I always breathe a sigh of relief when a litter passes the two-week mark. For the most part, “failure to thrive” issues and puppies passing away from birth complications are over!!
In the third week, a litter hits the “Transitional Period.” Let me just say that everyone and their mother has “different” names for the various developmental puppy stages. However, regardless of what each stage is called, I care most about what I see and how puppies should be handled and worked during that time.
The transitional period begins when eyes open and ends when pups can walk, see, bark, and use the restroom on their own! During this phase puppies become more puppy-like, but they still have very little muscle control, causing them to be wobbly and uncoordinated. They move like little drunken sailors.
Puppies also start to vocalize with more control, have different meanings for each noise, and startle at their own sounds.
Now that my puppies’ eyes and ears are open (neither are great yet), it is time to start working with the litter. Well, kind of. I don’t get too enthusiastic yet.
During this period, my puppies will still only leave the whelping box once a day, when their area is being cleaned and mama is being tended to. In the beginning, I thought this would be a great time to set up an enrichment area and let them “work” while I worked. Time after time, my puppies were stressed, and I was doing more harm than good. Therefore, we decided to change our course of action and place them in a contained space, such as a 66-quart clear storage container, or cardboard box with pads in it, and I just let them sleep while I clean. An appropriate container, will ensure that my pups are not too squished or overheated. As I mentioned earlier, I always want my pups to feel safe in my care. The time will come. (Before I am ready), these little babies will be plowing through curriculum exposure exercises, so please right now I can be lazy...I mean patient.
When I first began helping with my Mothers breeding program, She tailored my handling of puppies towards experiences we knew our puppies would encounter in a classroom setting. I knew kids could be rough, unpredictable, and sometimes uncomfortable. I wanted to make sure my puppies did not feel completely assaulted in these situations. For those pups that displayed disdain for handling, I made sure their new home respected their needs, too, never forcing them into situations that made them uncomfortable.
Now however I begin with very gentle handling of our puppies first 3 weeks after birth, (handling will change at 3 weeks and each week after).
I hold them close to my heart and face and lightly touch their face, ears, back, belly, tail, and paws. Move them slow. This is not meant to upset or stress them, only begin to condition them to human touch. This is their first relationship with a human, and it is critical to make it a positive one. I need to be the gentle, trusting leader for them. I guide and show them that the world is safe, people are kind, and that dogs are friendly, My families will reap the rewards later with a well-balanced companion. Although puppies begin looking and acting more puppy-like, I have to remember to be careful. Their nervous system is still very fragile, since their nerves are laying down more myelin (an insulating layer that forms around the nerves) as they see, hear, feel, and taste new things. Pushing too soon with unrealistic expectations is more detrimental than helpful. I proceed with caution... Small amounts of controlled stressors are important, but the key is SMALL and CONTROLLED. I believe more breeders ruin their puppies during this Transitional Period than any other stage.
We try to keep their environment stable, calm, and quiet for the most part. (Mo momma does Bark if someone knocks at the door) On or about day 18, 19, and 20, I conduct a brief “loud noise exposure” with the puppies, such as banging a spoon on a metal pan three times. At this early age, puppies do not yet fear sound, so we use this opportunity to get a jump start on desensitization of loud noises.
As puppies develop their senses, it is important that I introduce them to a variety of sounds they might encounter in their forever homes. We introduce new types of music, TV shows and movies, “noise exposure” playlists on Spotify , or even YouTube videos each day. Additionally, puppies are exposed to quiet background noises throughout the day, such as radio, tv, children's songs. At night time I will play classical, lullabies, or meditation music every night to help signify its's quiet time. I have found that when my pups go home, my families can do the same, and it helps with the nighttime routine in their new homes, too!
Now is the time I really enjoy having pups in livingroom, they need an area that sees more human activity. As I’ve mentioned before, we make sure this transition is gradual, ensuring pups do not become overwhelmed with new traffic in their environment. I do not place the pups in the middle of a loud and bright room, but rather let them be bystanders to the normal day-to-day activities of a household. I will add dark sheets around their enclosure if its too sunny. I want them to be Little wallflowers right now.
No matter which environment they are in (livingroom or Puppy Garage, I keep plenty of sheets, tarps, rugs, etc on the floor to ensure that there is appropriate traction for puppies to walk without slipping.( It is dangerous to allow puppies to be on slippery footing when hips and joints are forming). Once all puppies are up on all fours toddling around, I will add a shallow floating bowl of water to their space. ( floating bowls Ensure that the bowl is not too deep, I do not want any puppies to drown.)
Additionally, I will still need to to control the temperature in the room for puppies. If I can keep the room around 70-72 degrees, I dnt need a heating pad for the puppies to lie on. However, between my HotFlashes & Spring creeping up, I keep heating pad on standby!
Right now human connection is not as important as sibling and maternal time, so you won't see me packing puppies around the house, or keep them away from their “whelping” box for any extended periods of time. I will let them snooze on my lap but once they wiggle they go right back. Too much stress is toxic to puppies during this sensitive developmental period. Rough handling and too much handling is NOT advised. Their world needs to be nothing but stable—from their Momma to their environment.
During this developmental period...about day 21, I try to place an object in the box and let the pups explore this novel item at their own leisure. ( It might be a pumpkin, a reflective bucket, a couple oranges, a block of wood, a rolled-up towel, a pillow of different fabric, a box of unopened crackers, etc). We try to be creative and have fun watching these little noses explore with such sweet curiosity and innocence. BUT If any puppies “break down” due to the change of their environment, I will pick them up and hold them close to my heart while the other puppies “work” through the curriculum. Because "Tomorrow is another day", and they simply were not ready today. If my whole litter is stressed out, I simply remove the object and try again tomorrow. I try to keep the object(s) in the whelping box until all puppies are done exploring and have all fallen asleep.
As long as my litter is not experiencing any stress during the exposure activities, we remove the novelty item(s) when all puppies have gone to sleep or lost interest. ( Some breeders like to do a second, different novelty item in the evening, always remaining attentive to the needs of the puppies. I don’t like to overstimulate my puppies at such a young age- and I have a lot of other chores to tend to as well.) **It is also important to note that some times one of my litters can be on an accelerated track, so to speak. They may be able to work through exposure activities with ease, and I discover the “standard” does not afford them the opportunity to learn and develop at their advanced pace. So then we do more.. Reading my puppies lets me work them accordingly. As a past Pre-School teacher, I encountered this same situation each year. In some classes we were able to accomplish more and work ahead of “schedule,” while in other classes, we had to move a little bit slower. It’s all good! Being attentive to the needs of my “students” and honoring development is key.
While the “fun and games” are beginning with this litter, do not forget that I still need to keep up with daily Momma care. (Moms are so often forgotten, am I right?) We continue with daily massages and a thorough head-to-toe check. We check for scratches, eye drainage, weight, milk supply, etc.
Additionally, I always need to ensure Momma is holding her weight. As puppies grow, their Momma is using an extraordinary number of calories to keep them fed, especially if she has a large litter.
So, when do I start weaning, you ask? Haha Ideally, when teeth erupt! We have tried to wean earlier, offering goat’s milk, also tried forcing Momma to stay in with them longer, etc....but we now leave things as natural as possible while we can!! Sometimes our Mommas tell us, too, by kicking them off her teats, jumping the fence, others will actually vomit up their food to offer to their pups. (In case she didn’t make herself clear), it is now time to be weaning. However, not all moms do this, so I can not wait for her as my only signal.
When my litter is ready to wean, I find that there are many different types of starter foods, so from time to time we review the options and pick the one that will work. I start by offering pups a gruel, and the easiest way to prepare the gruel is to run a dry kibble mixture through a blender and store it in an airtight container. In addition to dog food, I add a few supplemental ingredients to our “Puppy Mush” prior to blending:
• A probiotic/prebiotic Powdered goat’s milk or a stage 2 puppy formula
• Cocciguard (when I can get it)
• NuVet Plus
• baby cereal
For each feeding, I mix the crushed kibble with warm water, and a lil bot of pumpkin, making it really more watery than mushy to start so puppies can lap it up with minimal to no “chewing.”
When we begin to feed pups, we start with just once a day. One or two bites each. Some pups take right to it. While others need a little help, so I will put food on my finger and rub it on the roof of their mouth. Let that settle. Let their body adjust. Afterwards, we increase the quantity of feedings and the amount, accordingly.
I have always done the : imprinting the “puppy, puppy, puppy” recall for feeding time. But I want to try practicing calm, focused behavior before feeding (all puppies got to "place" and sit before food is given). While both have good value, I want to try BOTH before deciding what is the most beneficial long-term. I have found that imprinting can and does save dogs’ lives, they learn PUPPY PUPPY PUPPY- means come now for yummies... So I have left the calm, focused eating to be taught by families when pups get home. Yet I also believe Place is a great tool in the early stages too. And I could probably do the PUPPY PUPPY PUPPY with going in and out as weather improves.
Because , if for some reason their nee pup slips off its collar in public or out their front door, they should be able to bend down and call, “puppy, puppy, puppy,” resulting in their dog returning immediately. No question. That is an emergency lifesaving command and is something that has been very little extra effort or time on our part. But I would like to try the calm puppy also.
Between three and four weeks old, pups will also begin using the restroom in a designated spot. Puppies generally do not like to potty where they sleep and will make a concerted effort to avoid this as they get older. The key to success is making sure that the potty area and sleeping area are no more than three feet apart. There are several options you have used to start this transition, including pellets, woodchips, grass patches, potty pads, etc. There are pros and cons to all options (as with most things in life). I choose to use pellets or woodchips under a wire floor. Less mess being scattered all over their area.
As pups gain more independence, my mommas start taking LONGER breaks outside the whelping box. As long as puppies are still gaining weight and Momma is tending to helping me with litter, then all is okay! Mamas instinctively know how much milk they need to feed their growing pups and will wait for their milk to fill up before returning to nurse and care for their litter. It is fascinating, quite frankly. The things we can learn from these beautiful animals are amazing if we just watch and listen to them. Of course, always make sure their health is never in jeopardy. It is a balance of listening and trusting them but ensuring they are healthy, and their safety is not at risk.
The same criteria must be applied when handling and working with puppies at this young age. While they are slowly gaining more independence through gradual weaning and learning about their “potty area,” they are still quite fragile. How I work the puppies is as important as what exposure items I use. Letting puppies have free will, but also make sure I alwasy show them it is okay. It is MY job to continue building their confidence.
All touching I do at three weeks should be slow, gentle and loving. Handling at 3 weeks gets more structured and intentional. I do not do heavy petting or run my hands up their back from tail to head until 5 weeks old. I Never put a puppy down when they are panicked by me picking them up or handling them. I will keep those puppies close to my heart and face. Let them hear my heartbeat and smell my nose and mouth a lot (imprinting). I definitely kiss on them and hold each puppy close, so they are used to and enjoy this type of intense human interaction. Because once they leave they will get LOADS of kisses and face to face interactions.
That takes us thru about day 28!! Now with all this going on, I also have 9 other Danes wanting my time and attention, a husband AND a job outside the home... Breeding is not for the weak!!!