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Puppy Palooza: The Secret(s) to Raising a Happy and Healthy Pup

Congratulations on your new pup! As veterinarians, it’s our job to help you and your puppy bond and develop a healthy relationship from day one. The wonderful thing is that puppies arrive ready to be taught how to live with a family—a blank slate. You have the opportunity and responsibility to teach your puppy proper behavior for life as part of your family. Here are our recommendations for you to help your puppy grow into a happy, healthy dog and a wonderful companion.

Dos and Don'ts

The first step in training your puppy is to decide on your rules. Talk with all family members and make a list of what your puppy will and won’t be allowed to do. Will your puppy be allowed on the couch? Will they be allowed to beg at the table? Consistency is the most important element when training your puppy. Nothing is more confusing to a dog than being allowed to do a behavior at certain times but not at others.

Be careful not to let your puppy do behaviors now if you won't want them to do those behaviors when they're an adult. It might seem cute when your puppy jumps up to greet you, but you probably won’t think so when he weighs 60 pounds! It is difficult to un-train behaviors once they have become ingrained.

Positive Reinforcement for Your Puppy

Dogs learn best when they are taught what to do rather than what not to do. As your puppy’s teacher, you will achieve the most success from using positive reinforcement. When your puppy is doing a behavior that you would like them to continue, positively reinforce the behavior by giving praise, treats, or attention.

Using correction, or telling your dog what not to do, generally doesn’t work for teaching a puppy proper behavior. Instead, use prevention (i.e., put shoes away so your puppy can’t chew on them) or “time-outs” (i.e., stop playtime if your puppy is overexcited). You can also pre-empt unwanted behavior by asking for the behavior you would rather your puppy be doing.

Timing is crucial when delivering rewards or managing your puppy’s behavior. Dogs only associate your praise (or removal of your attention) with the behavior they are doing at that exact moment. You have only half a second to give either a reward or a “time-out” for a behavior. Your puppy can’t understand that the “time-out” you just gave them is for the shoe they chewed on five minutes ago.

Be very careful never to reinforce the behaviors on your “don’ts” list. For example, if your puppy receives a nice head rub when he jumps up on you, he is being positively reinforced and is likely to continue jumping up for attention. Consistent enforcement of your rules is the key to successful training: positively reinforcing the correct behaviors and never reinforcing incorrect behaviors.

Diet and Feeding Your Puppy

Puppies should be fed puppy food until they are almost fully grown (about 9-12 months old for most dogs). Giant-breed puppies should be fed puppy food designed for their special health needs. A consistent diet will keep your puppy’s digestive system healthy. Determine which treats agree with your puppy's digestion and use those treats for training only! It can be hard to resist but don’t give your puppy treats just because he likes them.

We recommend that puppies younger than three months start out eating three meals a day. Do not leave food out all day. Instead, leave the food out for 15-20 minutes and then remove any uneaten food. Don’t offer your puppy anything else (other than treats for training purposes) until the next scheduled meal. There might be exceptions for toy breed puppies – please ask your veterinarian. Feeding at scheduled mealtimes will help you monitor your puppy’s appetite, help prevent overeating, and aid in housebreaking. For most puppies, by 4-5 months, you can gradually switch your puppy to twice-daily meals.

Crate Training Your Puppy

We strongly recommend using a crate when training your puppy. A crate provides your puppy with a safe and secure place of his very own, particularly at times when you can’t keep a close eye on them. Crates are also an important part of housetraining. Crates aren’t just for puppyhood: with the right training, a crate can be your dog’s preferred place to spend downtime or seek refuge from scary things like fireworks or thunderstorms. If your puppy really doesn’t like a crate, you can substitute mat training to partly fill the crate plays' role.

Here are some basic tips about using a crate:

  • Get a crate that gives your puppy only enough room to stand up, turn around, and lie down. Some crates are adjustable to grow along with your puppy.
  • Consider covering the crate with a blanket. Dogs naturally seek out enclosed, cozy places for their dens, and you want your dog’s crate to feel snug and secure.
  • The crate should be in a central location in your home rather than an area where they will be isolated from people. Puppies love human contact, so if the crate is where you are, then your puppy will be happy to be in the crate.
  • Put a cozy pad or blanket in the crate.
  • Give your puppy treats and toys in the crate to teach them that it is a fun place.
  • Use the crate when you’re spending time in the same room as your puppy, as well as at bedtime or when you leave home. This way, your puppy won’t just associate the crate with your absence.
  • Never use the crate for punishment, or your puppy will learn that the crate means bad things!
  • Don’t let your puppy out of the crate if they are barking or whining. Wait until they are quiet and calm (even for a few seconds) before you let them out. Teaching your puppy to sit before being let out of the crate is a great way to give them a polite way to say, "Please, may I come out now?"

Housetraining Your Puppy

The first step in housetraining is establishing a schedule of feeding and elimination (urination/defecation) times. Feed your puppy at the same times every day and follow a similar routine for his elimination. Make sure to take them out (or, if you are using indoor “pee pads,” take them to the pad) first thing in the morning, after naps and meals, and right before bedtime. This is the minimum! Very young puppies or smaller breeds might need “potty breaks” every 1-3 hours.

The key to housetraining is to give your dog lots of opportunities to eliminate in the right place and prevent opportunities for them to eliminate in the wrong place.

Until your dog is fully housetrained, they should always be in one of the following 3 situations:

1. Indoors in a crate or a dog-safe area (i.e., a small room blocked off with a baby gate). Puppies have a strong instinct not to eliminate in their “den” (i.e., their crate). If the crate is the right size, your puppy won’t have space to eliminate. If you use a blocked-off room or dog pen, keep a pad in the area so that your puppy has a place where it’s ok to eliminate.

2. Indoors under your direct supervision. This means being close enough for you to pick up your puppy if they are about to have an accident. If you’re close enough to prevent or interrupt an accident, you can bring your puppy to the place where he’s supposed to eliminate and then praise them for doing the right thing!

3. Outdoors with you. Choose one spot outside your home and take your puppy to that spot (or to the pad) each time. Wait 5-10 minutes and praise your puppy as soon as they are done eliminating. If your puppy hasn't eliminated, put them in the crate/area for 5-10 minutes, and then take them directly outdoors to try again.

Never punish your puppy for accidents. Those “accidents” are really the result of human errors in timing or management. Simply clean up the mess with an enzymatic cleaner, like Anti Icky-Poo or Nature’s Miracle. If you happen to catch your puppy as he urinates or defecates, quickly pick them up and take them directly outside (or to his pad).

Chewing and Mouthing

Chewing and mouthing behaviors are a necessary part of your puppy's development, particularly during teething. It is important to teach your puppy what is acceptable to chew/mouth and what is not. Provide them with a wide variety of safe chew toys such as Kongs, Buster Cubes, rawhides, and heavy-duty cloth toys. You can stuff hollow Kongs with treats (peanut butter, soft cheese, or wet dog food) for hours of chewing entertainment.

Avoid plush toys with pieces that can be chewed off, tennis balls, and any chew that is too hard to dent with a fingernail. If you catch your puppy chewing an inappropriate object, use a happy voice to interrupt them and immediately substitute one of his toys for the object. Then praise them when they chew the toy.

When your puppy starts to chew on your hands or clothing, quickly remove your hand/clothing without saying anything and ignore your puppy until they stop trying to chew. They want your attention, and getting a “time out” teaches them that chewing isn’t a successful attention-getting technique. Another approach is to grab a toy and put it in their mouth so that you make them chew the toy instead of you. This helps them associate their toys with the urge to chew.

Socialization With Your Puppy

Your puppy must encounter a wide range of people, pets, and situations to build their confidence in the world around them. Early socialization (before 16 weeks) is key to prevent long-term behavior problems. Studies have linked aggression and fearfulness in adult dogs with inadequate socialization in puppyhood. Puppies that aren’t exposed to different situations in a positive manner are at risk of becoming fearful of new situations.

Expose your puppy to men, women, and children of different ages and appearances, as well as different situations and unfamiliar places. Some things that commonly spook puppies include bikes, skateboards, canes, strollers, hats, and loud trucks. When your puppy encounters any of these things, give treats and praise to make the experience positive. From the puppy’s earliest weeks, take them with you wherever and whenever possible (depending on his vaccine status, you might need to use a carrier or cart or carry them in your arms). Explain to people, especially children, how to greet your puppy in a non-frightening way. Should your puppy become frightened, act confident and nonchalant and get them out of the situation without making a fuss. Use a happy tone of voice to distract them.

Many puppies don’t see people wearing masks in the home and are frightened when they see people in masks outside. Wear masks in front of your puppy so that he knows that the masked creatures they see outside are humans. Get your puppy used to the feel of different surfaces under their feet, particularly if your building has different surfaces in the lobby, elevator, and hallways. Take your puppy on the subway, bus, or in cabs. Exposing your puppy to other dogs and areas where other dogs visit is a crucial part of socialization.

Please ask us about which of these would be safe for your puppy at different points during the puppy vaccination period:

  • Carrying the pup outside
  • Puppy playgroups
  • Indoor playdates with fully-vaccinated dogs
  • Walking outside

During socialization, it’s crucial to avoid the 3 F’s: flooding, forcing, or going too fast. You can make your puppy’s fear worse by exposing them to too much too quickly or by forcing them into situations that make them very afraid. If you know that he is afraid of a particular situation, avoid it and contact your vet. For slightly timid puppies, Adaptil pheromone collars can ease the socialization process. If your puppy is showing a lot of fear, it is time to talk with your veterinarian about a referral to a trainer experienced with helping fearful dogs gain confidence.

Children and Puppies

Puppies sometimes seem to view children more like littermates than authority figures. Don’t expect your puppy to respond to a child’s directions the same way they would to yours. Depending on a child’s age and maturity, having children participate in training can confuse puppies. Always supervise children when they are playing with or training your puppy.

Teach children to respect your puppy physically and emotionally so that they don’t exhaust or overstimulate them. Caution children about leaving around small toys that your puppy could eat or putting your puppy in places where he could fall. Sometimes children treat puppies more like toys than living beings (i.e., picking up and cuddling them, which many puppies dislike). If you feel that your puppy is avoiding or nipping your children more than seems normal, your children might be unintentionally doing something that the puppy doesn’t like. Again, feel free to consult with your veterinarian for recommendations for how to keep both your puppy and kids safe.

Playtime with Your Puppy

Many people think puppy play is just the fun part of having a puppy, but, truthfully, it’s a pivotal part of a pup’s development.

Play serves many important functions for a puppy:

  • Creating a strong bond with owners
  • Learning about acceptable and unwanted behavior
  • Burning off some of that puppy energy!

To keep your puppy engaged, play various games with them, and provide them with a variety of toys such as Kongs or sturdy stuffed toys. Treat-dispensing toys are a great way to exercise your puppy’s body and mind. Please avoid any chew toys that you can’t dent with a fingernail; these are too hard for your puppy’s teeth.

Down Time and Absences

The saying “a tired puppy is a happy puppy” isn’t always true. An overtired puppy, like an overtired toddler, can be cranky, disobedient, and feel overwhelmed. Puppies need about 18 hours of sleep per day. While it’s important to get that puppy energy out, it’s just as essential to teach your puppy to rest calmly and engage in relaxed solo playtime. A puppy that has been taught to spend quiet time on their own will become a well-adjusted, adaptable adult dog.

On a related note, your puppy must get used to and comfortable with being apart from you. Due to COVID, many puppies are used to a constant human presence and get panicked when left alone. Prevent separation anxiety by teaching your dog how to relax when you are across the room, in another room, or away from home. The books and other resources listed below can help guide this process.

Walking Your Puppy

For dogs, walks are both physical and mental exercise, entertainment, and stress relief. Give your puppy a chance to sniff thoroughly; that’s an important part of being a dog. Dogs who aren’t allowed to sniff and explore can become frustrated and hyper/reactive during walks.

Even if your puppy isn’t ready for walks outdoors, it’s never too early to get them used to the feel of walking on a leash. Using an appropriate harness or collar, start acclimating them to the leash while in the calm, familiar environment of home. This will give them a good foundation for walking in the highly-stimulating (and distracting) outdoors.

Grooming, Body Handling, and “Clothes”

The first four months of your puppy’s life is a crucial time for getting them used to the grooming and body handling that he will regularly experience throughout his life. Through patience and gradual training, you can teach your puppy to be comfortable with having their ears examined/cleaned, paws handled/cleaned, nails trimmed, teeth brushed, eyes cleaned, and coat brushed. This will spare your pup the stress and fear that too many dogs face when they need these types of handling and grooming. While you can take your dog to grooming facilities, you can also consult with your veterinarian and get resources on how to handle some of these duties at home.

Many dogs will need to wear harnesses, coats, booties, and other types of “clothes” in certain seasons or settings. Think ahead and get your puppy used to wearing a coat or balloon booties (used for snow/salt) so that you don’t face a struggle down the road.

Pet Insurance and Savings Accounts

While everyone hopes for a long and healthy life for their puppy, most dogs experience at least one major illness or injury during their lives. The cost of veterinary care for those incidents can add up: emergency surgery or hospitalization at an animal hospital can easily cost a few thousand dollars!

Pet health insurance is a great way of ensuring that your dog can get the care they need when the unforeseen happens. It is imperative to shop around for pet health insurance since coverage varies based on such factors as your dog’s breed and any pre-existing health issues. Pawlicy.com is a great resource for comparing plans. If you can’t find a plan that you like, consider setting up a savings account specifically for veterinary care. Whether you choose pet insurance, a savings account, or both, the important thing is to be prepared!

Classes and Trainers

We encourage you to enroll your puppy in puppy kindergarten (aka basic obedience training) classes. We also encourage attending puppy playgroups or socialization sessions. To really get your puppy off to the best possible start, work one-on-one with a skilled trainer. No two puppies or families are alike, and a tailored approach can make all the difference in getting your puppy well-settled into your home and way of life. Please ask your vet about recommended trainers, classes, and playgroups. And remember to enforce what you learn at home as well, as it does no good if your trainer is the only one who gets your pup to follow commands. Lastly, go with a trainer that uses positive reinforcement as opposed to punishment-based techniques.

Veterinary Visits with Your Puppy

We want your puppy to have the best veterinary experiences possible. Many veterinarians use treats, low-stress handling, and even pheromones in their efforts to provide positive visits. You can help lay the foundation for positive visits by ensuring your puppy will be hungry (so they’ll be more interested in treats) and bringing special treats and/or treat-dispensing toys/mats. Just as one might bring a favorite toy to a child’s pediatrician visit, bring your puppy’s toys or favorite chews.

If you are concerned that your puppy might be nervous or fearful of vet visits, please let us know right away so that we can work together to make their experiences better.

Other Helpful Resources

The following books are our top picks for general training and puppy health:

Other places to find good (and free) information on puppy and dog health and behavior:

Whew! We know that was a lot to take in but we want you and your puppy to build a solid foundation for a long and lovely life together. Follow these tips now and you'll surely reap the rewards. Have more puppy questions? Give us a call!