weeks of age. This also coincides with the ears beginning to function, meaning the pup is suddenly exposed to a wealth of sensory stimuli. It is important at this point to avoid loud noises or other frightening experiences, as the pup’s developing brain may find these difficult to process, possibly leading to fearfulness in later life.

He begins to urinate and defecate independently, although the mother is likely to continue helping. His appetite grows exponentially, and the mother needs extra nutrition during the next few weeks to keep up with his demands until he can eat solid food for himself. The pup’s milk teeth begin to erupt around this time, and curiosity may lead him to lick or nibble at the mother’s food, although this is too early a stage to encourage weaning.

Learning to use his newly discovered limbs presents a considerable challenge to the pup, and he will spend much of his time ‘swimming’ and waddling around. However, his focus is still very much on feeding, and interactions between pups are limited to gnawing and competing for the best suckling spot between two and three weeks of age. Toward the end of this period, pups will show clear signs of recognising their mother and siblings from a distance, and owners who have spent time with the litter up to this point will probably also be rewarded with squeaks of excitement when they approach.

Socialisation Period (4–7 weeks)

Golden Retriever at 6 Weeks

6-Week Golden Retriever

By four weeks, the incredible rate of development means that our little pup is now mobile, alert, and very curious! Exploratory behaviours are seen from this age, meaning the pup begins to push boundaries in every sense to develop his own perception of the world. He will begin to wander from his mother and siblings, although he is initially likely to be retrieved by the mother any time she feels he is being a little too brave.

Littermates and familiar humans are clearly recognised, and the pup begins to devote much of his time to play. This serves a number of purposes, providing much-needed stimulation to the growing brain, as well as allowing the puppies to establish a pecking order. The more boisterous and exuberant pups will assert themselves as the dominant members of the family, usually getting to lie on top of their siblings when sleeping, as well as securing their places at the most productive teats when feeding.

Their increasing strength and enthusiasm mean that the mother may begin to find it difficult and uncomfortable to feed the pups as much as they demand, and so now is also the period when weaning begins, with the pups being introduced to soft food and encouraged to lap from a dish. This is a messy business! For at least the first week, the pups will get more food in their hair than in their mouths, and for large litters, the owners may need to help out with cleaning and grooming, using a wet flannel to remove the worst of the caked-on milk or food.

This is called the socialisation period for a very good reason, and it is vital that pups are exposed to humans during this time. Stray puppies rescued after this point will always have, to a greater or lesser extent, an in-built fear of people. Gentle, regular handling is essential at least twice a day, though in reality, pups will benefit from much more. Although children are great at playing with and socialising puppies, one must be careful that the pups are not handled roughly or dropped. Aside from the risks of injury, painful or stressful experiences can have a lasting impact.

Fearful Period (7–12 weeks)

Golden Retriever at 10 Weeks

10-Week Golden Retriever

By 7–8 weeks of age, the pup has learned basic etiquette and behaviour from his mother. Siblings begin to become more competitive, and the playful battles for supremacy become a little more vigorous and heated. He has hopefully received adequate exposure to humans, and by avoiding negative experiences to this point is now confident enough to explore the world. However, this confidence is superficial, and the pup is now aware enough of its environment to realise that its mother and siblings do not themselves have full control of their lives – much of this control lies with their owners.

For this reason, it is around now that pups begin to gravitate toward humans, and those that do not receive a lot of one-to-one attention during this period will again have issues with fearfulness and nervousness throughout their lives. Although going to a new home can present a major stress, one which needs to be handled with care and consideration of the pup’s emotions, this is an ideal time for rehoming, as the pup is seeking human leadership and companionship, and will quickly bond with the new owners.

During this phase, pups also begin to develop the capacity to learn basic commands, and the very brightest may begin to appreciate the importance of housetraining. However, the reason this phase is labelled the ‘fearful period’ is that the huge transitions in the puppy’s life render him highly sensitive. Harsh correction, physical punishment, and shouting are all to be avoided. Attempting to rush the process of housetraining, for example, by following the age-old advice to show the puppy his ‘mess’ and then administer a slap to the nose, is the most counterproductive training approach imaginable, teaching the pup nothing but to fear physical contact from the owner. Now, and always, the dog will respond best to positive feedback when he behaves as desired.

Juvenile and Ranking Periods (3–6 months)

Golden Retriever Puppy at 6 Months

6-Month Golden Retriever

While these stages are considered separate by some authorities on the subject of development, they overlap considerably, both in terms of time and behaviours. The puppy has learned some basic commands, has an appreciation of good behaviour, and has (more or less) mastered use of his growing body. His energy levels seem to increase daily, and owners need to be prepared to indulge in periods of play, as well as introducing daily walks to help vent this energy. Even with the most dedicated commitment to exercise, however, it is inevitable that some of this zest for life will be misdirected, and it is from now that typical ‘nuisance’ behaviours, such as chewing and digging, will begin to appear.

As a normal part of this phase, most pups will begin to attempt to move up the social hierarchy. This is perfectly natural in the setting of a pack of dogs, where the youngest and strongest members of the pack will make the most useful senior figures, to the benefit of the other dogs. By progressing from the earlier games of wrestling with his siblings to the point where he is ready to physically challenge other dogs, the pup ensures both the security of the pack and his own position within it. However, as we have taken dogs out of this natural setting and placed them within our human families, this is not a behaviour we want to encourage.

As a first step, pups at this age must be discouraged from ‘mouthing’ or playing competitive games, such as tug-of-war. Children in the family should be coached to say a firm ‘No!’ and to walk away when the pup becomes over-exuberant during play. Any signs of aggression, such as bites which pierce the skin, or snarling, must be quickly dealt with by placing the pup away from the family, using a lead if necessary. By diligently and firmly set the ground rules of acceptable behaviour, the pup will quickly realise where the boundaries are, and will learn to happily accept his position in the family structure. Being too permissive or forgiving of this kind of behaviour can lead to devastating behavioural problems later in life.

Of course, some chewing or biting is legitimately explained as teething behaviour. During this time, keeping several robust chew toys in the freezer is a really good idea, as the pup will appreciate the relief to his aching gums, and is likely to prefer to chew on something cold than on a child’s trouser leg!

Obedience training is important throughout this period; juvenile puppies, like children, are veritable sponges, looking to soak up as much information as possible. Training not only provides mental stimulation, but also reinforces the owner’s dominant position in the family. Puppy training classes are an ideal environment for the stimulation they provide, but also for the guidance and input of a behavioural expert.

Adolescence (6–18 months)

Golden Retriever at 18 Months

18-Month Golden Retriever

Our puppy is now almost an adult – how time flies by! Although close to physical maturity, he is still learning, and will continue to sometimes behave inappropriately and have higher energy levels than an adult dog. It is important throughout this period to continue reinforcing all the good habits taught to this point, to practise regular obedience training, and to provide plenty of exercise. Although most of the pup’s behavioural traits are fairly well established, major trauma during this time frame can have longer-term effects, and owners should make an effort to continually provide opportunities for positive socialisation, both with humans and with other dogs.

Adolescence passes quickly in some dogs, who may appear mature in every respect by one year of age, but can drag on in others; for example, the Lhasa Apso is known to retain puppy-like characteristics well into adulthood. One must remember to be patient during this period, providing corrective guidance when needed, but not expecting perfect behaviour at all times. Remember, we were all teenagers once!

Puppy Timeline in Review

  1. Neonate - The pup is blind, deaf and helpless. He relies on his mother for warmth, food, and to help with bodily functions. He spends all his time feeding and sleeping.
  2. Transition - The senses awaken, with the eyes and ears beginning to function. The pup becomes aware of his surroundings and makes early attempts to explore his surroundings. He may show an interest in tasting food.
  3. Socialisation - Within the safety of his litter, the pup begins to venture further from the mother, and spends much of his time wrestling and playing with his littermates. Humans are recognised, and the pup begins to enjoy being handled and spoken to. Weaning is almost complete.
  4. Fearful - The pup gains an awareness of the world beyond his litter, and is ready for a new home. He will bond strongly to his owners at this point, but is sensitive to stress. He is capable of understanding commands, but needs gentle encouragement in training.
  5. Juvenile - The growing pup is energetic and boisterous. He needs regular exercise and obedience training to help control his increasingly mischievous behaviour.
  6. Ranking - He attempts to establish a higher position for himself in the family structure. Behaviours, such as chewing and growling, can no longer be tolerated, even in play. Strong leadership from the owner helps assure the pup he should remain submissive.
  7. Adolescence - Although almost fully grown, the pup’s brain is still developing. A consistent approach to training and discipline, combined with patience, will help the pup through this phase and toward a happy adult life.