Cocker and Pup (Canine Maternal Behavior)

Canine Maternal Behavior

Watching dog mothers take care of their pups continues to fascinate me, and the large populations of village dogs in Africa and Thailand, where I spent and spend much time, provides me with plenty of opportunities to do it. Village dogs are domestic dogs, not wild. Often classified as strays by the inept, ignorant eye of the western tourist, these dogs perform an essential task in their communities of humans and their domestic animals.

Maternal behavior is behavior shown by a mother toward her offspring. In most species, she is the one taking primary care of the youngsters, canines being no exception. Natural selection favored the evolution of this particular behavior in females.

In wild canids, although the female watches over the puppies, the father (also called the alpha male) and other adults come interested in the feeding and raising of the pups when they emerge from the den. In the surveys my team did in the 1980s, our dogs showed the same pattern in a domestic set-up.

Thus, maternal behavior is identical in wild canids and domestic dogs. After birth, the mother dries the puppies, keeps them warm, feeds them and licks them clean. Hormonal processes control maternal behavior right after birth, and problems may occur if the female gives birth too early. On the other hand, pseudo-pregnancy causes females to undergo hormonal changes, which may elicit maternal behavior in various degrees. Maternal behavior appears to be self-reinforcing. Studies show that the levels of dopamine increase in the nucleus accumbens (a region of the brain) when a female displays maternal behavior.

When the puppies become older, the mother educates them. She gives them the first lessons in dog language at the time weaning occurs. Growling, snarling, and pacifying behaviors are inborn, but the pups need to learn their function.

When the puppies become older, the mother begins to educate them. She gives them the first lessons in dog language about the time weaning begins (Illustration by Alice Rasmussen from “Dog Language” by Roger Abrantes).

The canine mother has three main tasks: (1) to feed the puppies, first with her milk, then by regurgitation, (2) to keep them clean and warm, especially when they are young, and (3) to educate them.

A good canine mother is patient and diligent. Dog owners often misunderstand the mother’s more powerful educational methods. She may growl at them and even attack them, but she never harms them. Muzzle grasping is relatively common(see illustrations).

Without the mother’s intervention, the pups would never become capable social animals and would not function in a pack (a group of wild dogs living together is in English, a pack). When the puppies are about 8-10 weeks old, the mother seems to lose some of her earlier interest in them. In normal circumstances, the rest of the pack takes over the continuing education of the pups, their social integration in the group (which mostly comprises relatives) and their protection.

Dog owners sometimes report problems, e.g., that the mother has no interest in her puppies or is too violent towards them. Our selective breeding is the primary cause of this issue. We select for beauty and utility while nature selects for overall fitness, including adequate maternal behavior, and our lack of understanding of the mother’s needs during and after birth, often result in the female showing stress, insecurity or aggressive behavior.

The maternal effect is the mother’s influence on her pups. It can have such an impact on particular behaviors it may overshadow the role of genetics. For example, observations show that a female showing too nervous or fearful reactions toward sounds may prompt her puppies into developing sound phobias beyond what we would expect given their specific genotype. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to assess the hereditary coefficient for particular traits.

Bottom-line: Do not breed females you suspect will not show adequate maternal behavior and do not disturb a female with pups. A good canine mother knows better than you, what’s best for her pups.


Related articles



  • Abrantes, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 1997. Dog Language. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner.
  • Darwin, C. 1872. The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray (the original edition).
  • Fox, M. 1972. Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper and Row.
  • Lopez, Barry H. (1978). Of Wolves and Men. J. M. Dent and Sons Limited.
  • Mech, L. D. 1970. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Doubleday Publishing Co., New York.
  • Mech, L. David (1981). The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mech, L. D. 1988. The arctic wolf: living with the pack. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minn.
  • Mech. L. D. and Boitani, L. 2003. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • Zimen, E. 1975. Social dynamics of the wolf pack. In The wild canids: their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution. Edited by M. W. Fox. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York. pp. 336-368.
  • Zimen, E. 1982. A wolf pack sociogram. In Wolves of the world. Edited by F. H. Harrington, and P. C. Paquet. Noyes Publishers, Park Ridge, NJ.

Featured image: Canine maternal behavior is more than just feeding the pups (by Cinoclub).

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Roger Abrantes

Born in Portugal, a citizen of the World. Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology, B.A. in Philosophy. Speaks seven languages. Present work: lecturing on Ethology and sailing and diving in Thailand (marine biology environmental management).

View all articles by Roger Abrantes