We all know that the quality of care that a mother provides for her children significantly affects how they will get along in the world as adults. How many times have you heard psychologists attribute criminal behavior to poor upbringing and inattention from the mother? Does it work this way in dogs?
Mother dogs do not take courses or read books in puppy care, nor do they scour the internet for expert tips on proper ways to rear their offspring. The general public seems to believe that all female dogs come with a genetically prewired manual on maternal care and that all canine moms provide the appropriate nurturing needed to produce healthy and well-adjusted puppies.
Science suggests that this may be wrong.
What Happens in Primates
The data are clear for humans. Anthropologist Margaret Mead observed that those cultures that withheld physical affection in infancy had more adult violence and less cooperative social structures.
Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin showed that depriving infant monkeys of the comforting and frequent touch stimulation usually provided by mothers was physically and psychologically damaging. Touch-deprived infant monkeys almost always grow up to be aggressive, antisocial, and unfeeling. They lack confidence and are easily frightened.
Do puppies need similar, consistent touch stimulation from their mothers to develop normally? And do canine mothers automatically provide this critical contact?
Swedish researchers, headed by Pernilla Foyer of Linköping University, explored the question in German Shepherd Dogs. They videotaped canine mothers interacting with their litters during the first three weeks. They took note of her physical contact with the puppies and the level of touch stimulation she provided.
The researchers also measured the amount of time the dam spent in the whelping box, the time spent in contact with the puppies, nursing, licking, sniffing, poking, or moving the pups around with her nose.
The scientists observed marked differences in the levels of maternal care. Some dams spent a lot of time touching, manipulating, and caring for their pups while others were more negligent and inattentive.
How Much Cuddingly Does a Puppy Need?
To determine if the amount of touching the puppies received from their mothers made any difference in the adult dogs, researchers administered a temperament test when the pups were about 18 months old. They used a test employed by the Swedish Armed Forces to select prospective military working dogs. Some of these measures involve social interactions and cooperation with humans, which allows the researchers to compute a temperament dimension called social engagement or sociability.
Other tests involved the dog’s willingness to interact with the environment, such as chasing or playing tug-of-war, which allows the computation of a score that the researchers called physical engagement. In addition, the scientists also exposed the test subjects to frightening or potentially threatening events, such as loud noises, or dummies that suddenly appeared and moved toward the dog. In this instance, what is scored is the opposite of fearfulness and is a measure of the dog’s willingness to physically confront something threatening it, what we call fortitude in humans.
The results were consistent with the results observed in primate and human research. More maternal care and touching led to dogs with higher levels of social engagement, physical engagement, and fortitude. They were more friendly, more active, willing to interact with their world, and less likely to get spooked by unexpected and potentially threatening events in their environment.
Thus, there is a parallel between human behavior development and canine behavior development.
For both puppies and human infants, a high frequency of physical contact in the form of cuddling or simply touching their mothers makes it much more likely that they will grow into sociable and emotionally stable adults.