How old should puppies be before they leave their mother? There are essentially two schools of thought about this; some believe 8 weeks is the right time, while others prefer 12 weeks. But all responsible breeders agree that any time before 8 weeks is too early. No matter how keen you are to bring your new puppy home, it is vitally important that they do not leave their mother and their littermates before they are at least 8 weeks old.

how old should puppies be before they leave their mother

These puppies look ready for adventures

During those first weeks of life, puppies are developing fast, and learning the skills and behaviours that will set them up for life; skills which can only be learned from their dam and their siblings.

How a Puppy Develops: The First Two Weeks

A newborn puppy is entirely dependent on its dam to sustain it. The dam feeds it, cleans it and keeps it warm. Newborn puppies have only a few active instincts; to eat, burrow, sleep and eliminate. The dam is essential to facilitate those instincts: she provides milk, the warmth of her body to burrow and sleep against, and she stimulates elimination by vigorously licking the puppy’s genitals. She will only leave them for the short periods necessary to take care of her own needs, when they will burrow and huddle together to keep themselves warm. A newborn puppy cannot regulate its body temperature, and one of the commonest causes of early puppy death is hypothermia.

The Third Week: Engaging Their Other Senses

During the third week, the puppy’s eyes will open and it will start to hear. These senses take several weeks to form fully, but the eyes should be fully open by the end of the third week. They will start to move about more as their legs strengthen, and they are able to assume a sitting position. The back legs progress more slowly than the front, but by the end of the third week the puppies will be tottering a few steps in their first attempts at walking. They will also be eliminating without the mother’s stimulation. The dam will spend less time with them than she did at the start.

The Socialisation Stage: Weeks 3 to 13

During their fourth week, the puppies start consciously to interact with the dam and with each other. This continues for the remainder of the time they are together. They learn about competition and hierarchy, and their position within it. They learn to respect and become familiar with the discipline of the dominant dog (their mother), and find their place in their first family (their littermates). Dogs are pack animals and live in a hierarchical environment, and it is essential the puppies learn early to accept their place within their own pack. In a domestic environment, their pack leader should always be their owners. A lot of the trouble people have with difficult dogs stems from not establishing themselves as the pack leader from the first.

Weaning During Weeks 6 to 8

At six weeks the puppies will be eating solid food, but probably they will still be nursing from the dam. During these two weeks, the dam will start to wean the puppies (some more experienced dams will start earlier). How quickly a dam weans her litter often depends on its size: the dam will keep dancing away from the puppy when it tries to suckle, and keep this up until the puppy stops trying. Obviously this is not easy if she is being simultaneously pestered by half a dozen insistent puppies trying to suck, so she may continue allowing them to nurse intermittently until they leave.

Of course it’s possible to force the weaning by physically separating the puppies from their dam, but as she still has an important part to play in their social development, it’s not really desirable. A healthy puppy that has been weaned onto a suitable and nutritious diet doesn’t need the milk after it reaches six weeks; so even if it is still suckling occasionally up until the time it leaves, it won’t be deprived by losing its milk supply.

Social Development During Weeks 6 to 8

During weeks 6 to 8, the dam will start to discipline the puppies more rigorously, and make them aware of the limits of acceptable behaviour. They will learn to submit to her discipline, which is essential if the dog is to take his place successfully in the hierarchy in which he is to live. The puppies will also learn by playing with their littermates; wrestling, play-fighting, giving and receiving nips, chewing anything they can find, jostling for food. This too is essential for their good social development; by learning how to interact with many other dogs they will meet during their lifetime.

What Happens When Puppies Are Taken From Their Families at 7 or Less Weeks

So how old should puppies be before they leave their mother? When a puppy is taken from his litter too early, he won’t have had the chance to learn these crucial social skills. The dogs that over-react when they meet other dogs out in public, or run away in fear, are often those that have been taken from their birth families too early, before they had the chance to learn the social skills they need for life. Such dogs can also be difficult to housetrain, lack social confidence and have a tendency to bite (usually this is defensive). They are also more prone to suffer separation anxiety.

So why do some breeders nevertheless allow puppies to leave at 6 weeks? Either it is through ignorance, irresponsibility or greed on the part of the breeder; or because the new owner, having seen the puppy at 5 or 6 weeks and fallen in love with it, insists on taking the puppy home then and there. The breeder may be afraid of losing the sale, so he permits it. This is an infallible sign of greed; any reputable breeder’s first priority is the welfare of the puppies he has bred, and he will refuse to agree to anything that would prejudice their future wellbeing.

It’s also a sad truth that a breeder who is solely interested in making money will not want to keep the puppies any longer than he has to, and the last weeks of caring for a litter of growing puppies is very labour-intensive. The puppies are highly mobile, not housetrained, sleeping less, and their appetites are growing bigger all the time. A breeder who is motivated for all the wrong reasons will do anything to reduce the time the puppies spend with him, and the expense they are causing him.

How old should puppies be before they leave their mother? Eight weeks or twelve weeks?

At 8 weeks the puppies are taking more interest in the outside world. They will have spent plenty of time in the garden as well as the house, discovering that the world is a lot bigger than their whelping box. They start to learn more about their environment, the humans with whom they are to spend their lives, and the routine of the family they live with.

This is why I believe it is better for them to go to their new homes at 8 or 9 weeks, so that they can continue this learning and developing in the place where they are to spend their lives. Between 8 and 12 weeks, the puppies start to become full members of the household they live in. Those who argue that a puppy should not leave home until 12 weeks cite the fact that those weeks are very formative in their lives, and that is true; but they are formative in a way in which it is beneficial for both the puppy and the new owners to spend that time together. I should point out that this is merely an opinion, and on a subjective subject, and it should also be taken into account that every puppy is different. Some may indeed benefit from staying longer.

But my puppies have always left at around 8 weeks, and all have settled in to their new homes happily and thrived. It is the most common time for puppies to leave, and it works well for most people. How old should puppies be before they leave their mother? At least 8 weeks, for their own good. But a 12 week old puppy may find the move from the home and people who have become familiar to him more disruptive than one of 8 weeks.