People are often told that it’s not a good idea to give puppies or kittens as gifts. Animals aren’t commodities. There is the very genuine concern that those ‘gifts’ stop being wanted as soon as they stop being cute or some undesirable behavior creeps into the mix. Come April and May, shelters are inundated with teenage dogs who were much loved over Christmas and then became a handful. Having said that, however, many puppies who are given as Christmas presents end up living long, happy lives with families who love them to distraction.
If you’re planning on giving or getting a puppy, read the following tips. You’ll enjoy your puppy even more than you thought possible. You’ll also set yourself up for success so you have a happy puppy who grows into a well-adjusted dog.
Firstly and most importantly
The following tips are essential for a happy relationship with your puppy.
Manage your expectations
Many have visions of a well-trained dog who trots by their side, plays Frisbee, and sits quietly on the couch watching TV. They’re surprised the poor pup can’t automatically do all of those things. Beverley Courtney points out, when you bring home your 8-week old puppy, she’s only just been aware of the world for about 5 weeks. She has to learn to trust you and you have to earn her trust.
If you bark commands she doesn’t understand and get frustrated because she can’t perform, you confuse and frighten her. Dogs can learn obedience at any age. But puppies only have a 14-week window to learn ‘good’ behavior and develop emotional stability that will shape their lives.
This is when you should be showing her the world. She needs to learn the world is a fun place which she can navigate with confidence. It’s when you lay the foundations for a loving and trusting relationship, you help your pup learn life skills that will last a lifetime.
2) Enable learning immediately
Puppies’ brains are sponges; they are constantly learning so you have to make sure that she is learning the right things. The great thing is that you don’t need formal training for learning to take place; all you need to do is think about the behavior that you want going forward and start rewarding it now. So if your puppy is walking nicely next to you and sits down when you stop, praise her and give her a treat or pat.
If you don’t want any jumping, consistently reward sitting or standing so they become default behavior. Treats are the best way to reward behavior and help learning happen. However, they aren’t always available, so you have to use rewards that motivate your puppy. For some pups it’s an ear rub, for others it’s a game of tug or chase. All dogs are different so you’ll need to find out what motivates your puppy.
Take your puppy out and about and introduce them to different people and environments. Always keep the experiences safe and positive. Your pup will soon learn to be confident around a variety of people and in different places. Once again, reward the behavior you want in public, for example, when she is calm and settled.
You also need to make sure that you start as you mean to go. Basically, don’t indulge any behavior in your puppy that you don’t want in an adult dog. For example, don’t let your puppy sleep on the bed with you if you don’t want her on the bed as an adult dog. Rather start with crate training from the beginning so she knows exactly what she has to do at bedtime. And don’t let your puppy get away with jumping at you and guests if you don’t want jumping from your adult dog. Simply ignore the unwanted behavior completely and as soon as all four paws are on the floor, or the bottom is on the ground, reward with some attention.
3) Start school early
In the old days of traditional training, puppies weren’t allowed to be trained until they were 6 months old. This was because they couldn’t withstand the physical impact (punishment) of training. Now that science has proved that force-free positive-reinforcement training is the only way to go, it’s virtually never too early to start training your puppy. Puppies can be trained (gently and with low expectations) from when they are 5 weeks old. Obviously, you only bring your puppy home about 3 weeks later, but that just means you need to enroll her in puppy classes immediately.
Good puppy schools include elements of obedience training (so you have the right tools going forward), as well as free play, socialization with different people and children, puppy-appropriate obstacles, introduction to novelties, touching and handling and Q&As on common puppy problems (jumping, biting, separation anxiety, house training, chewing and resource guarding) and tips on how to manage them. The focus on is on having fun with your puppy, building a happy relationship, strengthening the bond and teaching them good manners from the get-go.
Remember: Consistency and patience are essential to productive learning. Learning doesn’t happen in a linear fashion. It twists, it turns, it goes up and down and sometimes it goes backwards. So don’t be frustrated if your pup can sit and stay beautifully one day and completely loses it the next. Keep training sessions short and fun and try to incorporate training into games. For example, you can reinforce the heel position and self-control during chase games and tug.
4) Say goodbye to punishment and give Cesar Milan the boot
According to Beverley Courtney, “Punishment rewards the punisher – makes them feel better, more in control through having lost control.” The punished don’t learn the lessons we want them to learn, instead they become wary of the punisher and try to avoid contact.
Punishment does not tell your puppy what behavior you want instead; for example, calm behavior instead of chasing the cat up the curtains. What you could be teaching your puppy is that you are scary and confusing and that hands or spray bottles mean something bad is about to happy. Now imagine a child comes running towards your puppy with hands out to say a cheery hello. Your puppy is terrified because scary hands are approaching at speed and reacts by barking, growling and snapping at the child. You react by shouting and perhaps more punishment, thereby confirming that children are bad. Suddenly you have a dog who acts aggressively around children.
Always focus on what you want your puppy to do instead. Always provide an alternative behavior.
One of the problems with the tragically popular “Dog Whisperer” is that he doesn’t provide alternatives. He also doesn’t address any underlying causes of behavioral problems. Instead he uses outdated research to justify his intimidation techniques that suppress behavior. You can read more about is wrong with Cesar Milan in the following articles:
- The Damage of the Dog Whisperer
- Talk Softly and Carry a Carrot or a Big Stick?
- The Dominance Controversy
Note: The articles aren’t based on subjective views but sound scientific research.
The above 4 tips are probably the most important things to remember when raising a happy puppy. But they are by no means the only tips when it comes to caring for your new family member. Let’s take a quick look at some more tips for a happy puppy.
5) Lifestyle changes
Puppies don’t fit seamlessly into our lives. We have to make lifestyle changes to accommodate them. For example, you need to make time for your puppy. This includes time to play, time to sit and relax, time to train and time to socialize. Puppies are very time-consuming, but as they grow older and become more independent they can become less demanding. That doesn’t mean you can stop making time for your dog though. Dogs always need to spend time basking in your love and attention.
6) Find a good school
There are puppy schools and then there are puppy schools. Find out how to choose a puppy school. You should seriously consider maintaining training throughout your puppy’s adolescent stage. Also consider participating in fun dog sports which challenge body and mind, like agility and canine freestyle.
We’ve already mentioned the importance of taking your puppy out and about and introducing them to new people and places and things. It also includes things in your house. Puppies born in winter might dive under the table when your son comes out of his room in his snorkel and flippers. Puppies born in summer might thing that the fire in your fireplace is going to eat her.
8) Loose lead walking
To start off you first need to get your puppy used to her harness and lead. This can be a slow process that involves lots of treats. You can also work on training the heel position without her ever being on lead. Simply reward her whenever she lands up next to your side. Consistently reward the same side and that will be your heel position because good stuff always happens there. Remember, you don’t need a ramrod stiff heel position in pet dogs. You just don’t want your dog pulling you off your feet.
9) Bite inhibition
Puppies bite as they explore the world. It’s up to you to teach your puppy how to use her mouth gently so she doesn’t hurt anyone. Only young puppies can learn bite inhibition. Once they’re older than 16 weeks the best you can hope for is some self-control. It’s in your best interests to teach bite inhibition as soon as possible and teach it around food, toys and during play.
10) Play often and incorporate trick training for a happy puppy and happy family
Research has proven that playing with your happy increases all of their feel-good hormones and yours too. So to stave off depression, go play with your dog. You can incorporate some trick training, such as targeting into your play so that your pup gets a brain workout too. What’s more, by including training in play (or play in training) you become part of your puppy’s reward system.
11) Consider a crate
Used properly, a crate is wonderful puppy management tool that remains useful all your dog’s life. Crates are a safe place for your puppy if she feels overwhelmed and needs a break from the world. They also provide a sense of continuity and comfort when you go away with your puppy or if she doesn’t like travelling in the car, even for short distances. Remember: Crates are never used for punishment.
12) Puppy pens and baby gates
Puppy pens are great if you need to leave your puppy alone at home for a couple of hours and you want to control her environment so she doesn’t learn any unwanted behavior. Place your pup’s bed, toys, water, food, chews and an appropriate toileting area in the pen and she can’t get into trouble by chewing your couch, eating your books or knocking over the bin.
Baby gates are handy if you need to separate your puppy for a short period of time; for example to feed her separately from existing pets in the house and to put her in timeout if her excitement levels have gone over the top.
13) Puppy house training
Start your puppy off on a house training schedule immediately and stick to it. You can gradually increase the time between visits outside, but you must be consistent. Don’t assume that because the door is open and your puppy goes outside that she is house trained. You need to stick to the routine, teach her bladder control and reward her with a treat and praise for getting it right.
14) Get family and friends on-board
Dogs don’t generalize well, which means that your puppy could learn to sit nicely for you, not to jump on you and to follow your cues in trick training, but as soon as someone else comes along all bets are off. It’s important to practice good manners and behaviors with other people and to ensure that other people consistently use your techniques and don’t inadvertently encourage behavior you don’t want.
15) Turn potentially negative experiences around
Lots of dogs don’t like having their nails clipped, teeth brushed or their hindquarters groomed. It’s a good idea to introduce your puppy to all of these experiences early and to do it slowly and with plenty of treats.
Treat her first visit to your vet the same way. Instead of waiting until she’s due for her next vaccinations, dedicate the first appointment to getting to know the vet, with lots of loves, cuddles and food. That way she won’t tuck her tail between her legs and try to hide under your shadow whenever you arrive at the surgery.
16) Work that brain
Every meal time is an opportunity to work your puppy’s brain. It can be as simple as opening the back door and throwing her pellets on the lawn so she has to use her nose and tracking abilities to find her food. Or you can make or buy interactive feeding toys and puzzles to engage her brain and provide her with some of the mental stimulation she needs. More brain works equals more confidence, which equals a happy puppy.
17) Manage the environment
Puppies will do anything if it makes them feel good. So if they have fun chewing your shoes, that’s what they’ll do, especially if you turn it into a game by chasing her. If pulling books off the bookshelf fills a boring 15 minutes, then that’s what she’ll do. And there’s nothing quite as much fun as find a mostly full roll of toilet paper and ripping it to shreds. Your puppy doesn’t know it’s wrong; she’s just looking for stuff to do. Keep temptation out of reach (behind chicken wire if necessary) so she doesn’t learn bad habits. Give her stuff to do so she doesn’t get bored. This is where brain games, trick training and the like come into their own.
18) Work on separation
What usually happens when we bring a new puppy home is that we rearrange our entire schedules, take time off work and arrange for pet sitters so that puppy becomes the center of the universe and never has to be alone. The problem is that eventually you will have to go back to work and pet sitters are expensive. You need to teach your puppy that she can cope on her own from the start. Start slowly, with 5 – 10 minute separations in another room and build it up. Always give her stuff to do (a frozen, stuffed Kong is great) and make her comfy.
19) Exercise your puppy appropriately
Many people think that a daily walk is about physical exercise – and it is – but it’s also about mental stimulation from sniffing and experiencing life off property. This mental stimulation is especially important for puppies. Take walks slowly and make sure the distance is always appropriate for you’re your puppy’s age. Consult an exercise chart to make sure you’re not over-exercising your puppy, as you could do long-term damage to bone plates and joints.
Bonus: Even with vaccinations up to date and zealous care, puppies can get sick and they can definitely hurt themselves in their enthusiasm to explore. This is why puppy insurance is so important. The sooner you get insurance for your puppy the better, so that there are no pre-existing conditions that can be excluded.