Cornell Margaret and Richard Riney Canine Health Center

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How long should puppies stay with their mother?

The ideal window is between 8 and 12 weeks old.

You did your research and found the puppy that’s right for you. They are healthy and adorable, and you want to bring them home as soon as you possibly can.

However, the time your puppy spends with their mother and siblings is critical for development, and so it's important to make sure they spend this growth period with their litter.

The first month

For the first four weeks or so, puppies depend on their mothers for everything. The mother’s first milk, called colostrum, is rich in nutrients and antibodies that help protect the puppies from illness while their immune systems are still developing. This milk provides all the nutrition the puppies need for the first few weeks after birth.

Weaning to solid foods

Puppies start to experiment with solid food as early as 3 weeks old. They still nurse, and mothers continue to produce milk for up to 10 weeks. Some nursing is for nutrition, but it is also a comforting, bonding activity for the puppies. Most puppies are fully weaned to solid food between 7 and 10 weeks of age, although the transition can occur earlier. 

Learning to speak dog

Just as important for puppy development is learning proper canine etiquette and communication as part of a litter. For example, as early as 3 weeks of age, puppies start learning from their mother and siblings to eliminate away from where they sleep, which helps with housebreaking later. 

If you’ve ever watched a litter of puppies playing, they have lots of neat moves! But these play behaviors aren’t just for fun. The pups are practicing hunting and communication behaviors that they need to perfect.

One of the most important skills that puppies learn through play is bite inhibition and not chomping down too hard. As puppies play, they frequently grab their siblings’ and mother’s legs, tails, and even faces. If a puppy bites too hard, the other will cry out, signaling that the bite was too rough. Moms will do the same thing or may gently correct the puppies for getting too rough. This is a critical lesson to learn before heading out into the world, as other dogs will be far less tolerant of inappropriate puppy play than Mom! Biting is also a common problem behavior that can land a dog in a shelter (or worse) later in life.

Puppies will also practice a variety of vocalizations and body language, learning to communicate with their siblings and mother. Puppies who miss out on these early learning opportunities frequently have issues with other dogs later in life, since they do not interpret the other dogs’ signals correctly or they behave inappropriately themselves. 

Socialization

Puppies have an early critical socialization period from approximately 5 to 14 weeks of age. During this time, puppies are open to learning and experiencing new things, and the things they learn will affect how they go through the rest of their lives. 

Breeders and other caretakers should be exposing the puppies to novel sights and sounds on a regular basis. Puppies destined to be working or sporting dogs should be exposed to things they will encounter in their future roles, such as sheep wool for herding dogs, a variety of materials and obstacles to climb over for agility dogs, and training scents for future drug and bomb detection dogs. 

These safe exposures should continue after you bring your puppy home, but early socialization with litter-mates and the mother are also important for building confidence. The puppies will observe how their mother responds to new people and things and then mimic her behavior. If Mom is relaxed and friendly around new people, the puppies will likely be comfortable with strangers.

Research has found that puppies who are separated from the litter too early are more likely to show fear, aggression, anxiety, resource guarding, reactivity and inappropriate play biting than puppies who stay with the litter for at least eight weeks. 

The ideal time

The exact time that is best for a puppy to go to its new home can vary by situation, but most breeders and veterinarians agree that 8 weeks of age is a good minimum. Some states have laws in place preventing puppies from being sold any earlier. Eight weeks after birth, the puppy is eating solid food on their own, they have benefited from socializing with litter-mates and observing mom, and they are well within the ideal timeframe to bond with new owners. 

Breeders may also opt to keep the puppies until 10 or 12 weeks of age. Toy breeds in particular are often kept with the litter until they are 12 weeks old because they are so small and fragile. This gives the pups extra time with the litter, and still has them going to their forever homes in plenty of time to form a strong bond with their new people. And anyone who has welcomed an adult dog into their home knows that dogs of any age will still bond with their new owners as long as they have had socialization with people! 

Keeping the puppies longer does mean more work for the breeder, since they are responsible for all the puppies during those extra weeks. But if the breeder is putting in that time and effort to give the puppies a great foundation, then the extra time with their litter can be very beneficial to both you and your new puppy. 

This article has been reprinted with permission from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DOGWatch Newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. Subscribe online to DOGWatch Newsletter here.