Last week I talked about life stages and what to expect (and how to pair dog ages, if you’re getting another dog). This week I’m going to talk about developmental stages — the first few years of your dog’s life. (Note: once your dog is out of the developmental stages it doesn’t mean they’ll stop changing or testing. Most dogs shift a little bit every 6-8 months, just to see if the rules have changed. Don’t be surprised when this happens!)
First off, discard all that nonsense you hear about 1 human year equaling 7 dog years. I was thinking at one point that it might, eventually, average out… but I know lots of 13 year old dogs, and none of them act like a 91 year old human. It’s just silly. Second, know that your dog is a young’un until they’re 2 years of age. Before that, they’re making stupid life choices. This is okay! They’re growing and developing! Don’t worry about it. It’ll all shake out, as long as you’re firm, consistent, and loving. Also, keep in mind that these are general rules for most dogs. Your dog will probably break a few of these rules as it grows. That’s normal, too! Finally, this isn’t a “what to train your dog at this age.” This is more of a, “This is what your dog is going through/capable of.” Ready? Okay!
- Birth – 8 weeks
- 8 -12 weeks
- 12 weeks (3 months) – 6 months
- 6 months – 8 months
- 8 months – 1 year
- 1 year – 1.5 years
- 1.5 years – 2 years
Birth – 8 weeks (Human equivalent: birth – 2 years.)
At 8 weeks, most people bring their puppies home. Now, puppies only open their eyes and become mobile at 6 weeks, so they’ve only had 2 weeks of some socialization with other puppies and their parents. They are juuuuuust starting to explore the world. Before 8 weeks, they should be with mom. Their brains are not even remotely fully formed, and the skull still has a soft spot. They are nursing, sleeping, and pooping, and this is the way it should be.
8 – 12 weeks (Human equivalent: 2 years – 4 years)
You’ve probably brought your puppy home at 8 weeks. If you haven’t and the breeder is okay with it, leave them with mom and dad for a few more weeks. (Up to 16, as far as I’m concerned! But 12 would be awesome.) Between 8 and 12 weeks they start to get mobile and independent enough to play with the other puppies. The other puppies (and mom and dad) would spend this time letting them know when they’re biting too hard or playing too rough, and that they shouldn’t be too annoying. (If you brought them home, YOU have to do it — and we don’t communicate well with puppies, who haven’t learned to read human body language yet.) They’re also sleeping about 20 hours a day. They’re mostly denned, cuddled up with their siblings, and sleeping. (This is where crate training comes in.) Sleeping gives their brains time to build more brain cells so that when they are awake, they learn more easily. Speaking of brains, don’t think your puppy has one. Oh no! They have a quarter of the brain power they’ll have some day. No, wait, not nearly that much. Know that you may or may not be successful in teaching them to do something: really, you’re just keeping them from developing bad habits. If you tell your puppy consistently not to chew on the baseboards, you’ll have to keep telling him until he’s 8 months old. Then one day the switch in his brain will flip up, he’ll stop teething, and he’ll say, “Baseboards? Why would I?” If you don’t tell him to stop chewing on the baseboards, though, then it will become a habit. He’ll hit 8 months, stop teething… and keep chewing on the baseboards.
At this age, don’t expect much of your puppy. They’re a bundle of fur and cuteness, and enjoy that while it lasts! They’ll mostly stick close to you, and enjoy that while it lasts, too!
12 weeks (3 months) – 6 months (Human equivalent: 4 years – 8 years)
There’s a lot going on here, but the way you deal with your puppy pretty much stays the same. They’ll hit some fear stage within here: don’t worry. Just protect and encourage your pup and they’ll work through it. They’ll also become independent enough to start wandering off on their own, so curtail outside-without-a-leash habits if you’ve fallen into them! I prefer waiting until now to start trying to teach them much, and when you do teach them it needs to be almost solely with positive reinforcement. Dogs would be extremely tolerant with puppies at this age, doing little more than occasionally putting them in puppy time-out (holding them down until they calm down) or yelping/grumbling/walking away when the puppies are too rough. There’s lots of face licking and love behavior that goes on from parent to puppy, so we should be following dog parents’ guidelines and do the same — with treats, praise, and pets instead of face licking! The more your puppy thinks the world is pretty great, the more confident they’ll be as adults.
They’ll also be able to start learning some basic social skills as they near the 6 month mark. “No jumping,” “be even more gentle,” “no barking” are all things that will become problems and your puppy will have the capacity to understand not to do as they get older. Hooray! Your puppy’s brain is also far enough along to start learning some basic commands reasonably easily, like “walk beside me,” “sit,” “stay,” etc. These need to be taught with positive reinforcement. Finally, your dog will become potty trained within here! They are teething, though, so keep crating them when you aren’t around so that chewing things doesn’t become a habit.
6 – 8 months (Human equivalent: 8-12 years)
The brains are getting there! But hormones are about to kick in. These are the golden months, when you puppy is starting to “get it,” training is coming along more easily, and they are still being adorable, sometimes idiot, puppies. Your puppy’s brain is also far enough along to start learning some basic commands reasonably easily, like “walk beside me,” “sit,” “stay,” etc. These still need to be taught with positive reinforcement. Your puppy will continue to slide in and out of fear stages, barking stages, and other things. Take them in stride and try not to make a big deal out of it. Deal with each as it happens, and know that unless it’s severe, it’s a phase.
8 months – 1 year (Human equivalent: 13-17 years)
The brain is pretty much formed, and the hormones are kicking in! In dogs, these hormones aren’t as bad as in humans. (That comes a little later.) This is my favorite age: they learn quickly, and in a pack of dogs they’d be starting to take their place with the grown ups, which means their role is changing. If you’ve had problems before now, this is the time to push for change: your pup is hardwired to accept it! This is also when you can start with reprimands: ie, a tug on the leash when they walk too far ahead, and that sort of thing. If you’re using it in conjunction with praise (and you’re not being abusive about it!), it won’t harm your puppy’s developing psyche. Other dogs would start giving a young pup at this age a little nip, and stop being so tolerant of errant behavior. We can do the same! Your puppy will stop teething somewhere in here, but chewing still burns off a lot of energy. They won’t stop needing chew toys for months (or years), but they will begin to leave off your furniture, if you’ve been persistent! If you are going to have your dog spayed or neutered, you want to wait until a year of age. This is so the testosterone will tell their bodies to stop growing, and the hormones will do what they need to do. Some people even wait closer to 18 months. As far as I’m concerned, waiting longer is always better.
1 year – 1.5 years and/or 1.5 years – 2 years (Human equivalent: 18 – 24 years)
At this point, the size of the dog seems to matter. Small dogs age faster, whereas big dogs may take longer to mature. But sometime between one and two years, your puppy will grow up. If you’re going to have problems, this is likely where it will crop up, and if you work to nip them in the bud, you’ll see them appear and ease off over and over in different variations for about 6 months.
Do you remember being 18, on your own for the first time, legal, and able to make your own decisions? I bet not all of those decisions were the greatest, right? Your dog is the same way: technically an adult, feels like an adult, ready to stretch their boundaries and muscles, noooooo life experience to draw from. If you start seeing aggression, anxiety, or anything else like that, read some books or call a professional. These are slightly more difficult stages to handle, and can go wrong. On the other hand, if you see the first tiny inklings of something and stop it then, it can be easily solved.
Note: it’s really hard to see that your baby isn’t perfect. When Cash was 2.5, he finally went through the ‘adult’ phase. (He blossomed later than usual!) We would go to the dog park and I would see his tail come up and spine stiffen as he approached another dog. I kept thinking, “I know that’s aggressive posturing, but… I also know Cash is a wuss! He can’t be aggressive!” I kept thinking this until about four dogs told him off, and I realized I was making an awful mistake: trying to convince myself I wasn’t seeing what I was seeing, because “I knew my dog was a wuss.” Once I realized that Cash was still my wonderful, wussy, adorable dog, and he just had an attitude problem, I started correcting his aggressive posturing, and it went away. If I hadn’t been able to admit that there was a problem, though, it would have become a BIG problem. Acknowledge what you see, and act on it. It doesn’t make your dog bad: it only means your dog is growing up and testing things out. It’s our job to stick with them and teach them which things are appropriate!
Possibly-Tango is 8.5 weeks old now, and looks something like this! (Note: this is not actually Possibly-Tango)
At this age, Possibly-Tango is starting to explore, play, and check out the world! Likely within the next week s/he’ll learn to perch. Woo hoo!