Puppies have what I think of as a “magic window of time” for learning. This begins at birth and lasts through sixteen-weeks-of age, pretty much. Within this period a puppy’s brain is programmed to take in new (novel) experiences and view them as normal because, for a puppy, everything is new. Taking advantage of this window in a pup’s life allows a breeder, or a new owner, an opportunity to create a robust base of experiences that the pup will draw on for the rest of its life.
The importance of doing this well for a pup cannot be overstated. Dogs that are not trained well during this time may become fearful as adults. This is a huge quality of life issue for both the dog and the owner. Basic grooming may be difficult to accomplish with a dog like this, as well as such things as trips to the vet, the arrival of strangers, and on and on. Dog raised this way when rehomed as adults often suffer greatly.
For an LGD, improper early training can mean that he will never be successful as a guardian of livestock. He might be an acceptable property manager, but if he wasn’t exposed to the sights, smells, and sounds of livestock from a very young age he is unlikely to bond well with them later. The bond LGDs have with their livestock is a significant factor in them becoming trustworthy guardians, rather than posing a risk to the livestock because of their behavior.
Most breeders don’t place their pups any younger than eight weeks of age, and they shouldn’t because the social needs of puppies up to this point (and beyond) is significant. Dogs learn to be dogs from each other. A socially well-adjusted dog is more likely to be trustworthy around other dogs. Dogs need each other. A pup raised without the benefit of having learned strong canine social skills at the proper developmental age may have difficulty accepting a partner LGD or being tolerant of the pet dogs in his life.
So, what is the right age to place a pup? That depends on how rich the environment has been for him where he spent the first eight weeks of his life.
If the breeder has done an excellent job of training the pup, leaving the pup with the breeder longer, for weeks or possibly for months more training may be a good idea.
If the environment the pup started his life in wasn’t in keeping with his developmental and educational needs, you are MUCH better off removing that pup at eight weeks so that you can take him home and get started at raising him well yourself, playing catch-up a little bit in the process.
This assumes that the buyer IS well prepared to raise and train the pup. I hope that the buyer that taken the opportunity to get a thorough education regarding the upcoming needs of the pup well in advance of the pup's arrival!
How can you really know how the pup has been handled for the first eight weeks? Here are a few clues about that: Look at the photography the breeder has shared of the pup but look behind and around the pup!
If he was whelped in a plastic swimming pool in a garage, he didn’t start out on an appropriate surface that supports the healthy development of his joints. Also, his depth of vision will be impacted by living somewhere with four walls around him unless he can also look outside.
Pups raised in a house, or a garage, develop good eyesight to the depth of vision of the walls, but not at distances further than that. A puppy started this way is more likely to bark at things he can’t see well as an adult. I have a Border Collie who was raised this way for the first eight weeks of her life. Her impaired depth perception is a quality-of-life issue for her every day.
Unless there is a sheep, for instance, living in that garage as well this pup is being started as a pet, not as a working LGD.
Is the pup spotless? Living in livestock areas shows on the fur of the pup. Have you seen photos of the pups with them posed on fluffy dog beds placed on a patio, with flowers nearby, and such? Sometimes breeders do cart their litter of 9-12 pups to a spot like this for a photo op, but I can assure you that this takes time and effort. If you see one or two photos like this, it may indicate posed photo ops, but if you see a lot of pictures like this, I think that indicates a problem unless you are looking for a property manager and not a dog that works with livestock.
In these days of social media, it is very easy to find lots of photography that breeders have shared. Playing detective in the background may be a better idea than asking the breeder to provide you with photography because you can make your own decision about what is relevant to you and your LGD goals.
Also, carefully read the written advertising the breeder uses. Does the breeder talk about how trustworthy their dogs are around livestock and how valuable to the breeder they are in protecting the breeder from losses, or does the breeder talk about imported bloodlines and show championships.
This tells you what is important to that breeder. If it is important to you as well because you want to use your pup similarly, you may be just fine. To me, a breeder that talks about show champions is waving a red flag because it is likely the dog’s genetic selection was based on what wins in show rings rather than how capable they are as guardians. A show champion might be well suited to a job as a property guardian, but his suitability as a guardian of livestock is a big question mark.
Visit the breeder BEFORE you place a deposit on a pup. If the breeder’s adult breeding dogs live in a yard and on a pool deck, rather than nestled up to a flock of sheep out in a field, realize that your priorities may be different from what you see in front of you, or not! Again, it depends on what your expectations will be of your pup when he goes home with you.
If you see adult dogs wearing a shock collar, or a dangle stick, or a yoke, take your puppy home at eight weeks! Even better, though, don’t support breeders who treat their dogs so callously. And yes, there are MSCA Code of Ethics breeders who do this with their dogs. Don’t assume that having found a Code of Ethics breeder willing to sell you a pup means your homework is completed.
Training of an LGD pup should begin shortly after birth, and certainly way before the pup’s eyes open. They don’t have their full five senses at this age, so the importance of the ones they do have is heightened. This is a little like the acute hearing a blind person may develop to compensate for the loss of the sense of sight. This is where “raised in a barn” comes in because if a pup is indeed raised in a barn, he will always have a learned baseline of barn smells as normal and welcoming.
Young pups, for instance, three-week-old pups and beyond, should live near livestock but be protected from the livestock.
On my ranch, pups at this age can walk out of their stall and into a paddock. I feed my group of gentle sheep a flake of alfalfa a day, which is a delicacy they don’t usually get, right up against the paddock fence. The sheep stand still and move slowly, which gives the pups many opportunities to get to know the sheep without any danger of being stepped on. If a young pup is hurt by livestock, that leaves them with a lasting fear memory of being near livestock.
From birth and until eight weeks of age, at a minimum, most of the pup’s education should come from the environment because building an environmentally confident LGD is critical to his success as a working dog, or even just as a property manager. The pup’s interactions with humans are important too, but to a lesser degree at this age.
So, do you leave that pup where he is for more of the same sort of training he has been getting, or do you swoop him out of there and get started on your own? I hope this has helped clarify some of the decision-making you’ll need to do.
If you love what you see and the breeder is willing to keep the pup longer, this may be a wise choice on your part. Maybe. Many breeders have full-time jobs elsewhere, so by the time the pups are old enough to leave the breeder is often also looking forward to them going!
If the breeder has the time to continue your pup’s training, you now need to consider if that breeder also has the skills necessary to continue the training. Very few breeders are also trainers.
The time between 8-16 weeks of age requires increasing participation from a human if the pup is to become well socialized. Some owners, and breeders, care about this, and some don’t. I do! The training of a pup in this age range is increasingly specialized in that the trainer needs to be good at training pups of this age.
How do you know if this breeder has the skills to support your pup well? Being shown a completion certificate from a dog training course is a great place to start, but also, just listen to the breeder talk about LGDs, and her own in particular. Does the breeder state that LGDs bark a lot, are stubborn or independent, and don’t come when called? If so, take your pup home and do a better job for him by taking full advantage of the training resources out there for the training of YOU! It starts with training you.
I prefer to keep my pups until they are at least six months old for a few reasons. I have a wonderful facility to raise adolescent LGDs well and am a full-time dog trainer. I place my dogs after they have had PennHIP testing. I also know how critical these first six months are to the successful future of a working LGD. I only raise working LGDs, so here the pups stay until they are safely past this critical age.
Having said all this, though, there are real-life situations that can intrude on my preferred plan. If I am having trouble keeping up with the training demands of the litter, and I have the opportunity to place a pair of pups with someone I know has the skills necessary to raise the pups well, it may be better for this pair of pups to let them go a little early.
The right age to place a pup is when moving to a new home is what is best for the pup. Sometimes breeders make very good decisions about this, and sometimes they don’t. If you hope to live with this pup until the day he dies, realize that you have a LOT invested in being part of this decision-making about the age of placement.