As a breeder, on top of raising a healthy batch of puppies, it is your job to ensure that your puppies are well socialized before going to their new homes, it's therefore important getting acquainted with the puppy imprinting process. Among countless information that breeders need to know about their puppies, imprinting is one of the most forgotten and overlooked things, yet it is very important. Studies have found that behavioral problems are primary cause of relinquishment to shelters and kill more dogs than infectious diseases, but what does imprinting exactly mean?
A Closer Look
Imprinting, gains its name from the Latin word "imprimere" meaning "to impress" which later came to mean "to mark by pressure, stamp." Indeed, just like a stamp which leaves a permanent mark, imprinting entails learning that has a permanent impact on the animal.
Imprinting in puppies happens during a particular life stage when they are more likely to be influenced and are more adept to accept things as a normal part of the their lives.
The imprinting process therefore revolves around the stage in which puppies begin to learn about the behaviors of the animals surrounding them, such as mother dog, other dogs in the household, and even, humans and children.
While imprinting is more evident in birds who imprint on their parents following them around, it does in other animals too. Therefore, it is important for breeders to learn more about the puppy imprinting process so that they can make out the best of the experiences puppies undergo as they are developing.
When It Happens
The puppy imprinting process does not have exact time frames as to the period during which it occurs. When the imprinting process starts or ends is therefore based on several factors such as breed of puppies, their developmental times and the condition of the environment in where the puppies live.
Generally prior to three weeks of age, puppies are strongly dependent on their mothers, they will sleep and nurse for a great part of the day, and being that puppies are blind, deaf and not much mobile, there isn't much learning about their surrounding world going on as of yet. It is only once puppies start seeing, hearing and walking around more that they are more adept to learning . What happens during this time is likely to be imprinted almost indelibly in their brains leaving an everlasting impression.
Imprinting that takes place in the breeder's home generally happens between the ages of 4 and 8 weeks. During this period, it's important to keep the puppy with his mother and siblings so to learn the proper ABC's of canine behaviors. The process will gain more benefit if the puppies are given exposure to other animals, many different types of people and children as well.
Learning to Be a Dog
Once the puppies open their eyes for the very first time and are capable of hearing, they begin learning about what it means to be a dog. With more strength in their legs, the puppies are now moving more around and mingling together with their siblings, starting the first play sessions. Puppies learn the ABC's of canine communication during this time which involves body language and some vocalizations.
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Interestingly, in dogs destined to become livestock guardians, this is the age when puppies are introduced to sheep. The puppies imprint on the sheep and bond to them so that they will develop a natural protective role towards them as they develop.
Learning to Live With Humans
Along with learning to be a dog, the imprinting process also involves accepting humans and other animals. Puppies should get acquainted with children and other people.
By the time puppies are ready to go to their new homes, they should have become accustomed to their caregivers and many other stimuli that encompass living along with humans such as the sound of the T.V, the dishwasher running and all the thumping, clashing and banging noises people make when using kitchen utensils or other gadgets that don't really make sense to dogs, but that they have come to accept as a normal part of living with humans.
The Impact of Fear
Mother Nature thought that at some point of the puppy's development, fear was important so to teach the puppies that nothing is really completely safe in their world. In the wild, this fear would have taught the puppies to stay away from potential predators, while in a domestic setting it tells them to be cautious around things that are novel to them or that appear intimidating.
The fear imprint stage in puppies living with their breeder takes place right when the puppies are ready to go to their new homes, generally between 8 to 10 weeks of age. During this time, the puppies are particularly sensitive to traumatic experiences that may be too overwhelming, which can traumatize the puppies leading to long-term effects on their developing personality.
Shipping a puppy cross country may be too much for a puppy who is still learning about the world. Because of this, some breeders may choose to let their puppies go to their new homes at 12 weeks of age instead of 8.
Once in their new homes, puppies still have a lot of learning to do and are in their prime time of the socialization period which tends to close around 12 to 16 weeks. It's important therefore for breeders to inform their buyers to keep up their puppy's socialization and enroll those puppies in puppy classes conducted by a knowledgeable trainer.
"Enrolling in puppy classes prior to three months of age can be an excellent means of improving training, strengthening the human-animal bond, and socializing puppies in an environment where risk of illness can be minimized."~American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior
- Miller DM, Stats SR, Partlo BS, et al. Factors associated with the decision to surrender a pet to an animal shelter. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1996;209:738- 742
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior: AVSAB Position Statement On Puppy Socialization