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Border Terrier laying next to two puppies.

Have you seen the movie “March of the Penguins”  and learned how male Emperor penguins incubate the eggs, keeping them warm and protecting them throughout the winter? Well, male dogs aren’t anything like that. In fact, one could say they have virtually no paternal instinct. This wasn’t always the case.

Did the dog’s paternal instinct die out?

Domestic dogs are descended from wolves, which live in packs. Packs usually consist of a mother, father,  older cubs, and newborns, and the father plays an important role in raising the cubs. He is very protective of his cubs and, as they grow, he’ll teach them survival skills and serve as a role model.

Both parents actively raise their young, who often stay with the pack for several years, until the male pups are old enough to break away and form their own packs. But, over centuries, we humans have taken over the parenting role for our domesticated dogs, so the male no longer needs to hunt for food or provide a safe environment for his offspring. In fact, he may display a decided indifference to the litter.

“As a general rule, male dogs don’t collaborate to the defense of the puppies. They might collaborate to the defense of the territory around them, but because there are resources there.”

Of course we’ve all seen male dogs that are patient and playful with their pups and with unrelated puppies brought into the home. This may have more to do with the fact that we set up the dogs to co-exist. According to Carlo Siracusa, the director of the animal behavior service at the University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital, male dogs don’t have the parenting skills or instincts of their wolf ancestors.

He notes that the pups of feral dogs have a lower survival rate than those of wolves, probably because the father doesn’t help defend the litter. Siracusa is quoted as saying, “As a general rule, male dogs don’t collaborate to the defense of the puppies. They might collaborate to the defense of the territory around them, but because there are resources there.”

Smooth Fox Terrier standing outdoors with her puppy.

The father may be an unwelcome distraction

While with wolves, it takes a village, with domesticated dogs it takes a mother and human helpers. In fact, the father may be a hindrance. He’ll most likely be curious about the new arrivals and may even want to sniff them and play with them. But an adult dog’s idea of play can be dangerous to fragile newborn pups. Some male dogs may even be jealous of the litter.

Regardless of how he behaves, the father’s proximity may be both a distraction and stressor for the mother. She is intensely focused on caring for her young and can even become aggressive against the male dog in her urge to protect her litter. Even if the two dogs were best of friends before, this dynamic changes with pregnancy, birth, and motherhood.

Of course, there are always exceptions, and there’s anecdotal evidence of canine fathers tending to their young. One notable case is Rookie, bat dog to the minor league baseball team, the Trenton Thunder. He learned everything he knows from his father, Derby, who, in turn learned his craft from his father, Chase. One could even call them a dynasty.

Introducing dad to his offspring

It’s generally advised to keep the male away from the mother and litter entirely, from the last weeks of pregnancy and until the pups are at least four weeks old when the mother is starting to wean them, and ideally for five to six weeks. By then the father can be a part of the socialization process. When you do introduce them, do so gradually and always with human supervision.

Although male dogs won’t display the nurturing behavior found in male wolves, they, like their ancestors, are pack animals and, with time, will probably be perfectly amenable to their new pack. It’s not exactly a father-and-son relationship, but the father will most likely interact and play with the young pups as he would other dogs or humans. Once the pups are completely weaned, the father may even show them the ropes, including play and mealtime etiquette, as well as social ranking in the pack. He may not win Father of the Year, but, as leader of the pack, he can be a good role model for the newcomers.

Related article: Happy Fathers Day: Celebrating Eight Great Sires in AKC History
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