Puppies need the opportunity to spend at least six weeks with their mother and litter mates before going to new homes. This important time period not only ensures they get adequate nutrition from their mother, but have the chance to learn valuable social skills from their siblings as well.
The First Weeks
The mother will provide all the nutrition her puppies need for the first several weeks of life. If a puppy is a runt, the litter is large or the mother has a problem feeding, you may have to intervene, but otherwise mom will provide all the nutrients her pups need. By about the third week the puppies should be started on soft, watery dog food made from puppy kibble soaked in warm water. The pups likely still will nurse intermittently, but the weaning process will be well underway. You also may opt for a canine-specific milk replacement formula, which is helpful if pups are orphaned or abandoned.
Age isn't the only thing to take into consideration when determining when puppies can be removed from their mother. While 6 weeks is a standard age, maturity should be taken into consideration, as pups learn acceptable behaviors by playing with litter mates. For example, puppies teach one another when a bite is too hard and they learn to establish hierarchy within their pack. Allowing pups to remain together, with their mother, for as long as 10 weeks, can help to reduce the potential for behavioral problems down the road.
A mother dog will help make the determination of when pups are ready to be weaned from her by spending more time away from them and encouraging their independence. She may begin to self-wean gradually over several weeks, which aids in the transition for both her and her puppies. The mother may regurgitate her own food to feed her pups during the transition, which is a normal behavior. Consult with your vet about how to ensure the mother gets proper nutrition to support her milk production throughout the nursing and weaning stages.
Making the Transition
For a successful weaning transition, puppies should gradually spend more time apart from their mother. When puppies move to solid foods, give them time after meals to play independently. As the pups begin to explore and become more self-confident, increase the amount of time apart until they are able to go several hours without seeing their mother. Don't get frustrated if things don't go by a specific timetable -- every litter is different. If you have problems weaning, consult your vet.