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  • Writer's pictureElina Halonen

Tales from the Puppy Trenches: raising a litter with science-backed techniques

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

This past spring, I decided to take a long-planned career break to fully immerse myself in an intensive yet rewarding project close to my heart – raising a litter of puppies using structured, science-backed enrichment techniques tailored to their developmental stages. In this article, I delve into the intricacies of selecting matched parents, providing enrichment during critical developmental weeks, and surviving the delightful chaos of puppy pandemonium. I also share key insights that emerged through this undertaking blending both my passions.

As a behavioral scientist, I spend my days immersed in human psychology research and practice but my parallel passion for all things dog runs deep - from competing in agility to training scent work, I'm fascinated by the burgeoning field of canine science. This rapidly growing area reveals remarkable parallels between human and canine capacities - discoveries which can further our understanding of the human brain too.

While some may view this endeavor as trivial, for me the brief time I shared with these puppies shaped relationships that will last over a decade. Combining my expertise in behavioural science with hands-on canine work proved profoundly meaningful, as I worked to give the puppies the best possible start in life.

Please enjoy the journey, and if you are a fellow dog nerd there is a list of further reading in each section!

For those who are passionate about adopting dogs

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The Serious Pursuit of Raising Resilient Puppies

Contrary to popular belief, raising healthy puppies is far more complex than it is fun – it requires round the clock care and expertise. At a basic level, you serve as midwife, nurse, teacher and more - in a single day, you may play the role of veterinary technician taking puppy weights, dinner lady providing balanced meals, janitor cleaning up accidents, a kindergarten teacher managing an unruly play session, and counsellor soothing an overwhelmed pup. However, the job becomes exponentially more complex and nuanced if your goal is developing resilient dogs equipped to handle life's stresses.

Building true resilience relies on a flexible, adaptable brain and coping behaviours, fostered through early positive experiences that provide safety, stimulation and care. Without these, stress damages developing brains by altering wiring and structures critical for learning and memory. This overactivates the amygdala and disrupts the stress response system long-term, preventing proper management later in life. Resilience also impacts an individual’s physical health because stress affects all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.

I see building resilience through positive early interventions as an ethical responsibility because by establishing crucial reserves, we can build the foundations for lifelong mental and physical health that buffer the harmful effects of stress. As such, anyone raising puppies should train extensively in behavioural genetics, nutrition, neuroscience and more to comprehensively support development because developing resilience is a complex challenge requiring expertise across multiple scientific disciplines.

While research on resilience in puppies is limited, insights can be drawn from diverse literature on early neurological enrichment across species. For example, studies on rat pups reveal how maternal care impacts stress reactivity and human infant research demonstrates the cognitive benefits of multisensory stimulation. The key is finding the optimal balance of stressors - too few can be just as detrimental as too many!

Synthesizing these cross-disciplinary findings is crucial to inform targeted interventions for puppies. Combining the latest techniques from behavioural genetics, nutrition science, and developmental neuroscience provides pieces of the puzzle. Weaving these fragments into comprehensive protocols tailored to canine growth stages with the right balance of challenges, takes considerable skill but the rewards of raising adaptable, resilient puppies make the effort more than worthwhile.

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The Genetic Lottery: Selecting Parents Mindfully

Selecting the right parental matches requires comprehensive understanding of canine genetics and structure to minimize risks and promote wellbeing, although nothing can be guaranteed. Dogs are not born blank slates: substantial research shows that heritability varies across traits, and each puppy inherits a unique combination of their parents' traits. This combination can be synergistic or detrimental to life outcomes: for example, a highly anxious mother with an aloof, independent father could result in puppies being genetically predisposed to both fearfulness and detachment - a risky combination for family companionship. As such, a thorough understanding of genetics of health and behaviour are crucial when making decisions about the parents – especially for intense, high-energy working breeds.

A prime example of the intricacies of canine genetics is hip dysplasia, a prevalent condition impacting millions of dogs worldwide. Despite extensive research and massive efforts, reducing its incidence has seen only modest gains, due to its multifactorial nature. Hip dysplasia is only partly genetic, with no definitive test available. While x-ray based screening provides some insights, even knowing parental history offers limited certainty. The heritability degree also varies significantly among breeds - it is 50% genetic for Newfoundlands versus just 16% for Brittany Spaniels, with most breeds’ true heritability unknown. Moreover, excluding dogs from the gene pool based on one trait ignores critical interrelationships with others: for example, excitability as a behavioural trait strongly correlates with joint hypermobility. The complexities of hip dysplasia genetics exemplify the diligence required in ethical breeding decisions that holistically consider canine health and temperament.

Ethical breeding also requires careful structural evaluation of the parents, as a dog's structure impacts movement and lifelong wellbeing. The goal is optimizing functionality and health, not judging worth. Suboptimal structure can profoundly impact canine lives by increases susceptibility to injuries, pain, and aggression – much like our former dog whose challenges sparked my interest in this topic.

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Enriching Critical Early Weeks

Most people's experience of puppies starts from the moment one moves into their house, rarely considering what happened before then - yet much of a dog's life is profoundly shaped by events preceding their time together.

The first two weeks are crucially important: starting from whelping, which can be very risky for mothers and puppies as even smooth deliveries can tragically end during the fragile first weeks with a puppy "fading away" while high quality of maternal care provides puppies lifelong well-being advantages.

After overcoming those initial hurdles, the job changes to implementing a structured socialization and enrichment program using scientifically validated techniques such as controlled exposures to sounds and introducing the puppies to a wide range of novel experiences at critical developmental stages to reduce future stress. This novelty encourages exploration and learning by releasing key neurotransmitters like dopamine and takes advantage of this learning window of heightened neuroplasticity in young puppies.

A common yet counterproductive puppy rearing practice is prematurely imposed weaning. Many well-intentioned humans separate puppies from their mother around 3 weeks of age. However, research reveals this untimely separation can impair frustration tolerance and emotional regulation abilities later in life, and as a result, puppies weaned on a human timeline often exhibit more behavioural issues as adults. In contrast, allowing the mother dog to naturally lead the weaning process appears optimal for development: when given autonomy, mother dogs instinctively wind down nursing gradually as puppies grow more independent and provides important coping skill-building experiences. While a clear, early separation may seem more convenient for humans, its detrimental effects on puppy temperament highlight the value of following the mother's lead and scientific research.

Enrichment programs refer to protocols designed to provide physical and mental stimulation through novelty, tasks, and multisensory experiences. Sound desensitization during the optimal developmental window habituates puppies to noises like fireworks, reducing future stressors. In many ways, modern enriched environment puppy protocols have many parallels with key Montessori techniques like prepared environments and child-directed activity that ignites love of learning in the “absorbent mind” and their principles of fostering independence and free choice. These types of protocols are commonly used when raising assistance or service dogs as well as professional search and rescue dogs like one of our puppies who will eventually work as a human-remains detection dog in Switzerland.

In the sweet period after the sigh of relief that you’ve successfully kept them all alive until they’re out of mortal danger, it was fascinating as a behavioural scientist to witness their perceptual worlds evolve from tentative explorations to complex interactions and observe their cognitive capabilities developing in real time – often in response to environmental interventions I had designed.

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Surviving the Puppy Pandemonium

That rose-tinted honeymoon period ends around week 6 when their physical abilities and endless curiosity explode exponentially, unhindered by any sense of fear - especially if you have deliberately tried to nurture their confidence! Like raptors breaking out of Jurassic Park, our puppies scaled fences and dug tunnels to an imaginary soundtrack that includes the Benny Hill theme song, "Dumb Ways to Die" and Mission Impossible.

Constant vigilance is crucial if you want to stay one step ahead of these tiny, furry lemmings because they are a force of nature – just as you pat yourself on the back of having outwitted them, their rapidly evolving capabilities will catch you out again and again. Impervious to reason, the only way to manage the tiny tornadoes is misdirection and bribery - redirect them to more appropriate activities until they finally run out of battery power, briefly and usually one at a time so that you can never relax for long. I quickly learned there's no such thing as sweet and innocent puppies except when they're asleep - the rest of the time they violently torture their siblings by biting their ears repeatedly, pulling them by the tail or just going straight for the jugular for the umpteenth time.

In addition to digging holes in our garden like they’re in a re-enactment of The Great Escape and executing elaborate toy heists, one particularly enjoyable pastime is ripping open delivery boxes - the fastest the 6 piranhas got into a large, fully sealed delivery box of dog food was 15 minutes. Managing the environment to allow safe yet enriching exploration mirrors Maria Montessori's emphasis on enabling children to learn through hands-on activity and, despite the chaos, their endless curiosity was a joy to witness. The experiences in this sensitive developmental period also influence the development of executive functions - i.e. abilities like inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory capacity. Just like in humans, the development of a dogs’ EFs may be negatively affected by hardships, and positively by overcoming surmountable challenges.

Although puppies typically leave for their forever homes at the age of 8 weeks, most of ours stayed longer because they were moving to other European countries, so we also had the responsibility of ensuring adequate socialisation in the critical development window before it closes around 15 weeks. So, in order to habituate the puppies to a wide range of real-world environments, you would find us visiting street markets. sports competitions and beaches with a trolley of puppies - and of course several visits to the airport to help one of our puppies prepare for her flight to Switzerland.

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Lessons Learned

Much like humans, puppies exhibit many cognitive biases and mental shortcuts that shape their behaviours and decisions. For example, puppies show a strong preference for immediate gratification, reflecting limited future thinking (hyperbolic discounting) while action bias sends energetic puppies digging just to do something, without purpose.

They are also prone to groupthink, rapidly joining in on behaviours like frantic digging once initiated by one bold pup – especially as puppies' attention is easily drawn to any salient stimuli. Persistently trying to repeat behaviours like jumping on furniture or climbing fences despite past failures demonstrated the overconfidence and optimism biases, reflecting a belief in good outcomes against the odds and past experiences. While often adaptive, these inborn biases can also lead puppies astray, not unlike human cognitive pitfalls. As a behavioural scientist, it was fascinating to observe these biases manifesting in real time and knowing these concepts often helped me stay one step ahead of the puppies' antics while making their puppyhood endlessly fascinating to observe.

All in all, this project has been the most meaningful and fulfilling endeavor of my life. It was a privilege to closely observe the development of dogs from birth to 15 weeks (watch video), witnessing how they perceive the world and interact with one another. The dogs we raised will share their lives with their families for a decade or more, and every aspect of their upbringing impacts those relationships.

Through this project, I have grown both personally and professionally, gaining surprising insights into the complexities of decision-making, risk management, and the well-being of our furry companions. This experience also provided perspective on the challenges those with limited time, energy and resources face when trying to make complex decisions and engage in new behaviours. The intensive demands on mental bandwidth I experienced under sleep deprivation mirrored some of the struggles faced when juggling jobs, family obligations and health issues.

Would I do it again? Absolutely – just let me sleep for a year first.

And if you want to see fun videos of puppies running, you can find them here, here and here - enjoy!


If you want to read more about the project, you can find more posts on my dog blog:

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