Starting Off on the Right Paw

Puppy on absorbent litter. Accustom the dog to the toilet. Training pets

Setting your puppy up for success

Congratulations! You have welcomed a four-legged ball of love into your home who smells of sweet puppy breath, gives warm snuggles, and has a never-empty bladder. This is just the beginning of raising a puppy. Training a puppy takes a phenomenal amount of time, patience, and commitment to start things off right! What most owners are unaware of is that raising a puppy goes far beyond teaching basic obedience commands. The first 12-18 months involves diligent house training, careful socialization, persistent play bite training, and instilling manners inside the home and out. It does not happen overnight. Your puppy’s training goes far beyond learning to “sit.”

Puppy training is all about prevention. Preventing toileting accidents, preventing poor biting behavior, preventing fear through socialization, preventing counter surfing, separation issues, jumping, barking, and all the other bad habits which drive owners mad. Although an old dog can learn new tricks, with a puppy, you have a blank canvas in front of you. It’s way easier to instill good habits and manners now rather than troubleshoot later on. Remember, it takes consistency, time, and patience.

House Training
Puppies do not know they shouldn’t use your kitchen or living room as their own restroom. For this reason, the old method of “whacking the dog with a rolled up newspaper” yields poor results. The puppy may start avoiding the owner when it has to “go,” it may hide to relieve itself, and even hold it in when outside because of fear of being punished. Instead of focusing on the accidents, work on being super proactive about preventing accidents inside the home.

  1. Crate your dog when they are not supervised to ensure they do not eliminate in unwanted areas.
  2. Let your dog out often, every hour on the hour to begin with in order to prevent as many accidents as possible.
  3. Make sure to use the same door to go outside every time so your dog can learn to go to that door by themselves to let you know they need to go out.
  4. Take your puppy to a designated spot in your yard on leash. Stand in a single location and use a verbal command such as “hurry up” or “go potty.” Do not move. Yes, that’s right. Your puppy has the attention span of a goldfish and every time you let them browse you are distracting them from the task at hand.
  5. Reward your puppy with praise and a treat after they have finished peeing or pooping. This is vital; praise while your pet is mid-stream is only going to interrupt them, resulting in an accident in the house later.
  6. Make sure to have your pet toilet frequently. Puppies need to go out after they eat, when they wake up from sleep, and sometimes even during play.
  7. Look for signs such as pacing, sniffing the ground, circling, or holding the tail up high, which could indicate they need to go. Take them to their toileting spot right away.
  8. If your dog goes out and does not toilet, put them back in the crate for 10-15 minutes and try again until they go.
  9. If an accident happens, simply clean it up, roll up the newspaper, and whack yourself with it. It is our job as humans to instill good habits in our dogs. Accidents happen, and almost always it’s the human at fault for not getting the puppy out in time.

Play Biting
Ever notice how puppies come with razor sharp teeth? It starts off all cute and funny, and then one day you feel like you’re re-creating a scene from Jurassic Park. Yes, puppies bite to explore, they bite to play, they bite to hold, and there’s a reason for this. Play biting is necessary for them to learn how to control their jaw pressure and learn to use their jaws and teeth appropriately.

The first and foremost important thing is to teach your puppy to bite down gently. A dog who is allowed to play bite with minimal pressure will develop a soft mouth – also known as good bite inhibition. This reflex is trainable until your puppy begins to lose puppy teeth. Why is this important? Because when an adult dog bites out of fear or pain,  the dog with good bite inhibition will not leave deep punctures. A dog who was not allowed to develop a soft mouth as a puppy may cause significantly more damage. Once your puppy is about 5 months old, then all biting should be considered inappropriate.

How to help them develop a soft mouth?

  1. Play with them gently and allow them to mouth you.
  2. The second the puppy exerts pressure through his teeth, say “ouch” and immediately walk away.
  3. Wait 10 seconds and then try the interaction again. Praise and pet your puppy when they mouth gently.

Contrary to popular belief, socialization is not just mere exposure to people and dogs. Proper socialization is the careful exposure to sights, sounds, smells, textures, other animals, people, dogs, and environments to help form positive associations. The main imprinting period for puppies to be socialized is between 4-16 weeks of age? Yes, that’s right … the window of opportunity where you puppy is a sponge for knowledge closes quite quickly. The key is not to just throw your dog into new and sometimes overwhelming situations. Your goal should be to structure interactions teach coping and adaptation skills. A puppy who is shy or fearful may take significantly more time to adapt than a dog who is a social butterfly. Enrolling in a structured puppy class with a focus on social skills can go a long way!

Household Manners
Your puppy does not come with a software program that tells them how to act in the home. In addition to the potential for toilet training accidents your puppy may gnaw on electrical cords, string confetti made of toilet paper through the house, grab toys which belong to children, shred magazines, chew at your crown molding, jump on tables and counters, and steal your favorite pair of socks. If you’re lucky, you can catch them in time to intervene … on the flip side, you could be looking at a $5,000+ surgery to remove that sock from your dog’s intestines.

Puppies require constant supervision when loose in the home and must be taught how to act in the house. The use of a tether or a crate can be very helpful to keep your puppy out of trouble when you’re not directly supervising or interacting with him. Good management at the puppy stage can ensure that a bad habit never begins.

Two good behaviors to teach your puppy are “four on the floor” and “drop it.” “Four on the floor” means that the puppy only gets attention or positive reinforcement when all four paws are on the ground, which will teach your puppy not to jump up, either on people or on furniture. “Drop it” is a necessary skill you should teach your puppy for when he does snatch something he shouldn’t have. Chasing him around the home to wrestle items from his mouth will be ineffective long term and either teach him that stealing items is a game, or that he should become possessive of things.

It’s our job as pet guardians to set our puppies up for success, not failure. Children should be supervised with young dogs to ensure no teasing, bullying, or inappropriate interactions occur (from both the puppy or child’s perspective!) A puppy training class can be absolutely invaluable. Consider enrolling you and your puppy in one and learn more about how to raise them right; your puppy will thank you for it.

On a final note — be prepared for adolescence, it seriously sucks. It is the hardest developmental period for dogs and owners alike due to hormone changes, growth spurts, and an increased interest in the world around them. Adolescents will get easily distracted, act almost defiant, and pretend like they haven’t had a lick of training in their lives. Take it slow, take it easy, and set realistic goals for when working with your dog. In the back of your mind always remember … it takes at least 12-18 months to raise that pup!

Charlotte Wagner Harvey
About Charlotte Wagner Harvey 21 Articles
Charlotte Wagner Harvey holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. As a dog trainer and the owner of K9ology in Warrenton, she helps dog owners and dogs find common ground to establish a peaceful life together. Her core tenets: there are no shortcuts, it is hard, and do it right or don’t do it at all. She lives in Rappahannock County with her husband and a farm full of animals including horses, chickens, cats, and, of course, dogs.

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