Dog Breeders & Puppy Handling

Early tactile input pays off
By Susan Tasaki, October 2015

As our readers know, The Bark is 100 percent in favor of adopting dogs from rescues and shelters. Giving a dog a new life in a home in which he or she is understood, loved and cared for is a giant gift, not only to the dog but also, to ourselves. It's one of those cliched win/win situations: we do something good for a dog and in the process, benefit from the unparalleled companionship that dog provides.

That being said, we also know that every day, hundreds—or more likely, thousands—of dogs are purchased from breeders for a variety of reasons. The most commonly cited reason has to do with predictability: those who buy a puppy from a breeder are looking for some degree of certainty in the adult dog's behavior, trainability and looks. Taking the wide-angle view, that notion has merit, but when it comes to individual dogs, it doesn't necessarily hold up. 

I'd like to say that I'm a purist, that I've only adopted, never purchased, but that would be untrue. In my 20s, I purchased a Dalmatian from a breeder who was also a neighbor. All of the pup's littermates had been sold, and at 12 weeks, he was the last one in need of a home. The breeder had determined that he was going to exceed AKC standards in terms of height at shoulder and size of spots (I'm not kidding--she told me his spots were too big) and so decided to sell him as a companion dog. He turned out to be a great dog, one with none of the stereotypical Dalmatian behavioral quirks.

Fast forward 30 years, and I made another foray into purchasing a dog, although not from a breeder, but rather, from an acquaintance whose Siberian Husky had had a litter fathered by a Siberian mix. In that case, I was specifically looking for a Siberian mix for the very unscientific reason that on some level, I was trying to replace a much-loved dog who had died shortly before. I was guided by my heart, not my head.

In both cases, I lucked out—and believe me, the luck was definitely of the "dumb" variety.

The Dalmatian breeder bred her dogs infrequently and carefully, and the pups were well-handled and well-socialized before going to their new homes. The Siberian's people were teachers, not professional breeders. One could be critical of their decision not to spay their female and to deliberately allow her to mate, but in their raising of the puppies who were the outcome of that mating, they were stellar.

Recently, I read a posting from Stan Rawlinson, the UK's "original dog listener." In it, he talks about the impact a breeder has on a dog's adult behavior and health. Following is an excerpt that I found particularly interesting—it also explains why I'd been fortunate in the two dogs I'd purchased: in both cases, the puppies were born in the home and handled extensively from birth. 

Humans handling pups from day one provide a mild stress response, which acts to improve the puppies both physically and emotionally.  After that at 10 to 14 days the sense of hearing and smell develop, eyes open and the teeth begin to appear.

Their eyesight is not fully formed until seven weeks. Though they can see enough to get round from around three weeks of age. Pups that are handled regularly during the first seven/eight weeks of their life mature and grow quicker.

They are more resistant to infections and diseases, and are generally more stable. These pups handle stress better, are more exploratory, curious and learn much faster than pups that are not handled during this period.

They are also more likely to be happy around humans and are rarely aggressive. Therefore the pups born in kennels outside, and not in the home, and the ones born into puppy farms are less likely to get this vitally important tactile input. 

Here's the first take-away: If you care deeply for a specific type of dog and are determined to start with a purebred puppy, it behooves you to pay careful attention to the way the breeder approaches the pups' crucial first weeks of life and the environment in which those pups are being raised. (After that, it's up to you!).

And here's the second obvious-but-true take-away: the value of handling very young puppies early and often isn't limited to purebreds —it applies to all pups of all persuasions in all situations. Hands-on breeders, shelter workers and rescue volunteers improve the odds that their smallest charges get off to a good start .

Susan Tasaki is a The Bark contributing editor.

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