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Among the many amazing things dogs do, caregiving is one of those things that often marvels us when we watch the interactions between a mother dog and her pups.

 Unlike humans, those talented mother dogs didn't get to play with dolls or read directions on how to mix formula or learn how to change a diaper. 

Taking good care of puppies is something that is instinctive in most mother dogs, courtesy of hormones and the care-seeking behaviors in pups which are know to evoke nurturing behaviors (even though there are sometimes exceptions to the rule).

 Today, we'll be looking at caregiving and care seeking behaviors in dogs, or in more technical terms, epimeletic and et-epimeletic behaviors in dogs.

puppies nursing

Epimeletic Behaviors in Mother Dogs

Epimeletic behaviors are simply those behaviors that entail giving care to others. These mostly entail those nurturing, caregiving behaviors that are carried out by mother dogs and are targeted towards their puppies.

Puppies being part of altricial species, strongly depend on their mothers for survival, so maternal instincts in mother dogs are particularly strong.

Care giving behaviors are largely influenced by the effect of hormones. In particular, the maternal hormone prolactin, fosters protective behaviors and also plays a role in stimulating the milk let down process.

"Prolactin controls milk production and fosters the feeling of maternal protectiveness. " ~Nicholas Dodman

Following are some examples of caregiving behaviors carried out by mother dogs:

  •  Severing the pup's umbilical cord with the teeth
  • Attending to distress calls of pups who are hungry, cold or who got separated from the rest.
  • Licking puppies to stimulate urination and defecation.
  • Lying down on the side to help the puppies nurse.
  • Regurgitating food for the pups when they're being weaned (still seen in some mother dogs).
  • Protecting the puppies from any perceived harms.
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Note: there may be variances in epimeletic behaviors in mother dogs, with some dogs showing exaggerated forms (excessive grooming) and deficits (failure to groom, nurse or care for the pups.)

Did you know? Mother dogs tend to pick up puppies and carry them around keeping their whole body in their mouth with feet dangling down, versus cats who carry their kittens by the skin, explain John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller in the book "Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog."

puppy mother

Et-epimeletic Behavior in Puppies

Et-epimeletic behaviors are simply those behaviors that entail seeking care from others. These are often soliciting, care seeking behaviors that are carried out from puppies and are targeted towards their mother. Following are some examples of care-seeking behaviors in puppies:

  • Distressed calls when hungry, cold or separated from mother dog and the pups.
  • Licking the lips of mother dog to greet/ get attention/solicit her to regurgitate food for them.
  • Pawing and jumping to reach mother dog's face to greet/get attention/solicit regurgitation.

Note: according to Steven Lindsay there may also be variances in et-epimeletic behaviors, with some dogs showing exaggerated forms (excessive attention seeking, dependency) and deficits (failure to bond, withdrawn.)

Et-epimeletic Behaviors in Dogs Past Infancy

Interestingly, the above et-epimeletic behaviors aren't limited to young puppies. Some of these infantile behaviors are often retained past early infancy in a dog's interactions with humans and other dogs although sometimes, these behaviors are carried out for slightly different reasons.

Therefore, these behaviors that started in early infancy become part of a dog's behavior repertoire often because they have a history of reinforcement or owners has inadvertently reinforced them. Here are a few examples of et-epimeletic behaviors retained into adulthood:

  • Whining, barking or howling for care and attention.
  • Emitting distress calls when separated from owners as seen in separation anxiety. Many owners attest that these distress calls are similar to infantile sounds emitted by puppies.
  • Yelping out of pain.
  • Begging at the table asking to be fed.
  • Hand and face licking directed towards humans.
  • Licking the lips of other dogs so to seek information or exhibit deferential greeting behaviors.

Did you know? Karen Overall in the book "Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats" explains that lip licking is sometimes seen in dogs who have been separated from another dog for some time and are trying to gain information. The dog who is licked may open the mouth to provide a respiratory sample that carries neurochemical information such as food and behavior state.


  • Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Etiology and Assessment of Behavior Problems, By Steve Lindsay, Iowa State University Press; 1st edition (2001) 
  • Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, By Karen Overall, Mosby; 1 Pap/DVD edition (July 9, 2013)
  • Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog, By John Paul Scott, John L. Fuller, University of Chicago Press; 1 edition (July 10, 2012)
  • Pet Place, Understanding Canine Maternal Behavior, by Nicholas Dodman, retrieved from the web on April 28th, 2016.

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