April 21, 2005

The Precocious Learning Period

This is another early conditioning period that occurs between 2-3 weeks and 12-14 weeks. The behaviours of particulat interest in this phase are elimination, eating and vocalization.

From three weeks on, the puppy tends to leave its bedding to eliminate, and by 8 weeks it eliminates in specific spots where typical odors spark the elimination reflex. If this critical period is used to condition puppy to eliminating in an appropriate spot, then house training by the new owner is a simple matter of respecting the socio-ecological conditions the puppy is used to. If the 3-4 week old puppy is allowed to leave the bedding area, and use strategically placed litter appropriately scent marked then house training is well on its way. Experiments (described in Dehasse) with puppies limited to one area, showed that at 15 weeks it was impossible for them to learn to use other media and locations to the point where they would 'hold on' for hours until they returned to their bedding area.

Food conditioning studies have been conducted on cats, and it seems that there is a 'food imprinting' phase during the period from 3 to 12 weeks, where feeding puppy on a single type of food, invariable in taste , texture and appearance can lead to long-term preferences and rejection of other types of food. During this precocious learning period, puppy should be introduced to the range of food that will form his adult diet.

Barking from distress when left alone in an unknown place, increases from 3 to 6-8 weeks and then decreases until 12 weeks, reflecting a progressive attachment to a familiar place followed by increasing emotional maturity. When a puppy is acquired at seven weeks and left alone at night it will bark in distress. If it then receives reinforcement for barking through attention it may not move beyond this stage, and will always fret when left. If steps are taken to keep its environment fairly familiar (like putting its crate in your room) until it reaches 12 weeks and is emotionally mature enough to cope with a new environment, then it will not develop the habit of barking when left alone.

I think this is incredibly interesting, and it flies in the face of most advice to new puppy owners to "start as you mean to continue".

Dehasse says that barking is easy to condition. In the wild vocalisation diminishes with maturity as the pup adopts intraspecific communication such as postures and rituals. However communication with humans reinforces the vocal element. By constantly 'barking' at them, we actually teach our dogs the habit that most annoys dog owners and their neighbours.

2 comments:

Sue said...

I have a largish whelping box, and at about three weeks I divide it in half with a low rail and put bedding on one side and newspaper on the other. When I clean up I leave a couple of sheets of used newpaper and put clean on top so the scent is still there.

At about four-five weeks I open the gate on the whelping box to let the puppies out to a play area. They really do run back to the toilet area to pee, even at four weeks.

LaNelle said...

The way we respond to their vocal cues from the earliest age sets them up either to use that kind of
communication or to find some other way to get what they want. I have really been noticing the last
couple of days how much more attentive I am to sounds from the box than Sheila is; being a "2nd mama" to these little ones, my first instinct is to run to the
one who is "in distress" and scoop him up and make it better. If I do, I am probably going to set them up to howl when they want the least little thing, so since Sheila is an excellent mother I think I will try to take cues from her about how respond to their
crying. It may be noisy around here for a bit but I am hoping their future parents will thank me for it.