There is nothing that dog lovers are more fascinated by than the sight of a newborn baby puppy. I readily admit that when there’s a marathon of Too Cute on Animal Planet, I sit transfixed in front of the television until my eyeballs pop out. Audible shrieks of delight and wonder echo through the house as litters of puppies flash before me, rapidly developing over the course of an episode from tiny, defenseless whelps to fully functioning puppies.
The only real difficulty with shows like these is that the half-hour format casually elides much of their early-life development. For instance, most of us know that a puppy is born blind. Did you also know that, although dogs have an extraordinary sense of hearing when they are grown, they are born functionally deaf? The steps by which a baby puppy begins engaging with its world are equally extraordinary. Speaking of steps, let’s examine the early stages of puppy development, from the whelping box until a puppy starts walking!
Since most responsible dog owners have their domestic pets spayed or neutered, the earliest stages of puppy development, between whelping and adoption, can be a bit of a mystery. The only major senses that work straight out of the gate, if you will, are those of touch and smell. That’s sufficient for those first seven days, during which puppies spend the vast majority of their time eating and sleeping. Reverse that, actually: Puppies spend nearly 22 hours a day sleeping, and the other two eating.
A newborn puppy cannot even use the bathroom under her own auspices. The mother has quite a lot of work to do during this earliest stage, including using her tongue to stimulate their bladders and bowels. Puppy bodies are top-heavy, with huge heads that are built to do only one thing properly — suckle at the mother’s teat. Learning to walk is still a ways off; it is not until between days five and seven that a puppy’s forelegs are strong enough to even bear the weight of its proportionally massive head. Rudimentary crawling begins over the last two days of week one.
Locomotion remains a work in progress. During the first seven days, they mostly flail about, finding nourishment by smell and by feel alone. At some point between days 10 and 14, their eyes open and their closed ears begin detecting sound. Why do sight and sound take so many days to acquire? Baby puppies are born with underdeveloped eyes and nervous systems, which require further growth and development outside of the womb.
Born to feed and find food, puppies eat between six and eight times a day, and expend substantial energy in the process. During sleep, they twitch a great deal, which helps build muscle throughout their bodies. During week two, eyes and ears start to function, but these organs are far from complete. It is not until week five, more than 20 days after whelping, that a puppy’s eyes and ears have anything approaching full functionality. As for their tiny legs, they can squirm and wobble about by day 14, but motor control isn’t fully ingrained just yet.
Over the course of the third week, things really start happening for baby puppies. Between days 15 and 21, the average puppy will have built enough muscle mass and motor function to get up, stand up, and sit down under his own power. In the first 14 days, a puppy’s litter mates are obstacles between the baby and the mother’s milk. During these next seven days, puppies begin distinguishing their brothers and sisters as other beings. This same span of time also sees the emergence of baby’s first teeth.
It’s not until some point between days 17 and 21, toward the tail end of week three, that a puppy is fully able to urinate and defecate without maternal assistance, encouragement, and supervision. The baby puppy is still learning how to move around, and cannot be said to have the ability to walk as such. They may have their legs underneath them, but any walking successes tend to be provisional at best. A puppy is still just as likely to flop over from a standing or seated position.
We’re already at day 22 and our hypothetical baby puppy still can’t see or hear clearly! She has only just learned how to poop under her own volition and acknowledge her siblings through tiny squeaks. Week four is a big one; during these seven days, a baby puppy is prepared to leave the whelping box and truly begin exploring his world.
Note, as above, that vision and hearing are not fully developed and trustworthy senses until week five. When these puppies are ready to walk around on their own, they’ll need plenty of clear, open space to navigate. They can walk at this point, but not skillfully.
Puppies are typically weaned and ready for adoption between eight and 12 weeks of age, so puppy development is clearly a rapid, blink-and-you’ll-miss it process. They depend heavily on their mother for everything from warmth and food to help evacuating waste. The process of growth and development, rapid as it is, doesn’t mean that a newly adopted puppy is ready to take on all challenges.
While a puppy is physically capable of walking by week five, and ready for adoption by week 12, he is still growing into his body, a process that will take most of the next year and a quarter. Puppies of all breeds and sizes use an extraordinary amount of energy. Any physical activity is a drain on them. Although total sleeping hours may decrease from 22 hours immediately after whelping to between 16 and 18 hours a day, it is crucial not to push a puppy into greater activity than he needs.
Between socialization, house training, and standard puppy play, puppies expend all the energy they need to in order to ensure proper physical development. If you are adopting a new puppy with the express intent of raising a walking, hiking, or running partner, it is highly recommended that you exercise patience. For purposes of leash training, leading a puppy around the living room or front yard should be sufficient.
During this formative stage, while the puppy is still acclimating to his new home, limit how much you exercise with him. Around 4 months — yes, months — of age, a couple of 20-minute walks a day are more than enough. Depending on the size and breed of your puppy, her bones, joints, and sockets may not be ready for vigorous action until between 12 and 18 months of age. Of course, puppies will begin running around as soon as they are able, but they are not physically mature enough to withstand extended periods of sustained running until right around 18 months of age.
These guidelines are only general rules of thumb. Consult with your veterinarian for specifics on your puppy by breed or mix.
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a two-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Baby, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.