At the dog park last week, I met the most beautiful little Samoyed puppy. And when I say little, I mean little – I actually thought he might be small for his breed. Then his person mentioned that he was just six weeks old. So, I assumed that she was a breeder, and starting the socialization early, which is a good thing.
Of course, I’m inquisitive (okay, okay, I’m nosy), so I kept the chat going, and discovered that this little one had just been taken from his mother. Why was that? I thought maybe the mother had been unable to feed him for some reason, or God forbid, died. But if so, then why wouldn’t the breeder have used milk replacer and kept the puppy with the rest of the litter? It turned out that there were no extenuating circumstances – the breeder just figured the puppy was ready to be adopted, and the “forever Mom” didn’t know that a puppy just 6 weeks old should not be taken from the mother.
It bothers me to no end when I hear about puppies at 6 weeks (and sometimes even earlier) being taken away from the mother. From my perspective, there are very few circumstances that should ever lead to such a thing. If the mother has died and the puppy is the sole survivor out of the entire litter, then there’s not much of a choice. But in that scenario, the puppy isn’t “taken.” It’s “left,” and there is literally no other choice.
When you actually have a choice, there is no benefit whatsoever to taking the puppy away from his mother and littermates before he is at least 8 weeks old. With some breeds, the puppies should be left with Mom and siblings even longer – my friend Neila breeds Rottweilers, and she insists that for that particular breed, 10 weeks are needed for the puppies to “learn how to become good dogs.”
Why 6 Weeks?
Unless there is a genuine emergency, like the one I outlined above, or if the puppy is seriously ill and requires constant veterinary supervision, then there is no good reason that a puppy who is 6 weeks old should be removed from the mother and the litter. So why would any breeder adopt out a puppy of 6 weeks?
Believe it or not, I’ve even heard of puppies being placed at 4 weeks. Why is that? Most of the time, it’s because you’re dealing with a breeder who doesn’t deserve the name. “Greeder” is more like it. They don’t care about whether the puppy is properly socialized. The minute it looks like it might be weaned, they want it gone, because if it stays around, they’re going to have to buy puppy food, and that’s going to cut into the profit margin. And sadly, most purchasers don’t really know when their puppy is ready to come home – if the greeder says four weeks, then four weeks it is. Or five. Or six.
Of course, sometimes, owners can be very impatient. When I had my first litter from Janice and Leroy, I had one buyer who kept calling and calling, and insisting that I should let him have his puppy even though the puppy was only 6 weeks old. I refused. He kept calling. I kept telling him, “Your puppy is not ready. She needs to be with her mother and her littermates for 8 weeks, otherwise you’re going to end up with a badly socialized dog, and you’re going to come back blaming me for any problems you have.”
Just the same, he kept calling and insisting. I’ve always vetted potential owners very carefully, and I thought I had it right with this guy, but once it became apparent that he didn’t much care about the puppy’s physical and emotional well-being, I cut him loose. Told him that I’d reconsidered, and I wouldn’t be selling him a puppy.
His reaction to that was to show up in my yard and threaten to kill me if I didn’t give him his puppy – boy, when I get it wrong, I do it in a huge way! Long story short, though, I pointed out to him that Leroy (who is usually the biggest, friendliest doofus in the world) was snarling and slavering and generally not all that impressed by threats to his human, so it might be best if he sort of, well, effed off. Which he did.
Anyway, I think that might have been a digression. I do that sometimes. Back to the point that I think I was trying to make, though, insistence on the part of the potential purchaser is not a good reason for a breeder to let a puppy go before the time is right.
Sometimes It’s Not Greed
Now, another reason why a breeder might let a puppy go before its time is that the breeder doesn’t know any better. There are a lot of well-meaning idiots out there. And I’m not saying that you will invariably not get a good dog from a breeder who lets the puppies go too soon – just that you have to be really careful. Most breeders want what is best for their puppies, and you could conceivably encounter a breeder that has beautiful breeding stock, and whose litters are beyond gorgeous. If you buy an 8-week-old puppy from one of those breeders, you could end up with the love of your life. It’s possible, though, that the people that came before you will end up with puppies that have socialization issues or health problems because the breeder simply didn’t know that a puppy that’s just 6 weeks is way too young to go to a new home. It’s not your job to educate the breeder, but it is your job to make an educated decision as to whether they’re screwing up in other ways. Is it just that they’re letting some puppies go too soon, or are there other concerns?
Actually, I take some of that back. I think that if I were buying a puppy, and I knew that some had been taken from the mother and the litter prematurely, I probably would try to educate the well-meaning idiot. But I’m not saying that you have to.
Now, to take this a step further, if you’re looking at puppies and the breeder says that you have to take the puppy at 6 weeks, and refuses to keep the puppy for a couple more weeks, you have another issue. This is not a well-meaning idiot; this is a greeder. You should get the hell out of there and find someone who actually cares about dogs – this person is just in it for the money, and you can probably safely assume that letting the puppies go too soon is not the only way that they are cutting corners.
I know how it is – you desperately want a puppy, and sometimes emotion overrides common sense. But you need to understand that puppies that are just 6 weeks old, and taken away from the mother and litter, are almost certainly going to have emotional, psychological and behavioral issues. You’ll be taking home trouble.
Imagine an Out-of-Control 3-Year-Old Human…
…And you’ll have some idea of what you can expect from a 6-week-old puppy that hasn’t had the time he needs with his mother and the rest of the litter. You wouldn’t take a 3-year-old human and send him off to boarding school, would you?
Yes, that human child can walk, communicate to some extent, and feed himself. He’s probably also toilet-trained. But what about his emotional development? Is he really ready to be away from his parents, even if the people at the boarding school are kind and caring? No, he is not. And a puppy that’s 6 weeks old isn’t ready to leave his birth family, either, no matter how loved he might be in his new home.
Kids who don’t get guidance and emotional support early on are going to end up being psychological messes – fearful, easily frustrated, angry and unable to form attachments to others of their kind. Usually they also engage in behaviors that are considered socially unacceptable.
What does this have to do with puppies?
Quite a bit, actually. Animal behaviorists often point to the fact that puppies that are removed from the litter too soon display behaviors that are very much like those of kids that don’t get the proper support in the early stages of their development. I’m not saying that dogs and humans are exactly alike, but the fact is that both dogs and humans are “pack animals.” And if they’re not permitted to be part of their “pack” early on, both dogs and humans are going to have a lot of trouble fitting in later. Kids need to feel secure within a family environment early on in order to have good mental health later, and so do dogs.
Learning the Rules
No living creature, human or canine, is born knowing the rules when it comes to fitting into society. Those rules are taught by adults and modeled by peers. Most psychologists believe that kids spend their first five or six years learning how to be “human.” We are not born with a code of conduct and morality – we learn it. It’s the same with dogs. They spend their first 8-10 weeks learning what it means to be a dog, and if a puppy at 6 weeks is taken out of “dogdom,” then he’s not going to learn how to be a dog. If you’ve ever met a dog that seems snappish for no reason, is fearful, or engages in antisocial behavior around other dogs and humans, I’d suggest that you ask the owner how old the dog was when he was adopted – I’m thinking the answer will be “6 weeks.” Or less.
What’s the Big Deal About 6 Weeks?
If I haven’t convinced you yet that a puppy 6 weeks or younger should not be taken from his mother, then consider this very important time frame – 6 to 8 weeks.
Sure, it’s just two weeks, but it’s a very important two weeks. This is when the bitch will switch things up in terms of how she interacts with her puppies. The puppies, at this point, will be on solid food, so the role of the bitch is no longer that of providing nourishment. At this point, she starts to teach the puppies how to behave.
Prior to being weaned, puppies will be all over the mother – chewing on her, hanging from her and shoving her. By the sixth week, the mother is going to start teaching the puppies that this sort of behavior is no longer okay. If you have ever observed a litter of puppies at this stage, you may have noticed that the mother will often flip the puppies onto their backs, forcing them into submission, for no particular reason. It’s the canine equivalent of the human “because I said so”. Up to this point, puppies were allowed to do whatever they pleased, and now, the mother is telling them that this sort of behavior is no longer acceptable.
What happens if the mother is not available to tell the puppies how to be “good dogs”? You end up with out-of-control little monsters. If a puppy doesn’t learn proper social behavior from his mother, he can be very hard to train later on. This is the type of puppy that ends up being a menace at the dog park, lacking self-confidence, feeling constantly stressed, and maybe even becoming a fear-biter.
Back to the Little Samoyed
I was very relieved to find out that the little sweetheart I met at the dog park was actually placed in a home where there was already an adult dog. Much of the time, an adult will take over the role of the birth mother, and teach the young one what he needs to know. I think there could be a good outcome here, no thanks to the greeder.
The Final Word
Puppies need to be with their mothers and the rest of the litter for at least 8 weeks in order to learn “how to be dogs,” and this is the case regardless of breed. 6 to 8 weeks is the crucial time, and if a puppy at 6 weeks is adopted out, the effects can be very harmful, and very far-reaching.
If you are a breeder, please, do not adopt out a puppy before he is at least 8 weeks old. And if you are buying a puppy, know that no knowledgeable breeder will ever let you take one at 6 weeks. The breeder might be greedy. Or might honestly not know any better, in which case I would leave you with these words – the road to (puppy) hell is paved with good intentions.