How to Handle Your Dog’s Life Changes at Every Phase

From puppyhood to his senior years, your dog will go through several stages of life, all of which include physiological and mental changes. From a playful and curious six weeks old puppy to a senior dog who wants to relax, your dog’s life stages can come with their own set of concerns. Here’s what to expect, and how to deal with, different changes during each stage of your dog’s life.

The Puppy Stage (Birth to 6 Months)

There are not many things more heartwarming than watching a puppy stumbling around, learning his way in the world. This is the time in your dog’s life that the changes are most rapid. The puppy stage can be broken up into different phases, that each come with a unique set of changes and needs.

 

The Neonatal Phase (Birth to 12 days) 

 

Newborn puppies are delicate, needing constant care from the mother. If you have a dog who has recently had puppies, she will need special care. Here are a few ways you can help your dog settle into her new role as a mother.

 

Nutrition 

Ensure the mother is eating a proper diet – place adequate food and water nearby so that the mother can easily access it when she is hungry. Although it may be tempting to supplement your dog’s feeding with extra vitamins and nutrients – don’t do this. Any imbalance in nutrients can cause the mother and her nursing puppies to get very sick. Feeding her a dog food formulated for nursing mothers and providing cool, fresh water should be enough. If you feel your dog is becoming malnourished, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.

Make sure all of the puppies are nursing – puppies should instinctually find their mother’s nipple to nurse. Puppies who don’t begin nursing immediately may need assistance; puppies should be nursing approximately every two hours. 

 

Development

Puppies are born blind and deaf – At this stage, puppies are experiencing the world exclusively through touch and smell. 

 

Health 

Have a postnatal veterinary check done – Your dog (along with her puppies) should be examined by a veterinarian within 48 hours of giving birth. Consider having a veterinarian making a house call, as moving the mother and her puppies can be a traumatizing experience.

Make sure the mom is still going to the bathroom regularly – A dog may not want to leave her puppies even for a few minutes to relieve herself, and may “hold it” for an extended period of time. Because the risk of infection is quite high after she gives birth, it’s extremely important that she urinates and defecates regularly. It is okay to use a harness or collar and leash and make her go outside for a few minutes. If you can, use the time she is outside to check the puppies and make sure the whelping box is clean and safe. 

Keep the puppies warm – Puppies cannot regulate their own body temperature immediately after birth. Make sure there is a heating pad at the correct temperature in the whelping box. 

Don’t take the puppies outside – Make sure that the puppies stay inside the whelping box until they get older. It is not safe to vaccinate puppies this young, and being exposed to the outdoors increases their risk of disease or infection.

 

Behavior

The mother may show aggression – make sure to keep kids away from the mother and her puppies, as even dogs who love children may become irritable or protective of her puppies.  

The puppies will mostly sleep and eat during this phase – Your dog may be okay with you handling her puppies for small amounts of time, but don’t remove a newborn puppy from its mother for more than a few minutes.

 

 

The Transition Phase (13 to 20 days)

 

The transition phase is a pivotal point in a puppy’s development and one that is filled with rapid changes.  

Nutrition

During this phase, the puppies will still be nursing, and the mother will still need special food that is higher in fat. 

Development

During the transition phase, puppies begin to crawl, hear sound, and relieve themselves on their own. Around the thirteen day mark, their eyes begin to open, although they cannot fully see until about 21 days old.

Health

It is important to note whether any of the puppies are failing to thrive. Contact your veterinarian if any of the puppies seem sick or are developing more slowly, as they may need special attention.

Behavior

Although there’s not much you can do in the way of training, introducing young puppies to the smells and sounds of their environment is a good way to avoid anxiety in the future. Besides picking them up and interacting with them (while being respectful of their mother), you can do things like vacuum, play music, or open the window if you live on a busy street. This can keep them from having fears of certain sounds as they age. 

 

 

The Awareness Phase (from 3 weeks to 4 weeks old) 

As puppies begin to first see and hear completely, it is important that they remain in a stable, safe environment. Do not move the puppies to a new location or attempt to remove them from their mother in any way. 

Nutrition
A mother will still nurse her puppies during the awareness phase, although it may be harder for her to try and keep up with them. Make sure that she has access to extra food and water during this time.

Development
During this phase, puppies will begin to move around and investigate their surroundings. This can be very dangerous since they do not yet understand the world around them. This is an important time for a puppy to be around its mother for guidance and safety. 

Health

Puppies are now able to see and hear! 

Behavior

Puppies will be starting to explore as they learn to utilize their new senses. 

 

 

Socialization Phase (from 3 weeks to 8 weeks old)  

 

The socialization phase overlaps with the awareness phase for a short time, and for a good reason. While puppies are still with their mother, they learn how to interact with other dogs. At this time, puppies are still too young to be separated from their mother, but it may be a good time to begin letting people know you have puppies up for adoption.

 Nutrition

As a puppy enters the socialization phase, he will be ready to begin to eat soft puppy food as his mother weans him. For a short time, puppies may both nurse and eat soft puppy food until the mother feels they are fully ready to stop nursing. 

Development

During this phase, puppies learn body posture, vocalization, and different behaviors such as aggression, playfulness, and submissiveness through playing with littermates.

Health

Puppies usually get their first immunizations at six to eight weeks old. 

Behavior

One important lesson puppies learn during their socialization phase is how to react to discipline. A mother dog will often correct her puppies during this time. Although it can be tempting as a dog owner to coddle a puppy who has been disciplined by its mother, it is important to let the mother dog teach her puppies. This will affect how the puppy interacts with other dogs the rest of its life. 

 

Another important lesson that puppies learn during this phase is bite inhibition, which is crucial to their socialization and prevents serious bite incidents in the future. A puppy will first learn bite inhibition when nursing – if the puppy bites too hard while nursing, the mother will walk away, teaching the puppy to use his mouth more softly. Bite inhibition is also learned during play; if the mother notices that a puppy is biting a littermate too hard during play, she will end the playtime. This, in turn, teaches puppies to play more gently. 

 

 

Exposure  Phase (8 weeks to 6 months old)

Once a puppy hits eight weeks of age, he is ready to be adopted into his new home and begins learning how to interact with his new family and the world around him.

Nutrition

By this time, your puppy should have transitioned fully to dry puppy food! 

Development

During the transition period to its new home, puppies should be exposed to all sorts of different stimuli and experiences. When introducing a puppy to a new experience, make sure that the experience is positive so that your puppy does not develop any fears that he will hold onto as he grows into an adult dog. Think of the things your puppy will be exposed to on a regular basis, such as children, loud noises, car rides, and different types of people. Properly introducing your puppy to new situations will help him develop into a well adjusted dog. They are also experiencing teething, with adult teeth begin to appear at 3 months old, causing them to chew excessively. Make sure they have plenty of toys to chew on, so you can keep your shoes in pristine condition! 

Health

You will be taking your puppy to the veterinarian for at least two more rounds of vaccinations during this stage. Vaccinations include distemper, leptospirosis, parvo, hepatitis, parainfluenza and rabies.

Behavior

During the exposure phase, you will need to teach your puppy basic training, how you want him to interact with humans, and housebreaking. Their fear reaction becomes more pronounced during this phase, so socialization and exposing your puppy to different people and situations is especially important. 

 

The Adolescent Stage ( 6 Months til Approximately 1.5 Years)

 

Nutrition

At this stage, your puppy will still be eating puppy food. You can begin transitioning to dog food at about one year, especially if your dog is a smaller breed.  

Development

Your puppy’s growth will slow down and then stop, during this stage as they mature into their adult bodies. Many dogs begin to look awkward or “lanky” until they completely finish growing. Smaller breeds will finish growing faster, as early as 6 to 8 months old, with larger breeds topping out at 18 months to two years old.  

Health

Your dog is now entering puberty! If your dog is not spayed or neutered, be sure they are supervised around dogs of the opposite sex, to prevent unwanted litters of puppies.

Behavior

The adolescent stage can be a very difficult time for dog owners, as hormonal changes in your dog additionally mean changing behaviors. During this stage, your dog will likely exhibit unruly and sometimes destructive behavior. He will begin testing his limits, and it might seem as if all of your training has gone out the window! It is important to provide consistent guidance at this time. This stage is also when fearful behavior may surface, so it is important to continue socializing your dog. Negative behaviors that your dog develops during this phase of his life will be hard to change later, so be consistent (and very, very patient!)  with your training.

 

Do not hesitate to enlist the help of a professional dog trainer if you need additional help handling this stage of your dog’s life!

 

The Adult Dog Stage (1.5 Years – 6 Years)

The adult dog stage is the bulk of your dog’s life, and is filled with wonderful years for both of you! 

 

Nutrition

Your dog is no longer eating puppy food but is transitioned to adult dog food. 

Development

If you’re an athlete, you may be tempted to take your dog with you on your outdoor activities immediately, however it is recommended to wait to increase exercise intensity slowly and be careful to not overexert them. 

Health

These should be some of the healthiest years of a dog’s life, however genetic conditions do exist that may only present themselves as your dog transitions into adulthood. Be sure to take your dog to the vet regularly for yearly checkups and vaccinations, and to be monitored for any new conditions that may pop up. 

Behavior

Continue to be consistent with your dog’s training, and you will reap the rewards. If you start becoming irregular with training sessions, your dog might pick up bad habits. 

 

The Senior Dog Stage (6 years and up)

As your dog ages, they will be prone to develop conditions commonly seen in older dogs. Although these changes can be stressful, speaking with your veterinarian about how best to help your dog as he experiences changes in his senior years.

 

Nutrition

You may notice that your dog doesn’t eat as much, or as often as he used to. Your dog may start to gain weight. This is normal in aging dogs. Feeding your aging dog food that is specifically formulated for senior dogs will help ensure that he still gets the nutrients he needs when he does decide to chow down. If your dog has become overweight, they may need a special low calorie food formulated for senior dogs. 

Development

After your dog reaches about six years old, they will likely slow down, and may not be able to go on the same kinds of outings (especially runs or hikes) that they used to. 

Health

Some of the most common conditions that appear in older dogs are cataracts, arthritis, dementia, and hip dysplasia. Your veterinarian should be able to tell you at your annual checkup if your dog needs pain relief or other treatment for any conditions your senior dog may have developed. 

Behavior

Your dog may slow down and sleep much more often during these years. Make sure to still take your dog out with you sometimes, even if it means you need to modify your plans a bit. Slow walks instead of hikes, swimming instead of running, and long car rides instead of taking them on bike rides are excellent alternatives. 

 

Owning a dog is one of life’s most rewarding experiences, although at some stages it can be challenging. By knowing how to address your dog’s individual needs at each life stage, transitions will be much easier for both you and your dog!