From birth through weaning
A few weeks will be enough for the puppy, born blind and deaf, to be capable of taking his place in a family hierarchy which is different from that of his mother and siblings, once he has been well socialized and weaned.
Giving birth occurs after a gestation period of 63 days on average. A week before, the bitch appropriates various objects to make her nest, goes in search of a quiet place or, on the contrary, seeks her master’s company. The amniotic sac holding the puppy appears a maximum of twelve hours after her waters have broken. If the amniotic membrane has not been torn open, generally the mother takes care of it within the minute following expulsion. She severs the umbilical cord and licks the newborn’s thorax, stimulating his first respiratory motions. Expulsion of the next puppies then follows in succession at intervals of a few minutes to half an hour.
The puppy’s nervous development is not complete at birth. He is born deaf, blind, endowed with a very poor sense of smell and a poorly myelinized nervous system, and is therefore unable to quickly convey sensory impulses, and consequently motions. The mother pushes her puppies towards her teats so that they may suckle the colostrum. This first milk is essential for them to be immunized. Besides his nutritive virtues–it has a much higher protein content than milk–it supplies them with 95% of the antibodies necessary for their protection from infections. The mother thus passes on passively her "immunological memory" to her puppies for a period of five to seven weeks, waiting for the moment when they’ll be in turn able to defend themselves actively against infectious aggressions.
The first days
During the first weeks, the puppies are groomed by their mother. Licking the puppies’ abdomens is also indispensable to their defecation and miction reflexes. The puppies feed from their mother about twenty times a day. They react only to tactile stimuli and orient towards sources of heat, and thus their mother, by crawling. Eyelid opening occurs between the 10th and the 15th day of age. Deciduous teeth appear from the 20th day of age.
Around the 4th week of age, they begin to hear, i.e. to react to noises. This is the beginning of the exploratory period during which they start to play, get attached to their mother and recognize the identity of their fellow puppies. The breeder can then begin to take advantage of the moments when the puppies are awakened to get them used to human smell and presence, play with them and handle them gently.
The socialization period extends from the 3rd to the 9th week of age. During that period devoted to learning social life, the puppies gradually become able to communicate and thus acquire the sense of hierarchy by interpreting maternal reprimands, olfactory and postural signs. A large part of their equilibrium is acquired at that period and requires enriching their environment. Indeed, the puppy must get used to the various stimuli he will encounter: screams, noises, smells... and become familiar with the individuals he will have to mix with peacefully.
Lactation lasts six weeks on average after giving birth, with a maximum peak of production around three weeks of age. During that period, it is important to feed the mother with a highly palatable food whose high energy density will enable her to cover her energy requirements, while not representing too large a volume of food. The quantity of milk produced by a bitch may be estimated by regularly weighing the puppies before and after their feeds. It can thus be estimated that a 32-kg Labrador bitch feeding eight puppies will produce 2.4 times her own weight in milk to raise her litter!
During the following weeks, the declining lacteal production prompts the mother to regurgitate foods so as to supplement the puppies’ feeds as they’re beginning spontaneously to become interested in their mother’s bowl. This period marks the beginning of progressive weaning that will end between the sixth and the eighth week of age with the switch to a growth food. Like any dietary transition, weaning must be a gradual operation which enables switching slowly from the lacteal diet to a diet suited to the growth stage. The puppies’ nutritional requirements at weaning are qualitatively comparable to their mother’s at the end of lactation (i.e. during the period where she builds up again her reserves), what facilitates the breeder’s task considerably. So, he can put at the puppies’ disposal the same Health Nutrition food, designed for the mother’s lactation and the puppies’ growth, mixed with lukewarm water or formula milk. Later on, this food formulated to offer perfect coverage of requirements will be less and less rehydrated, so as to be served as such at the end of weaning before switching next to a post-weaning Health Nutrition growth food.