Maternal Care of Puppies

It influences adult behavior
By Karen B. London PhD, January 2016, Updated June 2021

“Tell me about your mother.” This phrase, so common in therapy, all but assumes that whatever is going on with someone can be traced back to the mother. Was she a good mother—attentive, patient, nurturing? Was she less than stellar—harsh, uncaring, neglectful? Whatever she does, you can bet her offspring’s behavior will be considered a result of her actions, and that doesn’t just mean in people. It’s old news that maternal care affects primates and rodents, but a new study investigated the phenomenon in dogs.

The authors of “Levels of maternal care in dogs affect adult offspring temperament” investigated the influence of the mothers on the behavior of adult dogs. Researchers looked at 22 litters of German Shepherd Dogs bred to become Military Working Dogs with the Swedish Armed Forces. The 94 puppies in the study were all continuously videotaped with their mothers during the first three weeks after birth.

Videotapes were analyzed for many variables, such as the amount of time that the mother had her paws in the box with her puppies; time that she was in physical contact with at least one puppy; time she spent nursing, time she spent licking puppies; and the number of times she sniffed, poked or moved a puppy around using her nose. (Litter size was accounted for in the statistical analysis.)

When the puppies were 18 months old, they were evaluated with the Swedish Armed Forces’ standard temperament test. Dogs were assessed for their reactions to a number of situations, including social and cooperative ones with humans, as well as potentially scary stimuli, such as loud noises. Not surprisingly, the main result of the study was that researchers found an association between the mothers’ behavior and the behavior of her adult offspring.

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Mothers were consistent over the course of the study regarding the time they spent interacting with their young. The amount of interaction mothers had with their puppies was a really important factor associated with the behavior of these individuals as adult dogs.

Specifically, the dogs whose mothers had a large number of interactions with them as puppies were more socially and physically engaged with humans, and scored higher on tests for aggression. Based on the paper, it's not clear what is meant by "aggression," or whether the association with maternal care is positive or negative. (It's also not clear whether "aggression" was considered a desirable trait for these working dogs.)

Confidence was the fourth category of behavior measured, but no association was found between confidence and level of maternal care.

There are many factors to consider when choosing which dogs to breed in any situation, including working-dog programs. This study suggests that there are benefits to paying attention to maternal care behavior when choosing which females to breed. That is, more attentive mothers are an important piece of successfully breeding dogs with desirable traits, and females who are good mothers should be considered an asset to any breeding program.

 Image: iStock

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life