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Puppy Steps (Part 1)

You’ve made a deposit and you want your puppy.  At what age should the breeder allow the litter to be separated and go to their new home?  Your author is a member of several hunting dog Facebook forums and sees this topic frequently debated.  Everyone has an opinion.  Five weeks, six weeks, 49 days, eighth weeks…all the different ages dog owners post as the correct time to break up the litter.

The person who has studied the research more than any person I’m aware of has been Dr. Ed Bailey.  Dr. Bailey is a co-founder of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) and a long time columnist for Gun Dog Magazine.  His insight into dog behavior is without equal. Much of what I’m writing in this column comes from the research and writings of Dr. Bailey.

Let me correct one guideline given on a recent post in a Facebook forum.  The poster (a breeder) stated that he lets the puppies go when the dam’s milk dries up even if it is just five weeks. When the dam’s milk dries up has nothing to do with when the puppies should be given to their new owners.  The whole issue revolves around socialization…not milk.

There are three contributing factors to a dog’s personality.  They are genetics, gestation and early puppyhood.  Behavioral genetics is a huge field of study and would require a completely separate article.  It makes sense, however, for a new puppy buyer to meet the sire and dam.  Are they friendly toward people?  Other dogs?  Do they appear to be happy?  Does the breeder promote the fact that his puppies are known to be well-adjusted and get along well with people and dogs?

The 63-day gestation period is also very important.  Dr. Bailey states in his research that the last 30 days is the most important.  Only the breeder has control over the nutrition that goes into the dam and ultimately to the puppies.  Ask the breeder what brand dog food was fed during gestation.  Make sure it is a premium brand.  Also, the dam should get exercise during gestation…at least early on.  Both physiological and environmental stress should be kept to a minimum the final 30 days.

Then we have the third factor; birth and puppyhood.  Over the next ten to twelve weeks, both the dam and the breeder play an important part in this factor for having a well-developed and socialized litter. From the day of birth, puppies should be handled daily by human beings.  Of course, be gentle since they’re fragile right out of the womb.  Daily handling creates a mild stress which is good since it helps prepare them for more stress with changes in their location and breakup of the litter.

The next critical benchmark is the opening of the eyes.  Eyesight allows the pups to associate the smells, auditory senses and feel to shape and form.  Since fear has not yet developed, everything encountered at this age is good to the pup.

Next month, in Part Two, we’ll discuss the fear period and the importance of litter socialization.

Paul Fuller is a lifelong sportsman.  He’s been an outdoor writer since 1971. He’s the host and producer of the award winning Bird Dogs Afield TV show ( and produced the epic video Grouse, Guns & Dogs. Paul shot over his first German short-haired pointer in 1961.

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