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Puppy Socialization Starts with the Breeder: Early Neurological Stimulation

(Credit to AKC, and other websites covering Neonatal Handling)


Socializing puppies has traditionally been considered the responsibility of the new owner. We instruct them to take the puppy to classes and make sure they are exposed to a variety of people and situations.

But more research shows that encouraging a stable temperament can start even before puppies are born. Breeders can do a lot to make sure their puppies have a great start on being more adaptable to all the situations they will encounter in life.


History of Early Neurological Stimulation

Early Neurological Stimulation is a method for neonatal handling that involves a set of 5 exercises performed for 3-5 seconds each, once per day from 3-16 days old. ENS originated from the Bio-Sensor or Super Dog program in the military and was popularized by Dr. Carmen Battaglia in the mid 90’s. Interestingly, the Bio-Sensor military program lasted less than a year (which, in the military, could be for a variety of reasons).


So if we have been domesticating dogs for a long time and we know that neonatal handling has benefits, why haven’t there been ACTUAL studies on ENS? The challenge with scientific research in large animals like dogs (as opposed to mice) is that it is very expensive, time consuming and animals often have to be 'sacrificed' (killed) so their physiology can be studied (what dog lover wants to do that?).

During an interview, Dr. Ian Dunbar was asked about his thoughts on Early Neurological Stimulation and he had this to say: “There’s no evidence it works at all BUT it’s the right idea”.

So lets explain what ENS looks like during The First Three Weeks!

The first three weeks of a puppy’s life are a crucial time. Puppies are very helpless at this stage. Their eyes do not open until around 10 days, and the sense of hearing starts around 2 weeks. Mama dog does most of the work at this stage, and your job is to keep everyone warm, safe, and clean.

The most important way to interact with your litters during this phase is by touch. Your puppies should be gently handled and stroked at least two times a day so they learn that human touch is a pleasant experience.


Early Neurological Stimulation

In addition, some breeders include the Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS) exercises, which are conducted once daily from the third to the 16th days, a period believed to be a time of rapid neurological growth and development. Even though puppies are very immature during this time frame, they are sensitive and respond to ENS.

The US Military developed this method designed to improve the performance of future military working dogs, according to the Breeding Better Dogs program developed by Dr. Carmen Battaglia, esteemed breeder, judge, seminar presenter, and AKC board member.

ENS requires handling the puppies one at a time while performing a series of five exercises. Listed in order of preference, the handler starts with one pup and stimulates it using each of the five exercises. The handler completes the series from beginning to end before starting with the next pup. The handling of each pup once per day involves the following exercises:1. Tactile stimulation – Holding the pup in one hand, the handler gently stimulates (tickles) the pup between the toes on any one foot using a Q-tip. It is not necessary to see that the pup is feeling the tickle. Time of stimulation 3 – 5 seconds.



2. Head held erect – Using both hands, the pup is held perpendicular to the ground, (straight up), so that its head is directly above its tail. This is an upwards position. Time of stimulation 3 – 5 seconds.



3. Head pointed down – Holding the pup firmly with both hands the head is reversed and is pointed downward so that it is pointing towards the ground. Time of stimulation 3 – 5 seconds.




4. Supine position – Hold the pup so that its back is resting in the palm of both hands with its muzzle facing the ceiling. The pup while on its back is allowed to sleep. Time of stimulation 3-5 seconds.



5. Thermal stimulation— Use a damp towel that has been cooled in a refrigerator for at least five minutes. Place the pup on the towel, feet down. Do not restrain it from moving. Time of stimulation 3-5 seconds.



It is extremely important that you do not repeat the exercises more than once per day and do not extend the time beyond that recommended for each exercise. Over stimulation of the neurological system can have adverse and detrimental results.


What Does ENS Do?

When performed correctly, ENS is believed to impact the neurological system by kicking it into action earlier than would be normally expected, the result being an increased capacity that later will help to make the difference in its performance, according to Breeding Better Dogs. ENS is time sensitive and must be performed from the third to the 16th days of a puppy’s life.


***The exercises are not a substitution for daily handling and stroking of young puppies.


Five benefits have been observed in canines that were exposed to ENS, including;

  1. improved cardio vascular performance (heart rate);

  2. stronger heart beats;

  3. stronger adrenal glands;

  4. more tolerance to stress;

  5. greater resistance to disease.



In tests of learning, ENS stimulated pups were more active and exploratory than their non- stimulated littermates, according to Breeding Better Dogs.


Benefits of Neonatal Handling

Neonatal handling serves to stimulate a puppy or kitten’s neurological, endocrine and circulatory systems at a point in life when their brain’s are undergoing massive development.

But isn’t stress traumatizing for tiny little puppies? No, mild, gentle handling is not traumatizing for neonatal puppies. Human mothers handle, talk to and interact with their babies all day long which is essential for development and bonding. And when babies are tired, they pass out. Even though we are a different species, the same general rules for socializing apply to puppies.


“Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.“

The great news is that by handling our neonatal puppies and kittens, we can raise dogs and cats that are more physically and emotionally prepared to deal with whatever life throws their way. This will increase quality of life for everyone involved, reduce surrenders to shelters and, most importantly, prevent unnecessary euthanasia.


How to do Early Neurological Stimulation

***I have nothing against ENS. That was how I start out handling my puppies. I use all 5 of these exercises but in addition to all the other ways we can come up with!


To do Early Neurological Stimulation, for each member of the litter, perform each of the five exercises above for 3-5 seconds, 1 time per day, for 14 days (3-16 days old). It is best to change the order of the exercises each time.


How To Do Neonatal Handling

Regardless of what techniques you use, the main point is that puppies and kittens should be handled everyday, 5-10 minutes twice a day, by more than one person starting at three to five days old. This may seem like overkill but the neonatal period is a special window of time. Their brains are developing rapidly and have tremendous potential to become more complex and better able to process different stimuli i.e. stress. We should continue to handle our puppies throughout their lives but the neonatal period is when true imprinting occurs.

Puppies and kittens are born blind and deaf but their eyes and ears will open somewhat gradually so around 10 days old, you can also start introducing loud, banging sounds and exposure to sunlight. They will feel things through the floor and, as their ears start to open, they will hear muffled sounds.


Continue Handling Puppies Past The 16th Day.

They should be handled by men, women and children of all ages, shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Only select children that will listen to instruction so they don’t accidentally hurt a puppy and they should be closely supervised. Each thing you do with them should last a 10-20 seconds and each puppy should be handled by each person.

5-10 minutes twice a day

Start at 3-5 days old (for healthy animals)

Handled by different men, women and children

Each person handles a puppy for couple minutes and passes to next person

NOTE: If your litter is stressed for any reason (illness, travel, poor weight gain, etc) you might just cuddle and stroke them in ways that calm them rather than adding more stress.

Ideas for Neonatal Handling

All exercises should be done fairly gently and slowly. No sudden movements and return them to Mom for a little comfort after

Touch their bodies: Stroke and gently tug their back, belly, sides, neck, tail, legs, face, ears and eyes (NEVER force their ears or eyes open)

Hold in strange ways: Hold them on their back, belly, side, right side up and upside down and under their shoulders so their butt dangles

Desensitize them to nail clipping: Squeeze each foot, toe and nail

Desensitize them to mouth exams, teeth cleaning and medicating: Open their mouth, rub fingers along their gums, hold their tongue

Do weird stuff that humans do: Blow in their face, boop their nose, hug them in your arms and cuddle them under your chin, hold them against your throat and talk or hum, pat their head and body

Strange sensations: Blow warm air on them from a hair dryer, touch your phone to them and have it vibrate, hold the body of a nail grinder (not the grinder) against their feet on so they feel the vibration, rub them with a towel, place them on top of a running washer or dryer, place them on a frozen or warm towel

Scents: Let them smell clothing that has been worn by family members and strangers (be sure those clothes have not been around sick or potentially sick animals), towels rubbed on other healthy animals, dog toys, spices, the substrate you plan to use for potty training with a dab of mom’s pee on it, hold them near an open window

Noises and vibrations: Make loud, banging noises: drop a book on the floor, stop your foot, jump, have kids run around making noise, run a vacuum, slam a door, bang pots together, put puppy inside something and tap on the outside, clap your hands, sing a song loudly and terribly

Be creative! Whatever you do, it should be mildly stressful and never painful. They may complain, seem to enjoy it or have no reaction at all. All are ok. If they don’t seem to like it, make it brief (5-10 seconds) and if it doesn’t bother them you can do it for longer.

Don’t put them down until they are calm. If a puppy struggles during handling, you might be inclined to put them down immediately but this will teach them that, if they don’t like something, all they have to do is wriggle out of your hands to make it stop. One thing that we all have to learn in life is that sometimes we have to do things we don’t like. So if a puppy struggles or complains, hold it gently against your chest near your heart until it settles down. This is one of the reasons you want to make sure your puppies have gone to the bathroom and have recently eaten. If you know they aren’t hungry or have to go to the bathroom, are very distressed by handling and will not settle down then it is time to consider that something else may be wrong, in which case, handling should be postponed until the source of stress is identified.



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