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Bringing home a new puppy must be something like getting ready to bring home a baby. You nest, you spend countless hours shopping, you read all the puppy books, you feel prepared. And then all of a sudden, a few days or sometimes weeks before the event, you get cold feet. Suddenly, you feel like you aren’t ready at all. What are you forgetting? You question yourself – am I really ready for this responsibility? I mean – reallytrulymaybeI’mnotandI’manidiotwhydidIthinkaboutgettingapuppy? The thoughts flip by so quickly in your brain sometimes it’s hard to nail them back down with some good old fashioned common sense.

If you just brought home a new puppy or you are planning on doing so soon and you are having any of these thoughts, don’t worry, take a deep breath and calm down. You’re probably having these thoughts because you care so much, and you probably are ready. At the same time, the thoughts aren’t unfounded. You are taking on a huge responsibility, and the first few weeks of having puppy in your home are incredibly important. They are so important, in fact, that most animal behaviorists refer to weeks 5-12 of puppy’s life as the “critical” period or the “sensitive” period.

Keep in mind that these weeks are no trivial matter and that once these weeks are gone you cannot get them back. Not ever. That’s not to say, of course, that you can’t make up for them, but your pup’s future will be much brighter, and you will be able to avoid a lot of agony later on if you don’t have to make up for them.

This is the time in your puppy’s life where he/she is soaking in the most information. Conclusions about the world are being drawn left and right. And the great thing is that the sky’s the limit on what kind of world you can create for your pup. Think about how you want your pup to see the world. Do you want him to love people? Dogs? Cats? Do you want him to be attached to you or the whole family? Do you want him to be fearless or reserved? If you can think it, there’s a good chance your puppy can be it, and this is the period where you lay those very important foundations.

Shelby soaking in her new environment with her satellite ears.

Now don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that if you take your puppy to daycare and socialization classes and all kinds of fun places with all kinds of wonderful people that your pup is automatically going to be a social butterfly at week 13 and you can then stop working with her. Socialization is an ongoing process and you will have to keep up with it throughout your dog’s life, paying special attention to it around 5-9 months, another important period most commonly referred to as the “fear” period.

However, you can start your dog out on the right foot by being active about his socialization during the first few weeks of his life with you. It’s important to keep in mind that socialization doesn’t work when you overexpose, and that can be a very fine line to walk. Overexposure can be noticed by taking some time out of every day to observe your dog and find out where her breaking points are. Is she still smiling with a relaxed, open mouth, when she meets the fifth stranger that day? If not, you might want to call it quits and try again tomorrow, because you risk overexposure. As a general rule, you probably want to err on the side of caution and try exposing your pup to at least one new thing a day, but never more than three. This includes all types of animals, all textures of ground, water, nail clipping, hair brushes, men and women wearing hats and coats and different smells and sounds. Think of what your typical week looks like and try to expose your pup to things that she will encounter during day to day life. Do you intend to take your pup to soccer practice with the kids? Take her to the soccer field, expose her to the noises that crowds can make, the smell of sweat and plastic water bottles. Do you intend to have your pup drive everywhere with you? Take him for short rides in the car and end up fun places, not just the vet or the groomer.

But by far the most important conclusion that your pup is going to draw during this critical period is what she thinks of you. For this reason, I strongly, strongly urge you to consider not using any aversive training methods in the first four to five weeks of your new pup being in your home, even if you intend to use physical correction and aversive methods later.

Think about it this way – your puppy is coming from a home where she was loved and cuddled by lots of fun people, other dogs, and of course, mama. She had essentially no rules. Now, she is moving in with strangers, she is separated from her littermates and her canine mom, and she is being slammed with a whole bunch of new rules. On top of everything, she is soaking up information like a sponge. If possible, you should try to make sure all the information she soaks up about you is positive. This will make everything a lot simpler later on, and you will have a better bond because of it.

Shelby on the first day we brought her home. She is clearly nervous and probably a little afraid. It's a big change.

The best and easiest way to create a strong and lasting bond with your pup is to make sure that during this critical period, you refrain from using any aversives. Aversives don’t just mean choke chains and kicks either. An aversive can be anything from yelling too loud (and remember how sensitive puppy ears can be), to a tap on the nose, to petting your pup in a way he doesn’t like.

Now look, none of us are perfect, that’s why they call us human, and there is no way that you can guarantee that your pup is not going to experience an aversive. You are going to get angry, maybe yell. You might even accidentally step on the little guy’s tail, because you aren’t used to having a puppy underfoot, but doing everything you can to prevent your pup from seeing you as anything but the source of all things wonderful in life will payoff big time in the long run.

That also doesn’t mean that your pup should get the run of the house, and consequently you, for the first four to five weeks of being in your home. Not at all. Setting rules and teaching impulse and frustration control are great things to do during this critical period and will help your pup become a more balanced, well rounded dog. What I’m saying is that there are tons of purely positive, non-aversive methods to achieve the exact same goals as the aversive methods, especially in early training.

Like I said before, even if you are going to go with a physical or force based training system later on in your pup’s life, at least consider going positive for the first several weeks. Below, I have outlined a few of the more common problems with puppies and positive solutions to each (in alphabetical order for easy reference). If you need more information on any of these methods or are interested in positive training for the duration of your dog’s life, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

NAME ASSOCIATION

Because name association has much to do with some of the other techniques I discuss below, I am placing it here, out of order. Name association is one of the most important things to teach your pup, and you should consider doing it before you teach any other behavior. Fortunately, name association is extremely easy to teach. Unfortunately, it can be equally as easy to unravel.

Begin by getting 5-10 small, tasy treats that your pup absolutely adores. Try small pieces of chicken, hot dog, beef, or peanut butter or liver treats. Get close to your pup and say his name in a happy or neutral tone. As soon as you say his name, pop a treat into his mouth. Repeat this 5-10 times until you are out of treats. Do this 5 times a day randomly throughout the day. After the first session or two, see if your pup is responding to his name. Call his name while he is doing something else. If he looks up, feed him a treat and give yourself a much deserved pat on the back. Mission accomplished.

Be careful to keep your training in place by not using your pup’s name as an aversive. Try not to yell his name at him when he has done something that displeases you. Furthermore, try not to use his name in association with anything he may not like. For example, try to avoid saying his name before you clip his nails, put him in the bathtub, or make him come inside from an especially fun play session. You want to keep him excited about hearing his name and looking forward to whatever comes after.

CHEWING

All puppies chew, and I hate to break it to you, but it only gets worse as they get older and the teething begins. The best and quickest way to get a puppy to stop chewing on your favorite pair of stilettos or gnawing on the table leg is to have a wide variety of hard toys for him to chew. I highly recommend bully sticks and nylabones, but plastic bottles and milk jugs work just as well and won’t kill the pocket book (just make sure to supervise the chewing of these as little pieces of plastic can end up in puppy’s tummy if you don’t keep an eye on him).

The other key to this is to make sure you rotate the toys. Put three or four down on the floor for a couple days, then switch them out with three or four more. This keeps the toys interesting and fun. Kong toys are always a great hit as well, because they have food in them, and food for puppies is always fun.

Shelby gnawing on Smokey's Kong Wobble after she just discovered it had food inside it.

Now, say this doesn’t stop your new puppy from chewing on everything you love (which it probably won’t). What do you do? Well this is a great place to start training the “Leave It” command, which will serve you for the next 10-15 years, I promise. One of the ways to begin training a “Leave It” is to walk near your pup, say her name and then say “Leave It”. The instant she looks up at you, give her a treat. She will probably learn quicker if you use a marker word or sound at this process, like a click, or a “yes” but if you aren’t intending to marker train later on, then teaching a marker won’t be all that useful now.

While puppy is busy chewing on her treat, quickly replace the object she was chewing on with an acceptable toy. As soon as she begins chewing on her toy, praise her in a soft, lilting voice and pet her in a way she enjoys (generally this involves a good scratch under the ears or the base of the tail or long, massaging strokes from the top of the head to the tail. Dogs as a general rule do not enjoy being patted on the head, nor do you, I would imagine).

Follow these simple steps and your new addition will be staying away from the electrical cords, shoes, kids’ toys and furniture in no time (well, admittedly some time) and you will have the added benefit of a puppy who thinks you are the greatest human being on earth.

DIGGING

Not all dogs like to dig. If I’m describing your dog, be grateful and skip this section, or read it and laugh at all the other misfortunates out there who have dig-crazy dogs. Digging is really inconvenient for a number of reasons. First, it messes up your landscaping, second, it makes your dog dirty (which is extremely infuriating after you’ve just given him a bath with that $15 a bottle shampoo that came so highly recommended from your groomer), and third, it can actually be dangerous if you are unfortunate enough to step in one of those ankle-breaking holes on one of your middle of the night potty explorations. Also, if you are one who is prone to drinking beer while mowing the lawn (no one in my family does this), those holes can seriously damage your tractor if you inadvertently mow over one, and bent blades are a pain to fix and expensive to replace.

Shelby laying in one of her holes, enjoying a good afternoon snack, I mean, stick.

Unfortunately, for many dogs, digging is second only to breathing. Some dogs (mine) will even attempt to dig inside, so teaching not to dig can be a little bit of a challenge, but not impossible. For those of you who know me, I taught Shelby to dig on cue, so that I could show her where it was acceptable to dig and also get my flowers planted in half the time. That’s a little bit more complex however, and probably not well suited to an eight week old puppy.

What you can do is work on your “Leave It” by saying the puppy’s name followed by “Leave It”. As soon as the puppy looks up, give her a treat and lead her away from the spot, using a treat lure right near her nose if she isn’t as inclined to move as you would like. Be sure to use the treat, not the leash, when working on this exercise. If you have an area in your yard that you don’t mind the puppy digging, lead her over to that area and let her have at it. If you would prefer there not be holes in your yard, after you have led her away, try distracting her with a fun game or a quick training session. Puppies are always up for a distraction, and she will probably forget about the hole in no time.

Shelby and Smokey having fun digging in the dirt that we had delivered. Since we were moving it anyway, we let them have at it.

HOUSEBREAKING

Dun dun dun…the evil of it all. I know, trust me, Shelby was a tough one to housebreak, but we did eventually get through it.

The important things to keep in mind with housebreaking are: consistency, consistency, consistency. I’ll also mention that your dog isn’t going to the bathroom in the house to “spite you”. Think about it – what do dogs love rolling in more than anything on earth? That’s right folks! Dog poop! Dogs think any foul smelling thing is the epitome of bliss, but nothing comes more highly revered in dog speak than poop. Why then would your dog poop on the floor to spite you? Never mind the fact that spite is a highly charged, highly complex emotion that requires self-awareness which dogs arguably do not possess. So when you come home, and Fido has left you a present, try not to get mad, even if it is in your work boots (I wish I could say that didn’t come from actual experience, but sadly, Shelby has pooped in our shoes).

Whether you are housebreaking using treats or simple praise, make sure to load it on when your puppy goes outside. As soon as puppy squats to go one or two, say your command word for that. We use “Go Potty” for number one and “Empty” for number two. It won’t take long with a lot of love and patience to get these bodily functions on cue.

Remember though that your puppy is going to need to go outside a lot, at least once every hour or two. For that reason, consider hanging bells on the door so that you can train your pup to ring when he needs to go out. Every time you go out, ring the bells and say “Outside” or “Let’s Go” or whatever magical code word you intend to use for going outside for a bathroom break. Then take puppy outside to do his business and watch the magic happen. There is much, much more to be said on this subject, but I am going to stop it with the basics.

JUMPING UP

Puppies like to say hello by giving kisses on the mouth. And for the first couple weeks, you may even enjoy that, or invite it. But when your puppy is no longer a puppy and you have a full grown dog jumping up on you (for all you GSD owners, keep in mind that this can mean a 85-110 pound dog) or worse yet, your elderly Aunt Ethel who needs a walker to get around and weighs 80 pounds soaking wet and has bones as frail as soap, you may be regretting your decision to encourage jumping.

Unwanted jumping is a great thing to nip in the bud right at the beginning of puppy’s entrance into the home. And with a puppy, it’s much easier than with a full grown dog. Shelby, for her part, rarely jumps up on another human being except for Joe and me (we allow it with us), because we started this right away.

So, as soon as puppy jumps up on you, you can do one of several things. First, you can freeze. You stand still, put your arms across your chest and wait for the puppy to stop jumping. As soon as he does, praise. If he starts jumping again when you go to pet him, immediately stand back up and freeze. He’ll get the hint pretty quickly.

Another useful thing you can do is simply turn your back to the puppy and “body block” him. When he tries to get around to your front, keep turning so your back is always facing him. When he stops jumping, praise. If he starts jumping again when you go to pet him, stand back up and turn your back to him. It is important to note that you should consider another method of teaching this if you have an especially “shy” or “soft” dog (that is, a dog who seems to take offense and get brokenhearted over even a grumpy glance in his direction). Shy or soft dogs can sometimes take turning your back to them as an aversive all in itself.

The other thing you could do, which may take a little longer, but will be useful later on (especially if puppy is a breed that will be tall enough to “counter surf” in the not so distant future) is to teach an “Off” cue. Some like to teach this cue as “Down” though I prefer “Off” so as it doesn’t get confused with “Lay Down”.

Teaching “Off” takes a little bit of patience and possibly some scratched knees. The simplest way to teach “Off” is to wait patiently while the puppy jumps all over you. The instant all four feet are touching the floor, you say “Off” and feed a tasty treat. As your pup improves and becomes quicker and quicker, you can try saying “Off” while his feet are still on you. If he moves off, quickly feed a treat. If he doesn’t, go back a step and continue using “Off” only when his feet touch the floor.

NIPPING 

Puppies nip all the time. They nip in play; they nip to get that treat out of your fingers; sometimes they nip when you’re just cuddling them. Dogs communicate with their mouths, mainly because they don’t have hands. Puppies spend the first eight weeks of their lives constantly nipping their mothers, their littermates, and I’m sure, their breeders. There are different ways to positively address nipping in all situations, but I will briefly outline the easiest ways to stop nipping in the more common household situations.

Nipping during play

It’s very hard to prevent a puppy from nipping during play, mainly because they don’t know enough impulse control yet. The quickest way to end nipping during play is to end the play. Say you are playing a gentle game of tug, and puppy lunges forward to grab the rope or other tug toy and gets your fingers or your hand instead. Don’t get angry (I know, that hurt, right? Take a deep breath and try to remember your puppy is really just a baby). Instead, stand up, take the toy with you and move away from the puppy for thirty seconds. If the puppy follows you and tries to instigate play, ignore him. When the thirty seconds are over (try timing it on your watch or cell phone), begin your play session again. The reward is the play itself, no treats necessary. It won’t take your puppy long to figure out that he needs to be more careful with his mouth if he wants the game to continue.

Another effective method for ceasing play nipping which can be combined with the one I mentioned above, is crying out. In play between two dogs, when one dog bites too hard or gets too carried away, you will hear the other dog yipe loudly. This is a signal to the biter that, “Hey, you went too far and that hurt!” You can do something similar with your pup. When he bites, pull your hand back and say, “Ow!” More important than volume is actually the pitch of this one staccato note. You want your voice to be relatively high, making it more similar to the yipe of a dog. You can easily combine this with the above-mentioned method and say, “Ow!” and then take away play for thirty seconds or so to effectively nip nipping in the bud.

Nipping for food

When puppies bite their mothers too hard while nursing, the mother gets up and walks away. She is teaching her puppy a lesson – hey, if you are going to bite me, then I’m taking away dinner. You can employ this same tactic with your puppy. If you are giving the pup a treat, and he bites your finger, quickly remove the treat for fifteen to thirty seconds. Then, say “Nice” or “Gentle” or some other word you intend to use to convey, “I don’t want you to bite my finger off thank you very much” and offer the treat again. If the puppy bites again, remove the treat and repeat.

Nipping when cuddling

Sometimes, I know, it’s hard to believe, but your dog just doesn’t want to be cuddled. It’s hard to stomach, but it’s a fact of life. As much as your pup may love you, and you may love her, sometimes, she just wants to be left alone. This is especially true if you have picked her up from some other arousing adventure, like chewing or playing tug or roughhousing with the family. If you pick puppy up from this kind of high energy, arousing situation, your puppy might be communicating to you that she doesn’t want to be picked up and petted right then. While you don’t have to let your dog get her way all the time, this is probably one of those times when you should put her down and let her continue on her way, saving cuddling for a time when both of you are more relaxed.

Shelby and I napping together after a nice play session that wore us both out.

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