Interacting politely with adult dogs is an important life skill for puppies. Young puppies get away with a lot when they’re still with their mother and siblings. They learn about moving their bodies, playing with other puppies, and the kinds of behaviours that may help them have good relationships with others. As they grow up, adult dogs will be less accepting of poor behaviour.
Life with Mom
Mother dogs are remarkably tolerant, allowing their puppies to climb all over them, pull on their ears, their tails and their fur. Things begin to change when the mother starts weaning. She will be less willing to nurse puppies anytime they feel like it and, as they begin to eat food on their own, will nurse less often and for shorter periods of time.
Weaning can be a difficult time for a puppy. Nursing is about more than food. Puppies experience close bonding with their mothers from nursing and may try to return to nurse when confused, upset or scared of something even several weeks after being completely weaned.
As part of weaning, mother dogs begin to grab their puppies’ muzzles when they’re about five weeks old and will continue to do it, sometimes growling at the same time, until the puppies are weaned. At first, puppies are frightened by this, and will whimper and cry. Muzzle grabbing doesn’t hurt the puppy; it’s a way for the adult dog to say, “That’s enough. Stop what you’re doing, now.” Puppies learn to submit when their mothers grab their muzzles. They usually roll over onto their backs, belly up.
Mothers have other ways to communicate their determination not to nurse their puppies. In this terrific video, a golden retriever romps with her 15 puppies. All of the dogs appear to be having a great time while the clever mother makes it impossible for any of the puppies to latch on and nurse.
Puppies begin to replicate their mother’s muzzle-grabbing behaviour, themselves, at about six weeks of age. In playing with siblings, puppies learn that a muzzle grab is a way to stop another puppy from doing something. This is also one of the ways that puppies learn bite inhibition. A muzzle grab is not a bite. It’s a way to stop a behaviour. Puppies who bite or hold on too hard won’t have anyone to play with!
Ethologist Roger Abrantes classifies muzzle-grabbing as social behaviour. “This behavior helps develop a relationship of trust between both parties: ‘We don’t hurt one another.’” He goes on to say,
Wolf cubs and puppies often invite the alpha male (leader of the pack) as well as other adults to grab them by the muzzle. They solicit a demonstration of their elders’ superiority and self control, whilst at the same time they show their acceptance and submission. This is the most reassuring behavior an adult dog can show a puppy. (2012)
Meeting other dogs
It’s important for puppies to have opportunities to interact with safe, reliable adults so that they can learn the rules of canine etiquette. While many adult dogs are good with puppies and will tolerate their awkward, inexperienced behaviour, it’s also true that many dogs don’t like puppies very much at all. This is most likely to be true for male dogs who generally have no experience with puppies and may become quickly annoyed by them.
One of the principal differences between wolves and domestic dogs is that male dogs have nothing whatever to do with the raising of puppies, whereas male wolves are involved from the very beginning. Both parents attend to caring for wolf cubs from shortly after their birth. The cubs live with both parents and their older siblings until they’re about three years old. During that time, they learn to hunt with their family members and eventually will help care for younger siblings until it’s time for them to leave their family pack and find their own mates.
Male domestic dogs only mate with females. They have nothing at all to do with their offspring and may not even be aware that they are the father of any particular puppy or puppies. Indeed, for most breeds, it’s not a good idea to introduce a father dog to his puppies until they’re old enough to move around and eat independently because some fathers will kill newborns.
When a puppy approaches an adult dog, her overtures may be met with tolerance or perhaps even a play bow. If the adult dog doesn’t want to engage with the puppy, he will usually signal his lack of interest by looking away or turning away from her. A persistent puppy may not read the sign, however, and if she continues to try to get the adult’s attention, he may lift a lip, snarl or growl at her. Some dogs will immediately grab the puppy by the muzzle to get their message across.
When an unknown adult dog corrects a puppy in this way, the puppy may cry or whine loudly and, when released, may dart away from the older dog. From the dog’s standpoint, the message has been delivered and received: it’s over. Human guardians, however, often mistake this exchange and interpret it as violent behaviour from an aggressive, potentially dangerous dog. It is not! It is a reasonable way for one dog to tell another that they don’t want to interact with them. It is never appropriate to punish a dog for growling or otherwise displaying behaviour intended to increase the distance between him and another dog, puppy or animal. Doing so will increase the likelihood that the dog will need to resort to more aggressive behaviour in the future.
Introducing puppies to adult dogs
If you have an adult dog and decide to adopt a puppy, set their relationship up for success with these tips for minimizing conflict in your home:
- Begin crate training your puppy from the outset. The crate will both help with house training and will also provide your puppy with a safe place to rest.
- Don’t leave the puppy and older dog alone together until the puppy is at least six months old or has been living in your home for about four months.
- Crate and rotate: walk, train and play with the dogs separately. Giving your puppy your undivided attention helps to build strong bonds with you. Ideally, you want your puppy to consider his primary relationship to be with you rather than with another dog. When you’re with the puppy, put your older dog in his crate or in a separate room. When the puppy is in her crate, bring your older dog out for lots of special time with you, one-on-one.
- Allow the puppy and the adult dog to have brief, supervised encounters.
- Never expect the older dog to “look after” the puppy.
- Ensure that the puppy has her own toys, bed and food/water dishes.
- Your adult dog has a right to set limits. Recognize signals indicating that he’s had enough of the puppy for now and wants a break.
- Never punish a dog for growling!
Abrantes, Roger. “Muzzle Grab Behavior in Canids.” April 25, 2012. Accessed March 30, 2015. https://rogerabrantes.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/muzzle-grab-behavior-in-canids/.