Puppy Developmental Stages and Behaviour

To have a well-adjusted and social dog, you need to ensure his needs are met during each phase of development. Building the foundation for a great dog starts with appropriate training at each stage of development and establishing appropriate guidelines so that that your puppy is properly integrated into the family.

You will see many behaviour changes during the life stages of your pup. Knowing how to handle your pup through each developmental stage will help to shape your puppy into a lifelong family member.

Puppy Developmental Stages

The puppy development process covers five distinct stages. However, puppies grow through these stages at their own pace and these timelines can vary.

Stage 1: Neonatal Period (0 – 2 weeks)

This is the first stage of puppy development and begins at birth. At this age, puppies only have the sense of taste and touch and rely totally on their mother.

Stage 2: Transitional Period (2 – 4 weeks)

Sensory development continues with hearing and sense of smell. Puppy teeth start coming through and their eyes will begin to open. This is also the age where your puppy’s personality begins to develop. Puppies will interact with their litter mates, wag their tails, stand, walk a little and bark.

Stage 3: Socialization Period (3 – 12 weeks)

This is the most important stage of a puppy’s development. It is vital to understand this stage as most puppies go home to their new parents between 7 – 12 weeks. During this period, changes start to occur rapidly.

Between 3- 5 weeks puppies start to become aware of their surroundings and have the ability to develop a relationship with people This is the period where puppies get familiar with the day-to-day noises of a regular household such as TVs, vacuum cleaners, telephones, etc.

At this age puppies are just learning to interact with each other and beginning to play. They are also learning their doggie social skills and exploring their ranking status within their pack. Their curiosity is developing, as are their biting skills. Nipping behaviours begin as they practice biting behaviour with their mother and litter mates.

At the 7-9 weeks stage, they will have full use of all their senses and will be ready to go home to their new owners.

Bringing your pup home (usually between 7-12 weeks) is right in the middle of his socialization period. Therefore, it is vital that you introduce your puppy to as many new dogs, people, objects and surroundings as you can. BUT, make sure you do so in a controlled manner and never put your puppy in a dangerous situation where they can be injured, scared or contract disease.

This is a great period to begin crate training, for a variety of reasons. Puppies are old enough to start getting used to being left alone to avoid separation anxiety from developing and are capable of being house-trained. Even though your home is likely puppy proofed, it also saves your possessions.

During this phase of development, puppies are developing their reactions to things much more consistently. They are also likely to focus more on different types of people and should be friendly and approachable to strangers. During this time they are also going to continue to practice their biting skills a whole lot more! It is important to learn how to manage this behaviour early on.

You may also notice that they are more curious and will probably look to explore their environment more. Be prepared for this and keep your puppy close to you and leashed.

Stage 4: Testing Period (3 – 6 months)

This is the time your puppy starts to test their boundaries within their world. They will test the limits with their owners and other animals. At this age many adult dogs will start to enforce manners. Problematic behaviours can begin to arise in this period. If you haven’t done so already, make sure you start a training program with your pup. It’s great to find a good positive training class but it’s also vital that you practice at home on a regular (daily) basis.

At this age your puppy is going to go through teething and chewing is a common side effect. Before your puppy starts chewing on your furniture:

  • Don’t leave him unattended.
  • Make sure he has plenty of chew sticks and toys.
  • Use commercial sprays or gels that dissuade your puppy from chewing your belongings.

Try soaking a cloth toy in chicken stock and freezing it if your puppy is experiencing pain while teething. Once frozen, this can be given to your puppy as a chew toy and will help to relieve sore gums. Puppies are usually finished teething by the age of 6 months when the upper fangs (canines) come in.

Stage 5: Adolescence (6 – 18 months)

This can be the most difficult time during a puppy’s development – adolescence. Your cute little puppy is becoming a teenager and will start producing hormones which may result in changes in behaviour. Dogs go through adolescence much earlier than people; for small breeds, is can be as early as months old while larger dogs starting at nine or 10 months of age. Adolescence in larger breed dogs continues until they are two or three years old with smaller dogs reaching maturity at about 18 months. Typically the larger the dog, the slower the development.

Signs of Puberty in Canines

Here are the typical signs to watch out for to tell you that your own puppy has hit puberty:

Males
  • Descent of the testicles
  • Scent marking
  • Raising his leg to mark (pee)
  • Becomes less friendly
  • More interested in roaming and less interested in obeying
  • May start lifting his leg indoors
  • Can become aggressive towards other male dogs
Females
  • Usually starts with first heat cycle
  • Exhibits erratic behaviour
  • Moody
  • Lethargic
  • Shows aggression

You may, or may not, see some or all of the above signs. In addition, there are other behaviours that are also characteristic of the adolescent dog. These include:

  • Starting inappropriate chewing (furniture, shoes, etc.)
  • Running around like a maniac and/or exhibiting exuberant energy
  • Starting sexual behavior if not spayed or neutered, humping etc.
  • Starting to claim the bed or couch areas and growling when you try to move him or her
  • Starting to pee and/or poop indoors
  • Displaying aggressive behaviour (towards people or other dogs)
  • Resource guarding
  • Lack of respect and response
  • Lack of focus and concentration (usually noticed during training sessions)
  • Selective “deafness” (i.e. doesn’t come when called)
  • Guarding-type breeds (i.e. German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Dobermans, etc.) may start to display severe guarding tendencies
  • Destructiveness
  • Manipulative behaviour and continually “testing” you
  • May start to challenge humans
  • Adolescent dogs can become destructive in the final stages of puppy development

Most of these behaviours will start to diminish as your puppy matures as long as you keep up training and socialization through these periods.

One of the best ways to handle an adolescent dog through this phase is to give him plenty of daily exercise to drain his energy and continue positive training sessions regularly. Consistency and routine are important. If your dog begins displaying any aggressive behaviour, please consult with your veterinarian, dog behaviourist or certified trainer.

Fear Periods

During puppy development, puppies go through an average of four fear periods. These are approximately at the following ages:

  • Between 8 – 10 weeks
  • Between 4 – 6 months
  • About 9 months
  • Between 14 – 18 months

This is a very important part of puppy development and if handled incorrectly, you could end up with an aggression problem. As your puppy enters a fear period, he will suddenly become frightened of something that he used to be okay with or used to ignore. His could react by hunching down, shaking, backing away, hiding, running away or submissively urinating. Or your puppy could display more pronounced behaviours such as growling, barking, raising his hackles or showing teeth.

Either way, once you recognize one of these behaviours at the age range mentioned above, you should halt taking your puppy to new places and introducing them to new things for about a week. And if you can, don’t schedule any veterinary appointments during a fear period.

Biting, Nipping and Rough Play

When you start any puppy training you need to ensure you include some element of teaching that biting, mouthing, chewing and rough play are all unacceptable behaviours….to us.  However, these are natural behaviours for puppies and punishment will not work. Redirection is key.

Inhibition is a behaviour in puppies whereby the animal learns to moderate the strength of its actions (bites, rough play etc.).It is an important factor in the socialization of pets and it is how puppies learn how much of something is tolerable and how much is too much. By biting each other during play, puppies learn that biting too hard hurts their siblings or mother and stops play. They soon learn to adjust their bite strength to a softer bite and play resumes. This happens with rough play as well.

To prevent you or your family from becoming chew toys for your puppy, invest in appropriate chew toys that you can direct your puppy onto.

You can also help them (and ultimately you) greatly by giving feedback on how much force they can use when biting or playing. The instructions below speak to biting, but can also be used for rough play.

For their benefit and yours, puppies must learn how to bite softly before they enter adolescence. Adult dogs use their mouths to play with each other all the time. A pup that hasn’t learned bite inhibition could accidentally injure other dogs or people.

The first time your puppy bites, say “OUCH” loudly and immediately leave the room for 1-2 minutes.  By doing this, you are mimicking the reaction other puppies would give to a puppy that is biting too hard. He will be isolated.

When you return, continue the play until he bites you again. If he bites again, repeat the process. In fact, you will likely need to repeat multiple times, but your pup should eventually learn. Multiple people should practice this with your puppy, excluding children.

A small portion of puppies will get excited by responding with any vocal response to their biting, causing them to bite harder. For puppies who display this behaviour, do not say anything and leave the room for 1-2 minutes. Often, excessive mouthing in puppies is a sign of an over-tired puppy and a nap in a crate, x-pen or quiet room can be beneficial.

By understanding each stage of puppy development, you can understand what to expect, both developmentally and behaviourally. You’ll also be better equipped to provide your puppy with the right care throughout each phase and reduce the risk of your puppy ending up in a shelter.

Finally, providing a stable routine, consistency, positive training, and plenty of socialization and exercise you are more likely to produce a well-balanced, emotionally stable, and safe dog.