Life’s a Bitch for Puppies Too

When I started out in veterinary practice, I had the opportunity to care for army dogs and horses at the local army barracks. The best thing about it was that there were never any surprises. The animals I had to see were always lined up and ready when I arrived, and the dogs in particular were temperamentally very similar, rather like their human handlers I guess. This is why I like studies using military dogs. It eliminates much of the inevitable variability between pet dogs, their owners and their environments. This allows the collection of less cluttered and cleaner data sets. A potential disadvantage, of course is that the dogs may all be the same breed and sometimes from the same, potentially small, genetic pool. This could mean that the results of the study may not reliably reflect what one would expect to find in the general dog population.

Copyright © 2017 Kerstin Hasper. Used with permission.


But, I argue that studies looking at the maternal care of puppies are always interesting, especially when the results can be compared with other similar studies.



Copyright © 2017 Elinore Vickery. Used with permission.

The first study in this article involved 22 litters of German Shepherd puppies (94 puppies in all, 42 males and 52 females) bred within the Swedish Armed Forces (SAF) breeding programme (Foyer et al., 2016). Dogs within this breeding programme are destined for jobs in the military or the police. The researchers set out to characterise and then compare the quality of maternal care through the first three weeks of maternal care. Then, they wanted to see if the quality of maternal care had any influence on how the pups turned out a year and a half later. Were they in the 30% successes, or the 70% failures?

To begin at the end, the test used to evaluate these dogs at a year and a half old was the standard SAF Temperament test all dogs in the programme go through. This test has been used within the German Shepherd breeding programme since 2005, and the failure rate is actually quite high at 70%. In other words, just 30% of all the dogs bred by the SAF are temperamentally (common), or medically (uncommon) suitable for a working life in the military, or the police. This rate of attrition is costly in both time and money, so the purpose of this study was try and find ways of improving the success rate of the dogs.

Each of the litters were observed for the first 3 weeks of life and the following 5 events recorded in frequency and duration –

  1. Mother in Box: the time in seconds during which the mother had both of her front legs in the pup box.
  2. Lying in Contact: the time in seconds during which the mother was lying in the pup box with elbows on the ground and in physical contact (tail and limbs excluded) with at least one pup.
  3. Nursing: Duration in seconds of nursing bouts with at least one pup lined up at the nipples.
  4. Licking: Duration in seconds spent licking pups.
  5. Sniff/Poke: Frequency of sniffing, poking or moving a pup around with her nose.

The cumulative scores of these events was called the Total Mother-Pup Interaction (Total MPI). From this data it became clear that individual bitches were very consistent in their style of maternal care in relation to the frequency and the duration that they engaged in each of the 5 recorded events over the 3-week period of observation.

Furthermore, it was also apparent that all the bitches could be divided into 2 broad groups – high MPI and low MPI. High MPI bitches (black line in the Fig. 1 below) spent considerable more time looking after their puppies than did the low MPI bitches (grey line in Fig. 1 below).

Figure 1. Difference in maternal behaviour between two groups of females. By Foyer et al., 2016 is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Fast-forward 18 months to the SAF Temperament tests for the dogs and there was a correlation between the bitches MPI scores and 3 out of 4 factors measured in the temperament test –

  1. Physical Engagement = YES.
  2. Social Engagement = YES.
  3. Aggression = YES.
  4. Confidence = NO.

These relationships are shown in Fig. 2 below.

Figure 2. The relationship between Total MPI score and Confidence, Physical Engagement, Social Engagement and Aggression. By Foyer et al., 2016 is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

In addition, some additional correlations were found that were independent of the bitches MPI scores –

Copyright © 2017 Catherine Burniston. Used with permission.
  • Social Engagement: Small litters scored higher than large litters. This may be because each puppy has a better chance of engaging with the bitch in small litters than in large litters. However, it could also be argued that in larger litters, the puppies have a better chance of engaging with each other while the bitch is busy doing something else. The study design did not allow further explanation.
  • Social Engagement and Physical Engagement: Litters born in summer scored higher than litters born in winter. No explanation was given for this.
  • Aggression: Litters born in summer scored higher than litters born in winter. No explanation was given for this.


The findings of this study are useful because they give breeders a means of predicting the temperament of the puppies they breed and sell by estimating what their breeding bitches MPI scores. Ideally, breeders should not use low MPI scoring bitches for breeding.


Copyright © 2017 JillandsSeve. Used with permission.

The researchers in this study used a questionnaire that they had developed and validated in an earlier study (Tiira and Lohi, 2014). The first section of the questionnaire gathered general information such as breed, where the dog came from and the current family structure and routines. In the second section, a range of questions gathered information about the dog’s behaviour around strange people, other dogs, noise sensitivity, separation-related problems and general fearfulness. The validation of the questionnaire was achieved by actually putting the dogs through a short behavioural test.

In this new study (Tiira and Lohi, 2015), the researchers initially started with the original questionnaire from 2014, but half-way through they added additional questions about the dogs early-life experiences. 3,284 completed questionnaires were collected in total, pulling in data for 192 different breeds of dogs. 1,405 questionnaires were the original version without puppy data and 1,878 were the revised version with puppy data. Puppy data included information on problems at birth, quality of maternal care and age of separation from mother. This information was provided by the dog owner, not the breeder. Dog owners had either seen their dogs when they were still puppies with the breeders and learned about them at the time, or they had asked the breeders later to obtain this information.

The most significant correlation found was a link between an ongoing general fearfulness of the dogs as adults and the quality of their maternal care and the quality of their socialisation programme before they reached 12 weeks old.

The link between fearfulness and early socialisation is hardly surprising. However, it should be noted here that this study was carried out in Finland where puppies commonly go to their new homes aged 7 to 8 weeks, much earlier than the 10 to 12 weeks found in many other countries. So, where breeders have one in place, Finnish dogs have less opportunity to go through a robust socialisation program. However, regardless of the age puppies go to their new homes, an ideal socialisation programme is an ongoing process that requires the participation of both the breeder and the new owner.

The link between fearfulness and the quality of maternal care needs further explanation and this is what this article is really about.


The findings of this study are useful because they give breeders a means of predicting the fearfulness in the puppies they breed and sell by estimating the quality of their breeding bitches maternal care. Ideally, breeders should not use bitches that show poor quality of maternal care for breeding.

© copyright Robert Falconer-Taylor, 2017

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Foyer, P., Wilsson, E. and Jensen, P., 2016. Levels of maternal care in dogs affect adult offspring temperament. Scientific reports, 6.

Tiira, K. and Lohi, H., 2014. Reliability and validity of a questionnaire survey in canine anxiety research. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 155, pp.82-92.

Tiira, K. and Lohi, H., 2015. Early life experiences and exercise associate with canine anxieties. PloS one, 10(11), p.e0141907.