A new family member is certainly a cause for celebration, but you don’t want to end up wondering if you made a mistake! The best suggestion I can give you is to get off on the right foot.
The first moment that you bring the new puppy (or dog) into your home, is the time to let it know what the rules are. Understand that a puppy is much like a toddler, leave it unattended and it will find something to do that you did not want it to do.
This brings us to the first question: At what age should a puppy start training? Many years ago people believed that a dog was not capable of being trained until the age of 6 months. Just imagine how much damage, or how many mistakes a pup can make in that amount of time! In general, breeds from the Working, Sporting, and Herding groups are ready for training by 9 weeks. The Toy and Non-Sporting groups often need to spend a few more weeks maturing before they are ready for “formal” training. If you are putting off training because you fear that you will do it wrong, start out by teaching some silly pet tricks, like roll over or high five.
The most important issues that need to be addressed immediately are socialization, house training, and chewing.
House training is really a management issue until the dog is older. A very young puppy does not exercise control over its bladder and bowels, so it is up to the owner to provide the dog access to a suitable place to eliminate, whenever the puppy feels the need. It is much better to be diligent about house training at the outset, even if you have to get up more than once a night to begin with. Your dog will learn much more quickly if you put in the time upfront. For a detailed explanation on how to house train, you can go to my article in the September/October issue of What’s Waggin, which is available online.
The importance of early proper socialization cannot be emphasized enough. There is a very narrow window in the early life of a puppy for proper socialization. We have always been told to keep the dog secluded until it has been fully immunized. The problem with that is that dogs really need to come into contact with men, women, babies, and children of all ages, as well as novel stimuli, at a young age in order to become a well-balanced family member. One suggestion is to have “puppy parties”. Invite a group of people over as often as possible, and play games like “pass the puppy”. The pup will be introduced to lots of new people, without being subjected to the contagious diseases outside of the home. Make certain to introduce the puppy to people who are wearing hats and caps, and to people who are carrying things. You may think that your dog is well socialized because it lives with two young children. The truth is that kids of different ages smell different and your dog will react to them differently. A 16 year old teenager smells and acts very differently than a 4 yr. old so you want to be certain to cover all your bases. The key behind effective socialization is that you want to make certain that every situation is a positive one. Sensory overload can frighten the puppy and can set the process back weeks. While you can never expose the puppy to every situation that it may encounter in later life, the more varied situations that it is exposed to and comes to feel comfortable with, the more capable it will be to handle novel stimuli when they occur.
Chewing and nipping are big problems with puppies. There is no avoiding it, puppies NEED to chew. It is best to have toys or bite items that you can give the dog as a substitute for biting your body parts. Be aware that there will be times when water soaked frozen carrots will sooth his gums and times when he wants a plush toy to chew on, or a deer antler or cow femur. Keep a variety of toys of different textures around so that you will have the proper one to give to the dog. Nipping is really in a different category, and usually occurs with puppies from the herding group. This trait is in their genes and you will want to redirect this behavior as soon as it occurs. One of the best toys to give to a puppy is a food-stuffed Kong toy. A Kong is a nearly indestructible beehive shaped rubber toy with a large hole at one end, and a small one at the other. There are hundreds of recipes for Kong stuffing on the web. It can keep your pup entertained for hours and it will ensure that the legs of your dining room table are free of little teeth marks! For a fabulous detailed introduction to house training, crate training, chewing, and socialization, download Ian Dunbar’s “Before You Get Your Puppy” booklet. You can find it free at http://www.dogstardaily.com/files/downloads/BEFORE_You_Get_Your_Puppy.pdf
Do yourself a favor and buy your dog a crate! Dogs are den animals and enjoy having a space of their own to go to if the surroundings are too hectic. Just as you would put a toddler in a play pen if you could not watch him for a time, the dog can be crated or put in an x-pen (like a playpen without the floor)if you are unable to keep an eye on him. You don’t want to be that owner that complains that the dog ate 18 pairs of her shoes! The crate is a safe place for the pup when someone comes to visit and doesn’t want your dog shedding and slobbering all over their nice black suit.
It is never too early to start teaching your dog a vocabulary. Decide which words you will use, and have everyone in the family use the same words to mean the same thing. Do praise your new puppy for any and all “appropriate” behaviors. Use a word to name that behavior when it happens, and as the dog learns, you will then be able to ask for the behavior by name. If the dog happens to be in a sitting position, use “good sit” to let him know that you approve of that activity, and that it has a name. Down is a word that means you want the dog to put his belly and elbows on the floor; it does not mean to get off the sofa. Off is the word used to tell your dog to get his feet off the coffee table, off of your body, or to get his body off the sofa.
Which brings me to one of the biggest behavior problems and that is jumping up on people. Certain breeds such as Labs and Goldens are probably the biggest offenders. Usually it is an owner that inadvertently encourages the dog to jump as a puppy, because it is cute and the dog doesn’t weigh much. As the dog gets older and bigger, the behavior is no longer cute, but obnoxious, and it is much harder to “unlearn” that behavior because the dog has had so much time to practice this inappropriate activity.
I advise all owners of new puppies to treat them as if they are giant dogs. Rather than picking them up and removing them from a situation, let the dog know what you want it to do. Before too long, the puppy may be too big to scoop up, so begin right away by verbally communicating with the dog to let him know what you want/expect of him. It may seem easier at the outset to grab the puppy and run him outside to eliminate rather than wait for him to make his way to the door, but some pups are too heavy to pick up by 10 weeks old. It is much easier to teach a puppy to go with you, rather than teaching the pup to come. Go to where the puppy is, pat your leg and say “let’s go”, rather than standing at the door and calling him to come to you.
A tired dog is a good dog! Most behavioral issues can be avoided if the dog is properly exercised. Mental stimulation is also a good form of exercise. Engage your dog in play on your terms! Don’t wait until the puppy is barking at you and biting your pant legs and hands before you get up from the TV or computer to interact with him. If you do, you will be teaching the puppy that if he is obnoxious enough, you will play with him. Taking the puppy for walks is a great way to socialize him, to tire him out, and to teach him about new and exciting things. Most puppies resist walking on a leash initially. The best way to start is to attach a very short very light weight leash to his collar, and let him walk around with it on, without you holding onto it. After a while hold the leash making certain it doesn't get taught, and entice the puppy to move with you, using your voice and some delectable treats. Make certain that you never drag the puppy by the leash in an attempt to get him to walk with you!
The take away message is to use positive reinforcement, praise and or treats, as often as possible while the dog is very young, or new to the family. Make a game of interacting with the new member of your family and see how many times in a day you can say “good boy, or good dog, or good sit, good down”, etc. You may initially think of training as a chore, but to your dog, it is the best quality time complete with love, affection, rewards, and treats! You are well on your way to having a loving, lovable companion.