It’s always a happy moment for parents and children when they first acquire a new puppy. Most people receive a few elementary instructions on how to proceed from the breeder and all except the most foolhardy will have made preparations at home for the youngster’s arrival at their home.
Food bowls and dog beds, collars and leads, toys, and an ample supply of puppy rations, should await the pup on homecoming. With luck, the breeder will also point out the necessity of vaccination and deworming, recommending a timely veterinary visit so that health matters are in hand.
What else then do new puppy owners need to know during the early weeks and months of ownership if they are to give their pup the best chance of becoming a well-balanced, well-behaved, and loving family dog? Below is a list of 10 important things that new puppy owners should know or realize if they are to stand the best chance of success:
Appropriate psychological support is required. It is extremely important that young puppies, of say 8 to 12 weeks of age, do not suffer any psychological trauma. They should be nurtured at this stage and allowed to develop confidence, which will remain with them as a positive aspect of their personalities for the remainder of their lives. In this respect, there should be no physical punishment, no yelling, no hitting, and no intimidating of the pup for apparent misdeeds. Negative punishment, i.e. withdrawal of a valued resource [such as your attention] can be employed later as a corrective measure to address any emerging problem behaviors. It is particularly important to ‘be there’ for puppies at times of need and not to leave them alone for long hours. This is especially important at night when the new pup cries for attention. While some folk say, “Leave the pup alone or you’ll make a rod for your own back,” or “Just let them cry themselves to sleep,” this is totally the wrong approach. Rather, the pup should be allowed to sleep in the owner’s bedroom and should be attended to and spoken to gently if it shows signs of distress. It is not necessary to allow the pup to come into the owner’s bed, simply for it to know that someone is there for it and is attentive.
Socialization is imperative. While a lot of people pay lip service to the word “socialization” as it relates to puppy training, very few people realize that this should be a carefully thought out, active and ongoing process if it is to achieve the requisite goals. The concept of “puppy parties” is a useful one which entails the introduction of young pups to an assortment of benign individuals of different ages and genders, wearing different types of apparel, whilst arranging for the circumstances to be pleasurable for the pup. This ensures that the pup comes to regard all people, familiar and unfamiliar, as potential friends and benefactors and staves off future fearfulness and even fear aggression. Socialization is an extremely important measure and one to understand and practice. Desensitization to various things that the pup is likely to encounter in its present and future environment is also important. Vacuum cleaners, ironing boards, various sounds, sights, and even smells can be introduced in a graded way for the puppy’s controlled acceptance.
Expectations for house training. There is a formula for the amount of time for which a puppy can go without having an accident on the floor. The formula is N + 1 hour, where N is the age of the puppy in months. So a two-month old puppy might be able to hold its urine for 3 hours and a three-month old puppy might make it as long as 4 hours. The point is that if you leave the puppy alone for greater than the time that it can contain itself, an accident is inevitable. Obviously, punishing a puppy for having an accident under these circumstances is totally inappropriate and will lead to great confusion on the puppy’s part. Instead, owners should realize that housebreaking is a time consuming business that requires their close supervision and attention. They must chaperone the puppy out into the yard and reward it for eliminating in the right place while they prevent accidents indoors by giving the pup proper attention and somewhat restricting its access to all areas of the house.
How and what to feed the puppy. Hopefully most people now realize that puppies require somewhat specialized rations because they are growing. The safest thing to do is for the puppy owner to buy AAFCO-approved puppy food, either dry or wet or a mixture of the two and meal feed the pup an appropriate number of times a day. Initially, this may be 4 times a day, at three months it could be down to 3 times a day and later it can be reduced to twice a day. It is probably a bad idea to feed pups table scraps partly because human food will unbalance an otherwise properly balanced ration but also because it will encourage begging behavior at the table later on which is something that most owners do not want to experience with an adult dog.
No two puppies are the same. We’ve all heard about puppy temperament testing and, while the scientific jury is still out on this equivocal procedure, the fact is that different puppies do have different temperaments. There are different strokes for different pups. Owners need to appreciate this and adjust their interactions accordingly. Some pups, for example, may be very forward and do a lot of yapping, mouthing, and jumping up. These pups need to be gently reigned in to discourage their rowdy behavior. At the other end of the spectrum are the timid shy pups that need to be coaxed out of their shell. In the latter case, it is helpful to play games that the pup is allowed to win to build its confidence and self-esteem. ‘Tug of War’ is an excellent example of a game that can be used to the benefit of these timid dogs.
The territorial dog and the need for owner leadership. Dogs are a territorial species. With no proper guidance, some will take residence in your home and, as they mature, may gradually assume territorial responsibility for the home, deciding who is and who is not welcome at your door. At this stage, they may simply allow you to be there because you feed them. This is an untenable situation so it is important that from early age you display your leadership and control within your home. The way for owners to demonstrate their leadership is simple and, for some pups, essential. It is simply to insist, right from the getgo, that pups earn their food and treats from their owner. Young pups should be instructed, using a single-word command, to “Sit”, followed by appropriate positioning, before their food is served. Meal feeding is, of course, essential with this technique. Similarly, pups should be required to ear all treats: First a command, then a response, then the treat. It has been shown that these two simple measures, requiring a pup to sit for food and obey a command in order to receive treats, will prevent the development of dominance toward owners and will also likely help prevent untoward dominance-related territoriality.
Communication and proper training are key to successful puppy raising. Owners should understand that some kind of training is essential for their pup and the earlier this is started the better. While taking a puppy to puppy-training class at 4 months of age is better than no training at all, the general rule is that the earlier training is started the better – even if it simply involves pairing certain words with certain actions to build the pups vocabulary. It has been shown recently that pups can learn up to 200 words and some can learn many more than that, possibly as many as 500-1000 words. There’s no reason to stop teaching your dog once it has mastered Sit and Down. Proper communication between owner and pup, later young dog, is a sure way to minimize stress and ensure proper behavior. Training should not be about forcing the pup to obey under threat of punishment but rather should entail encouraging the dog to obey because of the positive consequences of its actions. Positive training using a clicker, for example [see clicker training elsewhere on this website] and early acclimation to a head halter control system are really all that is required, if used properly. Choke collars, prong collars, and electric shock collars should not be used to train puppies or adult dogs. Other techniques that are inappropriate (and perhaps even harmful) when training a puppy are jowl grabbing, chin chapping, and alpha-rolling (flipping the puppy on its back and pinning it until it stops struggling).
Desensitization to being touched is important. There are lots of things that people need to do with dogs once they grow up and it is as well to get puppies used to any many of these interventions as soon as possible. Handle the pup’s muzzle, pry open its mouth, play with its ears, gently grab folds of skin on its back, chest, abdomen and legs, handle its feet, and get it used to having its tail and nether regions touched and manipulated (your vet will thank you one day). Practice these things every day.
Crates are forever. Many owners think that crates are just used as a tool to assist in housebreaking a pup. Once proper house training has been accomplished, they then pass the crate on to a friend or neighbor or store it indefinitely in the cellar. This should not be so. Dogs are den dwellers and appreciate having a crate around for life. There is no need to shut the door on the crate – simply provide it as a retreat for the pup from the madding crowd of life. A crate should be available at all times for the dog to ‘get away from it all’ or to use if it simply wants to rest. Preferably the crate should be solid-sided to make it den-like and preferably it should have a comfortable pad and bumpers making it a comfortable place for the dog to be. Food treats can be hidden in the crate for enticement and chew toys should be available inside. If you make your pup comfortable in its crate, make the crate a safe asylum from a busy world, it will appreciate it and would thank you if it could. If a dog is comfortable inside its crate, its not unacceptable to shut the door from time to time, if necessary, but not if this induces attempts to escape and not for too long (1-2 hours should be the maximum time and even so, only if the dog has food or toys to occupy it while sequestered).
Health matters. Every owner should make it his or her business to learn something about their pet’s health. They should be cognizant of their dog’s disposition. They should watch out for changes in appetite and body weight and should be wary of other indicators of illness, such as coughing, breathlessness, exercise intolerance, alimentary disturbances and various discharges. If there is any doubt as to the state of a dog’s health it should be taken to a veterinarian immediately for a physical examination, diagnosis of the problem, and treatment, if necessary. Vaccination and de-worming are necessary for young pups. They should be undertaken at a veterinarian’s direction at the appropriate times, usually between 10 – 14 weeks of age. The vet should also be asked about neutering. Dogs that are not intended for breeding should be neutered for health reasons, for behavioral reasons, and for birth control.
Reference to the 10 items discussed above will help to keep puppy owners on the right track and help them avoid making mistakes that may have far-reaching effects throughout the pup’s life. With these provisions in mind, a pup can grow up to be the best that he can be, happy and healthy, trusting and loyal, obedient yet confident, a model of the way a dog should be. Aside from all-important health considerations, appropriate socialization and protection of the pup from being exposed to abusive and disturbing circumstances are keys to success.