Does "Mother Love" Play a Role in Rearing Better Dogs?

How often puppies are touched by their mother can affect their adult temperament

Posted May 12, 2016

Black Country Museums — Alfred William Strutt painting
Source: Black Country Museums — Alfred William Strutt painting

Female dogs do not take courses in child care, nor do they read books about how to properly rear their puppies. No canine mother sits in front of a radio or television listening to experts giving advice as to the proper way that she should care for the puppies in her litter. The general public seems to believe that all female dogs come with a genetically prewired, built-in manual on maternal care. The majority of books that talk about puppies seem to make the presumption that when it comes to the rearing of their offspring, all canine mothers provide the appropriate type of nurturing needed to produce healthy and well-adjusted puppies. However science suggests that this may be wrong.

I was attending a conference at my university in which graduate students were presenting talks about their research. A group of faculty members had gathered around the coffee pot during one of the breaks and we were idly chatting. One developmental psychologist turned to me and said "You are always drawing parallels between the behaviors of human children and the behaviors of dogs. Research shows that a lot of the behavior of children, especially when it comes to their personality and their emotional development, is very strongly affected by how the child is treated by his parents — most importantly its mother. Does maternal care, specifically the way the mother dog acts toward the young puppies, have any effect on a dog's later behavior?"

The research that my colleague was referring to was triggered by some observations by the anthropologist Margaret Mead during the middle of the 20th century. Her research into human societies found that those cultures who withheld physical affection in infancy had higher rates of adult violence and less cooperative social structures. This result has been confirmed in more recent studies.

The classical research on the effects of mother-child interaction on later behavior came from the laboratory of Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin. He was able to show that depriving infant monkeys of the kind of comforting and frequent touch stimulation normally provided by mothers was extremely damaging both physically and psychologically. Touch-deprived infant monkeys almost always grow up to be aggressive, antisocial, unfeeling adults, who are lacking in confidence and are easily frightened. The absence of a mother's frequent touching during infancy (which Harlow defined as an expression of "mother love") produces adults who seem to lack the coping skills to get on in the world and don't appear to have the cognitive abilities needed to solve everyday problems.

The psychoanalysts, John Bowlby and René Spitz, observed children orphaned as a result of World War II, and found that those that were reared in orphanages where they received inadequate touching as part of their care, grew up to be psychologically stunted. More recently this finding has been demonstrated in children reared in orphanages in Romania.

So the question then becomes, "Do puppies need the same high levels of touch stimulation from their mothers in order to develop normally?" If the answer is yes then we must ask "Do all canine mothers automatically provide enough of this touching for their pups to grow up normally?" A recent investigation addressing these questions was conducted by a team of Swedish researchers headed by Pernilla Foyer of Linköping University, and the results were published in the journal Scientific Reports*.

This group of investigators tested German Shepherd dogs who were part of the Swedish breeding program for military working dogs. The study involved videotaping 22 canine mothers interacting with their litters during the first three weeks after the puppies were born. The aim was to classify the mothers with respect to their level of maternal care, and to later see if that that level of care related to the behavior of their offspring when they became adults. The behaviors which the researchers felt would be important all involved physical contact with the puppies and the kind of touch stimulation that the mother provides. Thus the researchers measured the amount of time that the mother spent in the whelping box, the time lying in contact with the puppies, the time spent nursing, and the time she spent licking, sniffing, poking, or moving the pups around with her nose.

At the outset it must be said that that they were able to confirm something that most experienced dog breeders believe to be true — namely that in dogs there are good mothers and there are bad mothers. From the scientific point of view this shows up as systematic differences in the level of maternal care provided by the female dogs. These differences were quite consistent over repeated measures, with some mothers spending a lot of time touching, manipulating, and caring for their pups while others were more negligent and inattentive.

Does this level of maternal care make any difference in the dogs once they are adults? This was determined by administering a standardized temperament test once the puppies had reached an age of approximately 18 months. They used the test that is employed by the Swedish Armed Forces for the selection of prospective military working dogs. This consists of 12 different sub-tests can be scored to measure 25 different behavior variables. The test evaluates the dog's reaction to a range of situations. Some of these situations involve social interactions and cooperation with humans which allows the researchers to compute a temperament dimension that they called Social Engagement. This is the equivalent of what other researchers have called "sociability".

Other situations involved testing the dog's willingness to interact with objects in the environment, such as chasing or playing tug-of-war, which allows the computation of a score that the researchers called Physical Engagement.

In addition there were tests in which the dogs were exposed to potentially frightening events, such as loud noises, or potentially threatening situations such as suddenly appearing dummies that move toward the dog. This allows the researchers to measure a dimension which they called Aggression, but which I believe is misnamed. Most temperament tests reserve the term "aggression" to indicate situations where the dog attempts to use physical force to control a person or another animal in order to gain or protect resources (like food) or to exert social dominance. In this instance what is scored is actually the opposite of fearfulness, and is also a measure of the dog's willingness to physically confront something which is threatening it. In my mind this is equivalent to what we would call "Fortitude" if we were talking about a person, so I will use this term for this discussion.

The results were quite clear and were consistent with the results observed in the Harlow's monkey research, and the human research where infants only received only low levels of physical contact and touching. The puppies who received the higher level of maternal care and touching from their mothers grew into dogs that had a higher level of Social Engagement, a higher level of Physical Engagement, and a higher level of Fortitude. In other words these dogs were more friendly, more active and willing to interact with their world, and less likely to get "spooked" by unexpected and potentially threatening events in their environment.

So once again there appears to be a parallel between human behavior development and canine behavior development. In humans there are some mothers who are good and attentive and who spend a lot of time touching their offspring while some others do not. We find the same for canine mothers. For both puppies and human infants a higher frequency of physical contact in the form of touching by their mothers makes it much more likely that they will grow into sociable, and emotionally stable adults.

With humans, when we see inadequate interactions between mother and child we can instruct the mother as to more appropriate behaviors in the hopes that this will help the situation. Unfortunately, canine mothers will not take such instructions. Presumably this means that, in order to maximize our chance of getting an emotionally well-rounded adult dog it will be left we humans to make up for the poor parenting of a less competent or less caring mother dog. This means that, at least for the first few weeks of life, the task of physically stimulating the puppies on a daily basis will fall to the breeder. There is little research to confirm that this will completely compensate for the lack of expressed "mother love" by the puppies' biological mother, but it seems like a good course of action given what data we presently have.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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* Data from: Foyer, P., Wilsson, E. & Jensen, P. (2016). Levels of maternal care in dogs affect adult offspring temperament. Scientific reports, 6, 19253; doi: 10.1038/srep19253 (2016).