Monk as Midwife
We are going on a walk with one of the monks and his monastery shepherd, a daily, routine occurrence here that now has special significance. It is the fifty-ninth day of Anka’s pregnancy. On this crystal clear March afternoon, the sun lights up the ordinarily dark woods surrounding the monastery. Anka has been restless all day. Taking her into the woods for a brief walk provides a promise of marvels to come, the first link in an intricate chain of events leading up to her labor. Now nature conspires to display signs hinting that gestation is nearing full term. It is important for the monk to notice these, for although the average span of gestation is sixty-three days, it is not unusual for a shepherd to begin labor as early as the fifty-eighth day after her first breeding. Throughout this time, Anka’s body has been talking to her in new and different ways, and on this walk, its natural eloquence becomes an open invitation for us to witness the first promptings of new life.
As she runs along the trail, her swollen abdomen gently sways from side to side, and her wagging tail allows us a glimpse of an overly enlarged vulva. From a few feet ahead of us on the path, she repeatedly looks back as if for reassurance, carefully avoiding the remnant patches of snow that have not yet thawed. The woods are as restless as Anka. The wind sweeps through the trees, gently ushering her back and forth along the trail. Her quick, clipped panting is absorbed in the quiet commotion. Even the trees sense something is up.
Usually on such walks Anka is beside herself with curiosity. From the time she leaves with her monk-guardian, she immerses herself in a feast of scents, darting from moss-covered tree stumps to low-lying wild junipers to old stone hedgerows, through which heaven knows how many animals of the woods have passed. She stops frequently to listen, then quietly moves forward and glides over the leaves that cover the path, occasionally startling a group of pheasants or wild turkeys, which then take to the air in a blaze of chaos. With intense delight she pursues, leaping in short bursts of energy.
Nevertheless, at the voice of her guardian, she quickly gives up the chase. This comes from plenty of training and a quality of bonding that overrides her prey instinct. A simple utterance of her name draws her back to the trail, and she is soon preoccupied with wrestling a stick from a dead tree, eagerly providing herself with something to play with for the remainder of the walk.
Today, however, is different.
Anka seems to be lost in herself in a very unusual way. Today, she lacks any of the casual playfulness so naturally present on ordinary walks. She displays impatience, constant circular pacing, rounded eyes, and a nervous, panting tongue. She stops only to mark, a frequent need now that there is constant uterine pressure on her bladder. As she reaches a spring-fed pond, she pauses momentarily to drink and then is off again, glancing quickly at the small shrubs that line the path.
Suddenly bolting ahead, she disappears around a group of pines. As we near the trees, we hear frantic pawing beneath a large, low-hanging evergreen. The branches move slightly, and dead leaves, pine needles, and dirt come flying out from beneath the tree, where Anka is improvising a nest. In her instinctively maternal way, she is preparing a natural den, a kind of cave. What makes this behavior remarkable is that none of it has been taught. Anka is a maiden bitch, only two years of age the week before. She is simply responding to a deep, instinctual knowing.
Were this den in the wild, it would have been more carefully planned. In studies of wolves, researchers have often found excavated dens in elevated areas such as cut banks or vacated caves—sites that provide a clear frontal view of the surrounding area. In fact, it is not uncommon for wolves to remodel vacant fox dens or even abandoned beaver lodges. The preferred soil is dry and sandy. Most dens are located near rivers, lakes, springs, or other sources of water, owing to the mother’s constant need for hydration. Usually the entrance hole is one to two feet in diameter and linked to an inner chamber by an upwardly sloping tunnel, up to ten feet in length. Often the female wolf will stay close to the site a full three weeks before she is due.
All of this is evoked by Anka’s digging.
As we pause to observe her for some time, she finally settles comfortably on her side in what is now a smooth, slightly depressed circle. Barely visible from where we stand, she peeks out from beneath the branches. Her look, alert and expectant, indicates that she is rather pleased with herself. It is clear, however, that all of this is merely preliminary, for there have been no uterine contractions, no intense licking of the vaginal folds, no rapid lowering of her body temperature—the sure signs of the onset of labor. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the process is moving irrevocably toward the final stages of gestation and birth. Just before the walk, her temperature had fallen to 100.5°F, a sign that labor is still a little while away. At the beginning of labor, her body temperature will drop at least another full degree, to between 98 and 99.5, though the temperature can fluctuate up and down several days prior to the actual birth. Still, paying attention to Anka’s state of mind gives us solid clues that labor is near. We can see that she is aware of the mystery that is occurring within her. Responding to all sorts of natural cues, Anka is consenting to it, allowing it to culminate in its own time. Now she is ready to go back to the puppy kennel.
Here at New Skete, we have reserved a separate building for the whelping and raising of litters. There are six individual whelping rooms—this helps us to maintain a controlled environment that is clean, dry, and protected. Over the past week, Anka has been left for short periods each day in her ten-foot-square whelping room, allowing her to become familiar and relaxed within it. It is important that she feel at ease and secure in the room, enabling her to focus entirely on the whelping. At New Skete, we use a plastic wading pool for the nest because it is durable and easy to clean, and has high sides that keep the pups safely confined.
Returning from the walk, Anka drinks more water and then climbs into the whelping nest and relaxes atop several layers of newspaper. Panting heavily and stretching out so that her abdomen is exposed, she manages to rest for a time. Then we offer her a bowl of food.
Ordinarily, from twelve to twenty-four hours prior to whelping, dogs are not inclined to eat. Anka, however, has never been known to spurn a meal, even early on in pregnancy when this would have been expected. She still has a voracious appetite and gulps down the food without hesitation.
It is now late at night. As is our practice here in the monastery, Anka spends the evening in the room of the monk responsible for her. Before lights-out, her temperature was 99.4, and her panting was becoming increasingly labored. We spread old bedsheets on the floor in case she began to whelp while her guardian was still asleep.
When a monk is expecting the whelping to start in the middle of the night, he sets his alarm at regular intervals to check for the beginning of labor. This time it is hard to sleep anyway because of Anka’s increased restlessness. By 1:30 a.m. her breathing has become a wildfire panting, her body tied rhythmically to this breathing, and she is quivering incessantly as if she is chilled. Now she licks her vulva ever more frequently, methodically preparing the birth canal by cleansing it. Getting up, she paws at the sheets she is lying on and pulls them into a nest. Then, quite suddenly, her face becomes rigid and her breathing stops. She announces her first contraction with a slight moan, her tail arching out behind her. As her breathing begins again, a second contraction follows momentarily, and then a third. Panting now resumes with its previous intensity as Anka takes a slight rest.
Over the years, we have found that whelping often develops like this, in the middle of the night, so when it is obvious that labor has finally begun, the monk simply takes the hour in stride as he goes about the last-minute preparations. Anka is understandably restless during this brief wait, pacing around as if she has to use the kennel run. This behavior is quite common, for the sensation of a puppy entering the birth canal seems very similar to that of a bowel movement. When offered the chance to use the run, however, Anka makes it immediately clear that this is not what she wants. All she wants is to have her puppies. She has no sympathy for the fact that it is 1:30 in the morning.
On the short walk from the monastery to the puppy kennel, the only light comes from the stars, but Anka leads the way. With a certain resoluteness, she knows what to do, even though she is a maiden bitch. Once in her room she makes a beeline for the whelping nest and begins pawing at the papers in short, reflexive spasms of energy, the beginning of the birth ritual. Holding the newspaper on the floor of the nest with her paws, she starts to shred it violently with her mouth and then to moan and circle. Finally settling down, Anka once again begins to lick her vulva. Four sustained contractions quickly follow. As she pushes, her lips purse and her ears are erect and held back ever so slightly, as if she is listening to her body. She then turns her head down to her tail and begins licking the paper. There, beneath her tail, is the final sign: a puddle of liquid. She has broken her water—that is, discharged her uterine liquid. Now the vigil begins in earnest, and the first pup can be expected within the hour. Anka is still lying against the side of the whelping nest but pants more gently and almost fully closes her eyes. It is as if she is gearing herself up for the final thrust.
Here at the monastery it is typically our practice to have the mother’s guardian be the attending monk, a presence intended to quietly reassure and assist her during the whelping. His responsibility is to be on hand, to watch as the whelping takes place, aiding where needed, and to see that things run as smoothly as possible. Should complications develop, his immediate response may be very important in determining whether a puppy will live.
After resting a half hour, Anka finally stirs and starts scratching at the newsprint abruptly; her back humps and her tail arches, causing her to squat low in the nest as if she is pressing herself together. A long, drawn-out contraction follows, and suddenly the amniotic sac begins to push through the vulva. As the sac emerges gradually, like a gigantic blob of ink, the light from the heat lamp above the whelping nest allows a glimpse of two silhouetted front paws reaching forward within the sac. As Anka pushes courageously, she lets out a scream that can be described only as primordial, her eyes like saucers as she is initiated mercilessly into motherhood.
She quickly begins to lick her vulva as if to help the rest of the sac out. As she does so, the amniotic membrane surrounding the pup is ruptured, and with it a stream of fluid and blood drains to the floor. In the midst of this is a dark, wriggling puppy. Anka immediately consumes the placenta and begins to lick the puppy, tentatively at first, but then quickly and vigorously. While she does this, the attending monk cuts the umbilical cord and then uses a rubber bulb syringe to draw fluid from the puppy’s throat. A few quick squeezes clear the breathing passage, and the pup lets out his first gasps and wails, struggling as if annoyed by the gentle toweling that removes the amniotic fluid from his warm body. The scene reveals a natural harmony and coordination: Anka fully trusting her helper, and the monk respectful of Anka’s duties as well.
As soon as the pup is dried off, he is weighed on a scale—he writhes back and forth on the cool surface. Anka’s first puppy is a large male by our standards, a pound and a half, and when he is placed on the floor of the nest, he lifts his head up, waving it from side to side, and immediately crawls toward Anka, who is lying on the opposite end of the nest. She encourages him by licking him and nudging him forward. There is no hesitation in the pup’s movement as he stubbornly and insistently heads for the middle of Anka’s body, somehow unmistakably aware of where the nipples are. This first pup has a remarkable determination to reach the teat. When puppies are born they are unable to see or hear, senses that will develop in the first weeks of life; the fact that smell and touch are their only tools at birth makes the movement all the more amazing.
Continuing on, the pup forges straight to the rear teats—those with the most ample supply of milk—and he fastens himself on to one of them. The head bobs back and forth rhythmically as the pup pushes his paws against the teat in harmony with his suckling, a kneading motion that stimulates the flow of milk. His rear legs simultaneously thrust against the floor as if to propel him deeper into the breast. Anka continues to clean the pup periodically, then relaxes with a deep sigh, grateful that the ordeal is over.
She soon learns that it has only just begun.
Some forty minutes after the birth of the first male, a resting Anka is suddenly roused and begins turning in the nest and scratching the floor again. Her pup, now with a bright-orange rickrack collar around his neck, is a sheen of black as he sleeps quietly. For the puppy’s safety during the next delivery, the attending monk places him in a small cardboard box with a heating pad that is wrapped in a towel. It is necessary to keep the puppy very warm, for when he is apart from the mother, he has no capacity to regulate his own body temperature. At birth neonates have a body temperature of 94 to 96°F. This climbs to a normal 101 to 102 over the next two weeks. For the time being, the heating pad will keep him warm and content while Anka delivers her next pup.
As she passes through a similar chain of events for this second puppy, there is already a marked difference in Anka. It is clear that she now understands what is happening. There is very little moaning, only at the end of contractions, and as her face sets, her look of determination is sober and resolute. Proper exercise during her pregnancy has given her good muscle tone, and the steady contractions are strong and sure. Quickly, with a final quivering that ripples through the length of her body, she passes the second puppy while lying down. This one comes out gently, with the placenta attached to the umbilical cord. As the amniotic sac containing the puppy lies momentarily on the floor, we clearly see the pup floating inside and moving his paws in a vigorous, thrashing motion. Anka quickly bursts the sac and cleans the pup off while he squirms around on the newspaper. After biting down on the umbilicus until it is only about an inch and a half long, Anka picks up the puppy in her mouth and begins to parade around the nest in a circular motion. This precipitates a loud, high wail from the puppy, which seems to satisfy Anka. As she places him gently back on the floor, he twists and turns, and she continues to lick him off. A bit smaller than the first, the puppy instinctively knows where to go, but his movement is slower, and it takes Anka more licking and nuzzling to encourage him along. The first pup is now placed back in the whelping nest to join his newborn brother, and both nurse contentedly on a fatigued mother. For several moments Anka scrupulously cleans the puppies off, then finally heaves a long sigh and relaxes for the next episode.
Night passes into dawn. In the ensuing deliveries, Anka follows the same pattern, with one exception. It is this exception that brings a sobering edge to the night of wonder. Anka has a difficult time passing the fourth pup; for a long while her numerous contractions yield nothing. Finally, when the pup does come out, all attempts to revive her are without effect. She is stillborn—completely developed but with lungs full of fluid. As seconds pass, we try not to lose hope; it is not unknown for a pup to begin breathing after several minutes. We repeatedly aspirate fluid from her lungs and manipulate her back and forth in our hands. Dopram, a stimulant helpful in reviving slow-starting puppies, is then given under the tongue. Finally air is blown down the lungs, but in vain. The pup does not move. Anka looks on at the attempts with grave concern, clearly aware that something is wrong. Whimpering as the pup is kept away from her, she paces back and forth impatiently in the nest, demanding something that cannot be given. Quickly the pup is taken from the room, and Anka retreats back to the remaining three, burying her disappointment in scrupulous attention to their needs. We hope that this reaction is linked to a quick forgetting.
Meanwhile, holding a cold and lifeless pup outside the room, we are vividly confronted with the radical difference between life and death. The body is inert and limp. A white tongue sticks out the side of her mouth. There is no potential, no vibrancy, nothing. It is a sad note amid a joyful chorus of life.
As the hours slide by, Anka takes her time delivering the final pups. There will be two more—alive, happily. The long pauses between puppies invariably become valuable moments of reflection, important if we seek to appreciate the beauty of what is happening. During the actual birth, events take place so quickly that we cannot fully fathom the mystery that is occurring. Instead, we gain an in-depth understanding of this night through the whelping experience as a whole. Unlike in human birth, which usually provides us with only a single delivery, here we watch birth occur again and again, giving us the opportunity to absorb the incredible marvel of it. Similarly we become aware in equal measure of the drastic change that has taken place in Anka, one that is as real as the pups who nurse at her side. It, too, is a birth of sorts, a birth into motherhood, and the event is written all over her. As the puppies nurse, Anka is radiant; her clear eyes glow, and she grins in quiet fulfillment. Mother and pups bring to one another a completion beyond shallow sentimentality.
By 10:30 a.m. Anka is resting quietly in her nest with five healthy puppies close by her side. Each pup has a different colored rickrack collar for identification purposes. By using wide rickrack for male puppies and narrow for females, we can quickly recognize pups at a glance. This will be particularly important later on, when we begin making behavioral and structural notes about the litter. As the puppies sleep, we can see quite clearly that there are three males and two females. Huddled close together, they sleep very restlessly; they twitch and jerk continually. This normal phenomenon is known as activated sleep, which is linked to the development of the pups’ neuromuscular systems. Healthy pups are never still for an extended time while they rest.
After her sixth puppy arrived, at 8:30 a.m., we knew that Anka had finished. The previous week our veterinarian had x-rayed her to determine how many puppies she was carrying, and the six fetuses were clearly visible. Still, just to be sure, we thoroughly palpated her uterus to confirm that she was now empty. Anka’s breathing was relaxed as she stretched out on her side, exhausted, to allow the pups to nurse. When we see that whelping is finished, we usually give the mother an injection of oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates passage of any retained afterbirth. We then disinfect the whelping area and place fresh papers in the nest, after which we clean the mother by rinsing her off in a tub of warm water. She is then thoroughly dried and offered a bowl of food, which, in this case, Anka devoured.
The conclusion of the whelping is quiet—a peaceful aftermath to the whole process of birth. The only sound is the occasional mewing of the pups. After the remaining chores are complete, Anka is left alone with her litter. Her guardian, a tired midwife, retires for some much-needed sleep. Others will check in on Anka periodically throughout the morning and afternoon to make sure that all is well.
The Mystery of Development
We do justice to a relationship with a dog when we honor it as it is—a dog, a creature who, for all we may understand about it, is still fraught with mystery.
—I & Dog
A puppy’s life clearly displays what characterizes the whole of life: the mystery of development. The entire universe, it seems, is in a continuous process of growth that extends from before the first moments of each individual existence to the end of life and beyond. Nothing is excluded from this movement, though our own consciousness of its breadth can be dulled by the chaotic pace of modern living. Too often we take this journey for granted, carelessly letting it pass unacknowledged. With our busy lives, we can easily grow insensitive to the basic wonder of life, leaving us spiritually impoverished and unhappy. This is perhaps why animals (particularly our dogs) are so important to us and why we benefit from their companionship: they root us in life.
Part of the joy in raising a puppy is the very concrete way it puts us in touch with the process of existence and the natural world around us. Watching the pup grow takes us outside ourselves and helps reestablish our own capacity for appreciation and wonder. But even more than this, we believe that paying attention to how a puppy matures is important for his health and vitality. Studies have shown conclusively that the first sixteen weeks of a dog’s life are significant in determining his later behavior as an adult. Negligence by a breeder or new owner during this time can scar a puppy for life. Thus, if you hope to raise a puppy who will be a trusted companion and friend for the next ten to fifteen years, the best foundation you can lay for yourself and your dog is to understand thoroughly how he grows during this time of early change and development. In this way you will be able to provide every available aid to help him grow to his potential.
A Miniature Adult?
A while ago we were speaking with a gentleman who had come to us for help with his rambunctious three-and-a-half-month-old golden retriever puppy. As we sat talking about his difficulties in adjusting to his new pup, the conversation kept returning to his former golden, a calm, well-trained dog who had died several months earlier at the age of twelve. The man’s eyes filled with tears as he recalled this dog, explaining how he had obtained her at seven months and how quickly she had picked up house-training, learned her obedience exercises, and adapted to the rhythm of his daily routine. Then he pointed to his new pup, Argus, now wildly jumping up for attention at his side and nipping at his hands. Without trying to hide his frustration, he launched into a detailed account of the trials of the first month and a half, the disappointments and irritations he had experienced, and his growing fear that Argus was simply a deficient representative of the breed. He was ready to give up.
As we listened to the man, it became clear that he was overlooking a very important point. All of the problems that he was having with Argus were being measured against the stability and maturity of his first dog, one he had obtained after a good deal of her development had already taken place. In fact, the pup who was now giving him so much trouble appeared to us to be a normal, energetic dog who was simply being mismanaged and misunderstood. When we asked the owner about the circumstances in which he obtained the first dog, he replied that she was sold to him by a man whose sudden job transfer had required that he and his family move to Europe. Regrettably, they were unable to take the puppy with them. But from our client’s description it was clear that the family had been very conscientious in raising their puppy, providing a sound basis for the relationship that had then developed with this man. When we pointed this out, he was surprised. He had assumed that she was simply a “good dog.” Not having shared with this first golden retriever the initial months of growth so critical to adult behavior, he did not appreciate how dynamic an organism a young puppy is. As a result, he was now transferring a mistaken set of expectations onto Argus based on what would be normal for an older, properly socialized dog. He was treating Argus as a miniature adult instead of as a fourteen-week-old puppy.
The Development of Individuality
It is not uncommon for puppy owners to have misconceptions about early growth. Because they have not had a breeder’s experience in observing young puppies’ development, they usually have only a vague grasp of how the process occurs, which can lead to the type of misunderstanding displayed by Argus’s owner. To help prepare yourself for the proper reception and intelligent raising of a new puppy, you must take the time to examine the growth process in detail, thus gaining some necessary insight into an otherwise obscure period.
The birth of a litter signals a new opportunity to observe ever more deeply a remarkable series of events—those moments that mark the passage of a totally dependent puppy into a fully mature dog, capable of true companionship. If you have the good fortune of such companionship, you will no doubt understand how life-enhancing it is. What you may not realize, however, is that the seeds of your dog’s capacity for relationship are planted very early in his life, well before he has been placed in your home. The development of a puppy is not an automatic process that occurs precisely the same way in each dog. Rather, it is a dynamic unfolding of life that, while following general patterns, reflects the subtle and ultimately mysterious interaction of three factors: type of breed, genetic makeup, and environmental influences. The results of this blending produce a wide variety of canine personalities. This is why raising puppies defies routine: each puppy is unique; each is an individual.
This insight is at the heart of what has become one of the most authoritative studies on dog behavior, Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog, by John L. Fuller and John Paul Scott. When these men began their research in Bar Harbor, Maine, on the effects of heredity on human behavior, they chose the dog as the subject of their work precisely because, like human beings, dogs show a high level of individuality. The researchers believed that by studying the parallel development of dogs they could make valuable observations for child rearing, thus allowing for psychologically better-adjusted, healthier members of society. Their study helped distinguish the important relationships among genetics, early experience, and adult behavior. In the process, it illuminated how a dog becomes an individual, unique creature, and provided a more comprehensive and accurate view of canine behavior than had existed previously.
The complete results of the research, exhaustive and quite technical, go well beyond the scope of this book. Yet one finding in particular is important to single out because of its profound effect on our understanding of development and on the way conscientious breeders raise their puppies. It also provides a helpful framework in understanding how a pup grows. Over the course of the seventeen-year study, Scott and Fuller followed in detail the development of litter after litter of pups. In analyzing their data, they discovered that puppies pass through four clearly identifiable stages on the way to their full adult personalities. Each of these periods begins with natural changes in the pups’ social relationships, identified by the way the puppies relate to their environment. Taking into account the slight variations present from individual to individual, Scott and Fuller noted the following stages: the neonatal period, from birth until the opening of the eyes at about thirteen days; the transitional period, from the time the eyes open until the opening of the ears at twenty days; the socialization period, which extends from approximately three to twelve weeks; and the juvenile period, lasting from this point until sexual maturity, which may occur from six months to a year or more.
In addition, in trying to determine why some dogs matured into happy, sociable pets while others did not, the researchers found that the timing of early experiences played a vital role in the development and shaping of behavior. Events that occurred at a certain stage of a puppy’s life affected his development more than if the same incidents had happened at other times. This suggested to Scott and Fuller the presence of critical periods—special times when “a small amount of experience will produce a great effect on later behavior.” Though somewhat ambiguous as to precisely how many of these periods there are, the researchers singled out the period between three and twelve weeks as the most important, the “critical period of socialization,” when a puppy has certain experiences that exert the maximum influence on his future personality and temperament. Through correct socializing at the critical period, puppies could be conditioned naturally to behave as friendly, people-oriented pets.
While most acknowledge the overall value of Scott and Fuller’s study, not everyone is comfortable with the term critical period. Critics argue that it is too absolute and seems to rule out the possibility of rehabilitating the animal who is the unfortunate victim of abuse and neglect during infancy. Instead, they prefer the term sensitive period as a clearer expression of reality. If we look at it this way, we see that timing and quality of experience, though undoubtedly important factors in influencing behavior, are not straitjackets that frustrate any future attempts to modify behavior. Development is much more complex than that. These periods simply approximate the time when a pup is most naturally susceptible to socializing influences.
This does not change the main point: early experience plays an important role in the development of personality. So if you are serious about purchasing a puppy, you should try to get as clear an idea as possible of the sort of background he comes from. The more you can learn about a puppy’s early experiences, the genetic heritage he carries, and the general characteristics proper to his breed, the better prepared you will be to understand your pup and help him develop to his potential. Nevertheless, keep in mind that this knowledge will still not completely solve the riddle of your dog’s individuality. There are limits to what science can teach us about our dogs. Ultimately, we must leave room for mystery.
In discerning the way a dog develops, we must recognize that our knowledge reflects general patterns and not absolute rules. We can never understand fully why a dog is the way he is. In fact, “the dog” does not exist, only individual dogs and the unique way each develops. Thus, in every stage, though the process of growth is basically the same, the particular way it manifests itself varies from pup to pup. This is why littermates raised under the same conditions develop differently. The very nature and chaos of life disposes them to behave and grow in individual ways.
This diversity is not without purpose. The dog, like his chief ancestor, the wolf, is a pack animal. While each dog has his own individual personality, he also has a pack identity that is manifest at a very young age, while he is still within the litter. These personality differences are important, for they highlight the fact that a pack is dependent upon mutual cooperation for its survival. Each member has his own role and importance; each is worthy of respect.
This is seen most clearly with wolves. Were a wolf pack made up entirely of alpha, or leader, personalities, then the members’ ability to stick together would be pressed beyond the pack’s limits. Continual infighting and challenging for control would make pack unity impossible. Conversely, were all members submissive types, the pack would lack the leadership necessary for effective hunting. In both cases, survival would be jeopardized. What gives the pack its strength are the different personalities that exist within it. These individual traits are linked directly with the experience of puppyhood. It is the diversity of developing personalities within the litter that forms the basis of an efficient, coordinated pack wherein each member’s strengths and abilities are used to serve the whole while benefiting each.
This insight is vital to understanding the domestic dog. As we return to Anka and her puppies, we now have a general framework for discussing puppy growth and various related issues. Yet it is important to remember here that we are dealing with a litter of German shepherd pups. In addition to a particular dog’s individuality, the size and breed of a puppy can affect his rate of physical and behavioral growth. For example, toy breeds such as the Chihuahua tend to mature sexually at around six months and reach adulthood at about a year. Larger, more slowly developing breeds such as the Irish wolfhound and mastiff do not reach sexual maturity until about a year and a half and reach adulthood from two to three years. Every breed has a natural growth rate you should be aware of when you obtain your puppy. The purpose of following Anka’s litter is not to make a standard of their growth rates, nor to chronicle every detail of their growth. Rather, it is to provide a real-life background for our discussion and to help you better understand the early development of your own pup.
Ordinarily, it is not our practice to give proper names to nursing puppies, but we have done so here for the sake of clarity. We named the first two males Sunny and Kairos, the two females Oka and Yola, and the last male, who at birth was the smallest puppy in the litter, Kipper.
More Than Meets the Eye
NEONATAL PERIOD: 1–13 DAYS
We are now standing next to Anka’s nest, pausing a moment from kennel chores to observe her nursing her pups. They are two days old. A heat lamp glares down over Anka, ensuring that the room temperature is kept warm and constant. She is lying with her underside fully exposed, and the puppies are lined up next to one another in an orderly fashion, each on a teat, each kneading gently with his or her paws to stimulate the milk flow. They look like little sausages attached to her side, their smooth black coats giving off a sheen under the light. Anka pants heavily as they suckle; she is unconcerned by our presence, her gaze fixed on a solid white wall that borders the nest.
Finally the calm is broken as Anka shifts herself and stands up. As the pups lose their hold on her teats, they roll off to the side, helplessly landing on their backs, squealing at the sudden disruption. This lasts for only a moment. Quickly they right themselves, and after a few seconds of crawling, they fall fast asleep next to one another. Anka, meanwhile, lies down on the opposite end of the nest and looks up at us.
After the excitement of her whelping only two days before, the quietness of the following days might easily lull us into overlooking the critical importance of this time, when the principal activity of the litter is the alternating rhythm of sleep and nursing. In this quiet, however, a great deal occurs that will provide the essential foundation for the future development of the litter.
Entering a world they can neither see nor hear, newborn pups exist in a sensory desert, necessarily well insulated from harsh disturbances. They are entirely dependent on their mother; without her (or the equivalent care by humans) the pups will die. Anka knows this. During the first days she is continuously in the nest, leaving it only to eliminate. As mother, she is a portrait of concentrated, faithful attention to every detail of the puppies’ lives, reflecting her profound awareness of just how vulnerable they are at this stage. It is a vulnerability that she is prepared to defend with her life.
An example: While the puppies are asleep, Anka remains awake in the nest, occupying herself with a rawhide bone. Suddenly her ears stand erect and she begins to growl tentatively. Strange voices drift into the kennel from outside. At once, she is out of the nest and flying through the kennel hatch into her outdoor pen, ferociously barking out her alarm. As she paces back and forth, her hackles are fully raised and her tail stands straight up. She appears, through this natural illusion, substantially larger-than-life to the strangers, tourists who have inadvertently wandered too close to the kennel building. Quickly they hurry off in the other direction, convinced of her seriousness. Anka, however, continues the warning, her bark echoing throughout the monastery grounds for several minutes. It is only when she is satisfied that the danger has passed that she returns to the nest and the sleeping pups huddled in the corner, oblivious to all the commotion.
The fact that the puppies lie clustered together should not be interpreted as evidence of neonatal sociability. It is simply a way to conserve heat. Newborn pups have poor control over their body temperature, so they tend to gravitate to the warmest area of the nest. As soon as the first pup, Sunny, awakes, he begins a restless search for a nipple by inconsiderately piling over the others, ignoring their presence. His stirring causes a chain reaction of mad maneuvering, each pup struggling to reach one of Anka’s teats. The scene confirms that the pups have no direct awareness of one another; their behavior is confined largely to reflex actions that they have been equipped with at birth, such as sucking, crawling, attraction to warmth, and distress vocalizations arising from pain, hunger, or cold.
Conventional wisdom, reflected most authoritatively by Scott and Fuller, portrays the newborn as an essentially tactile creature, incapable of any real learning, and relying exclusively on the sense of touch for getting nourishment. Other astute observers, however, such as author and veterinarian Michael Fox, have demonstrated that this view needs to be broadened in several respects. First, it has been shown that a newborn puppy also possesses a well-developed sense of smell. In a cleverly conceived experiment, Fox coated a nursing mother’s teats with aniseed oil, a rather unpleasant-smelling substance, and then let the newborn pups nurse. Twenty-four hours later these pups would crawl toward a Q-tip dipped in aniseed oil and held close to their noses. Other pups who had not received this previous exposure while nursing recoiled sharply from the odor.
In addition, neonatal behavior reveals a capacity for the simple learning necessary for survival. A newborn puppy will instinctively begin a burrowing motion with her muzzle when she first contacts something warm. This helps her find her mother’s teat, which can sometimes be hidden beneath her hair. In watching Yola behave this way shortly after she was born, and then again several days later, we see that there is quite a difference. While at first she was awkward and clumsy, after three days she is quite adept at it. Proficiency clearly improves with time.
Over several days she also develops strength and assurance in nursing. It is interesting to feel the difference in sucking ability of a pup shortly after birth and then again after many days. We did this with Yola by letting her nurse briefly on our fingers. Initially, after birth, the pressure was a little weak, unsure. When we repeated the exercise a few days later, the pressure was surprisingly strong and forceful. This is evidence of an elementary learning that will form the basis for later, more complex learning.
Regardless of how one interprets infant behavior and what constitutes true learning, the fact remains that the pups’ brain, motor, and sensory capacities are all immature during this period. The pups exist in a naturally protected environment where they possess only the basic abilities necessary for their survival. None of the behavior we most commonly associate with dogs is present: no barking, tail wagging, walking, or playing. In fact, the most dominant impression we receive of newborn pups is their need for sleep. During the neonatal period puppies spend about 90 percent of their time sleeping, waking only to nurse or to be cleansed by their mother.
This abundance of sleep is an absolute requirement. It is vital to the development of the central nervous system and the brain. When measured with an electroencephalograph (EEG) during the first three weeks of life, a pup’s brain waves will be the same whether the pup is awake or asleep. This indicates how immature the brain is at this period. In particular, the reticular formation—the section of the brain that controls sleep and wakefulness—has not yet developed sufficiently to keep the puppy awake for any significant amount of time. It is only after the third week that a marked change begins to register on the EEG, showing a clear differentiation between wakefulness and sleep, and only after four weeks that pups are able to stay awake for any sustained period. Early in this initial phase, it is the quietness of sleep, combined with regular nourishment, warmth, and elementary movement, that establishes the proper climate wherein the brain and central nervous system may mature.
“Gross immaturity” characterizes what newborn puppies call to mind; they have an appearance entirely unique to this time in their lives. The shepherd pups born to Anka bear no resemblance at all to the familiar image we possess of a noble German shepherd. At six to eight inches from their pug noses to the tips of their tails, they have rounded, oversize heads, barrel-shaped chests, and short, stumpy legs. Their ears are quite small and seem stuck to the sides of their heads. Their eyes are closed tight. If you did not know better, you could easily mistake them for members of a different species!
Even the ability to eliminate is a reflex completely controlled by the mother, since newborn pups are unable to urinate or defecate on their own. During the first three weeks of life, they require the regular stimulation of their anal and genital areas by the mother’s tongue to eliminate bodily waste, which the mother licks up immediately. This keeps the nest completely clean and guards against the serious health risk of waste buildup. Such behavior may have another important function. Wildlife biologist L. David Mech, in his study on the wolf, points out that this activity may also establish the postural and psychological beginnings of submission in a pup. Although Mech was speaking specifically of the wolf, we have observed the importance of this in our own shepherds. Living as they do in a semi–pack environment, younger, more submissive dogs often assume the identical posture of a pup when submitting to an older, more dominant pack member. They roll over on their backs and expose their undersides while the other dog proceeds to investigate and sniff the anal-genital region. This posture defuses the threat perceived by the submissive dog and establishes pack hierarchy.
All of these details form the background for the later growth of each pup. Overall, we can now see that a pup’s early development lays the foundation for the future, despite the obvious immaturity of a puppy at this stage. It is a simple fact: life is growth. And even now, so early in life, the individuality we spoke of begins to show through. In keeping daily records of weight gain, we notice that Sunny and Oka are putting on the most weight and appear to nurse the most vigorously. In the nest they are the two who consistently manage to nose out the others when competing for a teat. These are preliminary signs of dominance that we will pay attention to throughout their puppyhood. Also, because of the growth differences within the litter, sometimes we find it necessary to place the slower-growing puppies on the mother’s teats for longer periods without the presence of the more dominant pups. It is a gentle way of trying to level the playing field a bit.
Daily weighing also gives us a chance to note which puppies are more reactive and more vocal when being handled. Anka’s second female, Yola, for example, seems quite sensitive to touch and squirms vigorously when held. When we place her on the cold scale, she cries more loudly than the other pups, who are not so alarmed by this experience.
Benefits of Stress
The presence of this type of behavior in Yola raises an important issue about puppy development. Though some breeders and scientists claim that physical handling has no effect on a puppy during the first three weeks of life, our experience suggests otherwise. Over the years we have found it beneficial to introduce the pups to moderate amounts of human handling throughout the course of puppyhood, not simply during the period of socialization. This handling is actually a mildly stressful experience, though it in no way reaches traumatic levels. Contrary to what might be expected, mild amounts of stress are beneficial to the development of puppies, provided the exposure is not excessive. Whereas toxic stress in the form of prolonged isolation and lack of handling can have a profound effect on puppy development, moderate stress can be helpful. Not only have several scientific studies confirmed this but the U.S. military even developed a program based on this premise during the 1970s called “Bio Sensor” or the “Super Dog” program, which was designed to enhance the performance of dogs used in various capacities by the military. The basic idea of the program was that early neurological stimulation of pups from the third to the sixteenth day of their lives positively influenced neurological growth and development and set up the pups for success when they were older.
Puppies exposed to mildly stressful experiences from a very early age (one to six weeks) usually develop into mature dogs possessing superior problem-solving ability, with less emotional imbalance than their counterparts raised without such stimulation. In the young pup, stress, in addition to raising the heart rate, causes an involuntary hormonal reaction in the pituitary-adrenal system. This helps in resisting disease and handling stress. The overall effect is to prime the entire system, building it up and making it more resilient to emotionally challenging experiences later in life. We find that at each particular stage of growth, specific types of handling enhance the development of pups and orient them in a positive manner to adulthood. When puppies receive consistent, nontraumatic handling, they become more outgoing and friendly and show less inclination to be fearful once they are older. When the time comes to welcome a new puppy into your home, you may want to ask your breeder what type of early handling your pup has received.
Here at the monastery, we follow a variation of the Bio Sensor program during the neonatal period and expand this as the pups mature, scheduling regular periods of handling with each litter, making sure that the pups receive daily attention from different monks and kennel workers. This is possible because all of us are involved in varying degrees with the puppy program. Each monk and kennel worker is known by the mothers, who allow the pups to be touched and handled without becoming agitated. When we observe a pup who is extremely reactive to touch at this early stage, as Yola is, we make sure that she receives a little more stroking and handling than normal, though without overdoing it. Usually we practice this once or twice a day, stroking the pup’s body and gently massaging the stomach. We also like to lift a pup up and breathe on her, then hold her next to our face, allowing her to rub against the texture of a beard as well as experience the softness and scent of skin. In general, we find that with such regular exposure even pups who are initially very sensitive to touch show noticeable improvements in reactivity, becoming quieter and more accepting of these mildly stressful experiences over the course of several weeks.
The final type of mild stress we introduce during the later part of the neonatal period involves the reduction of the puppies’ body temperature. During the second week of life, we routinely administer a brief thermal stress by placing the pups in a separate, cool room away from the nest. The pups are held in individual cardboard boxes for three minutes. This allows their bodies to sense a temperature fall, causing the pituitary-adrenal system to respond with a brief output of corticosteroid hormones—a process that helps the pups resist disease later on. When we perform this exercise, the puppies begin to squeal and make a ruckus. At the end of the period, each pup is returned to the warm nest and stroked gently. Immediately all signs of agitation stop, and the pups are clearly relaxed and comfortable once again. As an added benefit of this brief separation of the litter, the mother is “reinvigorated” in her vigilant attention to the puppies upon their return.
An additional point needs to be made in connection with early handling and development. Occasionally a whelping occurs that produces only one or two puppies. In such cases, we find that the pups can be prone to greater touch sensitivity because they do not have the ordinary amount of physical contact and stimulation with other pups that is present in larger litters. As we have mentioned, when there are a number of pups, all of them quickly become accustomed to tumbling and squirming over one another, and they adjust naturally to a variety of sensations. When such contact is absent, it is important for the breeder to take the time to handle the pups more often, introducing mildly stressful experiences into an overly sedate environment.
Light Shines in Darkness
TRANSITIONAL PERIOD: 13–20 DAYS
On the twelfth day after birth, the first major change becomes visible in one of the puppies. Kairos, Anka’s second male, begins to open his eyes. This signals the start of the transitional period of development, a week when many of the pup’s sensory capacities begin to function. Contrary to what you might expect, this is no small accomplishment. A puppy’s eyes do not open all at once. Instead, this is a gradual process that may take well over twenty-four hours to complete. At first, his eyes seem like dark little slits, begging to be pried open. Then, slowly, as if he is waking from a deep sleep, they become more visible, their grayish-blue, semiopaque color giving them an unworldly appearance. It is only after about five weeks that they will become clear and distinctive, reaching their adult coloration.
By the fifteenth day, all of the puppies in the litter have their eyes wide open, and a parallel increase in activity occurs. They crawl around the nest and continually bump into one another. Despite the fact that their eyes are open, the pups still do not see very well. Shining a penlight into Kairos’s left eye causes the pupil to contract; quick gestures in front of him, however, evoke no reaction, and a sudden movement directly toward him does not make him blink. It is not until about twenty-eight days that a pup is able to begin clearly distinguishing forms, though occasionally we have seen puppies become startled by quick, threatening movements as early as the seventeenth day, apparently due to the darting of shadows. Thus, during this time we take care not to make sudden moves that could frighten the pups.
The process of eye opening is symbolic of everything that happens during this stage—a steady, gradual transformation. It is the first clear sign of the passage from the insulated newborn stage to the fully social existence of an adult. This is why we call this period transitional. It is a week of dramatic change. By the end of this stage, the pups will have received, albeit at an immature level, all the basic tools of life: sight, hearing, walking, the ability to eliminate by themselves, chewing, and a more refined sense of smell. Because of this, the pups will become much more sensitive to their environment than they were before.
For example, during the neonatal period, puppies have no sense of place. If you remove one and put him in a different room, alone, at the same temperature as the nest and on a comfortable surface, the pup will show no sign of distress, provided he is not hungry. Now, however, since Anka’s puppies are becoming aware of one another and of their nest, when we repeat this same experiment with Kipper, we see a marked change. After poking his head around for several moments, he suddenly begins to whimper and show signs of distress. The whimper then turns into a wail. Clearly he has no taste for being alone!
Once their eyes are fully open, the puppies begin investigating the small world of the nest. Looking at them now, we see that they are trying out life for the first time. They start to crawl backward as well as forward, and quickly move on to the first clumsy attempts at walking. This reflects the basic pattern of a puppy’s becoming aware of himself and his surroundings.
At the daily weighing session on the sixteenth day, Oka and Sunny are the first to try walking. As they attempt to stand on the scale, they shake the platform precariously and are unable to maintain their balance. This, however, is just the beginning. Their efforts continue when they are returned to the nest. Standing up ever so tentatively, wobbling from side to side, Sunny finally takes two brave steps forward only to flop over onto a sleeping Kipper, creating a very cranky outburst. Quickly crawling backward, Sunny barks indignantly in a comically high pitch and tries to stand once again. Meanwhile, Oka is a little less adventurous. She simply attempts to remain standing without falling over. Lacking the confidence to actually try walking, she finally crouches back down, crawls over to the other pups, and falls asleep. Throughout all this, Anka looks on from outside the nest with what seems to be mild amusement.
The seed of example has been planted. The following day, all of the pups except Yola are beginning to give walking a try, basically following the same pattern. Together, they are like a group of youngsters learning how to ride bicycles for the first time. They have little coordination and make numerous false starts, but their proficiency improves daily. By the end of a week they will be able to walk around the nest without much trouble at all.
About this time we notice something else: the puppies are beginning to sniff around the nest. The refinement of the sense of smell that has been occurring since birth stimulates their curiosity, and they are soon snuffling one another, the newspapers, and Anka. If we pick them up and hold them close to our faces, they sniff and try to suckle the skin, awkwardly probing our cheeks. To reinforce this contact, we put an old cotton sock or unwashed cotton T-shirt into the nest so that the pups will be continuously exposed to human scent as they grow.
Given the fact that the olfactory area of adult dogs is fourteen times larger than a human’s and that their overall ability to smell is estimated conservatively at one hundred times more sensitive, we can begin to realize the role scent plays in a dog’s understanding of the world. While we depend more on our eyes for information, dogs rely on their noses, learning much about their environment from the currents of air that pass their way.
Connected with this rise in inquisitiveness is the emergence of the upper canine teeth, which can be felt around the eighteenth and nineteenth days. Not only does this development set the stage for a transition to more solid foods, but it is likely that the pressure of the incoming teeth prompts puppies to begin exploring one another. As Sunny’s upper teeth start to emerge on the nineteenth day, he begins to chew and suck on the other puppies’ ears, paws, and muzzles. This happens in slow motion and is accompanied by the first signs of tail wagging. Like a chain reaction, the other pups begin to reciprocate. Thus the first real sessions of play begin.