The Imprinting Period - in a nutshell

I am sure you have heard this phrase before, used often in the doggy world. In case you have not, the imprinting period is just a fancy word we use to define the process by which a puppy learns basic socialization skills: how to interact with other dogs, animals, humans and objects.

The word itself comes from zoology (the study of animals), and it refers to the process when "a young animal come to recognize another animal (or human) as its parent, or a member of his pack.” Young ducks are known to be "imprinted" by the first animal (or human) they see, and dutifully follow him around – as well researched and documented by one of my childhood heroes, Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz. (Ethology = the study of animal behaviour.)

As per the dictionary definition, imprinting means "a rapid learning that occurs during a brief period and establishes a long lasting behavioral response to animals, individuals or objects, which can be either an attachment, or an aversion.”

Now this all may sound like heavy science-talk, but in my book, every responsible dog owner should have a basic understanding of this process, and I always try to make sure my students are familiar with the term.

After all, you are on the way to become a shining example of a splendid dog owner, remember? Let’s not forget our MISSION, people!

Puppies are like children: they are curious, they are nosy, they want to “taste it all”, and most importantly: they think they are invincible. So we need to make sure that they have plenty of chances to make friends, and discover the world during the early months of their life, but do this in a safe environment.

And here is where the problem lies: we live in this world that went CRAAAAAZZZZYYY about the concept of “health and safety”.

We have seen it happen a zillion times: someone gets a puppy (sometimes for a load of cash), and she is so worried that something bad will happen to him, that she puts up a “protective bubble” around the pooch. Which is not entirely wrong, as it is our job to protect our baby.

But it is imperative to find the right balance, if we want to raise a healthy dog.

Don’t go there! Don’t climb the tree! Don’t eat the manure! Don’t accept a treat from that man! Take that out of your mouth! Don’t go near that dog!

Yes, we see it all the time: when a big dog shows up – oh my god, let me pick you up real quick, because… well, you can never know. The trouble is, the result of overprotection will be a dog that learns to be AFRAID of the world. Because if mommy is afraid of the big black dog, there must be a good reason for that…

(This is not unlike the phenomenon when children will be afraid of dogs for life, only because their parents are afraid of dogs. Bummer.)

The more one tries to keep the dog out of harm’s way, the more we “imprint” a fear into him that the world around us is a dangerous place. There are dogs who never meet or play with other dogs, and never have the chance to mingle with children.

The rule of imprinting is: what dogs experience in their early years most likely stay with them all their lives. This is true for both positive and negative experiences.

Thus, breeders who ignore the importance of the imprinting period can wreck a dog for life. Six months later, you think you have done something wrong because the dog pees every time he sees a man in a hat approaching. (An actual example from my “practice”.)

And then there are the aggression issues we encounter all the time, which usually can be traced back to some combination of poor socialization, negative early experiences and/or a genetic predisposition to fearfulness. In fact, a single traumatic incident during the imprinting period can later trigger an aggressive behaviour.

It is not uncommon that a previously friendly dog suddenly goes into “Cujo-mode”, like a switch had flipped inside her head. And the owner(s) have no idea what went wrong.

So when we get the call, and being asked to “teach the dog not to be aggressive”, the first thing we try to explain is that what is needed here is a special type of training called rehabilitation. And it has more to do with the people and the environment around the dog.

When is the imprinting period

The standard imprinting occurs between 3 and 12 weeks of age and there are three distinctive stages: the Canine Imprinting, the Human Imprinting and the Fear Imprinting period.

Do not be alarmed from all these technical terms – it is really simple to remember:

Canine Imprinting simply means how to interact with other dogs, and it is from 3 to 7 weeks.

Human Imprinting means how to interact with humans, and it lasts from 7-12 weeks. (Also this is perfect time to introduce other animals, such as horses, birds, and cats.)

The Fear Imprinting simply means that anything that stresses or frightens your dog can result in a lifelong phobia (sudden or loud noises, fireworks or harsh punishment, pain etc.).

This period is from 8-10 weeks.

A lot of breeders sell dogs only from 12 weeks of age, once the “imprinting period is over”. However, not enough people know that there is another crucial period, which occurs as a short, two-week period in late adolescence, somewhere between 6 and 12 months of age. Most often, by this point the owner keeps the dog on a “longer lead”, so-to-say, and gives the dog more independence to experience the world. During this “teenage” stage, dogs are particularly sensitive to anything frightening or threatening in their environment. And if something traumatic happens precisely at the wrong time, it can dramatically alter the behaviour of a dog that had been “good as gold” before.

Previously friendly dogs can go nervous. Confident dogs can become frightened. Excessive barking, snarling, fear of objects, even a refusal to go for a walk (as it happened with our student Florrie, the mini Scottish terrier) can occur, just to name a few.

Mimi and the horses

A perfect example is Mimi, who bravely walked up to horses when she was a little puppy. We have her very first meeting with horses on video – no fear, whatsoever, of these massive animals. Then one day, when she was about nine months old, she visited a farm, and she wanted to go and greet some horses there. There was an electric fence around the paddock, and lo-and-behold, the wire touched Mimi for one millisecond. It was just enough. The result: she has never gone near any horse ever since – in fact, she speedily backs off whenever she meets a horse.

Which, by the way, is not a bad thing.

A horse can kill a dog with one single kick. (Not that we wish to advocate the use of electricity for any kind of training - far from it. Just sayin’. )

Is there hope?

The good news is, these unfortunate and sudden behaviour changes are not at all hopeless cases. There are techniques to help a dog to form more positive associations with things that makes her nervous, or aggressive.

We cover our options (along with specific case studies we can learn from) in more detail in our Dog101 Crash Course.

For now, let’s just say, the “treatment” (surprise, surprise) has more to do with the dog’s immediate environment, and the people/dogs living with him, than the actual behavioural issue.

The above information by no means should make you even more worrisome about your dog’s imprinting period. The world is a tough place for a dog. It can be harsh, tough, unpredictable, even brutal. And dogs must learn how to cope with it. No matter how hard we try, we cannot eliminate all the dangers out there.

We can, and must always make an effort to keep scary experiences (and certain people!!!) away from our dogs – and this is true for all their life, but especially in those early years of character development.

But we must deal with the fact – bad experiences can happen, and will happen. The solution is not in keeping the dog in a protective bubble, but to watch how WE react and respond to when something bad happens to our dogs. Because we definitely can have control over that.

Again, more on this subject on the Dog101 Crash Course.

Thank you for your care.


The team of Dog Training For Humans