Friday, July 24, 2009

Musings on Puppyhood

I was having my first cup of coffee this morning while watching the pups nurse and play. I found myself enjoying them and their antics on two levels. The first is the most common and can be summed up in one word--CUTE! Most human beings respond to young animals like puppies with warm hearts and almost parental love. We just dissolve into smiling puddles and, in doing so, we color everything they do with sweetness and innocence.

However, I think my second view is more realistic. Each time I raise a litter, I see Mother Nature in all of her perfection. Cute as they are, these pups are fighting for their lives with a take-no-prisoners mentality. They fight for the best nipple, the best sleeping place. They do not care about their brothers and sisters except as competitors or as warm bodies. As they begin to play, they do so with a self-centered singlemindedness. They don't care that their sibling is sound asleep, they want to PLAY NOW! Puppy sweetness has an edge.

Mother Nature also creates a perfect dance of dam and puppies that is beautiful to watch as it develops and evolves. At their best, dams present perfectly timed challenges to their puppies to help them make the next developmental leap. For the first few days, dams are devoted mothers, hardly leaving their babies for more than a minute or two. At this time, they are everything to their pups--food, warmth, cleanliness. The challenges the pups face during these early days come not from their mother but from each other and the environment. Being too cold, too hot or too far from their mom can be fatal. Yet in their struggles to nurse, they violently shove and push their siblings, trying to win the battle for food and warmth.

Within a few days, the dam is leaving her pups for short periods so they learn to "pig pile," or monitor their body temperature by piling together or moving further apart. Her absences force them to move their bodies and use their senses.

Many visitors and novice breeders are shocked at the roughness with which dams clean their babies. Normally gentle mothers flip their pups over on their backs, often holding them down with a paw while they scrub their bellies and genitals with their tongues. Voila! The introduction of stress into the lives of these young creatures. In 30 years, I've never seen a puppy injured in this process but I've seen visitors gasp in shock and near-anger at the dam's actions.

Dams also change their nursing positions as their pups develop. Some change can be attributed to increasing puppy size; at some point, the pups no longer fit while the dam is lying down. But most dams start sitting even with small litters. When their mom is sitting, pups develop coordination and strength. They have to see the nipple above them, get their mouth to the right place and then maintain their position while nursing. No easy task when you are only 14 days old but at least you can lean against your dam's legs or belly.

That brings us to where the 4th of July gang are in their development. Apparently, it is time to stand while nursing. Risk started this yesterday and it was amazing to see the pups struggle to accomplish this very difficult task. None of them can reach the nipples except by standing on their tiptoes and dangling from the nipple. However, the process of trying is fine tuning their coordination; they have to locate that nipple while balancing on their hind legs and then they have to be strong enough to stay on. The pups are developing strength, coordination and balance. It is a very difficult, if not impossible, task but they are very motivated to solve this problem. Risk changes her nursing positions throughout the day--sometimes lying, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing. Everyone gets fed but they work extremely hard doing so.

Life for dogs is about problem solving and their puppyhood is the foundation for developing this skill. We often want to intervene and make life easy for them but that is a topic for another blog. In the meantime, the next time you are enthralled by a litter of puppies or kittens, look a littler more closer to see the dance of life and growth taking place before you.

I'll be offline for a few days so enjoy today's photos and video. More by Monday.

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