Is it better to adopt a younger puppy than an older one? Many states prohibit the sale of puppies under eight weeks old, but the myth persists that a puppy will bond more closely with its owner if adopted at six or even four weeks. In fact, puppies separated from their litters before eight weeks of age make worse companion dogs, not better ones. Only puppies that have been orphaned should ever be placed in homes prior to the age of eight weeks.
A human owner may be able to hold a bottle and provide a very young puppy with nourishment and affection, but when it comes to parenting puppies, there’s no substitute for a mother dog. A skilled dog owner can raise orphaned puppies to become physically and behaviorally healthy adult dogs. However, even for an expert, this takes a big time commitment and incurs a greater risk of serious behavior problems, particularly if only one pup survives and therefore has neither a mother nor littermates.
Puppies need their mothers to teach them their first and most critical lessons on social behavior, elimination habits and more. Instinct will influence most puppies to avoid soiling eating and sleeping areas as soon as they can physically control urination and defecation, but it’s the mother dog who should first teach a pup to go outdoors to eliminate. The lesson simply doesn’t stick as easily without a practical demonstration from Mom. Additionally, as puppies grow older and get sharp teeth, the mother will not allow them to nurse on demand. If a puppy bites too hard or is too pushy, he won’t get access to the “milk bar.” This teaches puppies that their needs won’t be immediately met if they nip and shove.
A behaviorally healthy puppy learns basic doggie manners by tussling with littermates. A human pet parent simply cannot provide the hours upon hours of play and snuggling every single day that littermates provide to each other. For puppies, growing up with littermates means automatic enrollment in an intense, all day, every day boot camp for well-behaved dogs.
Of the many lessons that littermates learn together, the inhibited bite is the most important. It’s also one of the last lessons learned. Therefore, removing a puppy from its litter too early will very often result in the adoption of a puppy that retains the completely uninhibited bite of a very young pup. Bite inhibition is learned in the seventh and eighth weeks of life. When littermates wrestle and nip one another at this age, they begin to realize that gentle mouthing results in a fun wrestling session, while a sharp bite will be returned, ending playtime prematurely. This is not a lesson that a human can easily teach to a puppy. A dog that grows up without bite inhibition will be a very poor pet.
If you want to adopt the healthiest, happiest puppy possible, wait until it is nine weeks old to separate it from its mother and littermates by bringing it into your home. At this age, you can be relatively sure that bite inhibition and basic housetraining habits have been learned. The critical socialization period for puppies lasts until the age of sixteen weeks, giving a nine-week-old puppy plenty of time for proper socialization in its new home.