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Impact of Mother Dog's Nursing Postures on Puppy Temperament

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"Tell me how your puppy nursed and I will tell you how good a puppy he is." A new interesting study reveals some interesting information about the impact of nursing styles of mother dogs on the resulting temperaments of the puppies. It may come as a surprise discovering that puppies who seemingly "had it all" during their first weeks of life, were those who failed to pass guide school training, while those who had attentive mothers, but who struggled a bit made it in flying colors.

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The Impact of Maternal Behaviors in Dogs

We all know that the way humans and dogs are raised can have an impact on future behavior, but something that hasn't been studied much in detail is how maternal behavior can impact the future temperament of a puppy.

While is pretty obvious how important it is for puppies to have their mothers present during early development, there is not much material covering how the quality of the interaction of mother and puppies affects later outcomes. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania provides some interesting insights on this topic.

In an ideal situation, when all goes well, mother dogs are expected to nurse puppies and spend time with them at least until the puppies are five weeks of age, but in most cases, puppies won't leave their moms and litter mates at least until they are seven to eight weeks of age (there are a few exceptions to this in some slower to mature breeds such as Maltese which should wait until 12 weeks of age).

Starting at 3 weeks, a puppy's brain starts maturing and the pup's central nervous system also develops at a rapid pace paving the path towards conditioning and associative learning (Scott, 1958). This is a time when the pups start to explore more and interact more with their mother and litter mates.

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While questionnaires (Leroy et al., 2007; Czerwinski et al., 2016a) reveal that breeders in general give little to no importance to how mother dogs provide care to the puppies when selecting their breeding stock, this oversight may have an impact considering how important maternal care truly is. Hence, a history of appropriate maternal styles should be an important facet to consider when selecting breeding stock.

But exactly what should breeders look for when considering maternal styles in mother dogs? This information, once again, is revealed by recent research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania.

Studies on Maternal Care in Dogs 

As mentioned, there are not too many studies on maternal care in dogs. Most studies reveal that, when puppies are separated from their moms from an early age, this can have negative effects on behavior. Studies by Falt and Wilsson (1979), Pierantoni and Verga (2007) and Pierantoni et al (2011) found that, when puppies weaned at 4 to 6 weeks were compared to puppies weaned at 8 to 12 weeks, these latter puppies were less prone to exhibit behavioral problems.

A questionnaire by Tiira and Lohi in 2015, further revealed that mother dogs who showed low levels of maternal interest yielded puppies who were likely to develop fear and anxiety as adults.

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The study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania evaluated mothers and puppies bred to be guide dogs for the visually impaired. Breeds involved in the research included German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retriever.

The Impact of Nursing Postures

dog whelping

Mother dogs may assume different nursing postures when raising their puppies, and interestingly, these postures seem to have an impact on the puppy's future behavior. This was proven initially by research conducted by Myers et al., 1989b; Liu et al., 2000; Champagne et al., 2003.

When nursing mother dogs may assume any of the following postures:

  • Vertical nursing: mother dog nurses while standing or sitting.
  • Lateral nursing: mother dog nurses while lying on her side or back.
  • Ventral nursing: mother dog nurses while lying on her stomach.

Back to the research conducted in potential guide dogs, results suggest that mother dogs whose nursing style requires greater effort (vertical nursing) by the puppies are more likely to produce successful offspring, whereas mother dogs whose nursing style required less effort (ventral nursing) were more likely to produce offspring who failed.

But why is it that mother dogs who allowed puppies to nurse vertically were more likely to produce puppies who succeeded as guide dogs? Most likely, it's a matter of the added challenge. When mother dogs nurse ventrally, by laying on their stomachs, puppies have most of the work cut out for them as mom's nipples are readily reached with little effort. Vertical nursing, with mother dog sitting or standing, offers a bit more challenge, creating a more "effortful" endeavor for the puppies.

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The extra challenge in the early days helps the puppies acquire a certain level of independence which translates into a decreased incidence of anxiety-related behaviors, and therefore, a higher success rate in guide dog training. The results are similar to those attained in a study on rats, where rats nursing in the arched-back position led to pups with better outcomes in adulthood.

Did you know? According to the study, mothers with smaller litters had more contact per pup compared to mothers with large litters. This is not surprising considering how difficult it is for a mother dog to provide individual attention to a litter o f 10 pups. Labrador mothers had more contact per pup compared to German shepherds. Mothers who whelped fewer litters had more contact compared to more experienced mothers.


  • BrayE. E.Sammel M.D.CheneyD.L. SerpellJ.A. & SeyfarthR.M. (2017a). Characterizing early maternal style in a population of guide dogs. — Front. Psychol.8: 175.
  • BrayE. E.SammelM.D.CheneyD. L.SerpellJ.A. & SeyfarthR.M. (2017b). Effects of maternal investment, temperament, and cognition on guide dog success. — Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA114: 9128-9133.
  • Levine S. Regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in the neonatal rat: The role of maternal behavior. Neurotox Res. 2002;4:557–564.
  • Caldji C, et al. Maternal care during infancy regulates the development of neural systems mediating the expression of fearfulness in the rat. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 
  • Grissom EM, et al. Learning strategy is influenced by trait anxiety and early rearing conditions in prepubertal male, but not prepubertal female rats. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2012;98:174–181

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