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  • Writer's pictureCanine Consultant - Emma

Asking The Impossible?

It seems a really simple, basic thing - dogs stay home whilst we're out doing boring chores, going to work, trips to the shop - the necessary outings that are not particularly dog friendly. Stay here in this safe, warm building , that has all you need, whilst we're gone. Unfortunately, what we are asking of our dogs is an enormous task, particularly for puppies. To understand why, we need to look at the evolution of dogs - sit tight, this is a bit of a ride!

Dogs were not domesticated by us...

We have of course, selectively bred dogs for our own purposes for centuries, but unlike cattle, sheep, horses, donkeys... dogs began that process themselves. They chose to hang around near us, they found our wasteful ways beneficial - we were a source of food! 130'000 years ago, or thereabouts, the prototype dog split from the common ancestor they share with the modern gray wolf. Despite the still popular belief that we domesticated dogs by taking gray wolf cubs and keeping them captive (try it, what you get is a confused gray wolf that will eventually be a risk to you and everyone else around you!), the truth is, dogs and gray wolves had a common ancestor. Dog became dog by ... not being wolf. By wanting to be with people, near people, by being unafraid of people. Wolf... remained wolf by being the exact opposite of this - scared of people, avoiding people, wanting nothing to do with people. That desire to be with people is everything. It allowed us to selectively breed, accidentally at first - driving away or killing animals that were bitey, providing more food for animals who had a cute loppy ear or a lighter colour or a cute marking in their coat (and as Belyaevs foxes demonstrate - selecting for human friendly/non aggressive to humans also causes physiological changes in coat colour, patterning and ear set!)... I doubt these early proto-dogs had issues with separation anxiety - they were not shut in our homes, they were free to follow or not, and there was always someone around so they had choices. Our modern dogs don't live this life though. We have intensively, selectively bred our dogs to not only want to be with us, but in some cases to hang off our every word, to default decision making to us, to work with us. We've bred them to want physical contact with us, to be our close working colleagues and companions. A major change between wild canids (and that includes the feral street dogs, wolves, painted dogs and more) and our domestic dogs, is how they raise their young. Puppies/cubs are with their mother until 3 weeks, and she will be brought food by the rest of the group. From then they will be left for short periods but checked regularly and are of course with their litter mates. They will feed from Mum and the ratio of milk to regurgitated meat gradually shifts until at around 8 weeks they are just eating regurgitated meat. From 8 weeks onwards, for the next 3 months or so, they will get regurgitated meat from Mum and helpful Aunties and Uncles, and any bits and bobs they are cheeky enough to scrounge/beg/pinch from the social group (that begging behaviour your puppy does at meal times... and licking your mouth. Yup!). So for the first 4+ months, a wild puppy of any sort is continually with litter mates, Mum, Aunties, Uncles, and being actively cared for by their own species. After that they will venture further with the group, practice hunting and killing and scavenging... but they will not leave that family or social group, and will not be alone, where they have no choice but to be isolated from everyone, ever... Until adolescence! At around a year old, some juveniles may leave the group. Typically young males and more likely not solo but with a brother or two. Very occasionally (and more likely seen in feral dogs than truly wild species) they will be shunned by the group due to unpleasant behaviour (violent, over the top bullying or intimidating behaviour). Death rates for loners and 'bachelor' pairs are very high! Even if we look at species well known for solitary adults - tigers, cheetahs, jaguars - they don't strike out on their own until well on their way to adulthood at around 2 years of age! No wild canid chooses to leave their own kind and fend for themselves entirely alone prior to this point, and very few do after it. To do so is really risky and dangerous - even tiny puppies know this! In comparison, domestic dog:

  • Weans puppies off milk completely from as early as 3 weeks (by choice!)

  • Abdicates responsiblility for their young to another species (us!)

That's not natural. That is something we have bred in - unfortunately what we have not bred in is any capability to be alone - because up until probably 40ish* years ago, we didn't need it! Dogs were with us, working, or if we were too busy to be with a dog, we did not have one.

We've inserted ourselves into dogs lives as a primary care giver - we've altered early maternal behaviour to allow for this, but done absolutely nothing to equip puppies to cope with being alone any earlier than their wild counterparts.

What does this mean for our pet puppies?

Well firstly, it means they can't manage alone reliably, repeatedly, for useful time periods. Not at 8 weeks, 10 weeks, 26 weeks... Certainly not 2 days after you collect from the breeder and need to go back to work! Some may stay quiet and sleep when alone (as wild puppies will when Mum pops out to hunt or toilet), but we cannot rely on that, particularly once the puppies are separated from their litter mates. Even if they did - the first year of life is the most optimal phase for learning - if they're alone, you aren't teaching them and what they are learning is unlikely to be anything you're keen on!

We should not be expecting our puppies to sleep alone or be alone during the day until after the start of adolescence - and adolescence is the point at which they can start really building those skills. Do not assume that adolescence is when they magically become independent and able to cope... don't forget the other elements we've selectively bred in.

We've created animals who are dependent on us for instruction and guidance - we have also trapped them in our homes and taken away all their choices. That's not necessarily a bad thing - the choices my dogs would make given the opportunity would often amount to Absolute Bastardry - but it is a fact. When we leave them, we are likely to see distress, anxiety, frustration and even panic. Not simply because they are alone, but because they do not know what to do with themselves - they don't know how to make choices or decisions, they were not built for that. For those of you with companion breeds or working breeds developed to work very closely with human instruction, that goes triple! Having interfered with dog to the point that they trust us to replace their own species as primary care givers, it is us to step up and fulfill that role properly - not half arse it because its too much effort or too big a sacrifice - you have a choice, nobody forced you to get a puppy!

So what can you do?

  • Don't leave your puppy alone - use sitters, daycares, friends, family and reschedule your life for the next year or two to account for this.

  • Build security by being there and providing comfort and contact

  • Let your puppy sleep with you until housetrained and steady enough to be given free access between where you sleep and where you want them to sleep (so they can access you if they need to in an emergency)

  • Let your puppy follow you around - this helps them learn that you do boring things, that there is not a portal to another realm in the bathroom, that you're not secretly snacking or playing with puppy toys in another room.

  • Play games, train, build confidence - this is your foundation for everything else.

  • Socialise and habituate your puppy properly - this includes hanging out doing boring stuff with them present.

  • Have realistic expectations of the abilities of this baby animal you have chosen to raise - it takes the average human 3 years to toilet train and 18 to 20 years to live independently from the primary care giver. It will take your puppy 9 months to toilet train and they'll have passed from old age before your kid leaves home!

©Emma Judson 2023 - feel free to share in it's entirety. Do not edit, crop or amend this text. *this originally read '30' but as has been pointed out, I am older than I think I am and 1970 was not in fact 30 years ago!

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