The Reading Corner

Early Neurological Stimulation


For centuries people have been trying to breed better animals - cattle, horses, dogs, and many other species. There have been many amazing advances, however genetics alone won't always answer why one animal might perform better than another similarly-bred animal. This is pretty much what a recent (1991) study by Cunningham concluded. By studying racehorses he found that speed was only about 35 percent heritable. Or in other words, a horse's speed depends as much as 65 percent on other factors such as training, management and nutrition. 

Findings such as this have led other researchers to explore how changing the way an animal is raised can affect them as adults. These studies often focused on early stimulation. 

One study with mice and rats found that by removing the babies from their nest for three to five minutes each day during the first few days of life they caused the animal's body temperature to fall below normal. This mild form of stress stimulated hormonal, adrenal and pituitary systems which allowed these animals to better withstand stress later in life. They also performed tests better than their non-stressed littermates. Other effects included earlier sexual maturity, more disease resistance, and better problem solving abilities. 

Studies with other species, such as cats, dogs, and chimpanzees, found similar results. Animals that were not given the early stimulation were less able to cope, adjust and adapt. Although they have yet to determine an optimal amount of early stress, they do know that some stimulation is good, but too much can cause problems.

The U.S. military decided to study the effects of early neurological stimulation in their "Bio Sensor" or "Super Dog" program. From this research they developed a series of exercises for very young puppies. These exercises work best during the puppy's third to sixteenth day of life which is a period of rapid neurological development. Each puppy undergoes this handling once per day for those two weeks. All five exercises are completed with one puppy before handling the next puppy.

1. Tactile stimulation
While holding the puppy in one hand, the handler uses a Q-tip to tickle the puppy between the toes on one foot. The tickling should last between three to five seconds. The puppy does not have to show a reaction.
2. Head held erect
Holding the puppy in both hands, the puppy is positioned so its head is directly above its body. This position is held for three to five seconds.
3. Head pointed down
Holding the puppy in both hands, the puppy is reversed so its tail is uppermost and directly above its head. This position is held for three to five seconds.
4. Supine position
Hold the puppy in the palms so it is resting on its back with its face pointed upward. This position is held for three to five seconds.
5. Thermal stimulation
Before starting the exercises, place a damp towel in the refrigerator for at least five minutes. For this exercise, place the puppy on the cool towel, belly down. Allow the puppy to wriggle off if it desires. Remove the puppy from the towel after three to five seconds if it hasn't moved itself.


The researchers found that these exercises started the puppies' neurological system earlier than was normally expected. The benefits that they noticed included:

  • Improved cardiovascular performance (heart rate)
  • Stronger heart beats
  • Stronger adrenal glands
  • More tolerance to stress
  • Greater resistance to disease

Although the stimulation proved beneficial, over stimulating had detrimental results. The researchers also found that regular handling and socialization were still necessary.

Studies by Scott and Fuller pinpointed several critical periods in a young puppy's development. These periods occurred between four and sixteen weeks of age. If a puppy did not interact with other dogs (at least his mother and littermates) and with people during this time period, he would never be able to bond to other dogs or to people. For an interesting account of how this research was used to dramatically increase the number of guide dogs who successfully completed training, read The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior external linkby Clarence Pfaffenberger.

In addition to socialization, exposing puppies to various sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches allows them to better cope as an adult dog. Enrichment activities can begin at a very early age, perhaps even at birth. Some ideas include providing toys of all shapes and textures; providing a variety of footing such as newspaper, carpeting, window screens, plastic, concrete, gravel; providing a variety of sounds such as radio, cap gun, vacuum cleaner; providing a variety of challenges such as climbing steps, going through a tunnel, playing hide and seek, etc. Just be sure that the enrichment activities you design won't hurt or scare the puppy.

To provide even more experiences the puppy can be walked around the shopping mall, taken for a romp in open fields, enrolled in a Puppy Kindergarten class, taken on car trips, allowed to watch older, trained dogs working. All of these experiences will give the puppy a chance to experience new things and to meet new people.

So to get a puppy off to the best possible start in life be sure to provide:

  • early neurological stimulation (between three and sixteen days of age)
  • plenty of socialization (especially important during weeks four to sixteen)
  • enrichment activities starting early and continuing throughout the puppy's life.