SPCA New Zealand

A puppy's first year of life

23 March 2022
A puppy's first year of life

A puppy's first year of life

Most puppy owners will attest that the initial stages of welcoming a puppy into the family takes an enormous amount of time and dedication.

It’s all worth it of course. They are our pride and joy, our best friends, and keep us endlessly entertained with their antics. Yet it’s important to remember how much responsibility comes with adopting a puppy.

Did you know the first year of your dog’s life lays the foundations for how they behave as an adult?

Whether you are looking to adopt, or eager to delve into the facts, read on to discover the first year of a puppy and understand the pivotal stages a puppy goes through on their journey through to adulthood.

Life in the litter (0-8 weeks)

We’ve all seen photos of newborn puppies, and if you have ever seen them in real life, you’ll know how vulnerable and tiny they are.

The neonatal stage lasts from zero to two weeks of age. Mum will provide them with all the nutrition and intensive care they need to develop at such a vulnerable age. If puppies are taken away from their mum before they reach the age of 8 weeks, it may have an adverse effect on their physical and physiological wellbeing which impacts them for the rest of their life.

Neonatal puppies have limited movement, can’t regulate their own body temperature, will suckle to feed around the clock, and even need mum’s help to toilet. It’s a big job looking after a litter of puppies!

During the first two weeks of life, puppies are relatively unaware of their surroundings, and stay as close to mum as possible.

The transitional stage lasts from two to four weeks of age. From this point puppies become more aware of the world around them and a slow crawl forward turns into a wriggle, then a walk, then a pounce onto their littermate – the fun well and truly begins!

Up to eight weeks of age puppies are still very reliant on mum and must not be abruptly separated – although short handling periods are beneficial for puppies to become adjusted to people at a young age. Their senses go into overdrive and they may find their voice, start to wiggle their tail, and play with their littermates – they are still small and need round-the-clock care but are gaining their independence.

During this period is when puppies begin to gradually transition from mum’s milk to puppy food, it’s vital that they are introduced to high-quality puppy food that has been created with their nutritional needs in mind. At SPCA, with the help of our friends at Purina, we are feeding a better future for the puppies in our care. PURINA ONE ® puppy food provides all the essential nutrients for a growing pup.

Not only do puppies get their physical needs met by being with their mum, but they also learn vital behaviours during the transitional stage and onwards. During this phase, puppies will start interacting with their litter mates and learn what are tolerated behaviours. Puppies have needle sharp teeth – biting mum or their litter mates too hard will lead to play stopping and thus they’ll learn that gently does it when using their mouths.

The socialisation stage (3-16 weeks)

Arguably the most vital part of a puppy’s development is socialisation.

Without adequate socialisation, puppies do not learn about the world, what good behaviour involves and may encounter fear or other problems in later life. Puppies should not be fully separated from mum until 8 weeks of age, but socialising starts earlier than this.

During this period, exposing puppies to all facets of life is important. Your puppy needs positive exposure to sights, sounds and new experiences. This entails slowly meeting humans of different ages and appearances and becoming accustomed to everyday life such as the vacuum, the doorbell ringing, the TV playing, walking on different surfaces and normal household hustle and bustle. The more varied their experiences at this age, the better prepared they will be for adult life.

At 6 weeks old, a puppy will receive their first vaccination and can begin basic toilet training and start being introduced to training. This should include introducing a collar and lead and using reward-based training to teach them their name and basic cues like ‘sit’.

During the socialisation stage, puppies also go through a stage called the ‘fear period’ and are at their most sensitive and susceptible to negative experiences. Any negative experiences they encounter during this highly influential age could stay with them for the rest of their life. The more positive experiences you give a puppy at a young age, the more you empower them with confidence as they enter adulthood.

Of course, it’s important not to overwhelm them – downtime is vital.

New experiences can be sensory overload, so it’s important to plan so puppies have a break after they have been faced with exciting new things life has to offer.

The social butterfly stage (16-26 weeks)

From this age, puppies should be fully vaccinated and are now safe to go on walks, start puppy training classes and continue socialising outside their home. It’s vital that all puppies are fully vaccinated before socialising with unknown dogs and animals to avoid exposure to diseases such as canine parvovirus.

Puppy classes are a great way to mix a puppy with other canines – your vet or local SPCA can advise on those being held in an area that would be suitable. By mixing basic training, routines and interactions with other dogs at a young age, these experiences will imprint in a puppy’s memory for life.

It’s important to speak to a local vet about getting a puppy desexed around this age, if the procedure hasn’t already been done, to ensure that they do not have or contribute to an unwanted litter being born.

Adolescence (30-52 weeks)

At this age, puppies are now growing into their adult bodies but will still have lots to learn, despite looking older.

This stage is also nicknamed the ‘teenager’ age and puppies may become rambunctious and energetic. This can cause difficulty when trying to maintain good behaviour. Exercise, consistency and routine are key to combat this. Practicing basic commands regularly is important to make sure they are ingrained in a puppy’s mind, such as sit, stay, and recall.

This period of time can be a fine balance between letting a dog explore, scent, play, run around the play park and mix with other dogs, without giving them too many opportunities to be unruly and cause havoc. A common mistake people make is to only recall their pup when it’s time to stop all the fun exploring and go home. This can quickly teach your dog that coming when called is no fun at all! To maintain an enthusiastic recall, practice recalling your puppy, giving them a treat, then releasing them to play again.

A puppy is still learning so patience, practice, and consistency are the answer to success. At this age owners can start intensifying a puppy’s training - but remember to keep it fun to keep your puppy engaged.

Puppies go through a second ‘fear phase’ at 5 to 6 months of age. The key to this phase is to not force the puppy into confronting situations that scare them, and remember to keep it fun. Confidently reassure your pup, give them a few treats and be patient.

Simply put, it’s important to not give up and remember to give them positive reassurance – this stage won’t last forever!


By this point, if you have built a solid social foundation for a puppy, they will be well trained, confident, and well behaved as a fully grown adult. As most dog owners will agree – problem behaviours can develop even in adult dogs, but appropriate training and socialisation at a young age sets a puppy up for a happy and healthy adulthood.

For more information on training and socialising a puppy/dog, visit our Advice and Welfare section.

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