Most fresh puppies arrive with very few usable skills under their belt (exceptional breeders aside). Not only do they not know much yet, but almost everything they want to do is what you don’t want them to do. Lovely. You’re seemingly up sh*t creek without a paddle at this stage, but there are a few hacks that not only make those initial couple months survivable but also set your puppy up for success as a bonafide member of society...
Here are the top 6 things I wish all new puppy owners knew:
1. Less freedom, not more
We can’t yet ask our puppies to do or not to do something, but we can use management to physically guide them towards and away from specific behaviours. I’ll give you some examples:
They can’t pee on the rug if they’re in their pen
They can’t chew on the kid's toys if you set up baby gates blocking off the hallway to the kid’s rooms
They can’t dig holes in your vege garden if they’re not left out there unsupervised
They can’t chase your chickens if they’re always on the leash around the chickens
They can't run around chasing and nipping at your kids if they're separated when not supervised
Most annoying puppy and adolescent dog problems can be boiled down to too much freedom too early on. Too much freedom gives them the opportunity to discover, trial and then practice behaviours that we deem inappropriate.
Once they’ve figured out something is fun, it’s a whole lot more work to override that new annoying habit with something more desirable than it would have been to prevent it in the first place. Use management tools like short leads, long lines (5-10m), baby gates, exercise pens and crates when not DIRECTLY interacting with your puppy. That probably means that a lot of the time your puppy will be restricted to a pen initially, that's 100% fine! They need a bucket load of sleep anyway (more on that shortly). Have your pup ‘live’ in a decent-sized exercise pen attached to their crate, with toys and water and chewy things etc. available all the time. Bring them out of that area for play, training, socialisation, cuddles, adventures etc. when you’re actively supervising & interacting with them, then put them back in their pen! By working your pup's routine this way, we're ensuring that they're only able to learn habits that we approve of, and they're never left unsupervised to discover all the fun stuff we don't approve of (like chewing your couch).
2. Play with toys, LOTS
Inside your puppy's mouth are 28 tiny little weapons that HURT. Unfortunately for us, puppy mouthing is 100% normal, expected and necessary. It's not a behaviour we ‘nip in the bud’, it’s one where we pour another glass of wine and wait it out. What we can do from the get-go however is teach our puppies WHERE is the most fun place to use those little daggers, and where isn’t. It won’t work 100% of the time, you’re still going to get bitten a lot, but it will make a big difference. Playing with our puppies with toys more than just occasionally has many many many benefits:
It’s a great opportunity for your pup to bond with your family and to learn that you're worth paying attention to
It’s a brilliant way to get some of that crazy puppy energy out in a productive, appropriate way
It gives them a legal outlet for their teeth - which is really important! We can’t just say no don’t do that, it’s a natural behaviour and they NEED a legal opportunity to practice it.
It starts to build a reinforcement history, or a habit, about where to use those little hypodermic needles. Hint, not my flesh, please!
When I say play with toys lots, I don't just mean randomly. I mean all the time.
That’s pretty much all puppies do. Eat, sleep and bite stuff.
Carry a long fleece tuggy around with you as you move around the house to encourage your pup to chase and latch onto that and not your pant leg. Keep a chewy toy stashed in the couches so when you’re ‘couch snuggle’ turns painful you can shove something appropriate in their gob instead of your forearm. Put a few minutes aside a few times a day and actively get on the floor and play tug and fetch with them. If in doubt, play more.
3. Waayy more downtime
Many puppy issues can be magically resolved by giving your pup more opportunities to sleep. Puppies play hard, and nap hard. Depending on the breed, age and individual, pups need between 16-20hours of sleep per day. Buuuttttt, if you don’t actively facilitate that rest, often they’ll get far less and end up cranky, bitey and a little bit feral. Facilitate rest by popping them away in their pen/crate regularly, or as mentioned earlier - do it the other way around where they’re in their pen most of the time and they come out for activities before going back in their pen for another nap. When they're sleeping, leave them alone! A well-rested puppy is a dream, and an overtired one is an absolute nightmare! If in doubt, add more downtime.
4. Help them learn to be comfortable alone, from the start
Being alone is really scary for a baby pup, it goes against everything in their evolutionary history. But it's a really crucial and helpful skill, and the earlier you start, the easier it is to master. The old train of thought was that you'd pop pups in their crates and let them scream it out until they 'got used to it'. We know now that this is extremely stressful for them, and will likely work against our goal of a robust pup, and instead may create insecurities or excessive frustration. So how do we do it? There could be an entire blog written purely about this so I'll give you an overview:
We slowly and gently expose puppies to their crates and pens from day 1, in a manner where they have a positive experience and don't freak out. Over time, we move further away, for longer durations.
A little bit of fussing isn't a big deal - but screaming wailing puppies are not left to panic on their own. Pups are placed in their pens for nap time whenever they fall asleep elsewhere, they're fed their meals in there, and we utilize time-consuming interactive feeders to help build positive associations with the location. We spend time in there or right outside of the pen ourselves so they're not alone, and very gradually increase the length of time they're left.
The result is a pup you can pop away at any time, awake or asleep, and they're happy to just chill and potter independently. They're less frustrated when they can't access something, and they're more relaxed about being left out of the fun (think kids running around playing).
Day 2 pen training - standing right next to it, making food rain:
Day 4 pen training - working a couple of meters away so when he wakes up, he's not alone:
5. Associations are more important than obedience
While training your pup to do the things we'd like them to do is important (like sit, down, stay), it's not nearly as important as spending time helping them build the emotional associations we want them to have with the world.
When my foster pups are interacting with new people, dogs, objects or environments - I'm focused on how they're feeling and what they're learning through association, more so than how they're behaving.
Take a visitor coming over as an example, I have my 'ideal adult dog response' to this situation in mind, it's something along the lines of 'friendly and confident, greets the visitor calmly and politely then goes off and does their own thing'. So with that response in mind, we can compare the pup's response and that will help us determine how we need to respond.
Is the pup:
Overwhelmed and retreating? - We need more gentle exposure to avoid negative experiences, so I'm going to ask this visitor not to touch or directly interact with the pup so that it can suss out the situation in its own time and prevent it from learning that people are scary space invaders.
Leaping all over the stranger like a lunatic? - We need more controlled and neutral exposure to reduce that excitement so that the pup doesn't learn that this is an appropriate response to strangers when they're 35kg!
What feelings and behaviours do you want them to associate with the vet clinic? The groomers? The cafe? The dog park? Do you want an adult dog that pays attention to you at the beach or one that buggers off to greet every other person and dog in sight? Whatever emotions you want them to feel, and whatever behaviours you want them to learn - mould their experiences from a wee little pup to facilitate those goals.
What's that old saying? Start as you mean to continue.
Not every dog is a suitable cafe dog, some find it too overwhelming, that's all good. Two of our four dogs are great at it though. When we take these dogs to a cafe, I typically want them to lie quietly under the table while I enjoy my soy flat white and avo on toast. I want them to ignore members of the public walking past, all other dogs, and all the waiting staff. There's my ideal adult dog response. If I start to build this association from the very first cafe trip as a pup, it's an easy one to master (providing we're working with happy confident pups here). All it takes is preventing your pup from interacting with any of the above list. Don't let passers-by stop and greet them, don't let them stretch to the end of their leash to access a dog. We're not restricting all social engagement in every environment - we're setting the stage for where and when it's appropriate. A puppy that grows up learning that cafe's are for naps will continue to nap at cafes into adulthood. On the flip side, a puppy that is let to greet everyone and everything at cafes when they're little is going to really struggle to change their association when the rules change as they hit 25kg.
6 week old pre-vaccinated Monster getting lots of opportunities to learn about the world by watching it go by at a distance
6. Engagement, Engagement, Engagement
If your pup has formed the association (previous point) that beaches are where they hang out and play with YOU, parks are where they hang out and play with YOU, cafe's are where they hang out with YOU, YOU'RE more exciting than the visitors that just walked in etc. etc. instead of ignoring you and doing whatever they want for however long they want until you manage to catch them again - then you've boycotted many of the training issues that dog trainers get hired to resolve. Engagement doesn't magically fix everything, but man does it go a long way to prevent some annoying habits!
A dog that is focused on its owner is not:
running off at the dog park rehoming itself with every other family it finds
chasing seagulls a kilometer down the beach
pulling on leash to reach the dog on the opposite side of the road
trying to greet every human it passes in town
jumping all over your guests
Staring at you adoringly (or in anticipation of food, whatever..) is a behaviour that is mutually exclusive to all of the behaviours in the above list. I know which one i'd prefer, even if they're in it for the food.
Don't ignore your dog when you're out, or they'll ignore you. Walk TOGETHER, not like two strangers that happen to be tethered to each other.
Reinforce your puppy with food every time they voluntarily pay attention to you out and about. Those check-ins are worth their weight in gold. You can't do anything else with your dog until you've got their attention, so pay them liberally when they offer it.
Play with your pup (point 2!), take toys to the park and the beach. Be the most exciting and fun thing in their world. If they're ditching you for another dog or person - it says something about you not them! Sorry!
Request engagement before giving your puppy access to the things they want. Rather than unclipping their leash to go play when they're already pulling and lunging towards the other dog, use some food and get their attention for a few seconds first, then unclip and actively release them to go play. This is known as grandmas law - first you eat your veggies, then you get your ice cream. Engagement first, freedom to explore / sniff / play second.
What has been the most useful piece of puppy advice you've received?? Let us know in the comments below and sing out if you have any questions!