Updated: Oct 28, 2019
Congratulations! You just brought home your new best friend!
Integrating a new puppy into your life is such a fun and rewarding experience, but it can also make you question your sanity, if you are not equipped with the right tools. That sweet little ball of fluff is also a potty machine with razor sharp teeth, and relies on you 100% for every daily need. Puppies are a lot of work, but you can set yourself up for long-term success (and make life a little easier now!) by getting it right with four key issues.
2. Potty Training
This word gets thrown around in almost every conversation about how to raise a puppy. Unfortunately, it is not often followed up with how to do so effectively and appropriately, and can cause lifelong damage if done incorrectly. Every puppy guardian should be sure to introduce their puppy to a variety of people, objects, and experiences - including anything which they may encounter later in their lives. When they are young puppies are open to new experiences, but as they age, and their socialization window comes to a close, they become less comfortable with things they didn’t experience during their critical socialization period. However, it is not enough to simply expose your puppy to something and expect that they will be fine with it from then on. Each introduction must be handled carefully to ensure that your puppy is having fun, and therefor learning to enjoy whatever they are being exposed to, rather than perceiving it as neutral or even unpleasant.
Get it right by making socialization opportunities voluntary, brief, and rewarding.
Learn their language. When socializing your puppy, pay careful attention to his or her body language to determine if he or she is voluntarily participating in the experience. We commonly see puppies duck their head, flatten their ears, or back up a few steps, as a well-meaning stranger reaches in to pet them. This is a clear signal that the puppy is uncomfortable, and continued physical contact is not going to make them feel better. Instead, when you see these signals, remove them from the situation and give them a treat. This teaches your puppy many important lessons, including that people listen to their polite signals, so they are less likely to feel the need to escalate to growling, snapping or cowering. It helps them to learn that a stranger who could have been scary actually resulted in something good, and that walking away is a safe option.
Schedule socialization experiences. By planning ahead of time you can ensure that socialization opportunities can end while your puppy is still having fun and wanting more.Taking quick trips to the park or downtown on a day when you have free time is often much more beneficial than attending large public events or hours long social engagements. This allows you the opportunity to leave before your puppy becomes anxious, overstimulated, or exhausted. The last part of your puppy’s experience, and the part which was most emotionally impactful are going to be the parts which your puppy remembers most clearly, and unfortunately, this doesn’t always work in our favor. This means that even if he or she had fun during the first half hour of a local festival, but was fussy or agitated for the last half hour, or was frightened by a person in a costume, your puppy is most likely to record this as a negative experience.
Plan break and nap times. If you are traveling with your puppy, or they must attend a long event with you, plan ways for them to have quiet time throughout the day. Providing something for them to lick or chew will help them to calm down. Taking a break in the car, with a chew toy, or putting them in their crate in a quiet room with a stuffed Kong are great ideas for helping them to learn to take a break from the chaos.
Learn what your puppy likes. Knowing what your puppy likes allows you to be able to use these things to make new experiences as rewarding and memorable as possible for them. Does your puppy love chasing a ball? Next time a new person comes into your house, let them toss the ball for your puppy. Going someplace new? Take your puppy’s favorite treats along, and have every person who asks to pet your puppy give them a treat. This helps them to learn that meeting new people is a great experience.
For some lucky puppy guardians potty training is fast and easy. For others it can be a several month-long process. The amount of time it takes to fully potty train your puppy is going to be determined by a complicated combination of early life experiences (before you took him/her home), individual physical traits, and the actual training process.
Get it right by making potty training fun, using a schedule, and managing your space.
Set up Successful Potty Experiences. While you’re potty training, your puppy is actually forming associations, based on successful potty experiences. Some of their learning will be automatic - the act of relieving themselves is inherently rewarding because puppies feel better when their bladder is no longer full. A surface that absorbs their urine is also going to be preferable to a surface that does not. You can help this process along by making it far more fun for your puppy to do their businesses in the places you prefer than the places you want them to avoid.
How to do it. Go outside with your puppy on leash, with treats in your pocket, every single time. Walk with your puppy to your preferred potty location, and wait quietly for them to sniff out the best spot. Too much talking, or “encouragement” at this point can add to the distraction level. As soon as your puppy finishes going to the bathroom, give them a treat and allow them off leash to run and play. If you must keep your puppy on leash, you can reward them by following them around as they get to freely explore, chase leaves, or run with you.
Helpful Hint: It is important that the reward always immediately follows the behavior of going to the bathroom. A delay of even a minute or two will prevent your puppy from forming an association between the reward and going potty. For example, if your puppy goes potty, then runs to get their treat from you at the door, you are actually rewarding the behavior of running to the door, and not the behavior of going potty.
Record keeping helps. Record your puppy’s potty training successes and mistakes. This will help you to find patterns, and more closely monitor your puppy at times when accidents happen most often. Are you noticing that your puppy always has an accident between 3-5 pm? Take a look at your schedule and determine what is happening at that time of day that you can do differently to set your puppy up for success. Not seeing a pattern at all? This is still important information which tells us we need to improve our ability to read our puppy’s body language, and use more active prevention strategies. Record keeping can also help us to recognize when something unusual might be happening. If your puppy is eliminating multiple times consecutively in small amounts, straining, or eliminating without seeming to be aware of it consult your veterinarian to rule out a medical issue.
Manage the environment. Good spatial management is essential to successful potty training. Any quiet area, with a porous surface, is a good bathroom from your puppy’s perspective. While your puppy is learning where to go potty, you must prevent him or her from choosing the wrong places by preventing access to them in the first place. Keep your puppy in sight by using baby gates, exercise pens, or tethering your puppy to yourself with a leash. If you need to do something which will cause you to be out of sight of your puppy, put your puppy in a crate with a safe chew toy or food puzzle.
Those baby teeth are sharp! To make matters worse, your puppy is wielding them indiscriminately on every surface within reach. It is essential to recognize that this mouthy period is a completely normal phase which puppies experience, and they bite for a variety of reasons including information gathering, boredom, or in an attempt to soothe their own pain. Their little gums are extremely sore as adult teeth start pushing through, and your puppy is likely to be teething from 12 weeks to 8 months old.
Get it right by providing appropriate outlets, staying calm, and training a better behavior.
Match their preference. When you’re trying to keep your puppy interested in mouthing their toys instead of your hands, clothing, and furniture, it is important to keep their preferences in mind. It may be difficult to convince your puppy that a hard deer antler is going to feel better than your woven rug. Your puppy could be choosing the inappropriate items because they fulfill a specific need. Try to match that need when offering a substitution. Still attempting to get your puppy away from that rug? Offer him or her a floppy plush toy or a rope instead. Conversely, if your puppy is going after table legs, this is the perfect time for the deer antler. When buying toys for your puppy, be sure to select a variety of textures so you can preemptively meet your puppy’s needs as often as possible.
Use rotation to increase novelty. Rotate the toys in and out of a drawer or closet so that they remain novel and fun to your puppy. This can improve your puppy’s success rate with choosing appropriate toys in the first place. Keep a variety of options readily available in every room, but don’t put all of the toys out at once.
Remain calm. It can be difficult to remain calm when you discover that your puppy has destroyed your favorite shoes or your new couch, but for the both of you, it’s better that you do. Punishing your puppy for chewing your possessions is likely to teach your puppy to be afraid of you, afraid of the room they were punished in, or maybe even to be afraid of those shoes. However, it is unlikely to teach him or her that chewing your things is wrong as the puppy likely chose based on opportunity, not intent. Punishment can result in much bigger behavior problems or phobias later in life, and can harm your relationship. Instead of focusing on a problem you can’t go back and fix, look at what you might do differently next time, so your puppy never has an opportunity to chew the things you love, and is given ample replacement items.
Train what you want to see. Many of the behaviors you don’t like can be solved, in part, by training an incompatible replacement behavior, and puppy biting is no exception. It is important to note that before you train an alternative behavior, you must know what is motivating the original behavior. If your puppy is chewing on his or her leash because it feels good, and they find it fun, you can simply train a replacement behavior. In this case, a puppy who is chewing on the leash for fun can be rewarded for looking at the leash without touching it, and slowly increase difficulty as they do well. If your puppy is chewing on his or her leash out of anxiety or fear, we treat that a little differently. For these puppies we recommend discussing a plan with your trainer.
Your puppy stays close to you now, but this may not always be the case. As puppies near adolescence they begin to explore their world independently, are more likely to roam further, and are less interested in sticking by your side. Now is the best time to teach your puppy to come to you when called, and doing so can save you a great deal of time and effort later in their life. Once your puppy is able to happily recall away from distractions you can use this skill to prevent them from jumping on people, help them play nicely with other dogs, and gain more freedom. At this stage of life, your puppy is highly likely to come to you when called. Take advantage of it now!
Get it right by paying generously, choosing quality over quantity, and keeping it positive.
Get out the good stuff. If there is any behavior you should save the best payout for, it’s your recall. Don’t be stingy with this! Consider some of the things you may want to call your dog away from (playing with another puppy, chasing a squirrel, a person holding a sandwich). All of those things are super fun for your puppy, and you are trying to convince them to leave all of that behind and come to you. If your puppy is absolutely convinced that you make their favorite things appear after you call them, you can be successful in any of those scenarios.
Preference test. Think about your reward, and assess whether or not your puppy truly enjoys it. Is it a treat that your puppy eats, and then seems to immediately forget about? Are you praising your puppy while they attempt to dodge your hands and go back to having fun? If this is the case, you can try to choose reinforcers that help your puppy feel there was a reason for the recall.
Helpful Hint: Prepare your treats well in advance to help ensure you’re equipped with reinforcers every time you call. At first they may be focused on the treat. Wait until they’ve forgotten that you have anything, call your puppy to you from a very short distance, and surprise him or her with the reward. If your puppy only comes to you when you’re “playing the game” call them at random times during the day, and plan a huge payout instead of practicing your normal routine.
Quality Over Quantity. You can practice the recall with your puppy 100 times in a row, and give them a treat for every single one, but if your puppy was slowly wandering up to you and you had to shout their name 10 times to get them to take a step, you still will not have a stronger recall. Instead of repeating the recall the same way, without improving your results, assess each repetition and make adjustments where necessary. If your puppy is ignoring your attempts to call them, remove some distractions and try again. If your puppy is doing a great job at your current level of recall, try to gradually increase the level of difficulty by adding new distractions, or greater distances. Even when your puppy is doing well, it’s best to keep sessions short. Your puppy is still growing, and can experience joint pain from too many repetitions of running quickly back and forth. With recall, like so many things in life, less is more.
Ending on a positive. Remember that what comes after your recall is important, and always finish a recall with something great. If you know your puppy does not enjoy an activity, like taking a bath, avoid calling your puppy to you in order to start that activity. There are also other, less obvious, scenarios your puppy might perceive as negative. For example, if you’re primarily using your recall to end play sessions your puppy learns that the recall most often means playtime is over, and occasionally means a treat is coming. As a result, they may become more reluctant to come to you. If instead, you recall your puppy, give them a treat, then send them right back to playing they will learn that coming when called earns them treats AND playtime. When you actually have to end play you can go to your puppy, and reward him or her for paying attention to you and lead him or her away rewarding the entire time they are moving with you, and rewarding again when they get into the car.
As you’re working to give your puppy the best possible start to life, remember above all else to enjoy this time together. Puppyhood is brief. No matter what skills you’re building, always remember to have fun, and enjoy the moment!
Author: Rachel Marderosian, CPDT-KA