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All About Puppies

Everything you need to know about raising your new pet puppy!





Table of Contents

Picking a Puppy 

Socialization, Exposure, & Confidence Building (and Vaccines) 

General Housebreaking

Potty Training 

Mouthing & Biting

How to Walk a Puppy on Leash

Training Skills 

The "Angel Phase" and Teenagehood



Introduction


Puppyhood can be the best of times and the worst of times. It is often precious and adorable, and it is sometimes exhausting and frustrating. 


When I have a new puppy client come in, I always have to stop myself from talking nonstop for hours on end, because there is just so much to be said about puppyhood. I wrote this guide as  supplemental material for my own clients, but I think it stands on its own as an excellent guide for “all things puppy.” 



Picking a Puppy


I understand many of you will find this guide after you have already committed to a particular puppy, so I’ll be brief in this section. But picking the right puppy can save you from a lot of potential heartache. 


If you are getting a puppy from a breeder, it is essential that you understand how to gauge if a breeder is responsible or not. Here’s a great list of factors to consider from Lorelei Rae Craig via “Uncensored Opinions of Breeders”


  • Knowledgeable: Years involved in the breed
 | Member of the breed parent and regional clubs
 | Has a Mentor and or Partner network

  • Health tests: 
Health tests based on Parent Club Recommendations
 | Provides proof or link to proof without discussion or excuses | 
Screens pups for early onset genetic defects as needed, i.e. hearing and eyes

  • Quality of life for breeding stock: 
Food, water, shelter AND the dog has a life doing what it enjoys or was bred to do | When visited, are the adult dogs thriving and happy? | Are the dogs clean and well groomed?

  • Rears puppies well: 
Can provide weight and health charts for each pup since whelping | 
Uses enrichment, novel protocols and interacts with the puppies regularly | Puppy area is kept clean and puppies may use a litterbox
 | When visited puppy’s temperament is reflective of the breed’s natural characteristics
 | Puppies are cleaned and well groomed, i.e. nails and ears and coats

  • Qualifies homes well: 
Has an application asking basic information and opening dialogue questions
 | Has one or more phone interviews where they ask questions and listen | Asks personal questions about living situation
 | May ask for references including a local vet 
| If shopping overseas, may contact people overseas for references

  • Ensures none of their product becomes part of the shelter system: 
Has a contract that states that the dog is not rehomed without approval and or the dog comes back to the breeder 


These are the factors that you should be focused on - not aesthetic traits like color, coat type, or cuteness. Unfortunately, I often meet people who think they have purchased a puppy from a reputable breeder when they’ve actually been tricked into financially supporting the despicable industry that is “puppy mills.” Needless to say, puppies purchased from irresponsible breeders are more prone to health and behavioral issues. 


If you've acquired a poorly bred dog, either accidentally or by rescuing a puppy from a difficult background, know that how you raise them can make a huge difference in whether they grow up to be happy and mentally sound. Keep reading to learn how you can maximize your dog's potential by making the right choices during their puppyhood.



Socialization, Exposure, and Confidence Building 


Puppies have a critical learning period that is the prime time to introduce them to all of the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the world that you expect them to cope with for the rest of their adult life. The literature will give you different answers for when exactly this window “closes,” but the average consensus is around four months old. A common comparison for understanding this critical learning windows is, “Think about how quickly children learn languages compared to the task of learning a new language as an adult.” But instead of learning languages, we’re talking about our puppies learning to manage stress and not be excessively fearful. 


Rather than focusing solely on basic skills like sit, down, and come, prioritize showing your puppy that people, places, and things are not scary. Obedience training and teaching tricks can wait; right now, socialization is key. If you have a new puppy, I highly recommend printing a socialization checklist and keeping it on your fridge as a reminder.



When your puppy encounters a new sight, sound, surface, event, or any unfamiliar stimuli, it's crucial to observe their body language. If they show signs of fear, such as freezing, cowering, or barking, create distance between them and the source of fear to allow them to process the situation comfortably. This may involve doing a U-turn and gently coaxing your puppy away, or redirecting their attention by distracting them with attention, food, or a toy. If your puppy appears conflicted, moving back and forth towards the new thing, give them time to assess and acclimate. Reward attempts at bravery with treats or praise. Remember, scary things can become less intimidating when associated with positive experiences.





Vaccines and Safety


And what about vaccines? The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) “Position Statement On Puppy Socialization” states, “The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior. For this reason, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated. Because the first three months are the period when sociability outweighs fear, this is the primary window of opportunity for puppies to adapt to new people, animals, and experiences. Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression. Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”


Unfortunately, some vets are still not up to date on this perspective.


To minimize the risk of disease to your puppy before they are fully vaccinated, avoid heavily trafficked areas where other dogs frequent. Steer clear of muddy areas and puddles, and make sure to wipe your puppy down when returning indoors. Other options that are especially useful for getting your puppy through a heavily trafficked area to a more puppy-friendly zone, or simply to go people-watching without having your pup ever on the ground, are backpacks, strollers, bike trailers, and the like. 


When I got my puppy Cupid, I immediately showed him the whole country, since I drove him from his breeder in West Virginia back to Portland, OR. I was careful to not have him on grass that lots of dogs walk on, like gas stations and rest stops. We would often drive an extra mile to find a patch of grass in a fast food parking lot, for example. When we got home to Portland, I took him to a new place every single day - even if it was just to go people-watching in a grocery store parking lot down the street. He went to stores, markets, parks, and more. Most nap times were accompanied by noise soundtracks like fireworks, construction, and playlists of the sound of traffic. I didn’t teach him to sit until after he was four months old. 





The Idea of Neutrality 


Note that being confident about experiencing the world doesn't necessarily mean feeling compelled to approach every dog or person encountered on the street. It is important to make sure that your puppy practices being confident around dogs and people from a distance, too. A dog who becomes manic at the sight of people and other dogs on walks is not the goal of socialization. 


When people do say hi to your puppy, encourage them to be calm and appropriate with their greetings. Additionally, it is wise to be extremely cautious about what dogs you allow to approach your puppy, especially while on leash. Being trapped on leash can easily lead to fear, defensive behavior, frustration, and overexcitement - all of which typically lead to “leash reactivity” when the dog is older. 


Instead, practice rewarding your puppy for calmly observing dogs from a distance on walks. Carefully curated playdates with handpicked friends are a far superior method of socializing a puppy to other dogs. Likewise, I absolutely do not recommend taking a puppy to a dog park. Finding controlled settings for your puppy to meet other dogs, like organized puppy socials, private lessons with a trainer, or becoming buddies with other puppies in your neighborhood (particularly if you or they have a backyard!) is the way to go. 





General Housebreaking 


Housebreaking means any manners involving behaviors in the home: Potty training, no chewing on furniture, no stealing objects, no counter surfing, etc. The name of the game with teaching any dog to behave well in the home, but especially puppies, is preventing bad habits from forming


Puppies are dabbling in new behaviors as they explore the world, and we want to ensure that we set them up to repeat the behavior that makes them well-mannered, successful pets. 

How do we do this? We use structure, supervision, and management. 


Structure and Confinement


Your puppy should have a daily routine. Every dog has different needs, and if your dog is still a growing puppy, those needs will evolve as they mature. Keeping a diary of your puppy’s behavior can help you understand what works best for them. A typical puppy's day should consist of a rotation of rest time, nap time, and active activities such as walks, playtime, and training sessions. Rest time is the perfect opportunity for your puppy to have a chew, like a bully stick, and it's usually followed by nap time.


In order to be more in control of when “rest” or “nap time” happens, crate and/or barrier training is a must. Puppyhood is the perfect time to prevent separation anxiety or confinement distress by teaching your puppy that they can be somewhere alone and be content.


Supervision


The majority of puppies will develop undesirable habits if they are allowed to roam freely in the home without supervision. Many bad habits like chewing on furniture are self-reinforcing, meaning they are likely to quickly become strong habits if allowed to develop unchecked. 


Management


Utilize management tools such as crates, x-pens, baby gates, and tethers. It's essential to “puppy-proof” rooms that your puppy frequents. If you're unable to supervise your puppy with 100% of your attention, they should be either confined using one of the management tools mentioned earlier or kept on a leash with you or tethered to your body.


Off-leash time in the house should be introduced in small increments, still under your supervision, and more free time should be allotted only if the puppy has proven themselves very reliably well-behaved. If your puppy does something unwanted, they should be swiftly interrupted and redirected to more appropriate behavior. If you are constantly having to interrupt your puppy, you might need to 1) further puppy proof your house, 2) spend more time in this room with your dog on leash first, and/or 3) exercise and entertain your puppy more thoroughly before letting them roam again. 


Follow this protocol until your puppy is extremely reliable for long periods of time under your supervision. Many trainers recommend not allowing your dog free roam of your house until they are over 1 year old; some recommend waiting even longer. (See “the angel phase” at the bottom of this article for more about puppyhood vs. teenagehood.) 



Potty Training 


Young puppies need frequent potty breaks because the muscles controlling their sphincters are still weak. The general rule of thumb is that a puppy can hold themselves for 1 hour for every month old they + 1, but many young puppies, especially active ones who exert themselves and then drink a lot of water afterwards, need to go out more frequently than that during the daytime. If the puppy is already developing a habit of pottying indoors, they might need to go out as frequently as every 30 minutes. Keep a log and observe their pottying habits. Puppies often need to potty after eating, drinking, running, and waking up from a nap.


When you are taking your puppy out to potty, you may want to try picking a particular spot outside and walking back and forth over it until your puppy eliminates. It is nice for a dog to use the bathroom immediately when they get outside, as opposed to needing to walk 3 blocks before they go. (Think about how annoying that will be if it’s raining or freezing outside.)


If your puppy doesn’t potty in the backyard reliably, and instead wants to start romping around or chewing on sticks, consider walking them on leash - even in your backyard! And if your puppy thinks you are just the most fun person in the world, you might have to act like you’re ignoring them for them to get to sniffing. 


If your puppy still doesn’t potty after hanging out in their potty spot for a few minutes, walking back and forth over it, or even going for a whole walk, they should either be crated or kept on leash once you’re back inside. Then, take them back out in 5-20 minutes. For a challenging potty training case, you sometimes have to repeat this pattern back to back. (If your puppy potties in the crate, they might have been left inside for too long without enough opportunity to potty, or the crate might be too big and the puppy knows they can potty and still get away from the mess.) 


Potty training can be a downright annoying process, but trust that it is worth putting the work in now, as opposed to having to deal with a teenage dog who still pees indoors. 


Once your puppy does potty outside, tell them how wonderful they are. You can reward them with a treat or whatever fun activity they might enjoy afterwards: Chasing you around, free time in the backyard, or maybe just more sniffing! 


Once you know that your puppy is about to go potty when they are outside, you can put the behavior on cue by saying “go potty” right before they eliminate.


If your puppy has an accident inside, do not scold or scare them. You don’t want to accidentally teach them that pottying in front of you is scary or dangerous. You may want to interrupt them cheerfully, but a shy pup may be spooked even by that. Take them outside right away and give them the opportunity to finish their business outdoors. Try to take them outside sooner next time. Back inside, clean up the mess thoroughly with enzymatic cleaner. If your puppy can smell pee or poop in your house - and remember that their noses can smell things that we cannot - your dog is much more likely to potty inside again. So a proper cleaner is a must. 



Puppy Mouthing 


Some cases of puppy mouthing are simple and resolve naturally with time and the end of the teething phase. The gentler souls respond to consistent redirection to a toy and/or the human making a yipping sound when the puppy mouths them. I’ve met plenty of people who didn’t have to think or try too hard to beat the puppy mouthing phase. However, I meet a lot of people who are thoroughly overwhelmed by their puppy’s biting, and I meet puppies who are very intense even if not malicious about mouthing. Sometimes puppies grow out of mouthing, but especially if the behavior has that significant intensity, there is a chance that they can grow into the biting behavior. Obviously, we don’t want that! 


Honestly, I wanted this section to be short, but as I wrote about it, I realized I have a lot to say. So buckle up if you’ve got a mouthy puppy!  


Why are they biting? 


In general, when you’re looking at a puppy’s “behavioral issue,” you should be asking yourself if their needs have been met. Did they get enough mental and physical enrichment today yet? Mouthing can be an outlet for excess energy when a puppy doesn’t know what to do with themselves. 


And what about the opposite - overstimulation? A puppy who is worked up by the environment, having too much fun, or is overdue for a nap will also typically become excessively mouthy. 


Structure and Preemptive Outlets for Mouthing 


Don’t forget the concept of structure presented in the above housebreaking section. This is the same concept, in many ways. 


Sometimes puppies will bite their owners simply for fun, especially if they feel like it will elicit something cool. I see this a lot in cases where the puppy has been allowed to free roam a house with a human present for too much time, too young. For example, an owner who works from home might have a puppy in their office with them for 8 hours a day, thinking at first that that is the perfect setup. The puppy develops a habit of coming up to the human at their desk and nibbling their ankles, and the owner of course is going to acknowledge this behavior and interact with the puppy to preoccupy them if they are on a work call etc. The puppy learns that mouthing for attention is a viable and good idea. 


A simple solution here is that the puppy should spend more time practicing settling independently, for example eating a frozen kong in their crate and then falling asleep. This prevents the puppy from learning that if the human is sitting at their work desk, they are actually a button that the puppy can push when they want something. 


Part of structuring a puppy’s day for success involves providing them with healthy outlets for using their mouth, such as safe chew toys and long-lasting consumables like bully sticks. Playing games of fetch and tug also plays a vital role in fulfilling a puppy's biological needs. Since puppies are naturally inclined to chase and mouth objects, channeling that energy towards toys rather than living things is essential for their well-being.


Petting Your Pup 


I meet many owners that don’t understand that puppies aren’t ready to be rubbed on and pet-patted any time, any place the way that adult dogs often are. Puppies are very physically sensitive. In fact, they were just so sensitive that until about four weeks old, the feeling of being licked by their mother is what elicited them to pee and poop. That’s really sensitive! 


The tactile sensation of being pet seems to me to surprise many young puppies, and their first response is to start mouthing - as in, what is this, what are we doing, are we kind of wrestling here? Especially if the puppy is distracted or excited, I witness a lot of owners start trying to pet their puppy in our private lessons without thinking twice, and it causes immediate biting. The puppy wasn’t wanting or expecting to be pet in that moment, and the owner is upset with the mouthing that occurs. That is the owner’s fault. 


You should pet a young, mouthy puppy only when they are somewhat ready to be calm, so that they learn to associate the touch with calmly enjoying affection, as opposed to associating being touched with biting. 


The kind of petting you are doing also matters. Ruffling the top of their head and sticking your fingers in their face is asking for trouble. Squeaking and squealing while you love on the puppy is likewise a recipe for disaster. (This is of course easier said than done with an adorable creature in front of you!) Petting should be smooth motions done in a pleasantly relaxed way. 


A lot of people have trouble with this next concept, but you can also position your hands behind the puppy’s head to deter biting, gently blocking their mouth from turning toward your hands. I’ve never heard this technique called anything, so please help me name it. I came up with “Hands of Control,” which sounds terrifying and absolutely should not be what we use to reference it. 



Obviously I need to get my hands on a puppy to model this for a better picture.


Teaching Them to Stop Mouthing 


When you think about teaching a dog not to mouth you, you also need to be thinking about bite inhibition - meaning that the puppy understands the force of their bite and learns to control how much pressure they exert with their mouth. 


Many trainers (myself included) agree that the superior way to teach a puppy about bite inhibition is by being with other dogs. Figuring out how to play and wrestle appropriately is the best way for a puppy to learn the body awareness needed to ensure that they don’t bite too hard. 


Now, as I alluded to earlier, there is a spectrum of difficulty depending on the dog and established history when it comes to the best way to break the habit of mouthing on the owners. There are two main techniques for “punishing” mouthing behavior that I recommend when more help is needed than everything I said above: 


For the Easier Puppy: Withdraw Attention


Withdrawing attention is a great way of communicating, “If you bite me, I don’t want to play with you.” This is adequate motivation for some puppies to stop mouthing. This can look like going from bending over and interacting with a puppy to straightening up and ignoring them, or it can look like walking away from the puppy. 


For the Harder Puppy: Formal Timeouts


If you straightened up and walked away, would your puppy start leaping and biting at your clothes or follow you nipping your heels? If so, your puppy requires more formal timeouts to get the point across. This is especially relevant if you have a puppy who has “biting temper tantrums.” 


The time out requires a physical barrier to ensure that the puppy is truly kept away from you and your attention: A leash, a crate, a tether, a baby gate, etc. 


Sometimes it's beneficial to have a puppy wear a thin leash, allowing for easier movement to a timeout area when necessary, particularly to prevent them from leaping and biting. If the owner finds it challenging to consistently remember to have the puppy wear the leash, I recommend having puppies wear the drag line during times of the day when 'bad behavior' is most likely to occur, like “the puppy witching hour.” (Yes, it’s real!) 


The puppy should stay in timeout for about 5 minutes, or until they settle down. You might discover during this timeout that they were actually overstimulated, as the puppy proceeds to crash and fall asleep. 


A Warning about Corporal Punishment for Mouthing


I do not recommend corporal punishment for puppies such as hitting, sticking your hand in their mouth, and the like. Young puppies are impulsive, and their brains are still developing. You should be focusing on teaching your puppy how to do the right thing, as opposed to scaring them and teaching them to be wary of human hands reaching toward them. 



How to Take a Puppy for a Walk


Puppies need lots of opportunity to explore the environment, since the whole world is brand new to them! Sniffing, investigating, and staring at everything is all part of puppies adjusting to the world. (Really, no one warns you about how much puppies need to stop and stare on walks.) 


Practice giving your puppy plenty of free reign to explore on walks. Keep the leash slack so that the puppy isn’t being reinforced for pulling on leash. If you want your puppy to follow you, prompt them with your voice, and then reward them with a treat right by your leg. As they get older, you can ask for more following than sniffing and exploring, but while they are young, puppy walks should be at the puppy’s own pace - which is likely slow. Don’t get too caught up in thinking you are going to cover a certain amount of distance with your puppy. Leash pressure will also be a relatively new sensation for them to cope with, which can be stressful, and allowing them to set the pace will help acclimate them to the leash with the least amount of stress. 


Bring treats with for every single walk outside with your puppy. You never know when you might encounter something new and spooky.


If your puppy is a fiend for picking up items from the ground, practice saying “Trade ya!” and sticking a big handful of yummy treats in their nose. If the puppy doesn’t go for the treats, you can scatter them on the ground. (A puppy who loves trash usually benefits from starting formal “drop it” training sooner rather than later, especially if you live in an urban area full of dangerous goodies.)





Training Skills


As I emphasize above, socialization and exposure should be prioritized over teaching skills and tricks, especially when the puppy is under four months old. That being said, if you have the time and desire to start teaching basic skills to your young puppy, bare in mind the following: 


Attention Span, Impulse Control, and Growing 


Puppies’ brains are not fully developed the same way that a toddler’s brain is not fully developed. Their ability to regulate their emotions, stay focused, and resist impulses is simply not what it will be after they start to grow up and mature. 


Additionally, I always remind people that puppies sometimes feel like they wake up a different dog every day because they are developing so quickly. There will be lots of “phases,” for better or for worse! 


Generalization 


Puppies and adult dogs, for that matter, do not automatically generalize skills to new contexts until you teach them to generalize via regular practice. In other words, you may have taught your puppy to “sit” in your kitchen, but that doesn’t mean that your puppy will automatically understand what “sit” means or that it’s worth their while the first time you take them to a training school, park, the vet, etc. 


For this reason, one of my pet peeves is hearing an owner start to nag, harass, or otherwise punish a puppy for not sitting immediately when asked at their first puppy class. When I ask them to stop, they might reply with, “No, they know ‘sit,’ we’ve been working on it!” I often remind people that even if they’ve been practicing every day, the puppy has only been with them for x weeks, and so they can’t possibly be that good at sitting yet. Slow down. In a new context, you may need to “reteach” the skill as if it were their first time. 


Positive Reinforcement 


Especially with a puppy, you want to focus on using positive reinforcement for your training protocol. This teaches the dog to love learning and training with you, which sets the stage for a good relationship as they mature. 


Using positive reinforcement in training does not mean letting a puppy get away with murder. If we’re not using treats and affection as a reward to influence behavior, I recommend using management as described in the “housebreaking” section or a timeout as described in the “puppy mouthing” section. 


Of course, this is a brief summary of my training protocol for puppies. If you are stuck and struggling with puppy training, I recommend working with a professional trainer such as myself. 



The "Angel Phase" and Teenagehood 


A lot of owners aren’t aware of the “angel phase,” and such ignorance can actually really screw them over. Many puppies present angelic behavior early in life simply because some of their instincts have not “woken up” yet. This means that some genetic traits like digging, barking, foraging, etc. don’t really kick in until the puppy turns into a teenager and starts to feel more experimental. 


So a young puppy may be perfect at coming when called because they haven’t consider any other options yet, or a young puppy might be good when left unattended in a room, because they are too sleepy from their growth spurts to get into trouble. The mistake that owners make is that they assume that this is a permanent state of being and let their guard down. These owners give the puppy too much freedom to run outside around distractions off leash, stop using the crate, and be loose in the house, and they assume that the puppy is “trained” because they are behaving well at five months old. 


Then the teenage phase kicks in, and the puppy gets into all kinds of trouble because of the excessive opportunity to make mistakes. Owners realize too late that a bad habit has developed right under their nose such as the now-teenage dog religiously chewing shoes when the owner isn’t home. 


New Puppy Owner, don’t let this be you! Puppies should be considered completely unreliable at just about anything until they are fully matured. They need supervision and guidance to keep them on the straight and righteous path. 


I promise you, your militant hard work will pay off when you have a confident, happy adult dog that listens to you well and stays out of trouble. 

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