Shih Tzu Puppies
Your new Shih Tzu puppy may look like little more than a miniscule, movable ball of fur with bright, shiny eyes. But don’t let his small size fool you: There’s a whole lot of learning going on in your puppy’s brain. Your job, as your pup’s new owner, is to build on what he’s already learned to help him grow up to be the healthy, happy dog you want him to be. To do that, though, you need to figure out what he already knows, and how he’s acquired that information. That way, you’ll have a fuller understanding of this pint-sized puppy that you’ve committed yourself to.
Just like every other part of his body (and yours), your puppy’s brain consists of cells — in this case, nerve cells. But while every other part of his body grows because the cells multiply, your puppy is born with all the brain cells he’s ever going to have. As Raymond and Lorna Coppinger explain in Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution (Scribner, 2001), “Of all the brain cells present at birth, a huge number are not connected or wired together. What takes place during puppy development is the wiring pattern of the nerve cells.”
Nevertheless, that wiring process results in some pretty significant growth. At birth, a puppy’s brain is only 8 cubic centimeters. Just two months later, the brain is up to 50 cubic centimeters, and by the time a puppy celebrates his first birthday, the brain is 100 cubic centimeters. Amazingly, though, most of that growth via connections is complete by the time a puppy is 16 weeks old. After that, the puppy or grown dog certainly continues to learn, but not nearly as quickly as in those crucial weeks leading up to the 16-week mark.
But no matter what your puppy’s age is, rest assured that his mind is busy processing anything and everything he perceives in the world around him. “Pups are learning from the moment they’re born,” explains certified applied animal behaviorist Megan Maxwell, who teaches at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “They’re learning initially from their mother and littermates, but quickly can begin learning from humans in their social world, as well.”
That said, different stages of life seem to predispose puppies to learning different kinds of lessons. In Genetics and Social Behavior of the Dog (University of Chicago Press, 1998), scientists John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller described these stages of social development. Other experts have tweaked these descriptions somewhat, particularly with respect to when they occur, but most are in agreement as to how a puppy’s social development proceeds.
The Early Weeks
From birth until about 2 weeks of age, the newborn puppy is in the neonatal period: He’s blind and deaf, but his other senses work just fine. Some experts recommend that a breeder stimulate those senses by gradually subjecting puppies of this age not only to being physically handled and petted, but also to mildly stressful events, such as briefly elevating the little one by placing him on a table or another off-the-ground object.
“Research suggests that gradual and controlled exposure to mildly stressful events, paired with relaxation and reinforcement for being calm in the presence of those events, increases the chances that pups will be more flexible and able to deal with variable events later in life,” Maxwell notes.
Between approximately 2 and 3 weeks of age, though, the puppy enters a transitional period in which his world begins to widen. His eyes and ear canals open, and he starts to move around more. In fact, by the time he reaches 3 weeks of age, he’s stopped crawling on his belly; now his four legs are his means of locomotion. Experts suggest that this is the time that breeders should begin familiarizing puppies with the world beyond the whelping box: turning on the radio or television; introducing toys; and taking the puppies to different areas of the house where they can feel different types of flooring and experience different sights.
During this period, a puppy will intensify his interactions with his littermates — but, as veterinary behaviorist Sheila Segurson notes, interaction with people becomes even more important. “Breeders and visitors should handle each pup for a minimum of three to five minutes daily, starting at 2 weeks of age,” says Segurson, who practices in West Sacramento, Calif. “Breeders should also aim to have a minimum of 10 visitors handle their pups every week and have their pups meet as many different types of people as possible.”
Shih Tzu breeder Carlene Snyder of Brandon, Fla., makes a point of socializing her Shih Tzu puppies and even starts their housetraining. “We start our puppies out in 3-foot by 3-foot playpens,” Snyder says. “We take them to X-pens [separate exercise pens that have sawdust or similar material at the bottom to absorb urinary and fecal odors] and then we let them run in the house to play with the ‘big’ dogs. After getting them started on their shots, we let them meet the people who come to our house on a regular basis.”
Such efforts are crucial to the future mental stability and emotional health of your Shih Tzu. In fact, according to the Coppingers, failure to socialize a Shih Tzu puppy can literally stunt his mental growth. A puppy who is raised in an impoverished environment has a smaller brain. He has the same number of cells, but not as many get wired together.
The Open Window
From the age of 3 weeks to as late as 16 weeks comes what many experts believe is the most important period in a dog’s life: the socialization period. This time is an open window in which a caring breeder and a conscientious owner can help ensure that the puppy grows up to be an emotionally healthy dog with relatively few behavioral problems.
But just what is socialization? In his book How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind (Free Press, 2004), psychologist Stanley Coren explains that socialization “is the process by which an individual learns about his social world. He learns what society expects of him and basically learns all of the rules and behaviors that allow him to become a functioning member of a particular society.”
Of course, as Coren points out, puppies need to learn about two types of society:
- canine society
- human society
To learn canine social do’s and don’ts, puppies rely upon their littermates and their mother — although Segurson suggests that breeders also introduce their puppies to dogs of other breeds, ages and sizes when the puppies reach 6 weeks of age. That said, “when considering socialization, the risk of infectious diseases is a concern,” Segurson acknowledges. “But as long as the breeder is taking basic precautions — that is, visiting dogs must show proof of vaccination against those diseases — socialization should be considered as important as protecting a puppy from diseases.”
But to learn about how to live happily among humans, a puppy needs humans to help him. The breeder should play a leading role in this enterprise, according to certified animal behavior consultant and toy dog expert Darlene Arden, author of Small Dogs, Big Hearts (Wiley, 2006).
“The breeder should move the pups into a high-traffic area of the house so they can learn the sights, sounds and smells of a normal household,” says Arden, who lives in Framingham, Mass. “And the breeder can have gentle children, who are carefully supervised, sit on the floor and quietly interact with the puppies.” Exposing a Shih Tzu puppy to children early on can help forestall an antipathy to kids that is all too common among small-breed dogs, Arden adds.
Depending on your breeder’s policy, you may not be bringing your Shih Tzu puppy home until he’s most of the way through his socialization period. In fact, “the recommendation of the American Shih Tzu Club is that puppies not go to new homes until they are 12 weeks old,” Snyder says.
Arden points out that the ASTC recommendation is followed by breeders of Shih Tzu as well as by breeders of other toy dogs. “Toy puppies are usually kept for at least 12 weeks by responsible breeders, while the breeder is doing the socialization,” Arden says. “The benefits of keeping the puppies with their littermates and mother are that they learn bite inhibition, canine body language, how to play, and essentially, how to be dogs. Many also nurse longer. It’s not about nutrition at that point, it’s about behavior. New owners shouldn’t worry about the bond because the bond that develops with the breeder and the breeder’s family will transfer to the new owner.”
Nevertheless, when your puppy does come home with you, the socialization window is still open — and you should take advantage of the continued opportunity to keep forging those neural connections. Have visitors come to meet your new puppy, but also start bringing him into the world — and capitalize on his portability.
“There are a ton of ways to socialize smaller pups,” says Victoria Schade, creator of the DVD New Puppy! Now What? (Rocket Media, 2006). “A surprising number of stores — beyond the typical pet-supply — allow canine visitors, so you can run errands and socialize your dog at the same time,” she says. “After errands, you can grab a cup of coffee, sit outside with your pup on your lap, and let fans line up for a chance to say hello to your new best friend.” In other words, get a puppy carrier, put your puppy in it, and get yourselves out there.
At 16 weeks of age, the socialization period is over, and your puppy’s brain will have formed almost all of its neural connections. Just as is true with human kids, his youthful brain is still growing, albeit not as quickly as before. But that doesn’t mean you should ease up on stimulating his mind and helping it grow.
As he moves through his juvenile (4 to 6 months of age) and adolescence (6 months to 18 months of age) periods, he will need continued human guidance and socialization opportunities. In fact, according to Coren, socialization is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition: without exposure to the wider world, a puppy or adult dog might lose the social and emotional health that earlier socialization provided.
But now that you know what goes on inside your Shih Tzu puppy’s mind, you can help ensure his future mental health and emotional stability. Although he’s born with all the mental equipment he’s ever going to have, your breeder and you can help him make the neural connections necessary for him to be the best dog he can be.
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