When a family decides to add a puppy to their home, it is an exciting time. There are trips to the local pet store to purchase just the right things to make a house feel like a home when Fido arrives. Many people wonder why eight weeks of age seems to be the magic number when it comes to bringing a puppy to join their home. However, some breeders prefer to hang onto their pups even longer than that with them first leaving the nest between 10-12 weeks of age. Is there a reason why puppies can’t come home younger than eight weeks? When are puppies old enough to be safely separated from their mothers?
What Age is the Right Age?
Though most people understand that a puppy must remain with his mother during the first few weeks of life when he is unable to hear, see, walk, or even regulate his own body temperature, some do wonder why a pup can’t join his new family as soon as he is safely able to toddle around on his own. A recent study conducted in Italy provides us with some powerful insights into this topic.
The study included 140 dogs as test subjects. Of the 140 animals selected, half of the dogs were removed from their mother and littermates between 30-40 days of life (approximately four to five weeks of age). The other half remained with their family of origin (mother and siblings) until 60 days (slightly over eight weeks). Upon further observation, it was determined that the puppies who left their mother and littermates at four to five weeks of age were at a far greater risk of developing future behavioral problems.
Why is this?
Temperament in dogs is shaped by two powerful factors: their genetics and their environment. While environment can be somewhat controlled to help shape future behavioral traits in a puppy, genetics cannot be. Temperament is inherited from the parents of the puppy and thus is already established.
The development of behavior in a puppy is significantly influenced by nature (genetics) and nurture (environment). All puppies pass through developmental periods, some of which include sections of time when they are particularly sensitive and impressionable. These periods must be approached delicately and with the intent of only exposing the puppy to stimuli that will yield positive results.
From approximately three weeks of age up until the puppy reaches 16 weeks, a puppy is primed to learn the vast majority of all the information he will assimilate to help him navigate his life as a dog. It is during this time period that puppies are open to new experiences and approach them with curiosity and little fear.
However, the things a puppy is exposed to can have a lasting impression on him. Negative experiences can leave an imprint on a puppy that will endure for a lifetime. This is why frequent and early socialization in a controlled and positive environment is so important. This is best accomplished under the care and supervision of the puppy’s mother and in the breeder’s home.
Why Does a Puppy Need to Stay with His Mother When He is No Longer Nursing?
The truth is puppies need their mothers for more than just warmth and nutrition. Long after a puppy has ceased to nurse and has moved on to gruel or mush, there are still important lessons to be learned.
One of the primary roles of a good mother dog is to teach her puppies how to navigate life as a dog existing in the human world. Because there is a communication barrier between people and dogs, there is no other means for this education to occur. Dogs who are removed from their mothers prior to eight weeks of age miss out on lessons from their mother that can be replicated by any human means, no matter how well-researched or well-intended.
Without the necessary social skills to understand a dog’s life in a human’s world, it is no wonder that many dogs end up with behavioral issues. Frustrated and without the ability to communicate, nuisance behaviors can develop that new owners are ill-equipped to understand.
What is the Primary Function of the Dam During the Socialization Process?
The mother dog provides her puppies with a sense of security. Just being near to her gives the puppies the confidence they need to boldly explore their surroundings.
A mother who is separated from her puppies prior to two to three weeks of age will become distraught. She understands her responsibility to care for her young, and the consequences for them if she is separated from them long-term.
However, puppies who are removed from the presence of their mother and/or siblings between three to six weeks of age become very upset. They crave the reassurance she provides for them simply by being near.
The Italian study reports the following statistics which pertain to the dogs who were separated from their mother prior to eight weeks of age:
- They were 15 times more likely to be fearful on walks.
- They were 7 times more likely to have attention-seeking behaviors and noise reactivity.
- They were 6 times more likely to bark excessively.
These few factors alone provide compelling reasons to allow puppies a minimum of two months under the care and supervision of their mother. They learn proper social development and life skills from her which cannot be learned via any other means.
Though socialization is a process that should be continued throughout the lifetime of a dog, there is never another time in a puppy’s life when he is more responsive to new stimuli than those early developmental weeks of his life. It is during this time that he is being shaped to accept his new world and his role in it.
So…at what age can a puppy be separated from his mother?
A reputable breeder will never allow a puppy to leave their home prior to eight weeks of age. However, some breeders prefer to provide additional support for their puppies by guiding them through those initial social development weeks. In these cases, the puppies may leave for their new homes between 10-12 weeks of age.
If you are on the hunt for your next puppy, be sure to contact a reputable breeder. You will know you’ve found one if they insist their puppies don’t leave home until after their eight week birthday!