Puppy Development Stages - what to expect
Puppies like children go through distinct stages of physical and emotional development. As a puppy parent it is helpful to know what to expect to bring out the potential in your puppy.
Please keep in mind the stages are a general guideline. Every puppy is different, and your puppy might develop faster and slower than others, breeze through some stages or have more difficulties in other stages. Don’t worry…it is all completely normal and doesn’t make you a bad pawrent! Your puppy will develop in its own way and in its own time.
Neonatal Stage: 0 – 3 weeks
From birth your puppy has developed senses of taste and touch. It is totally reliant on its mother and will seek her touch and vocalise to communicate with her. Puppies sleep a lot during this stage as they go through a period of rapid development.
Transitional Stage: 2 -4 weeks
Your puppy is starting to become more aware of its surroundings. Eyes and ears start to open. Your puppy will start to stand and walk around to explore its world. It will still sleep a lot but also start interacting with its littermates.
First Socialisation Stage: 4 - 8 weeks
Puppy starts learning about pack ranking and it will start wrestling with its littermates and learning about ‘bite inhibition’. If the force of the puppy’s bite is too hard its littermates or mum will refuse to play with them. Puppy soon learns how to moderate its bite force (called bite inhibition) so that the play and fun continues.
During this phase your puppy will pick up cues from its mother about its environment. A calm, happy and sociable mother will help shape the behaviour of the puppies. This stage is critical for development and a good breeder will ensure that puppies are exposed to a wide range of different sounds and positive human interactions.
By about 6 weeks of age, the unique personality (also called temperament) of each puppy is starting to shine through. Instinctual behaviours in some breeds may also become evident such as retrieving in Labrador Retrievers, pointing in German Short-Haired Pointers and herding in Border Collies.
Second Socialisation Stage: 8-12 weeks (Your puppy is like a toddler!)
It is at this stage that puppies are now ready to go to their forever homes and start life with a new family!
It is a critical phase for your puppy and you! Establishing a positive and loving bond with your pup should be the most important thing you do when it arrives home. Spend time with your puppy so they can get to know you and develop a bond with you.
Puppies at this age will typically begin to experience some fears to loud noises and potentially scary situations. It is important to not ‘coddle’ your puppy when these fears arise but reassure them by speaking to them in a calm and confident tone. Keep socialising them to as many different environments, people, sounds and situations as possible.
It is during this time that you will be toilet training your puppy and getting them to know the rules of the household. Use positive reinforcement as you don’t want to damage your bond with your pup which could cause behavioural problems later.
Ranking Stage: 3 – 6 months (Tweens)
Your puppy will be growing like a weed and may be eating you out of house and home!
Your puppy will also be developing its confidence. You might find that one minute you have a very confident pup and the next minute a scaredy pup. It is not uncommon for puppies to go through a fear/flight period at this age.
Keep up with the socialisation and training so that your puppy keeps steadily developing its confidence. Obedience schools are a fantastic investment in your dog to further its training (and yours as a dog owner) and helps your pup learn to listen to you while it is around other people and other dogs.
In the tweens stage your puppy is also learning its place in the pack and the rules of the house. Be fair and consistent in your training! At this age, your puppy will remember that one time you broke your own rule and let it up on the couch. Then you will have to train it out of it again! Consistency is key!
Your puppy might also be teething at this stage so do provide plenty of chew toys to help them through this painful stage. Frozen treats in Kong toys, frozen vegetables or fruit can provide some relief to painful gums.
Early Adolescent Stage: 6 – 12 months (Teenagers!)
Congratulations you are now raising a teenager! Like human teenagers, dogs in this age range tend to test boundaries. It might seem that your perfectly trained puppy suddenly knows nothing at all!
Don’t panic…this is normal!
As the parent it can be frustrating, but you just need to be fair, firm and consistent. If you give the dog a command and it doesn’t do it, then insist they listen and, if you need to, gently place them into the commanded position. You might also give a verbal correction such as a “no” or “ahhuh…not this time buddy”. Your pup is growing up, testing your boundaries and needs to learn that the rules are the rules!
On the plus side your puppy’s memory and focus will be improving so you can make some good strides in their training.
Adolescent Stage: 12-18 months (Becoming mature!)
During this phase your puppy might be physically developed but still mentally very much a puppy. Keep up their training and consistency with the house rules and they will develop into well behaved mature dogs.
Your puppy might also be still testing the boundaries and their rank in the pack. It is important to be the consistent but fair leader. I am not advocating any physical punishment here as it is not needed but do use an assertive voice and follow through on commands. Your pup will be testing the boundaries and will remember the naughty behaviours just as well (if not better) than the good behaviours!
Between 6 months and 15 months of age (with some variation), if unsterilised, your pup will reach sexual maturity. Once the dog has reached sexual maturity it will start emotionally maturing as well.
However, there is a lot of variation between breeds and even between individual dogs of the same litter. Some dogs might take a long time to mature mentally whilst others will mature fast. Some might stay more playful, energetic, and puppy-like than others.
While you have set a good foundation for your dog, it is still important to socialise your mature dog as they can often develop fear periods throughout their lifetime. Keep taking them to new places and meeting people and other dogs.
Mental stimulation is also vital! Your dog is never too old to learn so keep teaching them throughout their life. Dogs love to learn. The mental stimulation of learning obedience, dog sports or tricks will keep your dog happy and strengthen the bond between you and your dog!
Dr Erika Alacs is a biologist and professional dog trainer. Erika and her husband Phoenix are the developers of Brave Puppy app which is an innovative sound socialisation/training tool they developed to help their own dogs overcome their noise phobias and over-excitability.