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Early Separation of Puppies from Litters Greatly Boosts Risk of Poor Adult Behaviour [08/09/2011]

A new survey compiled by Veterinary Record the Journal of the British Veterinary Association claims that puppies separated from their mum and littermate earlier are significantly more likely to develop potentially problematic behaviour when they reach adulthood than puppies that had stayed with the litter for at least two months.

"This is important," say the Italian authors, because behavioural problems can affect the dog’s relationship with owners and other dog’s. This can leave the dog fearing the risk of subsequent abandonment.

The group of Italian authors based their findings on 140 adult dogs, half of which had been removed or sold on from the litter between 30 and 40 days old, and the other half of whom had been taken from the litter at 60 days old, not a huge time difference but would appear to make a difference to the dog later in life.

The owners of these dogs, who stayed in Naples, Italy and were clients of several random veterinary practices across the city, were all asked to complete a telephone questionnaire about their dogs, including their origin, the dogs breed, and asked if their dog suffered from a range of potentially problematic behaviours.

The problematic behaviours the group focused on included destructiveness, excessive barking, possessiveness around food and/or toys, attention seeking, aggressiveness, play biting, fearfulness on walks and reactivity to noises.

The dogs were aged between 18 months and seven years old at the time of this study. Of the 140 dogs half had come from a pet shop (never a good idea), while a third came from a friend or relative, and the remainder were sourced from a breeder. None of the dogs included in the study had been in a shelter or been obviously traumatised.

The dogs separated from their mums and littermates between 30 and 40 days had a higher level of behavioural problems where attention seeking and reactivity to noises were the most commonly reported behaviours. Although most of the younger dogs (less than 36 months) were significantly more likely to be destructive and to tail chase than older animals.

But with the exception of ingestion of unnatural objects, aggression towards the owner and other dogs, paw licking and shadow staring, all behaviours were found in greater numbers of the dogs that had been separated from their litters before 60 days, irrespective of their breed, neuter status and size.

Also some behaviours were common in the dogs purchased from a pet shop, which had also been taken from their litters earlier in their life than among the pet shop dogs taken from their litters on or after 60 days.

"It is generally accepted that dogs go through a sensitive period, the socialisation period, during which social experiences and stimuli have a greater effect on the development of their temperament and behaviour than if they occur in later life," write the authors.

Bearing all this in mind, the evidence points more and more to problems ranging from a mixture of early genetic, environmental and experiential factors that may permanently reconfigure the DNA of the dogs, leaving lasting effects, they say.

"Early separation from the dam and littermates, especially when combined with housing in a pet shop might affect the capacity of a puppy to adapt to new environmental conditions and social relationships later in life," they continue.

"Behavioural intervention can address the development of problem behaviours and improve the dog’s relationship with the owners, ultimately reducing the number of dogs that are relinquished or abandoned," they conclude.

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