Gently stroke and handle the puppies.
Don't automatically jump in to help a pup
to a teat. Overcoming that struggle is a HUGE lesson.
During the first three weeks, everything a puppy experiences creates new connections in the brain. If those connections aren’t made at that time, the neurons simply die off. You can literally enlarge a puppy’s brain by providing stimulation in those weeks.
You’ll be spending lots of time with mama and pups, and gentle stroking and handling of the puppies is wonderful for them. It activates the brain, gets pups comfortable with human touch, and begins to teach them how to bond with people. During the first week, stroke while they’re nursing, because they’ll automatically pair the human touch with the happy feelings they have while nursing. Later you can progress to stroking them while they’re lying in the pen, and finally to stroking while you hold them.
When you see newborn puppies, your natural impulse is to make things as easy as possible for them. However, stress and struggle, in small doses, helps pups grow up to be healthier, more well-adjusted adults. We want to teach the puppy’s brain how to handle stress and then recover, so that then they are older they will have a higher tolerance for stress and a quicker recovery rate. A natural example is the fight for a teat. Having that moment of frustration before success teaches pups to persevere. Unless one pup is consistently not gaining weight, don't intervene in that teat competition!
While some stresses will come naturally like the teat example, you can also create stress in a controlled way by doing "Early Neurological Stimulation." Don't let the fancy name throw you off! It's easy and takes less than a minute per pup. As Jane Lindquist notes in Puppy Culture, research shows ENS exercises at this age can have benefits that last a lifetime: greater stress tolerance, stronger heartbeat, resistance to disease, faster adrenal system, and more. Seems worth a try, right?
Once a day (and once a day only!), from days 3-16, give this a shot, ideally right after the litter has nursed, so pups are calm and happy. It will take less than a minute for each pup. Even if you just do the first three, that's great!
Hold the pup with head up, and tail tucked. Count 1-2-3-4-5.
Hold the pup with head down. Count 1-2-3-4-5.
Cradle the pup like a baby, on back. Count 1-2-3-4-5.
Use a Q-tip to gently tickle between the toes. Count 1-2-3-4-5.
Refrigerate washcloth for 5 minutes, lay it on the floor, and place the pup on it, paws and belly down. Count 1-2-3.
Do this only once a day, only for the recommended time. More is not better! Note that this is different than the normal handling you would be doing with the pups at this stage -- gentle stroking and occasional holding. This is designed to tell the pup’s neurological system to kick in to combat a bit of stress.
AND: If the litter is struggling with illness in any way, skip this.
PHOTO: Meet Cookie's pups: Sugar, Nilla, Snickerdoodle, Chip, Gingersnap, Thumbprint, (Bi)Scotti, Figgy, and the runt . . . Crumb! Having our family of four home (thanks, pandemic) was a bonus for this litter because it made lots of handling super easy.