Just get a puppy? If it’s your first puppy in a while, I highly recommend scheduling a lesson or two with a trainer. Even if you don’t see any glaring behavioral issues now, things often pop up when you least expect them!
1. Prevent, Prevent, Prevent
Set your puppy up for success! Provide lots of dog safe chewing options, and at the same time, put away anything that your puppy might want to chew, pee on, or otherwise destroy. This means rolling up precious rugs, removing books from the bottom rows of bookshelves, putting shoes away 100% of the time, securing trash cans behind closed doors, and keeping food off of counters (for the giant breeds). I generally recommend doing this for 6 months or so. This may seem like a lot of work…but it’s a LOT easier that having to re-train an adult dog who has spent 2 years practicing chewing on rugs, stealing shoes, and getting food off of counters.
Puppies learn habits by practicing, so make sure they’re practicing behaviors you like. These are things like chewing on a bone, working on a food puzzle, playing with a squeaky toy, lying on a bed, etc. Keep a few toys and bones/chews in each room your puppy has access to, so they always have an appropriate item to play with. Stash treats in safe places through your home so that you’re ready to reward good behavior when it happens.
Feed your puppy their meals out of Kongs or other food dispensing toys (see below). This teaches independence, builds confidence and creativity, and keeps your puppy busy! Dogs are built to forage and work for their food. Eating out of a bowl is pretty boring.
2. Build Independence
It’s pretty cute when your puppy follows you around obsessively…but it gets old FAST. As soon as possible, start teaching your puppy to be calm and comfortable with being separated from you. This is particularly important if you are generally home all day–your puppy will get used to having you constantly and then may experience distress when you have to go out. I like using an X-pen or play pen, perhaps with the puppy’s crate attached to it. The pen should have lots of fun things in it, and a squishy bed if they can be trusted with it.
I don’t believe in letting puppies “cry it out”…and research on human babies backs me up on that. Make being in the pen easy for your puppy by always providing a bone, Kong, or lickie mat in the pen, and keeping their time in the pen short and easy at first. You can start by putting puppy in the pen with an activity and just sitting next to the pen. Then build to doing something nearby, and later on, leaving the room. If your puppy panics, come back, and assess the situation–maybe they need to go potty? If you know they don’t, reassure the puppy, and let them know they’re fine.
3. Teach 3 Core Skills
You can teach any behaviors you want, but be mindful about it–the first 3 things you teach any animal are generally the strongest skills they’ll ever have. For example, you may not want to teach shake/high five right away, especially if you have a big dog, or if you have a teacup pup, hold off on teaching them to dance or stand on their hind legs.
The first three things I generally teach are:
1) Hand Targeting (This turns into heeling, a recall, loads of tricks, cooperative care training, and more)
2) Name Game/Puppy Recall (Coming when called is a safety skill you need to start building ASAP)
3) Sit and/or Down on a Mat/Bed (This turns into sitting for polite greeting, stay, and waiting at doors)
4. Exposure vs. Socialization
One of the biggest things people worry about with their puppy is socializing them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important, but be careful how you go about it. Many times, puppy socialization is approached as a bit of a free-for-all. Get the puppy out to every party, festival, and dog park you can find…take them to the pet store, the farmers market, Home Depot, etc. As long as your dog is comfortable with that, you may not be doing any harm, but you may not be teaching them quite what you want, either. More often than not, during “socialization” like this, dogs learn that every person they see, every dog they see, is there solely to greet them. Is that really what you want your dog to think? I want my dogs to be able to go about their business no matter who or what is nearby, I don’t want them so hyper-social that they can’t think when a dog is across the street from us!
Rather than introducing your dog to loads of other dogs and people, think about exposing him/her to a variety of scenarios. Sometimes people walk by, and ignore you. Sometimes people approach, and talk to you, but not the puppy. Sometimes the puppy will get to say hi, but only if they want to. Your puppy should be comfortable with all options. So often, I see people hold their puppy so that someone can pet them, while the puppy squirms and tries to get away. What are you teaching your puppy in that moment? Maybe that they have no choice, and that people are sometimes really scary.
Take puppyhood as an opportunity to show your puppy that your vehicle is a fun place to be, not just a ride to the vet’s office. Go lots of places and just hang out, sniff things, and eat cookies. With a baby puppy who doesn’t have all their shots, you can still go out and see things, just carry your puppy. Avoid places that carry a high-risk of something “scary” happening…dog parks, sporting events, festivals. Puppies are sensitive, and can experience single-instance learning from one startling or scary moment. Build their confidence slowly and gently, don’t overload them with socializing.
Find safe, gentle adult dogs who are going to be appropriate with your puppy! Not all adult dogs like puppies, and some can be downright rough toward puppies. Rather than letting your dog say hi to random dogs you meet on walks, set up playdates with dogs and puppies you know. Find other puppies of varying breeds and sizes to get your puppy accustomed to different play styles. Use those playdates as an opportunity to work on training, too–being called out of play, eating near other dogs, and “sharing” their owner’s attention are all important lessons.
Not all puppy classes are the same! Ask for a recommendation from your vet or trainer for a good class. Ask if you can come observe a class before you sign up. Some puppy classes are pretty much just play groups, and some may include training that less than ideal. Never go along with anything that makes you or your puppy uncomfortable…be your puppy’s advocate!
Great thoughts on socialization from Denise Fenzi here and here.
5. Grooming & Veterinary Care
Start teaching your puppy to stand quietly for grooming early on! All dogs will need to have regular nail trims, brushing, and the occasional bath. Practicing these activities with your puppy in a calm, matter of fact way will set you up for success later on. Use food to reward your dog for holding still, but don’t get stuck using it as a distraction or lure–you want your dog to actually notice what you’re doing and get comfortable with it.
Same deal with veterinary procedures. Get your puppy used to being held/restrained, having their neck pinched, belly palpated, and eyes, ears, mouth examined. The trick to this is keeping your puppy calm and relaxed–this is not playtime! Get help from a Fear Free certified trainer if your puppy struggles with this. So often, our puppies first exposure to their vet is traumatizing! Do some work beforehand to build their tolerance to handling and uncomfortable procedures. Finally, click here to find a Fear Free Certified Veterinary Practice for your dog–they are well versed in keeping dogs comfortable and happy during their vet visits.
There you have it! There’s a lot to think about when you’re raising a puppy…but at the end of the day, make sure you spend as much time enjoying that puppy as possible. Puppyhood is always gone before you know it.