Dog behavior is the result of the interplay between genetics and the environment and failure to recognize the importance of sensitive periods in dogs can lead to behavior problems in the long run. There is still debate on when these sensitive periods exactly start and end, and while these timelines remain blurry, one thing is for sure: all dogs go through these important phases of life and how they are dealt with can have lifelong repercussions. Following is some information about sensitive periods in dogs.
Dogs are Altricial Species
In nature, there are precocial and altricial species. To better differentiate the two, let's start with a lesson in etymology,that is, the origin of words.
The word precocial derives from the Latin word praecox which means "maturing early," which is also why we tend to refer to children or adolescents as "precocious" when we notice them developing certain abilities or physical traits at an earlier age than usual.
From a biological standpoint, generally precocial species refers to animals who are semi-independent and mobile from the day they are born or hatched. Animals considered precocial include chicken, ducks, geese, but so are several mammals including herbivores such as horses, cows, goats and sheep.
If we look at the etymology of the word altricial we will find that it derives from the Latin root "alere" which means to "nurse, rear or nourish."
From a biological standpoint, generally the term altricial species refers to animals who, unlike the precocial species, are born incapable of moving around, are sensory underdeveloped and are dependent to a great extent on their mothers. Altricial species are born deaf and blind, cannot regulate their temperature and often require to be nursed and licked by their mothers in order to empty their bladders and bowels. Their initial lives are usually centered around a nest, pouch (in kangaroos) or den (canines) for protection.
What animals are considered altricial? Several birds are considered altricial such as sparrows, owls and many song birds, but so are many mammals such as cats and dogs, many rodents, marsupials and humans too!
Longer Sensitive Periods
As one may conclude, there are significant differences in the social development of altrical and precocial species. When precocial baby chicks hatch, their attention will be focused on the first object in movement they notice, identifying it as a maternal figure.
This phenomenon is termed "imprinting." The term was coined by Oskar Heinroth, a German biologist who believed that any sensory stimulus encountered by the hatchling, right after birth, was irreversibly, "stamped" onto its brain.
German ethologist Konrad Lorenz encountered this phenomenon first-hand with his famous goslings experiment. Lorenz spent the first hours of life with them and the goslings followed him everywhere with the end result of preferring the company of humans over fellow birds.
In precocial species like the duck or chick, the imprinting phase lasts only about a day, sometimes even just a few hours after birth. In altricial species, such as the dog, the sensitive period is longer because of the level of immaturity following birth. This longer time frame therefore provides puppies with the opportunity to remain in close contact with their moms and siblings and learn many valuable lessons from them.
Did you know? One important differentiation is needed for usage of the term critical and sensitive. Both terms are often used interchangeably, but the term sensitive is more ideal when it comes to dogs.
In precocial species like ducks and lambs the term critical is best due to its very brief duration. Ducklings "imprint" on their mother generally between their 13th and 16th hour of life (Cyrulnik 1989) and in lambs, imprinting occurs within 4 hours after birth. These very brief periods therefore justify usage of the term critical. Because puppies undergo much longer time frames, the term sensitive period is preferred.
Sensitive Periods in Dogs
In dogs, sensitive periods are generally thought to occur anywhere between 3 weeks and 3 months of age. This window of opportunity when puppies learn about their environment has been compared to the windows of a train by the late Pat Bateson, Emeritus Professor of Ethology.
At a certain point of life, it's as if the windows of a train are opened, and the traveler is enticed to study all the information that he is provided with. In dogs, the comparison is even more valid, considering their interest in sticking their heads out of a car's window to explore all the stimulus package (sights, sounds and scents) associated with the outside world!
It's not a coincidence that sensitive periods in dogs take place only once the puppies are able to see and hear with clarity. Once capable of hearing well and seeing, the world opens up to them and they must be ready to "take in" as much information about their surroundings as they can. First, in the breeder's care they start learning to be dogs (canine socialization period, primary socialization),along with the ABC's of canine communication from their mom and siblings.
Afterward, in the home of the new dog owner, generally after 7 weeks of age (human socialization period, secondary socialization) the puppy starts learning more about humans, bonding to them and learning to live and adjust to their new environment.
It's also not a coincidence that following certain points of a puppy's sensitive periods, there is the onset of fear of anything new (neophobia). Once the puppy learns relevant information about its environment and becomes familiar with it, fear of novelty teaches the pup to be wary of anything that is not familiar and therefore may pose a potential threat.
- Danilo Mainardi: Il cane e la Volpe, Corriere Della Sera
- Sensory, Emotional and Social Development of the Young Dog: Dr. Joël Dehasse