The Problem With Picking Up Your Pup Prematurely
When acquiring a puppy, many animal welfare organizations recommend that you wait until the puppy is at least eight weeks old, and that you meet the puppy’s mother. These recommendations arise from the belief, somewhat substantiated by data, that a dog is less likely to experience health and behavior problems later in life if he or she remains with their mother and littermates for eight weeks, and that observing the mother can reveal traits that her puppies might inherit. In spite of media campaigns and legal restrictions, 8.1% of dog guardians in an ongoing study did not meet their puppies’ mothers, and 25% did not wait the full eight weeks before bringing their puppies home.
Researchers used data from the longitudinal study Generation Pup to discover what types of dog guardians tend to disregard the current recommendations, because identifying these risk factors could enable a more targeted messaging approach to persuade more dog guardians to follow these guidelines. Study participants were people over the age of 16 living in the U.K. and Ireland who had acquired a puppy within the previous four months. Participants were recruited through a variety of channels in an effort to represent the diverse population of dog guardians. By administering their questionnaires within the first four months of the puppies’ lives and requesting exact dates, researchers hoped to avoid potential problems with inaccurate recall. After excluding some puppies due to special considerations (home-bred puppies, service dogs, etc.) and those with incomplete data, 1,844 puppies were studied in this analysis.
The scientific basis for the current recommendations is limited. While it is unclear how animal welfare organizations settled on eight weeks as the magic number and determined that viewing a pup’s mother is beneficial, there are studies which seem to support them. Several studies compared outcomes for puppies acquired at different ages. The various studies used different ages (6 weeks versus 12 weeks, 5 weeks versus 9 weeks, etc.), but taken together they do seem to cluster around eight weeks as a sort of Goldilocks zone: Any earlier and dogs show greater weight loss, distress, disease susceptibility, mortality, destructive behavior, barking, fearfulness, noise reactivity, and possessiveness; any later and dogs are likely to show more aggression and avoidance. The researchers hope this longitudinal study, with its precise dating and more accurate recall, will substantiate or refute these findings as it moves forward. The recommendation to view the puppy’s mother is based on findings that some traits like fearfulness and anxiety are heritable, so meeting the mother can help prospective guardians predict their pup’s adult temperament.
The analysis revealed that 8.1% of participants never met the mothers of their puppies. Researchers identified four traits significantly more common among those who did not meet their puppies’ mothers:
- The guardian did not visit the puppy prior to collecting it
- The guardian did not collect the puppy from the breeder’s home
- The puppy was not Kennel Club registered
- The guardian did not meet the puppy’s father
25% of dog guardians failed to comply with guidelines on minimum puppy age, collecting their pups before they were eight weeks old. Researchers identified five risk factors that made guardians more likely to collect their puppies early:
- The puppy was an unknown breed or unknown mix of breeds
- The guardian intended to train the puppy as a working dog
- The guardian had a low income
- The guardian had visited the puppy prior to collecting it
- There were other dogs in the guardian’s household
Future analysis of the data from Generation Pup should help animal welfare organizations and governments refine their recommendations and legal restrictions. If the recommended practices prove effective at decreasing undesirable outcomes for puppies and their guardians, animal welfare organizations should tailor future messaging on the topic to reach those segments of the population identified above, who have tended to disregard the guidelines at higher rates. With this data-driven and precisely targeted approach, we look forward to a happier, healthier future for pups and their guardians.