Anything But Helpless: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Newborn Puppies

by | Breeding, Puppy Raising

I am always surprised when people, dog breeding books and even veterinarians describe newborn puppies as “helpless.” Although newborn puppies have limited abilities, they are anything but helpless. Just ask anyone who has tried to convince a day-old pup to nurse on a particular teat or moved a pup away from its dam. These tiny babies know what they want and will do everything in their power to get it. And it’s darn hard to change their minds!

I suspect we consider neonates helpless because they do not have the senses that we humans depend most on—sight and hearing. Newborn puppies are blind and deaf at birth since neither their eyes nor ears are fully developed until between 10 and 20 days after birth.

Furthermore, young puppies cannot control their own body temperature internally so need environmental help to survive. However, even puppies only minutes old regulate their body temperature by moving towards or away from heat sources. They are known as thermotropic. If they are cold, they crawl toward their dam, littermates (forming what are known as a puppy pile) or other heat sources. If they are hot, they move away. If they cannot find the right temperature, they become very cranky.

Hot puppies cry constantly and move around a lot. Cold puppies may or may not be noisy but usually will not nurse. Happy puppies at the right temperature are quiet and nurse contentedly. A quick way to tell if pups are too hot is to put them in the bathtub. The coolness of the tub will quiet them within a minute if heat is causing the problem. Similarly, to see if they are too cold, put them on a heating pad. If they immediately become quiet, they need a warmer spot.

The safest place for newborn pups is next to their mother.

The safest place for newborn pups is next to their mother.

The safest place for new pups is next to their mother. There they are more likely to be warm, well fed and clean. To encourage this, I adjust the nursery room temperature until mom and babies stay together. I want it cool enough so the pups seek out their mom but warm enough that they can nurse. For my golden retrievers, that is usually 70-72°F but may be a little higher for dogs with less coat. Unlike some breeders, I do not put a heat source on one side of the whelping box because I do not want puppies choosing between milk and warmth. My goal is to have their mom provide both of those life-sustaining essentials.

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Though limited, baby puppies are very capable of meeting some critical needs–finding their mother and her milk. Neonate puppies can crawl and cry, both often quite strongly, and they have two powerful senses, they can smell and feel. As soon as they are born, puppies can find their mother by scent and touch. Once they have found her, they can locate her abdomen and then a teat. Within a short time, they can identify it as a milk source and start to suckle.

Though they can only crawl, puppies can move many feet and even yards, typically in every increasing circles, to find their mother or a littermate. And, when lost, they can make their situation known through a variety of vocalizations, including a “lost-puppy” cry that most dams respond from the time the last pup is born till they are about three weeks old.

They can identify their dam by smell and touch, identifying which parts of her are important to them, and which are not. For blind and deaf creatures, they are pretty amazing and quite determined.

Through these two important canine senses–scent and touch–that breeders can start developing their puppies’ brains soon after birth. Next post I will discuss the exciting new ways that breeders can make healthier, smarter pups!

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