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:
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.
As surely as the sun comes up, a young pup is going to go through a chewing phase. This usually starts around 4-months of age as new teeth begin to erupt. Presumably, discomfort along the gum line triggers the chewing. If you do not provide an appropriate array of chew toys for a pup at this stage of development he will find his own gum massager, whether that’s an electric cord, your shoes, or your furniture. Rather than punishing inappropriately oriented chewing behavior, it is better to substitute appropriate chew toys for things you would rather not have destroyed. A dab or spray of disinfectant or underarm deodorant on valued possessions serves as a deterrent.
Introducing to a Collar and Lead
Because a young pup is a law unto himself, he will need to be introduced to a collar and lead at the earliest opportunity. It is best to buy a lightweight nylon collar, put it on your pup, and leave it on. Your pup may scratch it with his hind foot or roll over, rubbing his head and neck on the ground. Don’t worry, this “feels strange” phase will only last a few minutes. A lightweight, loop-less nylon lead can be fitted a couple of days later so as not to overwhelm the pup with too many new things at once. This, too, should be left on while you are at home for the pup to drag around. Once he has grown used to this new “tail,” you can pick up the end and follow the pup around. When he starts to drag you along with it then it’s time to exercise a little resistance from your end. If the pup chews the lead, try soaking it in potash alum and hanging it up to dry before you attach it. Alum is so bitter it will fairly pucker his lips and deter him from chewing.
Puppies are going to do “bad things,” like careening around in fits of the “maddies,” knocking over precious household ornaments. How should you handle these situations? Should you punish unwanted and unacceptable behavior? The answer is NO, don’t punish. Punishment will teach a dog nothing except to avoid the punishment. Rather, puppy-proof your house, be patient and tolerant, and reward acceptable alternative behavior. Like children going through the “terrible twos,” young pups will eventually reform if you reward acceptable behavior and ignore bad behavior.
Should you handle young pups soon after adoption? Can it harm them? Yes, you should handle them, and no, it won’t harm them. In fact, it does pups a lot of good to receive the tactile stimulation of petting and handling, causing them to develop faster and better and helping them acclimate to people. While a pup may struggle and wriggle at first, gentle persistence will win the pup over. You should have as your goal being able to pick your pup up, groom him, open his mouth, look in his ears, handle his feet, goose him, and so on, without him struggling. When you or your vet needs to do things like this later, the pup (and later adult) is more tolerant.
Pups don’t speak human language and never will. For them, English is a second language. Sure, they can understand a few linguistic sounds but that’s not language. Sounds that are most easily associated with an event are short ones and ones that end with a consonant. Words like sit, wait, out, and cut (short for cut it out) are excellent. In communicating with a dog, say the command (word cue) once, and once only. The pup will remember the command for 2 minutes. Then assist the pup to respond the way you want by positioning him using placement techniques (tactile guidance). And when things go right, don’t forget to praise – immediately.
Pups and adult dogs respond to three levels of address. Commands should be given briskly and are best understood by the pup if spoken in a neutral tone, and spoken quietly. Deterrence is best conveyed in a low (growl-like) tone (“Naaah”). Praise is inferred if high sing-song tones are employed.
Limit Setting: Who’s In Charge?
It is extremely important for an owner to make sure the new pup views them not only as a friend but also a leader. Limit setting is the way to achieve this end. When an owner first gets a pup they should decide what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Acceptable behavior should be positively rewarded and unacceptable behavior should be ignored. You can also employ some negative consequences – the withdrawal of a valued resource, such as your attention, an offered food treat or access. Negative consequences should never entail physical punishment.
Every dog will try on a little nippy, mouthy behavior as he goes through the 4 to 5 month stage. A little mouthing from a very young pup is acceptable, but nipping must be checked if it becomes uncomfortable or annoying to the owner. Shouting “ouch” or “no bite,” at the critical moment, and suddenly withdrawing your hand should send the desired message, that people are soft and “ouchy” and that biting will not be tolerated. What you teach in this way is “bite inhibition,” i.e. there is no need to bite people hard to send a strong message.
Toys and Entertainment
When a young pup first comes into the house, he is the center of everyone’s attention and, if anything, can be easily overwhelmed. As time passes, the novelty fades and life returns to normal. At this stage, the pup can wind up being ignored for hours on end. This latter situation, though occasionally unavoidable, must be thoughtfully addressed. Puppy-friendly games and toys, even novel feeding opportunities, should be employed to keep a pup happy while his owners are otherwise occupied. Boomer balls (plastic balls with holes punched in them) and Buster Cubes can be used to disburse food slowly and make the pup work for rations. Chew toys, like Kongs and drilled out Nyla bones, can be made more interesting and entertaining by enriching them with goopy food (like peanut butter or spray cheese) and more long lasting by freezing them.
The more time and attention you invest up front in teaching and taking care of a new pup the greater will be your rewards downstream. Initially, you must fill a social vacuum in the pup’s life or he may become “damaged goods.” A healthy relationship to strive toward is one in which the pup dotes on you but also respects you. If the advice above is followed there is no reason why this goal should not be achieved.
The “strange situation” test can be used to mark your progress. In this test, owner and pup visit some new place in which there are a variety of toys on the floor. A psychologically healthy pup over 3 months of age will wander away from his human guardian and investigate the new environment and the toys. If the owner leaves, the dog may look puzzled and follow his owner to the door but should soon resume investigative activities. He should also greet his owner on their return but quickly settle down to an independent activity. If the dog couldn’t care less about the owner’s comings and goings then he has not bonded properly. On the other hand, if the pup is inseparable from his owner and refuses to investigate the new environment, grieving his/her departure and greeting over exuberantly, this can spell trouble in the form of over-bonding and herald problems of over-attachment, like separation anxiety.
Hopefully, the majority of new pups are treated well and fairly so that many of these problems are avoided. With housebreaking, chewing, nipping, and the like, all under control and appropriately directed, all the new puppy owner has to do is to enjoy this most enjoyable phase and await the inevitable metamorphosis of a good pup into a great dog.