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Are Puppies Blank Slates?

As many of you already know, I currently have three rescued dogs, Luna, Esther and Prim. Despite having an already full household, with the addition of three cats (Cass, Inara and Selina), I still find myself browsing through petfinder at the hundreds of dogs (and cats) currently still looking for their forever home. It’s sad to think about the number of pets who sit her waiting for months and even years before finding a home and family to call their own. Even sadder are the pets who wait forever and never find their own family.

A lot of times the ones most often overlooked are the elderly or the sick. People want that cute little puppy. And I think a common misnomer to one of the reasons people are still hesitant to adopt is they’re worried about “adopting” someone else’s issues. A lot of people assume that dogs in shelters or foster homes have been given up because there is something wrong with them.

I think this fear of adopting a dog “with problems” from a shelter, leads a lot of potential families to looking at breeders. They want a puppy whom they can “raise right” and who comes to them as a “blank” slate. But is any of this true? Is getting a puppy from a breeder a better route than adopting another dog (of any age) from a shelter? There as an interesting dog study that was done that looked at this a similar question – which you can check out here.

To be honest, I’ve often wondered the same thing. As a dog trainer, I know a lot of the right ways to train a pup and I’ve seen a startling contrast between how I raised my first TLC dog Rufus and how I’ve raised my second TLC dog Esther. Rufus was adopted at age 7 and Esther was adopted at 6 months. Rufus was raised by a loving dog owner who had read some books and thought she knew things sometimes. Esther was raised by a certified dog trainer who knew all about the benefits of positive reinforcement and force free training. I’ve found myself wondering as of late, as puppies go through such critical stages of development between 8 and 16 weeks old, would getting my next dog at this young of age, produce a better household pet? At this young of age, they’re essentially blank slates right? Ready for you to imprint all your knowledge on to right?

Turns out what the study found was a kin to the whole nature vs nurture question. In this study they took two mom dogs each with a litter and switched the litters. One mom was extremely nervous and another mom was very friendly and confident. So switch their liters and the idea was these blank slate puppies would take on the traits their new mom showed them right? Turns out not so much. The puppies from the fearful mom, remained fearful even with their new momma showing them all the ropes about life and how exciting it could be. The puppies from the confident mom suddenly became fearful as well without the guidance of a confident mom to show them the ropes. Two moms of opposite ends of the spectrum, yet both ended up with puppies leaning towards the fearful side.

The authors proposed a kind of spectrum of fearfulness and how that potential was influenced both by environment and genetics. Take for instance this graph from the study above, about one of the fearful puppies who was given to the bold momma. Here were her end results.


Her genes from her fearful parents gave her a genetic potential leaning towards the fearful spectrum of thing but the influence of the bold mom (environment) placed her towards the bold end of her potential. Yet the end result was she still leaned towards being on the fearful side of things. While these traits are not set in stone and can fluctuate a bit throughout a dogs life, this dog will likely never be the kind of dog who runs up to a stranger and becomes instantly friends.

Thinking of these traits in my own dogs I can define see these influences taking hold. My old dog Rufus was a puppy mill rescue who spend the first five-ish years of his life in a cage without much people interaction. He likely came from parents who suffered the same fate. Coming from such a limited environment and additionally coming from stressed fearful parents, definitely played a part on his ability to think and learn in the future. After I had him for a few years, he was always eager to participate in activities, but never was the smartest bulb in the group. Despite me providing him with all the building blocks for learning, the genetic potential for learning new things was definitely limited. Was he smarter and happier after I adopted him? Absolutely! Would he ever go on to win smartest dog of the year….. Definitely not. 😉

In Esther, she came into the shelter at only 8 weeks old, and was immediately surrounded by various volunteers and dogs and experiences. When I adopted her a few months later, and began training her you could definitely see her potential blossom. Now it’s like having a conversation with an infant. “Can you please get down?” or “Hop on up” results in her actively doing those things instead of staring blankly with a wagging tail like Rufus 😉 However her limited exposure to men growing up in a predominately female run shelter has led her to be fearful of new guys from day one – something we are constantly working on improving even to this day (she’s 7 now).

In Luna, she came to me a feral who would literally scream if you startled her or tried to pet her those first few weeks. She’d panic if she saw a person walking 75 feet away. Now, nearly two years later, we can pass a person walking or running on the sidewalk from about 6 feet away. We can walk in a park and have dogs and people pass us. But it has taken us TWO years to get to this state. All because her environment and genetics predisposed her towards being fearful of new (and scary!) things. We’re working against that predisposition. Is it possible? Clearly yes. Is it easy? Definitely no.

The conclusion after looking both at my own dogs and reading the study above is that you’re never going to know with absolute certain what type of dog you’re going to get. The older dogs, even the 1-2 year olds, have a lot of their genetic traits out in the open. They’re going to present themselves as they are. Fearful dogs will be fearful and bolder dogs will be bolder. With puppies, who are still actively being influenced by their genes these traits are harder to determine and can often manifest as the puppy ages and matures.

To me, I firmly believe, you don’t always get the dog that you want, but you get a dog that will help you grow. Rufus, despite not being an A+ student, I learned all about unconditional love from a dog whose only request in life was to be WITH you. From Esther, I’ve learned to appreciate her endless enthusiasm for life and it’s experiences. From Prim, who’s deaf and blind, I’ve learned a great deal of patience and gentle ways to approach and interact with a critter who’s world consists only of touch and scent. From Luna, I’ve learned to appreciate the small steps of progress and forget about the “somedays” and “maybes” and focus on the now. All dogs change us, no matter where they come from. And all will present challenges and hurdles throughout their lives. Love them. Train them. And love them some more.

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Puppies Galore!

Summer is one of the most popular times to (ADOPT!) a new member of your family. So many folks believe that adopting a puppy is the better route because they are a “blank” slate which you can (and should) train. Many folks believe that puppies won’t have any behavioral issues or training issues built in because they’ve not had any time to learn any bad habits from previous owners or situations. However that sadly isn’t the case.

A lot of folks go out to buy a puppy from someone online, or someone they know. The issue here is that a majority of these sellers know absolutely bupkis about how to raise a puppy. Iowa’s lack of animal regulatory laws don’t help much either. We have no requirement for folks selling a small amount of dogs and worse yet no laws that prohibit when these puppies can be sold. And as we all know, the smaller a puppy is the cuter they are. So puppies go young. Super young.

One of my clients, who was working with me on a behavioral issue with their adolescent dog, told me they go their puppy at 4 weeks old. FOUR WEEKS folks. That’s insane to me. They told me they had to bottle feed the puppy after he started losing weight and refused to eat puppy food. Puppies aren’t fully weaned until between 6-8 weeks old. Additionally you have to worry about the lack of socialization these young dogs will have.

See puppies go through what’s known as a fear imprint period between 8 and 11 weeks (and again between 6 and 14 months) during this period of time things that are startle or scare the puppy can have a lasting imprint in their minds as being things they should be fearful of. When do most folks sell their puppy – eight weeks. Right when that fear imprint period starts. Then the puppy is taken away from their family, given new food with new people in a new home. In my mind that’s just setting the puppy up for failure.

Ideally sixteen weeks would be the best time for puppies to find their new home. At this age they have learned a lot of the body language social cues they need to be able to survive in the world. They know how to tell another dog that they want to play. They know how to tell another dog they do or do not like what they are doing. All using their own language through how they hold and carry their bodies. They learn all this magical communication from their siblings and moms and it’s incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to teach a dog how to speak “dog” as a human.

Additionally dogs learn one of the most important skills a dog can ever have. They learn about bite inhibition. This is when a puppy learns how hard they can bite down before it cause pain to whatever they are biting. It is amazingly important for a dog to know this skill. Imagine a situation when you accidentally step on Fido’s tail in the kitchen. It hurts. You startle him. He snaps. I’d 100% LOVE if he just mouthed me instead of biting down hard enough to break the skin. Puppies learn this skill through play with their siblings. Bite down too hard and your brother/sister doesn’t like that. They’ll yelp and stop playing with you. As a puppy, you have to learn how to play with your mouth and not cause pain so you can keep playing.

Socialization is extremely key too. Dogs go through a key socialization period up until 16 weeks / 4 months. During this time, you need to and should expose them to all sorts of random people, things and other critters. People wearing hats. People holding umbrellas. Tall people. Short people. Kids. Elderly. And more. But exposure can’t be the only thing you do. The exposure has to be a positive one. The puppy needs to see the novel thing and walk away thinking “MAN was that thing great!” Puppies are going through that fear imprint period too so interactions with novel things must be positive ones.

In theory, RESPONSIBLE breeder should know all about fear imprint stages, and how key socialization is to their wards. But in practice, this knowledge seems few and far between. In my opinion, adopting a slightly older dog 16 weeks / 4 months or greater from a shelter ensures you with the best outcome. These dogs are in facilities that KNOW about puppy development and have access to resources to get the puppy extra help if they need it. These puppies will have tons of exposure to different types of people (volunteers) and different sights/sounds. Plus you get to tell these breeders than you want a puppy raised right, in a home, surrounded by people and kids, not a puppy raised in a barn or garage and sold to make a quick buck.

AND if none of that has convinced you yet – you get to save a life. And that is probably one of the best gifts you could ever get you or your family.