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How to Be a Good Puppy Owner

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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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.

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