The Four Critical Periods of Puppyhood Part 1

The Four Critical Periods of Puppyhood

By Michele Forto

Period One

I often do breed referrals for people looking for the right dog for their family, I am also a breeder of Siberian Huskies and German Shepherds.  I am a certified obedience instructor, an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator, and a certified Service Dog Evaluator and trainer.  Over the years I have trained several hundred dogs.  I have bred my own litters and trained each and every one of them up to the age of 12 weeks; but I have also trained many them into adulthood.  I have trained many other puppies and rescues and I have seen many mistakes made by breeders, pet stores, and new owners.  Puppies have four critical periods of life.  The following is the first in my series: The Four Critical Periods.

I have used the information I am sharing for years in raising puppies and preparing them for life.  It is my hope that the novice and the expert in raising and training of dogs appreciates the information being shared and utilizes this information to raise well-balanced better trained puppies.

NOTE: The purpose of the puppy program is to condition the puppy to learn, and that learning and doing things are fun.  The program aims at preventing problems rather than correcting problems later. This purpose of “puppy program” must be fully understood.  Therefore, DO NOT attempt to program any puppy until you are familiar with Clarence Pfaffenberger’s “The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior.”

Day 0: Puppies are whelped. Be sure you have notated each puppy in order of birth.  The record taking begins now.

Day 3: Begin taking puppies outside on a clean blanket for a couple of minutes a day, and then take them inside again. If the weather is inclement then take them to a blanket near a large window or patio door, preferably one that gets sunlight.

The first critical period, Days 1 – 21:

Newborn puppies are undeveloped. They do not hear or see.  Their senses of smell and touch are functioning.  The puppies should be handled a little bit, like for weighing every day.  Subject the puppies to small amount of stress, e.g. different under covers, cold temperatures.  Also, they can be conditioned to certain smells at this age.

EEG (Electroencephalograph) tracings show that the puppies waking brain-wave pattern is identical to their sleeping brain-wave pattern.  This means that they do not have true consciousness – and they will remain so until the 20th day of their life.  While their “conscious” brain cannot yet be programmed, this is not so with certain reflex pathways in their spinal cords (work researched since Pfaffenberger’s book).  The first reflex which can be conditioned is the pannus (or cutaneous) muscle reflex.  Conditioning of this reflex, so that it becomes abolished, or inactive, or non-responsive to human touch, begins its critical period at Day 14 and finishes at Day 28.  We call this “The Critical Period of Touch Conditioning”.

Cutaneous muscle, under the skin, all over the body, will twitch (startle response) when skin is touched, throughout life, by human beings of whichever sex that do not take part in touch conditioning.  In adult dogs (over 4 months), we see this as a dog which will not stand still and be willingly touched (examined) by any men, or by any women, whichever it lacked in its conditioning in this period of 14-28 days.  This is the dog (or bitch) which has to be shown “only under female judges” or “won’t let a man touch him/her”. No type of later “training” will reliably bring a touch-shy dog out of this too frequently seen behavior fault. So do not fail to program your puppies for both male and female touch!  This is imperative for pets, show trials, guides, police, etc.

Take the puppies outside on a clean blanket for a couple of minutes each day.

Day 9-12: Eyes open during this period, but puppies cannot focus, nor is there any conscious awareness of anything “seen”.

Day 11-13: Ear canals begin to open for function, but are not “hooked up” for conscious interpretation of sounds.  No sound conditioning is possible until Day 23.

Day 14: 2 weeks old: Begin touch conditioning.  This is done by having a man and a woman each handle each puppy for 2-3 minutes twice daily.  Handle head, muzzle, neck, body, legs, and tail. Touch and rub back against hair gently.  Children should also participate but a shorter amount of time for handling is acceptable. Remember to WASH hands first!

Day 15-21: The puppy goes through a lot of physical changes.  The baby teeth erupt at about 15 days.  Do touch conditioning and expose the puppy to mild stress.  Take the puppies outside every day.

Day 20: On this day all puppies brains are slowly (some faster than others) awakening. Begin observing continuously. Note:  which of each sex “wakes up” first.  Mark these two, for example by cutting a small patch of hair on their backs, or marking with nail polish.

Day 21: 3 weeks old: CONSCIOUS LIFE BEGINS NOW. Touch conditioning. When you do your touch conditioning on this most exciting day, watch the faces! For the first time they react consciously to your presence.  You have looked at the puppies many times, but today you are seeing them as never before.

Note: Prepare early. Get a journal, a digital camera, or video camera.  These items make it easy to archive your notes and recording each puppy in its critical periods.  This can be helpful when you go to place your puppy in his/her new home.  You can share these archives with your new puppy owner and be sure to go over your training program so that it can be followed.

Tags: Denver Dog Training Examiner | Robert Forto | Michele Forto | Iditarod | Team Ineka | Dog Training Denver | Dog Doctor Radio | Denver Dog Works | Mushing Radio | Duluth Dog Works | Minnesota Dog Works | Puppy Development


Michele Forto is Denvers Dog Training Examiner and the business manager of Denver Dog Works. Michele can be reached through her website at

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