Sensitizing Puppies to Touch, Smell, and Taste

For the first weeks of a puppy’s life, touch, smell and taste are the most important senses. Exposure to a variety of these stimuli leads to stable adult temperaments.

Introducing Stimuli to Produce Stable Temperaments

Newborn puppies are like sponges, soaking up new experiences and stimuli daily. These experiences influence their development into adulthood, and affect how they react to new situations as adults. Breeders who take the time to introduce their puppies to new sensations, stimuli, and situations are taking an important step to produce adults with proper, stable temperaments.

Along with general stimulation and sensitization exercises, a socialization protocol should address all five senses, as well as mental stimulation. For the first week of life, puppies only receive ENS exercises and gentle handling. At a week old, a socialization program can begin in earnest. Since a puppy’s eyes and ears don’t open until 10-14 days of age, the first senses addressed are touch and smell.


Many breeders keep their puppies isolated from visitors for several weeks; however puppies have a good sense of smell even at this age, and some breeders feel introducing a new person every day from birth increases a puppy’s tolerance to strangers as an adult. While the age to begin introducing new people will depend largely on the breeder’s comfort level, it is important that puppies meet and are handled by a variety of new people before they leave for their new homes. Some experts suggest puppies meet 100 new people before they are three months old. Diversity is important: new people should be both male and female; children, adults, and the elderly; of different races and ethnicity; men with facial hair and without; people wearing hats, hoods, and sunglasses; people with walkers, crutches, and wheelchairs; those with loud voices and those who are soft-spoken.

Bedding in the whelping box also adds tactile stimulation for the puppies. Breeders can use different types of blankets, quilts, and large towels when puppies are in the box, switching them out with each cleaning. When the puppies move into the main area of the home at 3-4 weeks of age, exposure to different surfaces can increase. Blankets, quilts, or towels can be used in the sleeping area of the puppy pet, as can yardage of fabrics such as fleece, faux fur, soft curly “poodle fleece”, chenille, etc. (Bedding and fabrics should be age- and breed-appropriate, to avoid the risk of the puppies suffocating or getting trapped in the material.) Puppies should also be exposed to different surfaces under their feet – vinyl flooring, carpet, ceramic tile, hardwood flooring, and outside surfaces like grass, dirt, sand, gravel, cement, asphalt. When the puppies are older and have better control over their legs, a panel from a crate or ex-pen can be laid out on the floor and the puppies encouraged to walk over it, to give them confidence on unsure footing.

Adding a variety of toys to the whelping box, and later the puppy pen, will introduce the puppy to different textures and sounds. Stuffed toys are appropriate for the first couple of weeks; as the puppies get older, plastic and rubber toys can be introduced. When the puppies are up on their feet and start eating solid foods, balls and bones are added for chasing and chewing. Always be sure that toys are safe for both the puppies and the bitch, and keep an eye on new toys as they are added.

Scents and Tastes

Smell is one of the most important senses for puppies, especially as newborns. Puppies use smell to locate their dam and littermates, and to find a nipple for nursing. At about a week of age, a drop or two of vanilla extract on a toy introduces a gentle new scent to the whelping box. Over time, puppies should be exposed to a variety of scents: earthy, such as a large rock clean from the garden; sharp, such as nail polish or rubbing alcohol (on a cotton ball held for the pups to smell; these should not be left in the whelping box); metallic, such as a stainless steel food or water bowl; savory, such as a few slivers of roast beef. Sporting breeds should be introduced to bird wing at an early age, as well, to develop their sense for retrieval.

Solid food is introduced to puppies starting at about three weeks of age, and this is an ideal time to begin introducing new tastes as well. Taste and smell overlap, of course, so any time a new taste is added, a new smell is, too. Puppies can be given half an orange, or a large slice of orange peel, to walk over, chew on, and push around the whelping box. Slices of apple provide a crisp, fresh scent and taste. Gravy or peanut butter are easy to lick off of fingers or spoons, while small pieces of chicken or ground beef can be fed by hand. Be sure to give new tastes when the bitch is out of the box, so that she doesn’t eat all the food before the puppies have a chance to taste it!

Introducing puppies to new tastes, smells, and tactile sensations at a young age can have long-reaching benefits. Puppies exposed to a variety of stimuli mature into adults who are more stable and tolerant, and adapt easily to new situations. A little effort from the breeder in the formative stages will pay off greatly when the puppies mature.

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