Will life with your new puppy be all Unicorns & Rainbows?
A new puppy is such an exciting experience! When considering adding a puppy to their household, most people visualize games of chase, soft cuddles, companionship, romps in the woods, strolls in the neighborhood, playing fetch, hanging out together on the couch while watching a movie, sitting in the sunshine at a pet friendly cafe, maybe even venturing into a fun dog sport like agility. While this describes much of the fun you can have with your new puppy for many years to come, the tendency is to forget how much work a new puppy can be!
(Cover picture is a Sheepadoodle from https://poodles2doodles.com)
If you have ever experienced how sharp a new puppy’s teeth can be, you may have wondered why you would ever want to get another one!
There are so many things to teach a new puppy to ensure that it grows up to be a confident, well adjusted member of your household. To help get you started, here are a few areas to focus on in the first few weeks and months as a new puppy owner:
Socialization – One of the most important responsibilities you will have as a new puppy owner is to proactively expose your puppy in a positive way to a wide variety of experiences it will likely encounter during its lifetime. Doing so will help your puppy develop into a confident and well adjusted dog that is capable of successfully coping with the chaos in our human world. While being careful not to overwhelm your puppy with too much all at once, you should introduce it to a wide variety of places, sights, sounds, smells, people, animals and activities, always ensuring that it is confident and happy during these experiences so that it does not develop fears or phobias later in life. You can do this by pairing the experiences with something positive, such as food or play, because dogs learn by association. As an example, there are many noises in our environment that we take for granted and think nothing of, but many of these things can be very scary to a puppy that has never seen or heard them before. Things that we use every day in our households, such as vacuum cleaners, hair dryers and kitchen appliances could take your puppy by surprise if it has not properly been introduced to them in a positive way. Or, perhaps your puppy was born in a rural area or quiet neighborhood by a backyard breeder, and you live in the middle of a big city. As a new puppy owner, it is your responsibility to help your puppy become a well adjusted, happy and confident dog while reducing the likelihood of problematic behaviors developing.
Preventing Unwanted Behaviors – Many behaviors that are natural to dogs can be problematic to us. Behaviors such as jumping, nipping, barking, chewing, eliminating, chasing prey, consuming food that has been dropped on the floor, running through open doors, guarding toys or food – the list of things you don’twant your puppy to do seems endless! Dogs do what is reinforcing, so your job as a new puppy owner is to prevent your puppy from being reinforced for behaviors you do not want it to develop, and to reinforce the behaviors you do want. To shape your puppy’s behavior in ways that you want requires managing the environment in order to control what your puppy is being reinforced by, and proactively teaching it and rewarding it for the behaviors that you like. By using positive reinforcement, you can teach your puppy to do what you want it to do, and to control its impulses. Your puppy will be happy to comply with your wishes as long as the reinforcement you are using is meaningful to the puppy. Gradually over time, as you develop a solid recall and your relationship has grown in such a way that you have become the most reinforcing thing in your puppy’s world, the resulting confidence you can have that your puppy will listen to you when you need it to, despite what is happening in the environment, will enable you to increase your puppy’s freedom. Until that happens, however, it will benefit you to confine your puppy to a crate or X-pen when you are not able to keep your eyes on it, so that you can control what your puppy is being reinforced by. It is very important to create value for the crate or X-pen first, so that your puppy will be content when left alone in there with a chew bone or toy to preoccupy its time while confined.
One challenge you will have is to teach other people not to reward your puppy for unwanted behaviors when they interact with it! For example, people who approach your puppy will tend to reward it with lots of attention while your puppy jumps up on them. It seems cute when your puppy is little, but many people don’t appreciate a big dog jumping up on them. However, a dog that has been rewarded for jumping up on people to greet them all its life is only doing what it has been rewarded for. Most people don’t even realize they are rewarding this behavior when they greet a puppy while it jumps up on them. To the puppy, it is very confusing when suddenly, after it has grown much bigger, its human starts to be unhappy when it jumps up on them or other people. Changing the rules by which your puppy is to behave is very unfair to the puppy, and will damage your relationship and your puppy’s trust of you. So do yourself and your puppy a favor by rewarding it from the very beginning for sitting when you and other people approach it, since it can’t be jumping up on you when it’s sitting.
Reinforcing Desired Behaviors – Teaching a puppy to sit when being approached by people is an example of reinforcing behaviors that you desire. It is your responsibility to help your puppy learn what you want it to do and how you want it to act in order to live harmoniously in your world. You will want to reinforce behaviors such as being calm & quiet, going potty where you want it to go, sitting in order to be greeted by people, waiting for permission to go through open doors, being content when people are nearby while it eats food or works on a chew bone. Of course many common behaviors you should teach your puppy to do on cue include sit, down, stand, stay and come when called. Puppies, like children, are sponges and will enjoy learning as long as you make learning fun for it and use reinforcement that your puppy values. What is reinforcing to each dog is unique, so it’s important that you learn what your puppy really likes. This will include different types of food, toys, play and life experiences, such as going for a walk, riding in a car, playing tug or fetch, going for a swim – the list of what is reinforcing to a dog is long, so get to know what your puppy is especially crazy about so that you can use those things in strategic ways to get the behaviors you would like.
Body Handling – There are numerous times when your puppy will need to be handled by strange people throughout its lifetime. Whether at the veterinarians or groomers, for regular nail trims, brushing and bathing, ear infections, taking medications – it is necessary for us to be able to do things to our dogs that are not naturally enjoyable to the dog. It will benefit you enormously to condition your puppy to have a positive association when being touched and having its body manipulated. Body handling is something to really reinforce when your puppy is little. In addition to getting your puppy comfortable having its nails trimmed and its ears, mouth & body massaged, you should create a positive association to the bathtub, running water, nail clippers, nail file or dremmel, the sight and sound of hair clippers, scissors, brushes, combs and tooth brushes. Not doing this when your puppy is little could become a huge problem when your puppy weighs 50+ pounds and you need to give it a bath or trim its nails. You want your puppy to LOVE taking baths, getting its nails trimmed, being brushed, going to the vet or groomers, having its teeth & ears cleaned – all the things that it will be experiencing in life on a regular basis. Take the time to create positive associations with these things by using treats and toys when your puppy is exposed to them will help both of you tremendously. There is a short window of time while your puppy is still little to set it up for a successful and happy life.
If you believe you could benefit from professional help to prepare your puppy to have a happy, well adjusted life with you, I encourage you to engage the services of a positive reinforcement dog trainer. Since there are no regulations for the dog training industry, carefully research the background, experience, reputation, education and training methods of any trainer you consider. Your puppy’s success and happiness will be greatly affected by your selection of a trainer to help you. Most of all, become the most reinforcing thing in your puppy’s world and you will increase your chances of having the happy life with your puppy for many years to come that you have envisioned!
Wendy Taylor is a certified professional dog trainer, graduate with distinction from Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training and Behavior. She helps create successful relationships between dogs and their owners in the Louisville, KY area.