Does your dog act out by being aggressive, destructive, or reacting excessively to noise? A new study suggests these behaviors may be traced back to when these dogs were puppies and if they were separated from their litters very early in life.
Previous research has provided evidence that puppies, like human infants, are significantly impacted by their very early life experiences. However, researchers know little about the relationship between behavior problems and a dog’s early life experiences, including the impact of early separation from the litter.
So a team of researchers in Italy recruited the owners of 140 adult dogs, all of whom were aged 18 months to seven years when the study was conducted. Of the 140 dogs, half had been separated from their litter and adopted between the ages of 30 and 40 days, and half had been taken from their litter at age 60 days.
None of the dogs had been adopted from shelters or had experienced obvious trauma. Half of the puppies had been purchased from a pet store, one third had been acquired from a friend or relative, and the rest had come from a breeder.
All the dogs’ owners were questioned about their pets’ breed, provenance, and behavior problems, such as destructiveness, excessive barking, attention seeking, play biting, fearfulness while going on walks, abnormal reactions to noise, and possessiveness concerning food and/or toys, among others.
Except for pica eating (e.g., eating dirt), aggressiveness toward the owner, paw licking, and shadow staring, all behaviors were significantly more likely to be reported by owners of dogs that had been taken from their litters before age 60 days. This held true regardless of the dogs’ breed, size, or neuter status.
Among the subgroup of dogs that had come from pet stores, some behaviors were more common. The investigators found that a significantly higher proportion of pet store puppies separated early from their litters showed excessive barking, toy possessiveness, fearfulness on walks, attention-seeking, play biting, destructiveness, and aversion to strangers than dogs allowed to stay longer with their littermates.
The authors concluded that “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.” This information is important, because many dogs are abandoned when they become behavioral problems. Allowing puppies to stay with their litters longer, as well as behavioral training, can help alleviate some of this problem.