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Can Dogs Imprint?
The widely known and loved idea of birds imprinting on their mothers is an adorable, little feature of the species. Have you ever wondered if your furry friend has the ability to imprint as well?
Well, the answer is yes, dogs imprint too! Because they are a different species, their process of imprinting is a little bit different than a bird's. Imprinting is the process of a puppy observing and learning, typically from their mother, during a critical window in puppy-hood. This is why it's standard practice for a puppy to stay with their mom and siblings for at least 8 weeks. They need to learn some crucial behaviors and instincts during that time.
Learn more below!
The Signs of a Dog Imprinting
There are three distinct stages of imprinting that you can watch for as your wee pooch develops. Each is integral for a well-rounded canine to be the end result.
1. Canine Imprinting Stage This occurs when the pup is 3-7 weeks old. In this period of the impressionable pup's life, they are learning behavior from their littermates and mom. They are also just becoming familiar with what species they are and who they will eventually be able to mate with.
2. Human Imprinting Stage This stage happens once the puppy is adopted and living with their human, generally around 7-12 weeks of age. During this stage, it's important to expose your pup to other humans and even other species of animal as well. This is when they're most susceptible to learning how to socialize with others who are different from them.
3. Fear Imprinting Stage This stage takes place from age 8 to 10 weeks. This is the time in a pupper's life when they are most vulnerable to trauma. Any slight stressor can become a phobia that they can never quite shake. Keep the vibes around your pup positive, especially with new introductions during this time. Definitely avoid any big changes, travel, or vet visits (if you can avoid it) during this stage. We want our pups to be as happy and well-adjusted as possible!
History of Canine Imprinting
The first study of any imprinting was done in the 1970s by an Australian zoologist named Konrad Lorenz. He studied the behavior of ducks and geese and throughout this time, he noticed that baby birds would follow around the first moving thing they say after they hatched.
As with most cases, this was often times their mother. However, it has been widely found that it doesn't have to be their mother. Baby ducks (and pups) will follow ANY moving object if it's the first thing they see.
Studies have found similar behaviors among many animals, including our loving doggos. Imprinting is especially found within species that stay with their group, such as herds of cows or packs of dogs or wolves. They imprint so that they have a gauge on what behavior they should have.
Once they have imprinted, if it's on their mother or an older dog, they are able to understand who they should be hanging out with, how they should be acting, and who they should be mating with. Regardless of these reasons, overall, it's pretty darn cute, too!
Science Behind Imprinting
The initial need for a pup to imprint is so that they recognize their own parents once they are born. The evolutionary purpose for this is so the pup doesn't get lost or separated from their family. Scientists believe that this imprinting process can only occur once and during the impressionable early days of a pup's life.
So most likely, they will imprint on their mother and will not be able to imprint on anyone else. After they are able to recognize their parental figure, they start to pick up little behaviors and habits from the older dogs. This all stems from a means of survival, which is why most mammals and birds have an imprinting period in their beginning stages of life.
Similarly, imprinting helps puppers to recognize who they can mate with. The very idea of evolution is to survive and adapt, and the only way for a species to do that is by reproducing. Imprinting allows for them to innately know who they are suited to mate with to continue the species.
Helping Your Dog Imprint Successfully
To help raise a well-adjusted pooch, there are steps you can take to ensure the imprinting process goes as smoothly as possible. Some of these are just scenarios you can do your best to set up, while others actually involve action on your part.
To make sure that the first phase of imprinting happens correctly, do whatever you can during your dog's pregnancy to keep her happy and healthy. Provide her with a secure and cozy whelping area so that she has every reason to stick close with her pups - without stress! Another key factor of this stage's success is not giving away puppies until they are about 8 weeks old. This way, they have had all of the time they need to correctly adopt appropriate dog behavior, from both their mom and their littermates.
For the next stage of imprinting, you will be more in the action. This is where your pooch will get a feel for people. Introduce many different people to your pupper, and make each experience positive with treats and praise. This phase is also ideal for getting your dog used to larger groups of people, so maybe take some walks through the busier part of town or attend a street festival with your young pup in tow.
The last phase falls back on you to make sure that your dog doesn't develop unhealthy fear. Advise all visitors on appropriate behavior around a young dog and make sure you do not leave your pup alone for long periods of time - especially during these weeks! Lifelong behavioral issues can form if this stage goes poorly.
It does take extra work, but raising a happy, healthy pooch is always worth it in the end!
By Kelsey Bullis
Published: 04/06/2018, edited: 04/06/2020
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