Handling: Critical Period For Somatosensory Development & The Psychobiological Substrates Of Attachment

This is part of a module on the Puppy Training Classes Instructor Course. All of our courses contain CEU’s and are certificated.

Please see below poster which highlights the popular critical periods in dogs:


It is very important that dogs are appropriately conditioned to being handled. Not just by you, but by other people as well. Puppy parties at the vets are a great opportunity to get handling those puppies. If this is done early enough, the dog should enjoy being touched. Touch is a very important. Why is this?

  • Touch is part of the somatosensory system (his perception of touch, warmth, cold, pain)
  • Touch is linked with the neural mechanisms of bonding
  • Acclimatising to touch in the early stages will prevent him from having a panic response later when he is handled.
  • Touch increases neural development of the brain (neuroplasticity is the term used) and this helps wire his neural architecture and helps brain development.
  • Touch & Proprioception are part of the stimulus modality (how the body perceives sensory input) and helps him learn to regulate his responses. If this is carried out in the critical period when there is no glucocorticoid response (although the experience MUST NOT be harmful, or stressful). This will help him to become more resilient later in life. Please see: Neural Mechanisms Of Resilience & Its Role In Dog Training
  • The main psychobiological substrates that are involved in social and maternal bonding (according to Panksepp) are endogenous opioids (they are peptides produced in the body, such as morphine) and oxytocin (hormone released from pituitary and is responsible for feelings associated with love). The circuitry of social motivation is highly conserved among all mammals. This recipe is believed to be responsible for the way attachment bonding occurs. Failure to make this attachment, particularly in these critical stages of development can lead to dysregulation of behaviour. The Neuroscience of puppy development. Start before you get him home AND Attachment, Development and Emotion- A Neurobiological Perspective
  • This social bonding system is maintained by a feedback mechanism. The sender and receiver maintain bonding by reinforcement and use of this circuitry. The behaviour shapes and maintains the circuitry. This is carried out through touching, handling, nurturing and maternal care. This maternal care helps turn on the genes that are responsible for helping mammals regulate his stress responses. All of the sensory modalities work together to heighten stimulus sensation. We do not want the body to be in a state of constant heightened activation. This is why it is important that we get our dogs used to these experiences as soon as possible. Why letting your dog cry can cause permanent damage
  • Ttouch is a great tool to help animals become more aware of their sensory environment. It helps the brain learn to be more spatially mindful.. Proprioception stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which keeps the body moderated and in a state of calm, it relaxes the Vagal nerve (cranial nerve 10) which feeds back from the gut to the brain and tunes the body for learning. Also, metabolic functions can take place. This inhibits the sympathetic nervous system (opposite to parasympathetic), which is responsible for the fight or flight response and the glucocorticoid system (molecules such as adrenaline and cortisol) which works to help prepare for physical responses to a perceived threat.
  • The idea of getting these early learning experiences banked is so that sensory input can stimulate neuroplasticity and neuronal activity. Keeping the neurons firing (this is often termed long term potentiation LTP and is mentioned in our neuroscience of behaviour seminars please go to: Introduction To the Science Of Behaviour (Beginners) Seminar OR,Introduction To the Neuroscience of Behaviour On-line Seminar (Degree level) to find out more.
  • The more brain areas that are able to associate the better a response to a stimulus there will be. The brain fires in networks and studies are currently being performed to understand the wiring map of the brain. This is called Connectome.

This is an image to represent how experience shapes the brain. Image courtesy of charlies-dad.org

brain-cell-connections1 (1)


Ultimately, we want to set it up so the puppy has the right foundations to be resilient to varying factors in his environment. The Relationship Between Stress, Aggression & Resilience

Some dogs do not like having their feet handled and will bite if you touch them. Interestingly, the reason for this is often attributed to them having ticklish feet.  Handling of feet is probably the single most important thing anyone can train their dog. You do not want to only handle him when things go wrong. Also, training your dog to like wearing his equipment is important part of his sensory learning experience.

Repetition of this exercise will ensure that you have a puppy that is happy and comfortable being handled by anyone. We want a puppy to get on the table and literally say “these are my teeth, aren’t they lovely”…. Much better and less stress for owner, vet, groomer and everyone involved.


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