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Raising a Normal Healthy Puppy

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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When first-time puppy owners pick up their 7- or 8-week-old pup, they usually glow with pride and affection. At this time, they set their hearts on doing everything possible to make the new pup welcome in their home and try to help it adjust to the considerable change in lifestyle that the pup inevitably faces. Owners are often inundated with information on how to feed the pup and take care of his medical needs, and so on, but other questions soon arise and the correct answers aren't always easily available. Common questions include:

  • The puppy cries at night. Should he be left alone or cuddled?
  • Trainers stress the importance of socializing the pup to other dogs, but the veterinarian says to keep him inside until all his vaccinations are complete. What do you do?
  • What are the best methods for housebreaking your dog?
  • How do you handle nipping, chewing, leash training, and crating?

    Opinions vary on these subjects, but this article provides some guidance to help the owner make reasonable and, most importantly, humane decisions. Raising a puppy is not easy. Half the new pups born in this country do not live to see their second birthday largely because of supposedly unsolvable behavior problems. The fact is, many people don't know how to communicate the right messages to their dogs as they go through highly sensitive periods of development and sow the seeds of disaster early.

    Attachment: To Spoil or Not to Spoil

    There are two diametrically opposed theories on this subject. One is wrong and the other is right. The wrong theory tells people that the less attention they pay to a pup when he cries or acts out, the sooner he will learn independence.

    Actually, the reverse is true. The more attention you pay a pup when he is young the more independent he will become later in life (the same is true for children, too). So, if the pup cries in the car on the way home, you should cradle him on your lap (unless you are the one driving), and if he cries at home for the first few nights, give him all the attention he needs. That doesn't mean you have to pick him up, pet him, or feed him, but you should let him know you're there and that you care. To make this easier on everyone, it is best to have the pup sleep in the bedroom so that he has company, that he's not alone in his new home. Kind behavior of this sort will help forge a healthy bond between new owners and their pet and help build the pups' confidence. The pup's independence will come later once he has overcome the trauma of separation from his mom and littermates.


    The sensitive period of learning occurs between 3 and 12 weeks of age. It is critical for owners to expose a new puppy to as many different kinds of people, wearing as many different types of apparel, as possible during this period. If pup enjoys these encounters with strangers, he will eventually accept strangers as potential friends. Other animals should be introduced at this early time, too, so that they can be familiarized and recognized as non-threatening. The animals the puppy meets (dogs especially) should be healthy and vaccinated. If you stage-manage these encounters in your home, you can follow the veterinarian's recommendation to avoid public places until the pup is fully vaccinated while at the same time achieving a useful measure of socialization.

    Housebreaking and Crating

    The big question on adopting a pup is how to housebreak him. Again, opinions and methods vary. The first thing an owner must realize is that an 8-week-old pup cannot hold urine for nearly as long as an adult. At this age, the pup still has the need to defecate right after a meal. As far as urination goes, the general rule is that the pup will be able to hold urination for the number of hours equal to his age in months plus one, up to the age of 6-months. Thus, a 2-month-old pup will only be capable of "hanging on" for 3 hours. At nighttime, metabolism slows and water intake is low, so you can add a couple of extra hours, but some very young pups still may not be able to make it through the night without a bathroom stop. Respond to their nighttime cries and provide them with the opportunities they need to "get it right" from the get-go.

    I don't believe paper training is necessary and it may even be counterproductive, sending a message that it's okay to go indoors. It is far better to pick a convenient spot in the backyard that is to be the pup's bathroom. The area should be kept stool-free by picking up solid waste. Even young pups don't like treading in their own excrement or navigating a "mine field" to find a clean spot. The pup should be taken out to this spot on a leash several times a day and at night, if necessary. Times to take the pup outside are: First thing in the morning, after breakfast, mid-morning, lunchtime, mid-afternoon, early evening, and late evening.

    In addition to these times, it is important to take the pup out after every meal and after he has been sleeping, chewing, or playing. Going outside should be a positive experience for the pup, not a drag, either literally or metaphorically. It is helpful to keep the pup moving, though, to prevent him from getting distracted and to cue him to perform the desired behavior using selected cue words. The usual phrase used is "hurry up." After performing appropriately, the pup should be warmly praised and rewarded. He will get the message that he has done something right and will quickly figure out what it is.

    If the pup does not perform as required, bring him back in and confine him for 10 minutes before trying again. Confining him in a crate or tie him to your belt or a fixed object on a short (4-foot) lead. This restriction is not intended as a punishment but as a deterrent. Pups will not urinate or defecate where they stand unless they have no choice. If the wait seems inordinately long, the pup can be given some chicken soup to drink to speed up the process.

    You may have noticed that I referred to the use of a crate as a housebreaking aid. A crate can be a pup's favorite place as long as it is not abused. As den dwellers, dogs need a small, enclosed space in which they can hunker down. Crates are ideal for this purpose and should be a regular feature of even an adult dog's environment. Ideally, the door of the crate should never be shut except for short periods during housetraining.

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