Pepper Puppies- Week 6

Pepper’s puppies turn 5 weeks old today so we are getting into their 6th week of life! If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read through last week’s blog and especially the last few videos.

March 1st

Growth- now that the puppies are eating solids and will be entirely weaned within the next few days, they are going to start gaining a little more each week. In the neighborhood of 1-2 pounds per week is average gain from this age going forward. Weights are posted in the chart for interest’s sake, but what we really look at to determine the health of the puppies’ is their body condition. Now that mom is no longer in charge of free-flowing foods, it’s up to me to make sure they get just the right amount. Roly poly baby puppies nursing from mom are fine, but lean healthy puppies are the goal past weaning. I would expect to see the boys start to show gains that are bigger than the girls going forward but since Pepper does have some small brothers that are close to her size, maybe they won’t. We really won’t know specifics about future size until they are closer to 16 weeks of age, but for now, they are all well within the normal range for their age.

Weekly Growth to 5 weeks of age (ounces)

March 2nd

Some puppy play time:

And here’s a clip of that ‘bite inhibition’ action that I described in an earlier post- watch the puppies who start off in the lower right part of the screen with a fuzzy toy. The victim is squealing and trying to leave. When the biter finally lets go, that victim leaves and gives the cold shoulder for a few minutes. This is how puppies learn that biting hurts, it ends play, and is inappropriate an mimicking these actions (including the very athentic ‘IT HURTS’ squeal) is the easiest way to teach puppies not to bite human hands or clothes as well.

(Please- don’t think I’m a meanie for not saving the puppy who is the victim. They all take they turns and they need these interactions to learn!)

March 3rd.

This weekend has been busy! Early, early mornings to do puppy duties, and then I zipped off to Prince George with Verona and Avi for agility trialling while Tim manned the fort. It was very cold both days and so the puppies were strictly indoors again. They are nearly entirely weaned (tomorrow will be their last milk day!) and eating 4 meals a day- every 6 hours. Plus their training cheese treats, of course. The puppies are still very much reinforced by social interaction but are starting to highly value the food rewards and also are getting to be interactive with toy play- chasing and tugging and hauling all sorts of soft things around. And, even though in yesterday’s video you saw that it takes a bit of time before they will release a bite when the victim squeals, they are starting to learn that humans operate the same way. When teeth touch my skin, I squeal, and they let go. Puppy biting is a very normal behavior- a dog’s mouth is equivalent to a human baby’s hands in that they use it to explore their world- but they of course need to learn that some things can not be chewed and the most important of those limits is human flesh.

At this point, Momma Pepper has nearly dried up her milk supply. She is also going through the typical hormonal hair loss that is associated with weaning. While Pepper doesn’t realize it, she is looking a little scruffy at the moment and this usually gets a little more pronounced over the coming weeks before her new glossy post-puppy coat will grow in thick and lush. For the next couple of days, she will avoid contact with the puppies entirely (being in their presence triggers milk production which we don’t want at this stage) but then will be able to resume spending some time with them with the help of a coat that protects her mammaries. However, for the most part most moms tend to hand off their puppy duties to the grandma squadron at this stage so we will see if that’s the route that Pepper chooses.

If you are browsing around different web pages, you may see ‘puppies for sale’ advertisements that state that puppies are ready to go to their new homes. “Eating solid food and ready to go” is a landmark that some seem to think means that they can depart. That is NOT a landmark of anything other than food source. Puppies should not be released to their new homes just because they can eat solid food (heck, puppies can be weaned at a little over 2 weeks if medical needs of mom require it, but surely no one thinks a 2 week old puppy is ready to be picked up). On those posts you’ll tend to see people who reply with the common “they can’t leave yet, they still need their mom until at least 8 weeks.” That is only partly true- the puppies do not specifically need their mom at this point. They definitely DO need to stay with littermates until 8 weeks though (this is specifically in regards to learning important social skills like bite inhibition that we discussed yesterday). Of course, they should be properly immunized before going to their new homes. And they should have contact with at least one or two safe adult dogs ongoing from weaning until departure. In some cases that would be mom but we are really truly blessed to have several safe adult dogs who will interact with the puppies over the coming weeks which means that mom is not forced to entertain them. That means improved quality of interactions for the puppies (pleasant learning opportunities and reduced need for corrections). Remember how we discussed previously that moms who physically correct their puppies are NOT the norm and that behavior is usually a symptom that the dog feels there is no option to avoid the conflict. And- conflict resolution via physical means is not a goal for puppy social learning.

Pictures of Pepper, at around the same age as her puppies are now.

March 4th

Some play time in the training building. They are so confident and eager to check out this new area.

March 5th

The puppies enjoyed some (finally) nice weather outside today and went for a good walk. At this age, a walk is about 5 minutes long and is about teaching the puppies to follow humans. Then, we burnt off some steam in the training building. See the pictures HERE.

March 6th

At this stage, I start to get inquiries- both from awaiting puppy families, and interested observers- about which puppy has ‘trait x’, or questions about the evaluation process, and also insight onto which puppy I may be leaning towards as a prospect for a certain job or owner.

During this discussion, inevitably the topic of puppy testing comes up. People want to know either which puppy test we use, or they have a specific exercise in mind that they would like me to perform on puppies and report back the results. There are a variety of different test sets, developed by breeders or organizations, with the goal being that assessment at an early age (prior to puppies leaving for their new homes) will reliably predict traits or behaviors in adult dogs. The goal with these tests is to help sort out puppies who might be better suited for specific jobs , or reveal puppies who are not suited for certain tasks or lifestyles due to their natural temperament traits. Most of these tests require that they are performed by a stranger, in a novel location, on a specific day of age.

It is our experience that one-time testing is NOT a reliable way to predict adult traits and behaviors, and we have been saying this for many years. There is now science to back us up on this position (read it HERE).

I would like to talk about why I think that one-time testing is not an especially useful puppy matching tool. The first thing to know is that puppies develop on different schedules. For example, most of our puppies have a fear period at 7 weeks of age. If the testing day for a specific ‘test’ is meant to occur at 49 days of age (this is common), our puppies would be receiving a test by a stranger in a new location at the very moment that they are most susceptible to one trial learning. Not only does testing them during a fear period definitely NOT lead to a true picture of the puppy’s capabilities, we are potentially teaching them on that very moment that strangers are legitimately scary. That could have effects long past the end of the test.

Another objection I have to one-time puppy testing is the nature of some of the specific tests. I have seen tests that require the tester to pinch the puppy’s ear or toe until they squeal. This is supposed to be a measure of their pain tolerance and their ability to bounce back. As above, there is no way I want to expose my puppies to such a negative experience during this critical stage in their life. I can’t believe than anyone really believes that pinching a baby is a useful or justifiable test.

A third point of contention is that for the exercises that seem like they ‘may’ be good predictors- well, these are generally things that are part of our routine puppy handling/training/desensitizing protocol. For example- laying the puppy on their back. Having them chase a ball, or tug on a toy. Coming when called. Those are all exercises that can be highly influenced by training. I don’t think that avoiding puppy handling and basic training in order to prevent influencing puppy ‘test’ results makes sense.

Now- all of that being said, I want to note that I am not advocating that puppies are all randomly placed into new homes. We entirely believe in puppy evaluations in order to match them with the best fit possible, based on what we can actually assess at a young age. I just don’t believe that this is best done on a specific day, with a one-time standardized test, nor do I believe it is best done by a stranger.

Puppy evaluations around here are an ongoing accumulation of observations. While I definitely like to think of myself as a science nerd and attempt to use as much unbiased data in our breeding program as possible, puppy matching is where science diverts into an art. The art is in collecting the observations- setting the puppies up for an enriched life where they will meet appropriate challenges, a variety of people, have safe encounters with adult dogs, learn basic skills, begin desensitizing to common stressors, and grow and develop in a healthy way. As the puppies undergo this process, we watch for trends in each puppy’s behavior. Does a puppy typically take a moment to think about things before approaching a new challenge? or do they dive in head first? When startled, does the puppy charge back in for another go or do they usually need several moments to recoup? Does a particular puppy seem especially attracted to bird wings or scent? Do they tend to clamp on to objects with a lot of force or hold more gently? Is there a puppy (or more than one) that tend to stick close to humans or adult dogs on new adventures or are there any that are bold explorers?

There are so many things that we watch for. Part of the challenge in making these observational evaluations is that we need to both understand that behavior is fluid- a puppy is not going to react the exact same way to a similar situation on multiple exposures- which reactions are outliers? Which reactions seem to form a trend which may point to the puppy’s ingrained character? The other part of the challenge is being able to compare early puppy behaviors with previous related puppies and how those puppies turned out. This is a biggie- and this is why I think standardized testing tends to fail (and also why one-time testing by strangers not familiar with the family line tend to fail). For example, we know that puppies develop their confidence at different rates depending on their genetics. Knowing a lot of puppies from sire A and sire B allows us to know when a puppy is a ‘late bloomer’ vs a more cautious or laid-back fellow. One can only get that insight from following several related litters to adulthood.

Puppy evaluations are a ‘prognosis’ of future temperaments and behavior. Behavior is influenced by experience, socialization, the enrichment of the puppy’s environment, and they are certainly marked by any negative experiences that happen at a young age. While we do our best to ensure puppy’s have the best possible start to 8-9 weeks of age, it’s imperative that puppy owner’s know that they have a great influence on their puppy and their ongoing development. When all else is equal, experiences in that first year of life are more predictive of differences in adult temperament than anything else, particularly as relates to ‘negative’ behaviors related to fear or aggression. See HERE for a study that discusses this.

One of the things we strive for in our breeding program is consistency. We want litters where the puppies are very uniform in temperament, intelligence, confidence, drive and so on. As we talked about early in the blog- there are size variations in males and females and that’s not what we are talking about here. Many people are under the impression that a litter has a ‘pick of the litter’ puppy and usually on the opposite end of the spectrum, some sort of less desirable puppy that no one wants to be stuck with. I think that this may be true if you were to just randomly breed any two dogs without careful selection, but when we are talking about very well-bred planned litters, the difference between the puppies on a psychological level should be minimal. Except in litters where they did not turn out as expected and there really are vast differences in the pups, we are usually looking at very, very minor variations in the different traits that we’re evaluating. (Yes! Some times litters don’t turn out as planned. No! Pepper’s litter is not one of those- right now, the puppies are VERY consistent and showing all of the promising qualities we look for in our litters at this age).

When we accept reservations from puppy families, we aim to seek out people who are generally looking for the type of dog we are trying to produce- an active, intelligent, good natured and high drive dog who is sound and able to participate in a variety of activities. We love it when we have families who are interested in a variety of different activities, as this best allows us to make matching decisions based on each puppy’s individual strengths. Many times, the puppies are close enough in temperament that the structural evaluations become the deciding factor. The puppies are evaluated for structure at 7 weeks or within a day or two of that mark, as it seems to be the most reliable time frame for getting a glimpse of what their adult structure will be. Since puppies tend to grow in bits and pieces, structural evaluations that are much earlier or later than this do not tend to lend to an accurate assessment. I think everyone knows that we do not show or breed Labs for the show ring but structure is important for dogs going on to do very challenging physical jobs and we want to ensure that the puppies are not placed into occupations that are beyond the scope of what their physique could handle.

Summary: One-time puppy tests are not predictive. Spending an hour or two with the puppies at any given time, is not predictive, especially if you have not experienced the same with any related dogs and followed them to maturity. Video clips of puppies or photos are not predictive. Following trends over time, and over a great variety of experiences and challenges, provide the best opportunity for predictions of future personality traits when compared with the same trends for related/parent dogs.

I think a lot of people spend too much time stressing out about ‘which’ puppy they may end up with and this is especially true if they’ve always picked out their own dog previously. The bigger part of the decision is already done by this stage- if you’ve chosen a breeder and a litter, you’ve whittled down your puppy selection from the thousands of Lab puppies born each year to a small group (in this case, 6 Pepper puppies!) and the variations in that group are generally not something that an outsider can determine either by test or short durations of observations. Leaving the puppy matching decision to the breeder, assuming that they are spending quality time with the puppies and providing appropriate experiences, is the best policy whether you are getting your puppy from us or from another responsible breeder. Trust me when I say that the breeder wants to get the puppy match right as much as you do, and is very invested in ensuring the best possible home for each puppy.

Turkey necks for lunch today, first time! They are too big of course for a meal, so we took away leftovers after about 30 minutes of delighted chewing.

One Comment on “Pepper Puppies- Week 6

  1. So much great information!! (and wonderful photos and videos too!!)

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