Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Brain Breakfast

Old wive's white-coats' tale -- you can't teach a puppy anything before his eyes open.

No less a pair of authorities than Scott and Fuller proclaimed it, more or less.* After all, neonatal pups are blind, hear poorly, and don't get around all that well. Terrible at mazes. Nevermind that their little noses can lead them to the biggest nipple in their dark, warm world. Humans are a bunch of sight snobs. Worse than our hangup about thumbs.

Michael Fox** discovered that neonates could be conditioned to localize the scent of anise, but essentially concluded that this was as far as it goes.

Jebus Christmas -- they are living, growing beings. They don't just wake up from a coma at three weeks of age. Shit is happening.

Differential equations and whistle commands -- save it.

Neurological connections, resilience, trust, persistence, scent-imprinting -- now we're talking.

While the neonates' nervous systems are pruning and strengthening connections, their immune systems are also beginning to develop under the protection of mother's magic colostrum.

Interestingly enough, the same kinds of mild challenges can strengthen both body systems, just as massive insults to one can throw the other out of whack. (The immune system/nervous system nexus is huge and unappreciated. The New Agers basically ate the white-coats' lunch on this one, and it will be a while before those who apply the scientific method sheepishly catch up and distinguish the valid information from the moonbeams.)

Our "program" for imprinting and stimulating neonatal puppies is mostly the terrible chore of picking up little grunting sausages for snuggle time every day. I know! What we breeders sacrifice. Zrrrbting pink bellies, nibbling tiny toes, smooching little schnozzes -- oh the humanity.

But we do some extra stuff, too. We get a head start on the "Rule of Sevens" and make sure that the pups experience different surfaces in the whelping box. (With this litter, Rosie is intent on making sure they experience four or five different dens in the first two weeks -- still fighting that battle.) We create little moraines under their blankets, so that puppies must climb obstacles to reach the milk bar. (Or Rosie bunches the bedding into Mount Pupali and really gives them a workout.) As soon as Momma allows, pups are touched and cared for by their relatives -- Gramma Pip and Uncle Moe are already cleaning pups. And we do "Superdog" early neurological stimulation -- a little first taste of challenge for the puppies' developing brains and nervous systems.

The neonatal exercises
arose from the DoD's "biosensor" program -- an attempt to breed and develop a better military working dog -- in the 1970's. The "Superdog" breeding, developmental, conditioning and training protocols were mostly cloaked in obscurity -- possibly secrecy -- but a few consultants, including the late lamented Cap Haggerty, brought results and protocols out into the light. While the program itself was not a success -- whether due to errors in breeding selection, failure to follow up with appropriate socialization, training shortfalls, or the interaction of all three -- there was a general consensus that the neonatal conditioning, once initiated, improved the results within the program.

It takes only a few minutes a day. Used as directed it does no harm, and may do considerable good.

I've never seen photographs or video of the process, so here you go. Apologies for the poor video quality -- lighting is poor in our living room, and my video camera batteries were all dead, so we used my regular camera. Cutting off the puppies' heads is a YouTube issue -- they were properly framed in the original. My assistant didn't feel confident panning and zooming, so we put the camera on a tripod. And I wasn't sure that it was properly recording audio, so I didn't narrate what I was doing.

I know, I know -- paint drying. But it is fast-drying paint.

Some important points. No puppy is in any given position for more than five seconds. And you only do this once a day. (We couldn't do a second take yesterday for this video.)

One isn't evaluating puppies during this exercise. Whether puppy sleeps or squirms is of no consequence. This is neurological stimulation -- a little bit of challenge that the puppy would not normally get.

Two things I've noted over the course of five days:

• The puppies are responding much more vigorously to the head-down position, and are squirmier in general.

• The puppies are dramatically relaxing in the belly-up position, a little more each day. I don't know whether that can be attributed to the short stimulation sessions, or if it is due to all the snuggle time they spend in this position, in a lap or tucked under someone's chin. Their epic six days of experience on the part of the planet that is not the inside of their mother is already overriding their programmed reflex to right themselves when tits-up, at least when the touch and smell of a human being is part of the equation. This will stand them in good stead in their lives with people, no matter what jobs they hold.


* "Early in our observations of newborn puppies, we noticed that they did not seem to learn by experience. A puppy would fall to the edge of the scale platform, fall off, and begin to yelp in distress. When placed in the middle of the platform, it would do the same thing over again ... Some recent experiments (Stanley et al 1963) indicate that the puppy is capable of some degree of slow learning with regard to sucking. A puppy which is given milk after sucking a rubber nipple will eventually begin to suck more often than a puppy which is not so rewarded, and one that is given quinine instead of milk will eventually refuse to suck the nipple at all."

Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog, 1965, pp. 87-88.

** Before he went all woo-woo.


  1. Your blog needs a "like" button...I've especially enjoyed the last two posts, though I really have nothing constructive to add.

    Just "thank you".


  2. It sticks!

    Audie still likes to lie on his back with his belly exposed to the world. And - he likes having his feet touched so much so that he puts them in my hand to be held.

  3. This is waay cool. My understanding of what you are doing is it is not so much what it does inna moment as it is the expansion of the wee dog's sensory capacities. I believe what you are doing increases the dog(pups)abiltity to create cortisol PLUS you start the process of increasing the ability to cope with stress.

  4. What we breeders sacrifice. Zrrrbting pink bellies, nibbling tiny toes, smooching little schnozzes -- oh the humanity.

    I think of Kapsa -- no, never mind.

  5. Also, playing video immediately brought Miss Libby to me. After verifying no puppies were nearby, she retired back to the kitchen, where sounds of food were to be had.

  6. I watched the video this morning. As soon as 'puppy noises' began I had 3 interested canines lined up next to me watching the video with cocked heads.


  7. I so wish I were your very close neighbor. The young'ns are looking fantastic. (Wish I had been so well "socialized" to such early experiences.) Loving these updates.

  8. Who knew that my children's "puppy torture" actually has a place in puppy developement! Loved the sound of the crickets in the background - thanks for sharing.

    Beth Frakes

  9. Beth, the torture of puppies is one reason that many people advise buying pups from breeders who have children.

    Since we have none, we take the dual precautions of being as childish as possible and also importing the genuine article at appropriate times.

    I tend to think that puppies and children co-evolved to need the input of one another in order to develop properly.

  10. It must be something genetic Pip passed on - Tali loves 'having her hand held' too.


  11. When I got my dog,I picked out the puppy that was being carried around all the time by the breeder's granddaughter. She was the little girl's favorite and seemed so alert to the world. This post makes so much sense to me.

  12. Heather - I read your stuff and terms like "As Good As It Gets" run through my head. Ah, the beauty of Outliers in the working dog world.

    Awesome blog. Loving this thread in particular as it is such an affirmation of - and education on - what purists put into producing that amazing, noble, soulful, and essential creature. The working dog.

  13. "Since we have none, we take the dual precautions of being as childish as possible and also importing the genuine article at appropriate times."

    your words about children always crack me up. your words about dogs slam my heart. and that last puppy's little tail!!! <3


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