“Ouch! You bit my nose! That hurt!”
“Well, you stole my toy! That was MY toy!”
“Wanna dig a humongous hole?”
“ Yea, and we can bury our toy!”
This would be a rather polite exchange between puppies. Puppy interactions range from raucous to industrious, bossy to collaborative, primarily joyful, always instructive with never a dull moment for humans and canines. Even when sleeping, puppies are not dull.
When I designed our home, I purposefully designed our bedroom to be above the puppy nursery. When the builder learned that puppies would be below our bedroom, he suggested a generous amount of sound-proofing between floors. “Oh, no!” I adamantly replied, “I want to hear the puppies.” He is likely still scratching his head in bewilderment.
A breeder learns the safe and contented sounds of interaction. Even the loud bits are relaxing. A hint of danger wakes me up from the deepest slumber.
Puppies’ eyes open around 10 days of age but their vision continues to develop over several weeks. When eyes first open, it is common for pups to sit nose to nose gawping bleary-eyed at each other. They have smelled and felt each other in their nest but these foggy stares are their first glimpses of their own species. Wicked little canines as they are, their mouths open wide to toothlessly crunch on the other nose. Lack of coordination overcomes these early attacks as they thud gracelessly on their own nose. (Yes, it is moments like these that make rearing litters worth the effort!)
My ‘L’ litter was a singleton male, Lars. As serendipity would have it, a friend whelped a singleton female pup 2 days later.
As the two pups approached their 5th week, I transported the little female, Uzzi to our home. Lar’s dam was the perfect mom for accepting an unfamiliar baby since she had retained her inner child throughout her life. She frolicked through life in a continual state of delight! She welcomed Uzzi without question and encouraged her suckling, cleaned her, played with her – all with great tenderness.
When we introduced Uzzi, we anticipated some lively play to break out with the two pups. Lars and Uzzi didn’t seem to even see each other, let alone interact! Both pups would play with our adult dogs – even side by side while bumping into each other – and not notice each other. They were like ships passing in the night – with lights out! This continued for 2 days.
Lars was generously proportioned as eating was one of his favorite hobbies. Uzzi, the quintessential female German shepherd, ate when necessary since she had many projects and experiments to tend. The evening of the second day, while Lars was nursing with his tail erect and wagging, Uzzi spotted his tail. Not knowing this tail was attached to anything of consequence, she only saw the potential for fun. She followed his tail with her eyes and readied herself to attack. She leapt and subdued the tail while Lars whipped around in horror. There was shock on both of their faces when they – for the first time – actually noticed each other!
This interaction was fascinating since they studied each other for some time and gradually, over several days, began experimenting with play. In a week, they played like they had been litter-mates from birth.
From the earliest contact, pups negotiate with each other. They provoke, pacify, tease, threaten and even hurt each another. They learn to take the rough with the smooth, generally to forgive and always to carry-on with fun. They invite others to play; they accept or decline invitations to play. They learn to share, they learn to hoard, they learn to warn and respect warnings from others. Facial expressions (eyes, ear set, mouth, whiskers, direct or indirect bearing of head), posture (and posturing) – myriad small and large gestures signal intent to other dogs. This information flow avoids most quarrels.
During the first months of life, puppies are defining themselves, their world and everything they find in it. A good analogy easily understood would be how eyes (yours, mine, dogs’ even fruit flies) actually ‘see’. Signals sent from the eye to the brain rely on the brain to interpret these signals. The brain has filed away everything an individual has observed. As new signals are sent to it, the brain searches to find matching files.
As the neurobiologist, Barry Condron of University of Virginia’ writes, “…. visual input may not be as important to sight as the brain working behind it.”
This is why a crime can be witnessed by 10 people and the subsequent testimony will be 10 variations of what happened.
Thinking of Lars and Uzzi and the fact it took over 2 days for them just to notice each other with another week for them to interact with play, imagine what goes missing with a singleton pup that misses out on a litter experience altogether. In their almost 5 weeks of life prior to Lars and Uzzi coming together, their brains had not filed away images of like-sized individuals or the many signals puppies send to each other the initial 5 weeks of life . Interaction between puppies and adult dogs does not have the experimental messaging and subtleties of puppy-to-puppy communication.
Pups are born with a genetic blueprint for their temperament. Their personalities are fine-tuned by their litter-mates and their environment. The reactions of puppies and the eventual adults they develop into are based on the experiences (or lack of experiences) they have had throughout their lives. The foundation of puppyhood and litter experience mark a dog forever.
Of course, just as each individual has a personality so does each litter. The collection of individual temperaments shapes a litter’s personality and, in turn, the litter’s personality molds the individual’s character in a circular evolution. Most breeders value an ‘even’ litter, meaning the spectrum of temperaments (as well as conformation) does not vary widely. We evaluate the phenotype we see in pups and litters, compare it to the extended pedigree to ascertain the genotype. And this is a discussion for the future!