How to Be a Good Puppy Owner

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Even if the breeder has done everything right and you adopt a near perfect puppy, it doesn't take long – if you are not careful - to undo all the good work and create problems that will trouble you and perhaps your pup for the rest of its life.

The first month or two after adoption is the most critical although the juvenile period that follows is also important. Let's suppose you adopt your new puppy at 8-weeks of age and let's suppose you're heading home with your new dependent to a household that you have carefully prepared to accommodate the youngster's needs. You have purchased a dog bowl, puppy food, various chew toys, a doggy blanket, an X pen, a crate, a dog bed, and a collar and lead. "Now what?" you may think to yourself as you pull into the drive and carry your new pup across the threshold.

Unless you have been through this before, unanswered questions will pour through your mind, starting at that time and continuing for weeks as you approach one hurdle after the other. Should you introduce him to the whole family at once and allow them to pet him and get to know him? How long will he need to go between naps? Where should he sleep? How often do you feed him? How do you feed him? What do you feed him? What do you do if he cries for attention at night? What do you do if he becomes mouthy? When do you start training him to eliminate outside? When should you begin training him and when and where should you take him to puppy training classes? These and many more questions will need to be addressed if the puppy's physical health, behavior, and psychological well-being are to be optimized.

The First Day Home

As you step across the threshold, your first thought should be for the wee mite. He has just finished a mysterious journey in a jolting jalopy and now finds himself in an unfamiliar den, full of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. It must be a disturbing time. For that reason, some quiet time, down time, should be first on the agenda. Perhaps you could bring the pup through to a quiet room and introduce him to his blanket or dog bed, to his water bowl and food bowl, and stay with him for awhile until he becomes curious and starts to investigate. Then other individuals in the household can come along and introduce themselves peacefully and slowly, bearing in mind all the time the pup's best interest.

Since you can't spend every waking moment of the first day entertaining your pup and bearing in mind that he will need to sleep fairly frequently, it is a good idea to set up an X pen in a reasonably well-populated area of the house, putting the pup's blanket, food and water at one end and - just in case - some newspapers or a "Wee-Wee" pad at the other end. This can be his sanctuary, a place to rest and get away from it all when things get too hectic or when the owners is otherwise occupied.

What about toileting in the first 24-hours? While some pups can be reasonably well housetrained by 9-weeks of age, such success can only be achieved by constant diligence and realistic expectations. A 2-month old pup can only go for about 3 hours between bathroom breaks and will need to be taken out on a regular schedule and encouraged to eliminate outside. Accidents will happen at the beginning and should go unpunished. Proper cleanup with an odor neutralizer should be conducted in the event of an accident and then the whole issue should be forgotten.

The first night, the puppy should be allowed to sleep in the owner's bedroom, preferably confined in a crate or X pen. If the pup cries, it should be attended to. You should get out of bed and spend time with it, reassure it that you're there, speak kindly and then go back to bed. If the crying continues, you can visit the pup again 5 or 10 minutes later and reassure it again. Gradually increase the time between your visits until the pup learns that you are there for it but that it has to stay in its own sleeping area. Eventually, he will go to sleep and, incidentally, the next night the whole procedure will be much quicker as he gets the message that the enclosure is his sleeping area.

The First Week

On awakening each day, the first thing to do is to pick the young pup from its pen and bring it outside to a well-chosen spot where it can eliminate. A successful mission should be a joyous occasion. The pup should know, in no uncertain terms, that you are delighted with what has transpired and he should be rewarded immediately with praise and, perhaps, a food treat. If the mission is unsuccessful, the pup should be brought back into the house, confined in a relatively small area such as a crate or behind a kiddy gate and taken out again 15 minutes later. Each day, after breakfast, the pup should be taken out again as the process of eating will stimulate its gastro-colic reflex, thus necessitating a "bathroom" run. Regular visits outside should be made during the day at say mid-morning, lunchtime, mid-afternoon, late afternoon, early evening, and last thing at night. Also, the pup should be taken outside when it transitions from one behavior to another, for example, after sleeping, after chewing, after playing, etc.

Mealtimes should probably be four times a day at this age and it is not unreasonable to start training a routine at this time. The food, puppy food, of course, should be put into a bowl and the pup should be instructed and signaled to sit before being fed. Initially, gentle placement may be necessary to ensure that the pup understands the signaling. Be generous in your expectations, reward half-hearted attempts, or even transitory success in sitting. The pup should be given 15 minutes to eat [it probably won't need all this time] and then the food bowl should be picked up. There should be no running buffet. Water, though, should be available at all times of the day and night. Requiring a pup to sit or lie down to receive its food demonstrates to it that you are in charge of this valued resource. This helps to elevate your leadership status and helps head off problems of owner-directed pushiness or aggression, should they be slated to appear later in the pup's life. It's also a good idea to have the pup earn all treats by responding to a one-word command.

During the first week it is possible to introduce a pup to a flat collar and lightweight lead, which initially it should just be allowed to drag around on the ground. Later, a person can append themselves to the other end of the lead, although initially they will simply follow the puppy around and not attempt to control it.

The First Month after Acquisition of the Puppy

During the first month, housetraining should have been accomplished, though a 3-month old puppy will still need to be taken outside every 4 hours if accidents are to be avoided. By the end of the first month, the frequency of feeding should be reduced to 3 times a day though puppy food will be needed right up to the end of the growing phase, possibly until the pup is 9-months of age. The pup's mealtime manners should be improving over the first month as he gets the hang of the sit and/or down in order to solicit food from you.

Somewhere in the middle of the first month, the first veterinary visit should be scheduled at, say, 10-weeks of age and your veterinarian will advise you about deworming and vaccination schedules. He or she will also perform a thorough physical examination of your pup, checking for obvious physical abnormalities and health issues. Your veterinarian may advise you to keep your puppy inside and away from people and other dogs until vaccination is complete but this advice should not be taken too literally. Bad behavior causes almost half of all newborn puppies to be relinquished before they are 2-years of age and many times their surrender amounts to a death sentence. Preventing behavior problems is as important as vaccination and requires active socialization and desensitization to anything the pup may encounter in later life if it is to grow up confident, accepting, and fearless.

Socialization can be accomplished by arranging 'puppy parties' in which strangers [to the dog] are invited around to the house to play with the pup and entertain it in a pleasant way [remember not to overwhelm the youngster]. Likewise, the pup can be introduced to other dogs in its home or on its property as long as the dogs are in good health and properly vaccinated. Another prerequisite is that the visiting dogs are calm and composed and are not allowed to intimidate or threaten the pup.

All areas of the pup's body should be handled on a daily basis: eyes, ears, mouth, feet, tail, and "undercarriage." The pup should be made used to being handled and should grow up to be accepting of these physical interventions. You will thank yourself later and your vet will thank you, too.

In addition, the pup should be desensitized to various sights, sounds, and even smells that it may encounter later in life. Sometimes it helps to make a tape recording of potentially frightening sounds like thunder, fire alarms, vacuum cleaners, so that they can be played at low but increasing volumes while the puppy is entertained. Also, the pup can be desensitized to the car by introducing it to car travel by introducing it to car travel in stages. The pup can be brought to the reception area of the veterinarian's office for petting and food treats and can be fed next to the vacuum cleaner so that it is not later perceived as a fire-breathing dragon. Desensitization need only be limited by your imagination.

All this time it is a good idea to begin associating words with actions and objects so that the pup is building a vocabulary. You don't need to wait until puppy training classes until you begin training a new pup. Take advantage of the sponge-like capacity of the new pup's brain by assisting it to sit, to lie down, encouraging it to wait for stay and rewarding success. No punishment should be used and there should be no yelling, no hitting, and certainly no lead jerking. The opposite of reward is not punishment, it is no reward.

The pup should be getting used to wearing a collar and trailing a lead around, perhaps with a person attached to the other end. Now the owner can try calling the pup to them and taking a few steps away as the pup is obliged to follow. It helps to get pups to come if you crouch down on one knee, act happy, call them to you by name and praise them before they've even started to come. If necessary, gentle tension can be used to reel in a hesitant pup but there must always be a 'pot of gold' at the end of that rainbow.

The Second and Third Months after Adoption

By this time, the pup should be 3 to 4-months of age. Early in this period, vaccinations should have taken effect and the pup should be worm-free and healthy. It should also be capable of going for quite reasonable lengths of time before pit stops. By the end of this period, at 5-months of age, the pup should probably be able to hold its urine for 6 hours at a time. This aspect of training should be now in your rear-view mirror.

At-home training should be continued throughout this period, though it is highly recommended to enlist the services of a trainer and to take your pup to training class early in this window of time. Puppy classes provide entertainment for the pup as well as education and also permit further socialization with members of its own species. Good trainers will ensure that nothing bad happens to the pup during classes, as negative experiences at this time will have long lasting effects. Useful exercises, like walking on a loose leash, sit/stay, down/stay, come [from a distance], and leave it, can be practiced and honed.

I believe that all puppies should be introduced to a head halter at this stage because it is such a valuable tool for controlling a dog later in life. At this stage, pups can learn that head halters are part of life which they should be to give the owner control of their dog and facilitate the dog's understanding of the owner's wishes and directions. During this entire period and beyond the puppy should be exercised regularly, fed regularly, and played with regularly. They should be acclimated to their crates [which should always be available to them] and should not be left alone unattended for long hours. Toward the end of this two-month period, the frequency of meal feeding can be dropped to twice a day.

The Five-Month Old Pup

At this stage, pups are beginning to 'feel their oats' and can become quite rambunctious and perhaps mouthy. They may also start to engage in destructive behavior as teething begins. Surplus energy should be channeled properly through regular play and exercise. Rough play is not appropriate as it will make pups more aggressive. Nipping should be 'nipped in the bud' by loudly exclaiming a word such as 'ouch' and freezing once the pup lays its needle teeth on you with too much pressure. This will teach the pup "bite inhibition," an invaluable lesson in life. Chewing is inevitable and should be properly directed, not corrected. An assortment of chew toys should be available to the pup and should be substituted for any inappropriate chewing that is witnessed.

Neutering of dogs not intended for breeding is normally carried out after the 5th month of life. While some folk (especially men) may feel a bit squeamish about this practice, it is for the pet's good. Unneutered pets exhibit a number of behaviors that owners may find undesirable. They are also prone to certain health problems that neutered pets cannot get. Finally, neutering is necessary as a birth control measure to prevent unwanted pups. As the Nike motto proclaims, Just Do It!

Walks in the park will be a joy for the pup and the owner at this time and pleasant exchanges with strangers and unfamiliar dogs can be organized to complete the education process. The only problem is that you can't control the whole wide world and unpredictable things will happen, but with a head halter and your strong leadership, direction, and protection, the (now) young dog can learn that all is well when you're there - and that's a very important lesson. Dogs need you to be their friends and they love to have fun but you also need to be a strong dog parent. Dogs need strong leaders or they run amok and that's bad news for you and bad news for the dog. In the fifth month of life and beyond, it's good to remember that you, the dog's owner, should always be perceived as fun, fair, but firm [the three F's]. With such a concept in mind, the future should be bright for you and your dog and you should be ready to spend many happy years together. Beginnings are important and your early efforts, though time-consuming and patience-testing, will be amply rewarded.

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