Do you have a new puppy in your life? You may be excited, nervous, wondering what you’ve got yourself into- and, if you’re a first time puppy owner, perhaps a bit clueless about where to start with training.
There is so much information out there about puppy development, socialization and training that hundreds of books could (and have been) written about it. So these tips are by no means new information to the world or a comprehensive guide about what you should know, but they are a few of the things that help us live successfully with puppies in our home. First, a few "just so you know"notes:
- It is worth it to invest the money in a trainer (who uses positive methods) or really high quality group puppy class before your dog starts showing lots of bad manners. Preventing problems from starting is much easier than fixing them later. If you do notice issues, find a trainer asap.
- I highly recommend purchasing the book Puppy Start Right by Kenneth Martin and Debbie Martin.
- If at any point in your puppy's development you start to see any consistent fear, anger, anxiety, or over-reactions towards anything (particularly people/other dogs) consult with a veterinary behaviorist. These could be signs that your puppy has an underlying problem which should be diagnosed by a veterinary behaviorist (not just a trainer) because training alone may not truly resolve the underlying issue and the wrong kind of training can make them worse. Many of these issues have a much better prognosis if they are diagnosed and addressed early on in the puppy's development.
So here they are: My three favorite suggestions for surviving life with a puppy:
1. Give your puppy less freedom.
Less freedom as a puppy = less problem behaviors as an adult. One of the most common mistakes made by new puppy owners is letting them roam the house (or even one room) unsupervised. All it takes is you turning your back for 30 seconds (which you will do if you plan to continue living your life) for your puppy to learn it is great fun to stick his head in the garbage, chew on the table leg, or hop up on the counter to steal a pen to play with. Your puppy will have the rest of his life to learn not to do those things, so wait to allow him access to those temptations until he is a little older and has a little less natural curiosity. It is also helpful for him to already have a few well understood good behaviors like “come” and “stay” to work with before giving him access to tempting things. Nobody can supervise 24/7, so fully puppy proof one small area (the preferred method of containment in our home is an exercise pen filled with toys, that way even walls or window sills are out of reach from the curious puppy) and leave the puppy in there anytime you are nearby but not able to give the puppy 100% off your attention.
Every dog is different, but during times when we can only casually supervise, puppies in our home tend to start off in a playpen then graduate to being gated in a room with us, then to free reign across a few rooms, and eventually to the whole house (usually by the time they are between 1-2 years old). They only get to graduate to the next phase of freedom after we have seen them make good choices like coming when called, regularly choosing their toys over pens on the counter, shoes, or table legs and not having frequent house training accidents.
For good socialization we always give our puppies playtime, training time, opportunities to explore indoors and outdoors on leash (and off leash), social time with other dogs and as many new people as we can possibly find, and ever important relaxation practice time- however in order to ensure that our puppies make positive associations with those things, we do them when we know we can be 100% focused on our dogs. We limit freedom during all the other times of day when we know we have other things going on may divide our attention.
2. Buy a “Kong”. Or ten.
Just kidding, a few will do, and they can really be any hollow rubber toy or puzzle which can be filled with food. The great thing about these- you can fill them with your dog’s normal food (an internet search will give you hundreds of healthy recipes) and then give the puppy their dinner in that toy instead of in a bowl. I have a few training colleagues who won’t ever use regular bowls to feed their dogs until they are teenagers or adults because they want to take as much advantage of their puppy’s daily food as they possibly can. Using a food puzzle or toy instead of a bowl has a lot of benefits, it...
Makes dinner last an hour instead of 5 minutes
Keeps the puppies physically and mentally active without your help
Is helpful in preventing separation anxiety (they are too busy eating to mind that you left them alone)
It can help them practice being close to you in relaxed, non-crazy puppy biting way (if you hold onto one end of the kong while they work on the other)
Can occupy them at times when something exciting or slightly scary might be happening that you’d rather have them not get overly worked up about as adults (like the sound of the vacuum cleaner or guests walking inside the door)
And sometimes most importantly; it buys you enough time to eat dinner, do the dishes or enjoy a glass of wine without going nuts trying to manage your dog’s boundless energy and chewing.
3. Use your body language to tell your puppy when they’ve done something you don’t like. And be consistent!
Right from the very first time you (or anyone else in your home) interacts with the puppy be consistent in (immediately and silently) standing up, walking away, and avoiding eye contact when your puppy does something you don’t like. Every home will have slightly different rules, but the two big “no-no’s” in our house? When our puppies put their front paws on us or nip at our skin. ALL puppies will do these things to varying degrees (because they are acceptable in dog world) but the more consistent the human beings are in quickly turning, calmly walking away and temporarily ending the interaction every single time one of those two things happen, the more quickly the puppies will learn that is NOT how humans play. Make sure everyone in your home is all on the same page, if sometimes you (or others) ignore the dog when he puts his paws on you but occasionally you pet him and say hello- he will keep jumping up. Avoid shouting, saying “no” repeatedly, pushing the puppy away, or using physical punishments like nose swats or rolling the puppy over onto it’s back. Responding in any of those ways can make normal puppy behavior worse and in some dogs this leads to reactivity or aggression later in life. Suddenly pretending the dog doesn't exist will communicate clearly to the dog that you don't play that kind of game and will help you end up with an adult dog who greets you with wiggles and kisses instead of jumps or bites. Feel free to always give your dog lots of loving when they are greeting or playing nicely!
If your puppy seems out of control and is taking it out on you (don't be alarmed, that does happen from time to time) ignoring might not work because they may be hurting you or continuing the unwanted behavior even after you’ve suddenly ignored them. This means they are probably overstimulated (think tired toddler, on a sugar high, in the middle of an amusement park) and need a quiet time out. Time out spaces can be a crate, an exercise pen, an empty mudroom with a gate- any small quiet space with access to nothing but a few toys. Time out is not a punishment, but rather a break from the world for an overstimulated puppy. The time out will help them relax or help teach them to seek out toys (rather than human flesh) when they start to get too excited. Puppies should NOT be allowed to interact with humans when they are overstimulated like that, so if ignoring them or redirecting them to play with a toy doesn’t seem to be working, calmly pick them up (without talking to them) and put them in their time out space for a break. If you find your puppy needs a time out every single time he is playing with people, there may be stuff going on other than healthy, normal puppy play- so seek out the help of a positive trainer or veterinary behaviorist.
One last free tip? Have fun. Enjoy your puppy's antics. Take a zillion pictures (send a few to me). Accept that you may lose a few flowers in the garden and your house may carry one or two new chew marks from that time your puppy learned how to jump out of their pen. Enjoy getting to know each other. Know that at some point, you might need a mental/emotional break from the puppy for a day, so it's okay to leave it with a friend or at a quality kennel. Let training be the part of your day you and your dog look forward to most, and have fun with it! Practice having patience and calm consistency. You'll have 8+ years to enjoy a mature faithful companion- so for those first few weeks or months when your puppy is driving you crazy, just go along for the ride and patiently work with whatever the puppy throws at you that day :)