Raising Our North Stars: Kumari's Puppies from Birth to Two Months
by Patty Dobbs Gross
North Star Kumari delivered seven healthy puppies on October 4th, 2012. Four of these puppies will be serving children on the autism spectrum as autism assistance dogs; the remaining three will be kept back to be evaluated for breeding to continue this quality line.
Puppies are born blind and quite deaf, but are still able to smell and feel and seek out what they need most from their environment: initially the sustenance of Kumari’s colostrum and milk as well as her warmth, soft tongue (necessary for proper elimination by the pups) and protection. Kumari took her job very seriously, and even growled at North Star Rosie, her former BFF, for the first few weeks after delivery when Rosie got too close for comfort to her precious pups. Rosie accepted this rebuke mildly and just lay down with a sad thud, groaning softly at the insult.
Kumari never growled at me, though, even when I was inches away from her in the throes of rather intense and painful contractions. To successfully deliver a litter of puppies is to develop a relationship with a dog that consists of complete trust, and I believe that this canine trust of people gets communicated to and adopted by Kumari’s pups as they grow.
Even at one second old these pups could also smell and feel me in the whelping box, and since then I’ve been a frequent visitor there. (There is nothing like a “group hug” upon waking that these pups offer to start a day off right, or a swarm of tender kisses to send me off to sleep.) I have been a constant presence for the litter during their first month of life, and by the time the pups hit their one month birthday some would run to me even if Kumari leapt into the whelping box simultaneously to offer the pups a quick snack; these are very social and people oriented pups, but by the time they are one month old it is difficult to tell if it is the effects of nature or nurture that we are observing.
Although some researchers have tried to break down the percentages of the influences of nature vs. nurture upon the development of a pup, I believe this isn’t really a competition between these two influences but more like a mutual dance they perform together, and so we at North Star try to hit it on both counts. The environment we created for these pups was designed for its form to follow its function, with soft clean bedding for Kumari and the pups on one side of the wooden box and a papered area for relieving themselves on the other; even very young pups at just weeks old will wake up and toddle to the papers and then back to the nest when they relieve themselves, but they can only do this if the environment supports this inclination. We are also paying close attention to the pups’ unfolding temperaments as time passes, although they won’t be formally temperament tested until their 49th day…
In the pictures below, I believe I caught some of the first moments of awareness of each other that the puppies demonstrated: the pup on the right was literally poking his sleeping brother!
It is not beside the point for me to mention this reflection of the pups’ developing social skills to you, as four of these pups will be partnered with four children on the autism spectrum. We are currently seeking to discover the pups in this litter that are genetically blessed with traits such as high social and emotional intelligence. We can then develop the innate talents of the puppies down the road by socializing them with puppy savvy children and teenagers as well as with the specific children the pups will be serving. Sometimes the pups we place will have superior social skills initially than the young children they will be working with; one talented pup named Star actually taught his boy David how to play fetch!
Years back the US government funded a research study on how to raise pups to optimize their potential for working roles within the army; they dubbed this the “Super Dog Program” and its goals support the findings of research that suggested that litters of mice that were raised with mild stressors did better temperamentally later in life than the litters that were raised with little to no stress upon them. Here is a link you can visit to learn more about this program:
For us, following this “Super Dog” program is pretty simple to do: we have been handling each of the puppies at least once a day from birth onward since we began breeding over a decade ago, but now when we do we are careful to hold them securely and move them gently through space as well as leave the pups alone for brief periods lying on our cool kitchen linoleum floor.
Once the pups begin to see and hear at approximately two weeks of age, care was taken while these senses are developing. We are still careful to keep the noise level down in the home while the pups are this young (a challenge for us!). Studies have shown that classical music played softly was linked to more relaxed and restful behavior in dogs; researcher Lori Kogan of Colorado State University found that Mozart, Beethoven and the like may reduce stress in dogs, according to a study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior:
This research analyzed the behavior of 117 dogs of various breeds, all from one kennel; Kogan and her researchers did thousands of behavioral assessments over the period of four months and exposed the dogs to 45 minutes of three different genres of music while their behavior was recorded every five minutes. Classical music was linked to more relaxed and restful behavior, while heavy metal was linked to greater anxiety and unrest.
And so, when the puppies began to see and hear at 2 weeks old, we stimulate their senses by playing soft classical music and talking gently as we interact with them. Here is a clip of the puppies at 2 weeks old, listening to music for the very first time; I believe, although I can’t prove, that their howling is an emotional response to listening to this music, as Kumari is prone to producing soft howls when she’s particularly happy.
Although music was a planned addition to Kumari’s pups’ early weeks, some things these puppies experienced weren’t planned, although they certainly had to be worked through out of necessity, such as Superstorm Sandy, who struck on a Monday evening when the puppies were just three weeks old. The very rafters of our home shook in Sandy’s intimidating presence that evening, and following this storm we spent three days without power or running water. In the evenings I would banish the darkness with the fragility of candlelight, and cuddle up with the pups for both warmth as well as reassurance (without being positive at any given point which direction this warmth and reassurance was going; at age 55, I am still afraid of the dark, something the children I work with tend to think is highly amusing! I wouldn’t raise pups to help these children social and emotionally if animal assisted therapy didn’t work like a charm with yours truly.)
Keeping the balance of the stress a pup receives is important: not too much or the pup may withdraw and grow fearful; not too little or the pup may grow up skittish and fearful. An important part of producing competent and confident pups (and kids!) is to put the right amount of supports in place to help the children and puppies learn to master and transcend their stressful situations and challenging emotions and environments as independently as possible.
Although that sounds exhausting and not much fun, the truth is that this work is very intuitive and the pups are natural meditators, who invite me to slow down the pace when I enter their universe. When you pet a pup, it’s not only their blood pressure that goes down, but your own as well; this is just one of the many gifts these pups can give us if we know how to receive it.
Kumari’s puppies are now four weeks old, and in their short month of life these seven sweet pups have experienced many things, among them the fun of interacting with their siblings and mom, as well as the many gentle people who visit them often while they are still in their whelping box. The pups already sit when people approach, simply because the people who interact with the litter consistently strive to pet the pups that are sitting. This is called the development of a “default sit” and it is a good thing, as a sitting pup will not be a jumping pup. To me it doesn’t take cut and dried training to develop this default sit, but correct socialization, an underrated concept in puppy raising (and parenting!)
Here is a recent clip where you can see footage of the puppies and I in the whelping box, after which the pups settle down to take a nap on a bright blue New England afternoon:
You’ll see in this clip that although specially selected toys were provided to the litter, they did not get too much use this past month. Their first toys were typically soft and colorful, many of which had cloth faces and made a variety of soft noises, but people and other canine (and feline!) friends were greatly preferred by the pups to these enticing objects. Take that, capitalism…
My next column will introduce you to the four children on the autism spectrum that we will be working with, as well as the four pups from Kumari’s litter that we will choose to serve them.
Please visit www.NorthStarDogs.com to learn more about our cutting edge work creating assistance dog partnerships for children with social, emotional or educational challenges or to make a donation to support us. Your kind donation is considered tax deductible; it is also greatly needed as well as appreciated..