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Puppy Benchmarks: Critical Periods in Puppy Development

by Ed Bailey • February 14, 2012 •                                               

Missteps during the weaning process can cause problems you don’t want pup to have.

Behavior problems avoided are problems that don’t need to be fixed. In the case of dogs, most behavior problems are created, or at least abetted, initially by choice of parents and more often by mistakes made during the pup’s first 12 weeks of life.

Pups have several benchmark periods critical to good behavioral development. The first of these periods occurs the moment a sperm penetrates an ovum to create the zygote with its random assortment of genes. These are the behavioral traits rooted in the genetics of the dog.

Behavior Genetics is a whole field of study unto itself, based primarily on probabilities and not on absolutes. A breeder and potential buyers can do little more to control the genetics of behavior than to control what comes up on the toss of dice. Behavioral evaluation of the parents, all the progenitors and their close relatives would be required, after which the probabilities of heritable characteristics would have to be worked out.

Breeders have to do lots of detective work, do the best job they can of predicting and be very lucky. Breeding dogs is not your average exact science.

Optimal Conditions
The next critical time period is the 63 days of gestation, particularly the last month. The direct control at this time is the chemistry and flow of blood carrying oxygen and nutrition to the developing pups nestled snug in the uterus. The control the breeder has is once removed, in that he is the supplier of nutrition to the mom-to-be, and he has to keep environmental factors as perfect as possible for the bitch to minimize chemical, physiological and environmental stress on her in order to maintain the best in uterus environment for the pups.

During this period developing pups are influenced by blood chemistry, signals transmitted across the placental barrier and by vibration (sounds) of blood rushing, heartbeat of the mom and her gut rumblings. These are essential mom-identifying signals, necessary to attract and guide pups to the milk bar when parturition finally comes along.

Then comes parturition and the start of the most important developmental period. Both dam and breeder will now play critical roles for the next 10 to 12 weeks. This is the period when all socialization occurs. Chemical associations formed during gestation now become the smell signals that direct the pup to a nipple to start feeding. Gut sounds detected in the uterus as vibrations are soon heard as sounds and help guide the pup to mom’s milk.

From the pup’s birth, and daily from then on, the breeder and everyone else should tenderly pick up, hold, and examine each pup. Gentle handling provides a mild stress that helps speed development and prepares the pup to adapt to social and environmental changes more easily later in life.

Eyes open at 10 to 14 days of age, enabling visual associations with the previously formed tactile, auditory and olfactory associations. The pup can now add shape to the things it previously only bumped into, smelled and heard. Fear has not yet developed, so all things seen, smelled, heard and felt are considered good stuff, just like when pup was in uterus.

Because fear only begins developing in week six, these associations formed from two to six weeks will last as “good stuff” associations for the pup’s entire life. For this reason, prospective buyers should visit, pick up and handle any litter of pups they might be interested in. Olfactory imprints made prior to fear assure a lifelong positive relationship between pup and owner, because the pup forever identifies the smell of all individuals met at this time with low anxiety—again, good stuff.

Get Movin’
Mobility kicks in during the fourth week when pups get their legs and begin investigating the immediate environment.

At this time pups should be provided with obstacles to go over and around in order to obtain some goal. See-through ramps and steps will give

the pup confidence as well as teach it to work for a living, a “you have to do something to get something you want” philosophy.

In wild canids, fox and coyote, the parents move pups from the natal den to one with rocks, tree roots, or fence rails to give the pups a challenging playpen during the fourth week for this same reason. Mobility also gives pups more latitude for interactions with littermates and mom. It is the beginning of the pup learning that it is a dog.

Removal from the litter at four or five weeks will cause hardships for the rest of the pups’ lives, because they have no dog-on-dog socialization, so they know nothing of being a dog. Similarly, they’ve probably had little or no dog-with-people socialization. The puppy mills, producing all those fuzzy little dogs with weird compound breed names for the pet store trade, thrive on this early removal of pups. Pups don’t.

Handling pups at this age can become more energetic; rolling them over, holding them back or away, looking in mouth, ears, at teeth and between toes will be very beneficial for things later in life like toenail clipping, cleaning ears and examining teeth. The rough-and-tumble competitive and combative play behavior among pups coincides with mobility.

No matter how vigorous it appears, mom must be the one to intervene if it gets too rough. People interference here will quickly teach the pup help will be there if I complain long and loud enough. Pups quickly learn during this period so running to their rescue teaches them to screech until someone rescues them. They will forever lack self-reliance. They learn to be wimps.

Mom will begin the weaning process during the seventh week, a very important milestone. Mistakes made during this period will result in problems you don’t want to have your dog learn.

Fear starts to develop during the sixth week, escalates rapidly through the seventh and by the eighth, the rate of increase starts to decrease, to max out in the tenth week. But if properly prepared during the low anxiety period prior to the escalation of fear, pups will show a startle response to some fearful event but will quickly return to a normal level because of the preformed associations with only good stuff.

Handling the pups at this time reinforces the people bonding they got in their first six weeks, but the major learning during their last four to six weeks together has to be from the mother and littermates.

The period from mobility to 12 weeks is the most critical for pups to interact with the dam and the littermates. This is the time when pups learn the subtle body language, the postures and the messages to be used in all social situations their entire lives. All dog social amenities are learned during this short four-to-12-week window of opportunity. This is the time a pup learns to be a dog, discovering what starts fights and what stops them. And learns all the social signals in an adolescent way so they have them available as adults.

If this period is cut short or missed, it can never be regained. And it can only be obtained in the litter with mom and the siblings. The window for socialization on dogs and on people closes forever at 12 weeks. Everything after that is practice, honing the social skills of a well-based pup, all set to take on training.


Preparing for the new arrival

(From the French Bulldog of America Website)

Few things are as exciting as getting a new Frenchie puppy!  But in the heat of the moment, don’t forget to take some advance precautions to insure that the new member of your family will be healthy, safe, and happy.

Your sales contract should specify that you will have a vet examine your new puppy within just a few days of purchase.  If you already have a good vet, excellent!  Otherwise, find one in advance  The vet should listen to the pup’s heart and lungs, feel its abdomen to check for hernias or tenderness, look in the ears and eyes to make sure that they are clean and free of injury or disease, look in the mouth, and examine the coat and skin.

Depending on the age of the puppy she may also examine the hips and stifles and palpate the spine to check for abnormal curvatures.  A stool sample should be checked to make sure that the puppy is free of parasites; this is especially important if you have other dogs who could become infected.  A blood test must also be done before beginning heartworm prevention.

Discuss with your vet what vaccinations she would recommend.   The Vaccine Guideline Group for the World Small Animal Veterinary Association has a website with the current guidelines.  You can download this as a pdf from  Also ask what diet your vet recommends for the puppy, unless its breeder has given you some good advice about that.


A crate with bedding
A wire crate that is 24″ X 16″ X 18″ is best; airline shipping crates are not well
ventilated enough.  Best of all is a collapsible wire crate that you can fold up and transport easily.  A soft pad or carpet scrap in the bottom, with a nice fleece pad on it and perhaps a little baby blanket for cold weather makes a great bed for a puppy.

A “day bed”
Most Frenchies love the soft oval or rectangular beds that they can snooze in when they are not in their crates.  Though many like to  nap in their crates too, most enjoy a bed that is in the middle of the family action so that they can keep an eye on things while they rest.

Food and water bowls                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Get a size that will accommodate the pup’s needs after it grows up, as many dogs become fond of their “baby bowls.”  Some Frenchies love to pick up their bowls and dump the contents out, even chewing the rims on occasion.  If your dog shows a tendency to do this, then the more indestructible the bowl, the better.  A heavy ceramic or pottery bowl is less likely to scoot around than a metal one and is harder to tip over.  While you may wish to make food available only at specific times, the puppy should always have access to clean, fresh water.

Collar or harness and lead
Avoid flea collars; instead get a sturdy collar or harness that can be adjusted as the pup grows.  Once grown, a well fitted leather collar or harness is best, and the harness is good because it does not place pressure on the dog’s trachea.  Whatever collar your dog wears, it should have his tags on it from day one, including one with your name, phone number and address.  Even though he will be microchipped, this can help get him safely home in a hurry if he should somehow get loose!

Exercise Pen or Baby Gates

Until he is housebroken, you will need to be able to confine the pup in a small, warm area where you can put his bed in one spot, and some newspapers in another.  A laundry room with a baby gate on the door might work, or you can buy a scrap of vinyl floor covering to put down someplace else in the house during this period of housebreaking.

Some toys are safe for Frenchies; others aren’t.  During the teething period, Gummabone toys are best, as those needle-like teeth will shred soft stuffies and the puppy might swallow the squeaker or chunks of stuffing or fabric.  Rawhide, pig’s ears, and cow hooves are NOT safe!  The rawhide and ears become soft and can clog the pup’s airway, while hooves can splinter and puncture the cheek or palate.  Soft rubber toys are not a good idea as they are easily chewed up and swallowed.  Instead, give the puppy hard rubber toys, or those indestructible rope toys, or Gummabones.

Grooming Equipment
Start early with nail trimming.  Whether you use one of the types of trimmers or a Dremel tool, early handling of the feet and gentle but frequent trimming will get your puppy used to this essential procedure early on.  Have on hand a gentle ear cleanser (without alcohol or talc), a grooming mitt for the coat, and a mild shampoo in case he rolls in something he shouldn’t.

Cleanup Supplies                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         You can buy “Piddle Pads” that are scented with what is supposed to clue the puppy in as to what is to be done on them.  These can be helpful in housebreakingIt’s also a good idea to have a supply of paper towels and carpet cleaner on hand until such time as no more “accidents” occur.


“Puppy Proof” your home.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Having a puppy is like having a 2-year old kid, only the puppy has more and sharper teeth.  Get down on the floor and look at the house through the pup’s eyes.  Are there dangling electrical cords that a puppy might find irresistible?  Window shade cords?  Spilled food, cleaning supplies, little objects that can be swallowed, anything toxic?  Be SURE that there is no antifreeze anywhere on the premises as a tiny amount of this will kill your puppy.  Keep candy, and especially chocolate or anything containing sorbitol, like sugarless gum, out of reach.  Shoes and socks, too, unless you want to have to replace them.

Secure the yard.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                If it is not fenced, then provide a safe area where he can be confined, or take him out only on a lead.

Keep your house and car cool.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        If you live in a hot climate you must have air conditioning in both.

With proper planning and preparation, your new Frenchie will soon feel safe, secure, and at home in your house.