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Study: Early Separation from Litter Increases Chances of Behavioral Problems

Posted: Aug. 24, 2011, 2:30 p.m., EDT

Puppies separated from their litters early on are significantly more likely to develop potentially problematic behaviors as adults than puppies that stay with the litter for at least two months, according to a study released today by Veterinary Record.

The study, conducted by Italian veterinarians, examined the prevalence of certain behaviors in 140 dogs, half of which were separated from their litter at 30 to 40 days and half of which had been taken from the litter at 60 days.

The dogs’ owners, who were clients of several veterinary practices in Naples, Italy, were all asked to complete a telephone survey about their pets, which were, at the time, between 18 months to seven years old. Half of the dogs had come from a pet shop, one in three had come from a friend or relative and the remainder had come from a breeder.

Puppies separated from the litter early on are more likely to develop problematic behaviors than puppies that stay with the litter for at least two months, study says.
Puppies separated from the litter early on are more likely to develop problematic behaviors than puppies that stay with the litter for at least two months, study says.

The survey included questions about the dogs’ origin, breed and a range of potentially problematic behaviors. Such behaviors included destructiveness, excessive barking, possessiveness around food and/or toys, attention seeking, aggressiveness, play biting, fearfulness on walks and reactivity to noises.

Attention seeking and reactivity to noises were the most commonly reported behaviors, according to the study. Younger dogs (under 36 months) were significantly more likely to be destructive and to tail chase than older animals, the authors found.

With the exception of pica eating, aggression toward the owner, paw licking and shadow staring, all behaviors were significantly more likely among the dogs that had been separated from their litters before 60 days, irrespective of their breed, sterilization status and size, according to the study.

“It is generally accepted that dogs go through a sensitive period, the socialization period, during which social experiences and stimuli have a greater affect on the development of their temperament and behaviors than if they occur later in life,” the authors wrote.

The authors noted that a significantly greater percentage of owners of pet shop dogs separated from the litter early answered “yes” with respect to the presence of toy possessiveness, fearfulness on walks, attention-seeking, aversion to strangers, excessive barking, destructiveness and play biting than owners of pet shop dogs separated from the litter at 60 days.

“Early separation from the dam and littermates, especially when combined with housing in a pet shop, might affect the capacity of a puppy to adapt to new environmental conditions and social relationships later in life,” the authors wrote.

However, they concluded that behavioral intervention can address the development of problem behaviors and improve the dog’s relationship with the owners, ultimately reducing the number of dogs that are relinquished or abandoned.

To read the study in its entirety, click here.

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