Early this last January, one of us (Rick) went out to the Shelter "just to look" and came home with a Golden Retriever puppy named Cooper. At 14 weeks of age, Cooper was on the far edge of the prime time to bond with his new human family: puppies do best when they leave the litter at about 7-12 weeks of age. If they leave home too soon, they miss out on important parts of their education; mom and the siblings provide important lessons on appropriate dog social behavior during the first critical weeks. On the other hand, pups that stay with their litter too long often become excessively dog-oriented and have a harder time bonding with their eventual owners.
But with a conscientious program of socialization and training, Cooper's turning out to be a well-adjusted and (mostly) well-behaved member of his new pack. In this column we want to share with you some techniques for bringing a new puppy into your home and making him a member of your family.
We noticed that Cooper tended to get more excited and barky when encountering something new than our other dogs had at the same age, probably because he had had limited opportunities to experience new things. So we're making extra effort to give him lots of positive experiences with new people, new places, new animals, new sights and sounds of all kinds. We enrolled him in puppy classes, and we go on long walks that take us near traffic, barking dogs, children, shoppers, grocery carts, and anything else we can think of that he will encounter as an adult. We take him to local pet-supply stores where he meets lots of dog-friendly people, smells bins of dog treats, observes birds, fish, and gerbils, and experiences automatic doors, PA systems, and slick vinyl floors. We take lots of car rides to fun places, often stopping by our veterinarian's office just for a treat from the staff and a quick weigh-in.
One of our favorite places to socialize a puppy is outside a grocery store or mall. Take some yummy puppy treats with you. As people approach you (and they will--who can resist a cute puppy?), have them give the pup a treat. If your dog acts fearful, don't force him to meet the new person, BUT DON'T SOOTHE OR COMFORT HIM, EITHER! You don't want to inadvertently reward the fearful behavior. Instead, go stand next to the person and act happy and confident. As pack leader, you should set the tone.
It's important that you socialize your puppy around children. You should coach the kids how to interact with the dog, and supervise those interactions. You want your puppy's encounters with children to be enjoyable.
A word of caution: until your puppy has completed his vaccinations, he isn't immune to certain dog-borne diseases. You need to weigh the need for early socialization against the risk of illness. Talk to your veterinarian about ways to get your young puppy out and about safely.
Establish Manners and Rules
All members of the household should agree on puppy rules. Is it okay to get on the furniture? Any rooms off-limits? Puppies will learn the rules much faster if those rules are consistent and enforced consistently. The main thing is to not reward behavior in your puppy you don't want to see in your adult dog. This can be challenging, because puppies are so cute and funny. But by laughing and encouraging your puppy to bark at people coming through the door, or to growl when you touch his toys, you're encouraging aggressive behavior.
Another example of inadvertently encouraging behavior you don't want is petting a puppy as he jumps up on you. Chances are, you won't want your adult dog jumping on people, so don't reinforce your puppy for doing it. Instead, teach him that the way to greet people is to Sit.
If you don't want your adult dog up on the couch, don't hold your puppy and pet him while on the couch. If you don't want your adult dog to beg at the table, don't give your puppy tidbits from the table.
Supervise! Supervise! Supervise!
Puppies are like toddlers: they need to be kept safe and out of trouble, and they need to be taught how to behave. When you're home, you must watch and supervise your puppy. When you're not there, she must be safely confined. Crates and kennels are great when used humanely. A puppy-proofed room with a baby gate also is a good choice.
Meet Your Puppy's Social Needs
Remember that puppies and dogs are pack animals and need to spend time with you, their "pack" or family. Don't isolate puppies for long periods of time. Let them spend time with the family and teach them the rules of the house. A great way to get some free "pack time" is to let your puppy sleep in a crate or on a dog bed in your bedroom.
Meet Your Puppy's Need for Mental Stimulation and Physical Exercise
Your puppy needs mental stimulation. One of the best ways to meet this need is with training and learning games. Also, be sure your puppy has fun, safe toys.
Your puppy's exercise needs will change as he grows. A nine-month-old puppy will require more exercise than a nine-week-old puppy. Most adolescent dogs need a good 30 minutes of aerobic exercise several times a week. Just leaving him out in the yard will not meet his exercise needs.
Many behavior problems occur because a puppy isn't getting the supervision, socialization, mental stimulation, and physical exercise he requires. It's important as owners that we avoid behavior problems by meeting our puppies' basic needs.
Speaking of basic needs, puppies need to chew. Teaching your pup to gnaw on chew toys will save your shoes, your furniture, and maybe your sanity. One of our favorite chew toys is a Kong, a hollow rubber toy available locally or through catalogs. Kongs can be stuffed with kibble or treats. Add something soft, like some cheese or peanut butter, then freeze. Freezing makes the food take longer to get out, and probably feels good to a teething puppy. The great thing about Kongs is that the puppy gets a food reward for chewing on the correct object. Another truly great puppy pacifier is a sterilized, hollow bone. You can get these bones at most pet stores. (Never, ever give your puppy table scrap bones, or any bone he can crunch.) You can stuff the ends of these sterilized, hollow bones with cheese or peanut butter, and stick them in the freezer. After your puppy has chewed on them, simply clean out the remaining cheese, and put them in the dishwasher or scrub them out with a bottle brush and hot water. Then restuff and refreeze.
Teach Basic Commands
Within two weeks of his arrival, Cooper could do a Sit, Down, and Come on both hand signals and verbal commands. Yours can too. These commands are simple to teach, and give your puppy worthwhile ways to earn treats and praise. We often train Cooper at suppertime, using his kibble as a training reward. This training and hand-feeding is a great relationship builder. (Using his supper as a training reward also guarantees you'll have his full attention!)
It's never too early to start training. Puppies are little sponges, soaking up information about their world from the day they're born. If they're going to be learning anyway, they may as well learn what you want them to learn.
Teach Your Puppy To Accept Handling and Grooming
Get your puppy used to being handled and groomed from an early age. Introduce grooming early and make it a pleasant experience. Give your puppy some treats and praise when he's behaving well while grooming. He'll learn to look forward to grooming as a special, fun time. Get him used to having his feet and ears handled, too.
This is another form of training, and we approach it the same way: by sitting on the kitchen floor at mealtime with the puppy and his food. Calm acceptance of having a foot or ear handled gets him a piece of kibble. Coop now earns about half his breakfast a piece at a time. After several weeks of this treatment, we now can medicate his ears, examine his teeth, and even clip his nails with little trouble.
Don't teach your puppy that he can get his way by struggling or growling. When you pick him up, pet and praise while he is relaxed. If he begins to struggle, say "Nahhh." Don't put him down until he is calm again. You really do not want your puppy to learn he can get what he wants by growling, snarling, biting, or struggling. If you do, you'll most likely have an aggression problem down the road.
Play Recall Games
Puppies love recall games. They're fun, and a wonderful way to help establish your relationship and begin to teach your dog to Come When Called reliably.
During puppy recalls, the puppy is called back and forth between two people. A hallway is a perfect place to start. Begin by having the second person restrain the puppy. Then you get the dog's attention with a treat and quickly back away. When the puppy's attention is on you (and the treat), open your arms and say "(puppy's name), Come!" As soon as the holder hears the "Come," he releases the puppy.
After the puppy runs to you, praise and give the treat. Now the other person entices the puppy with a treat, and backs up as you hold the puppy. Release the puppy as the other person says, "(puppy's name), Come!" Start with a very short distance between the two people. As the puppy learns the game and is enthusiastically running to each person, gradually make the distance between the two people greater. You can even then move this game outside to a safe, fenced area.
When the puppy is really good at the game, start playing "hide and seek." Start going around corners and hiding in other rooms and call the puppy. Be sure to keep it easy enough that your pup is successful, and always praise and give treats for her enthusiastically Coming to you or "finding" you.
Avoid Possession Problems
While it might seem cute and funny to see a puppy guarding his chew toy or food bowl, it's definitely not a behavior you want to encourage in your adult dog.
With a puppy, you have a wonderful opportunity to train him that people coming up to his food bowl and toys is a good thing. One way to do this is by putting only a portion of his food in his bowl. After he has finished, walk up and add more food. Then, while he's eating, walk up and drop in a really tasty treat. You're training him that people coming up to his food bowl is good, not bad.
Similarly, while your puppy is chewing his Kong, approach him and give him a treat, hold his Kong, and even stuff some extra treats in the end. Then return it to him. Once again, you're teaching him that someone coming up to his chew toy is good, not bad.
Puppies are a lot of work. But if you invest the time and effort now, you'll be rewarded with a calm, confident, and well-behaved companion for many years to come.