There is a long-standing myth that touching newborn animals will cause their mothers to reject them. This is almost never true, and puppies are no exception. In fact, family dogs are often very tolerant of their favorite humans touching their babies. However, although touching a puppy won't make his momma reject him, that doesn't mean you should do it indiscriminately. Different breeders and veterinarians disagree on when and how often you should touch newborn puppies, but most do see eye-to-eye on a few basic guidelines.
Always take the mother dog's comfort into consideration when you attempt to handle very young puppies. If the mother is nervous, defensive or aggressive, back off. If momma is growling or trying to hide her puppies from you, touching them is a definite no-no. Momma dog's main job is to protect and care for her pups. She almost always knows best, so unless there's a veterinary emergency, you should follow her lead.
If momma dog is comfortable with you and doesn't show any signs of stress when you approach her new babies, most breeders recommend you begin gently petting them for a few minutes each day from the time she first gets them cleaned off and nursing. The idea is this early contact will habituate them to human beings and make bonding with their future human families easier and faster. This petting must be very gentle: simply stroke the puppies' backs with one finger. Stop immediately if the mother acts like this bothers her, and don't pet the pups for more than a few minutes at a time. Newborn puppies are very vulnerable to illness, so make sure you wash your hands very well with hot water and soap before and after touching them.
As a general rule you don't want to lift, hold or carry puppies younger then 3 weeks because they're very delicate and even a short fall could injure or kill them. You will have to lift them, though, while you're performing basic health and husbandry procedures. Most breeders recommend weighing new puppies once a day. Consult your veterinarian: she can tell you how to weigh your pups safely and how much weight they should be gaining daily based on their breed. She'll also tell you what to watch for to make sure the puppies are staying healthy. You'll probably need to trim the puppies' nails to make sure they don't hurt Momma while they're nursing. Most pups need this first nail trim by the time they're 10 days old. A vet, vet tech or professional groomer can show you how to do this safely and correctly.
It's very rare for a mother dog to need assistance rearing her pups, but it does happen. Newborn puppies can't control their own body temperatures and they need to nurse almost constantly. They should stay snuggled up with each other and their mom for at least the first 10 days. If you see a puppy younger than 10 to 14 days old off by itself, this is a sign there's a veterinary emergency. The pup is either ill, too weak to nurse or too cold to find his way back to his mother. You need to rescue that puppy immediately. Wrap him against your skin inside a blanket to get his body temperature up and call your vet for instructions on what to do next. She can guide you through getting him to latch back onto a nipple, how to proceed if you have to begin emergency bottle feeding and how to tell if he needs veterinary care.
By Angela Libal
Dapper Dog Training: When Can You Hold Puppies?
Rehabber's Den: Neonate Care - Hand-rearing New-born Puppies
Hilltop Animal Hospital: Care of Mother Dogs and Puppies
Terrific Pets: Caring for Newborn Puppies
Myra Savant-Harris: Puppy Intensive Care - A Breeder's Guide to Care of Newborn Puppies
American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Newborn Puppy Care
About the Author
Angela Libal began writing professionally in 2005. She has published several books, specializing in zoology and animal husbandry. Libal holds a degree in behavioral science: animal science from Moorpark College, a Bachelor of Arts from Sarah Lawrence College and is a graduate student in cryptozoology.