The post is set out into the following subheadings:
- Healthy Puppies
- The Rescue Dog Option
- Choose the Breed Carefully
- Littermates. Buyer Beware
- Finding a Good Vet
- Health Insurance for Your Dog
- Diet for Puppies
- Your Getting Started List
- Toilet Training Your Puppy
- Basic Puppy Training Commands
- Puppy Nipping and Biting
- Lead Walking Your Puppy
- Grooming and Handling Your Puppy
- Crate Use for Your Puppy
- Leaving Your Puppy Alone
- Your Puppy and Car Travel
- Socialisation and Your Puppy
- Your Young Dog and the Future
1. Healthy Puppies
A quick word about buying puppies. Thankfully there are efforts being taken to stamp out puppy farms that turn out poorly bred dogs under the most awful conditions that are very often sold in dubious circumstances, whilst charging a great deal for a dog that may be physically sick, or that is likely to be bred from poor stock leading to health and behavioural problems later in life. Always ensure you can view both parents, and always the mother with the pup. Meet the breeder on their home premises, not at any other location.
The ideal age to take a puppy is at 8 weeks. Earlier then the pup is missing valuable time with its littermates and mother, later, then you will miss the opportunity to correctly socialise your pup as you make an essential and pro-active effort between 8-16 weeks and then beyond. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of a thoughtful and thorough socialisation programme and much is written on this subject both online and in printed formats. Done well, it will set your dog up to be well balanced for life, as you develop a calm and well-mannered dog that you can take anywhere it is allowed to go and give you a great sense of pride.
If you're still as keen as you were when you started reading this guide, then please read on, as having a puppy can be one of the most enjoyable and life-affirming experiences ever; bringing a thread of joy into any household. The following guide is not to be seen as the last word on the various areas I raise, but hopefully enough to get you moving in the right direction and to avoid some of the common pitfalls that I see in my role as a dog behaviourist and puppy trainer.
2. The Rescue Dog Option
Please be aware that although I refer to puppies throughout this guide, there are many thousands of dogs languishing in rescue centres and possibly one of those dogs is just right for you? I encourage you to visit a few local rescue centres and to talk with a member of staff in regard to what you're looking for in a dog…you never know.
3. Choose the Breed Carefully
Can I also encourage you to think not once, not twice, but over and over on your possible choice of breed of dog? I have all too often seen beautiful dogs chosen by lovely people that are not quite a match made in heaven and this mismatch alone can go a long way to some of the dog or puppy behaviour problems I see.
For example, can you physically manage the dog if he decides to pull hard away from you or to unexpectedly jump up at another person? Are you choosing a breed based on looks alone (examples: Husky, Doberman, German Shepherd, Malamute), or a breed that will inflate your ego as you walk him down the streets (examples: Rottweiler, Mastiff types, or the larger bull terriers) or finally, a breed that might outstrip your time, energy and training skills (examples: Border Collie, Pointer, Vizsla, Working strains of any breed). All of the aforementioned breeds are wonderful in the right hands and it is not for me to tell you what to choose as it's a very personal decision that only you can make, but stay calm and be honest with yourself…can you manage the breed? Do you have the time, the experience and the know-how to get it right? There are many breeds that should be seen as dogs for experts or very experienced owners and then other breeds that are comparatively easy to rear and own that can provide every bit of the same enjoyment.
Check out the various ‘dog breed selection tools' online using variations upon that search term and keep your eyes and mind open as to what is suggested once you've taken the survey. You may well start out looking for a German Shepherd and then end up choosing a Border Terrier! Neither breed is better than the other, but there might be a better breed for you than you initially thought!
4. Littermates. Buyer Beware
I can't end this opening page without raising the subject of taking on littermates. In a few words, unless you know exactly what you're getting into…don't do it.
A responsible breeder will know that letting you go with two puppies from the same litter may bring you into a world of upset as soon as they reach a slightly more mature age of say 6 months onwards, It is not unusual to see in-fighting as they constantly battle to establish a rank order between themselves. Two dogs of the same breed, the same age and possibly the same sex, have next to nothing between them and this can cause a great deal of stress for them and you, as you do your best to make them get along with each other. They can also end up looking to each other for direction and guidance as opposed to you, their owner.
I have seen many littermate puppies or adolescent dogs that can't really get along with each other, but equally and frustratingly, can't be taken apart from each other either. It can be done, but the time and effort needed to train them separately can be a real drain on your emotional resources. My suggestion is to take a single puppy, rear it to the age of 18 months or so and then consider the need for an additional dog that can be brought in as a puppy and keep the two that way. This will allow you to focus on a single dog at a time and that each dog will get the best of your time and attention, free from all of the potential pitfalls that littermates can cause.
5. Finding a Good Vet
Ask friends and family who they use as their vet and go with a practice that has a good reputation and that has personable vets that have a good way with owners and their pets. Like any other profession, quality can vary and I still hear the odd hair-raising story now and again.
Your vets will be able to guide you on the initial vaccinations, worming and healthcare for your new puppy. Speak with your breeder also, as it's likely that your pup will come to you fully vaccinated, wormed and also microchipped which is now a legal requirement for all dogs since April 2016. Ensure you come away with all the details of the above for your records.
6. Health Insurance for Your Dog
With the cost of emergency healthcare rising, you might like to consider pet insurance to take the strain in the event of the unforeseen. An alternative method is to set up a monthly private fund that at least remains yours if it's not used. I suggest that you make this amount at least as much as the equivalent monthly premiums, if not to double it.
There are many pet insurance companies to choose from, but in my opinion, Petplan continues to offer the most comprehensive cover, including behavioural conditions which fall under the vet fees amount, as opposed to some others that will offer only £250 worth of cover, when behaviour fees can easily exceed that.
I am now the pet behaviourist to Petplan and enjoy carrying out regular Facebook live Q&A sessions on dogs and puppies and can of course claim for dog behaviour conditions through your policy. See more on this page here.
7. Diet for Puppies
Your breeder will let you know what your puppy has been fed when in their care and I would suggest that you continue with that for a few days to a week once you bring your puppy home. You can then either carry on with that food if you believe it to be a healthy brand or gradually make changes over to your preferred brand and method of feeding. There are a few ways to feed a dog, the main ones being: Dried food, Wet food, raw feeding or a home-cooked approach.
Personally, I feed both my dogs a wet food named Forthglade. It is like a firm pate and the dogs love it. It is free from additives and is cooked at a low temperature in a convenient pack, unlike dried food that is baked at very high temperatures and often needs to have vitamins and minerals sprayed back on it once cooked. Raw feeding has seen a huge rise in popularity and there are various brands that cater to it. You will need to set aside a freezer for this to store the packs of food that are either delivered frozen, or you buy from the local pet store. Home cooking is an interesting option, but a lot of effort, planning and you'll need to ensure you get the nutritional balance right.
8. Your Getting Started List
Here is a list of the basic things you'll need in advance of your puppies arrival:
- Food and water bowls
- Soft collar and lead
- Body harness
- Dog beds
- Treats and a clicker
- Dog crate (possibly one for the home and one for the car)
- Sections of veterinary bedding for the crate
- Grooming brushes
- Biodegradable Poo bags
- Sounds CD to desensitise your pup (see section 17)
9. Toilet Training Your Puppy
To start with, do ensure that your garden has been ‘puppy proofed' by ensuring the perimeter is secure and that he can't slip out under a fence or gate onto the road.
There are also numerous plants that are poisonous to dogs, so check the list online and take a hard look at what your dog can gain access to. Sectioning off a part of the garden with wooden uprights and wire mesh can help preserve the plants until the puppy phase has passed.
When you first bring your pup home, try to spend a couple of weeks free from other commitments to set up a regular routine to allow the dog outside to relieve itself in the garden. Puppies need to be shown where to go, and it is best if you are there when the dog relieves itself to be able to immediately reward the action with verbal and physical praise and a small treat.
Key times when a pup is likely to need the garden will be:
- After eating
- After play
- Upon waking
- If you see your pup sniff the floor and circle
- Later, your pup may sit by the door waiting to be let out
Rather than leaving the door open to assume the pup will make its own way to the garden, get into a regular pattern (start at hourly trips) whereby you take the dog out to the same chosen spot in your garden on a lead. The lead helps keep control and focuses the dog's mind more. Show your pup how to sit and wait before going through the door out into the garden. Do the same on the way back in.
Wait no more than a few minutes for your dog to do his business. Aim to use a keyword for his action. I use the term ‘Hurry Up'. Most dogs will urinate first, so give your pup time to circle about a little to pee and then poo when ready.
Be sure to remove any faeces straight after to remove the problem of standing in it, and to negate the chance of your pup developing the habit of eating it (coprophagia). Keep a small hand shovel nearby for convenience, or a supply of biodegradable poo bags in your pocket.
Do not punish accidents in the home. These are inevitable for most pups, just put the pup away as you clean the accident up using a shop bought odour remover.
Vigilance and patience is key to bringing your pup or young dog to the point of being clean and dry. This stage can cause a lot of anxiety for owners as understandably, nobody wants pee or poo on their floor inside the home! It will pass as a phase and much more quickly if you are very vigilant in the early days and give your puppy every opportunity to toilet outside in your desired location. Finally, I am not a fan of puppy pads, as this will only but encourage your pup to soil in the home and this will be a habit that you will need to break later on.
10. Basic Puppy Training Commands
Introduce simple training with your pup from the very beginning. The key is to keep your sessions short and fun and to stop early on a positive note. A few minutes each day is a good starting point. You can give a portion of its daily kibble as rewards!
Bring the treat up and over the dog's head in a straight line as if between the ears towards the tail. As you do this, your puppy will look up and naturally go into the sit position. As soon as your dog is sitting, give the treat immediately. Repeat a few times and then add in the word ‘Sit' as your dog places its bottom on the floor.
From the sit position bring the treat to the dog's nose and then down between its feet. As its nose drops, bring the treat away from the dog along the floor and your pup should drop to the floor. As soon as it hits the flat position release the food. Repeat a few times and begin to add in the word ‘Down'. Using a slippery floor can facilitate this position. Another trick is to lure the dog under a bent knee, so it has to belly crawl to the treat. Once in the desired position, keep your hand there and issue to ‘Down' word as a label.
Ask a helper to hold the dog by the collar, issue the ‘Stay' command as you step back one pace. Return to your dog and treat. Gradually extend the distance and time you are away from your dog. Should the dog move, calmly walk back and replace the dog where it was and try again. If you're doing this alone, place a soft lead on your pup and connect it to a heavy fixture as you step back a pace and then build it up from there. Once the basics are in place, you can get the dog to stay without any control methods.
Ask a helper to hold the dog in another room as you hold its food bowl. Call your puppy in a bright happy voice. Once your dog finds you, ask for the sit and wait and then allow it to eat. Develop this idea using different locations and simple high-value dog treats as well as the feeding method described above.
Lead and Collar
Give lots of praise and play happily with the dog as it trails the lead in the home and the garden. Then begin to hold the lead and encourage your puppy to follow you as you reward it enthusiastically with your voice and treats. Do circles and figures of eights for example mixed in with sits, downs and stays whilst on lead. Most very young pups will pick this up early on.
11. Puppy Nipping and Biting
Puppies use their mouths a lot during play and this is quite normal. Aim to teach your dog to be ‘soft mouthed' from an early age. The avoidance of rough play or tug games can avoid this sort of behaviour. This will help to bring forward a soft, compliant side of your dog, rather than a dog that uses its teeth in rough excitable play.
Avoid over exciting your puppy in the home as this can result in excessive behaviour that you may then have to try to curb. When puppies become too excited they are more likely to nip and bite, and this can be painful and potentially harmful to very young children or the elderly.
Always keep plenty of chew toys to hand when you are engaging with your young dog. A twisted rope is my favourite to divert its chewing. This way you can rub your puppies belly as it chews down on the rope toy, not your hand. I recommend you don't allow any teeth on skin at all. This is easy for the dog to understand, and ask the whole family to do the same.
Should your puppy bite your skin, you can let out a yelp, hold the bitten area and immediately walk away, ignoring the dog until it calms. Many pups will get this message and learn not to bite. Please note that some breeds have a harder drive for such behaviour and your yelp may excite them further, so consider a ‘time out' where the pup is placed in a room alone for 60 seconds. Repeat as needed. Spraying your hands and arms with an anti-bite spray can also help deter puppy mouthing.
12. Lead Walking Your Puppy
Once you have introduced your puppy to the concept of wearing a collar and feeling comfortable with the lead attached and your dog is moving about in a relaxed way you can simply begin to build up more constructive short walks whilst holding the lead as you walk along. As with any new exercise involving your puppy, keep the sessions short and fun, so that it all remains a positive experience between you.
If your home is big enough you may be able to make a space to allow you to walk about a room with your dog on the lead. Have plenty of small treats upon you and use this both as a lure for your pup to follow and intermittently trickle feed these to your pup as he follows you by your side. Wear soft and quiet shoes as your pup will be moving around quite a bit in the early stages and you may stand on his feet.
Use a bright encouraging voice as you ask your pup to follow you. Avoid high-pitched tones as this can create over excitement and the dog may begin to jump up at you. If this happens just stop, wait for a little calm and then set off again in a calmer way.
Pulling on the lead is a common problem and this can be prevented when addressed from an early age. Address pulling from your puppy by simply coming to a halt. Stop as soon as your pup is pulling, and wait for a loose lead. Once the lead is loose you can move forward again. Before moving off, gain your dog's attention by making some sort of verbal cue such as a ‘Tsk-Tsk'. Once he looks at you, move off as you say ‘Heel' in an encouraging tone. Reward relaxed walking with a treat and verbal praise. Again, stop immediately if he pulls and wait for the slack lead moment again before moving off.
I do favour body harnesses and soft leads and collars of a woven fabric style. Chains should not be used in the lead or collar.
13. Grooming and Handling Your Puppy
Start from day one by gently stroking your pup with the back of a brush so that it associates the action with a soothing relaxing experience. Once it has accepted this action you can use the soft bristles to make strokes along the dog's body. Once this is all going ok, the brush can make its way to the underside of the dog and to more sensitive areas such as the ears and rear end. Never wrestle with a young dog over grooming. Just a little and often whilst trickle feeding treats and affection. Do a little each day. Some breeds require very little grooming, whilst for others, it is a full-time occupation, so the need for an early and calm start to this routine is essential. With an increasing number of dogs requiring professional grooming, this is another experience I would expose the dog to as soon as you're able with just a trip to the groomer or to get a mobile service to drop in for a meet and greet and maybe a light groom and to go from there.
It is also important that your dog allows full body inspections. Use a little phrase as you gently inspect the various body parts of your dog. So, ‘Let me see your ears', Let me see your teeth'. The list goes on so that you cover nose, eyes, ears, teeth, back, bottom, belly, rear end, tail, legs, feet, nails.
Let your dog see nail clippers from an early age, and just place them on each nail to begin with as you praise the dog lavishly. Introduce the clipping sound and then clip away the smallest amount to introduce your dog to this concept.
Drop into your local vets regularly in the beginning for weigh-ins and greetings with the staff and leave on a positive note. This will help create a positive feeling when at your vet practice.
If you decide to brush your dog's teeth, the best time to introduce this concept is at puppyhood. Speak to your vet about this and they will be able to show you the correct action and equipment to use.
14. Crate Use for Your Puppy
The use of a crate with a puppy is invaluable. A crate can accelerate the toilet training process, keep your home safe from damage and keep your dog safe in your absence. A crate should be introduced from the very beginning to create a calm, positive and welcoming environment for your dog. Dogs are denning animals, so to give it its own ‘box', which can be covered over if the dog prefers, can be the perfect safe haven.
To build a positive association for your pup when in the crate, you can start by playing in and around the crate and by feeding your dog inside. Close the door when it is feeding, and that way you are involved in allowing the dog back out again. Ask for a brief sit before allowing the dog out of the crate for calm exits and good manners.
When you see your puppy falling to sleep in the daytime, quietly place the dog into the crate, settle it back down and close the door without any fuss. Covering the crate over and walking away is a useful way to build the time up so that your dog learns to relax and sleep in it for sensible periods during the day.
Place your dog in the crate at night with the door closed, and only return at the hour you intend to in the long run. Avoid leaving water in the crate at night and avoid allowing big drinks close to bedtime, but it will need free access to water at all other times. Remove your pup's collar and any toys that it just might chew and choke on in your absence.
Many puppy owners can find themselves struggling with nighttime noise and inevitably return to the puppy to let them out or worse still, engage with the puppy like a new toy and get it all worked up and active again. Your pup can sleep this off in the day, but you are likely to need to go to work in the morning, or care for children or run an empire. None of these is conducive to getting up in the night, so my best advice is that you settle your puppy in the crate when you go to bed and do not return until a sensible hour in the morning. That time might be an hour or so earlier than you would normally get up, but over the coming few weeks you can push the morning return time back until it is as you intend in the long run.
Whilst there are mixed approaches on coping with a puppy at night in the first few weeks, I am not a fan of taking them into your bedroom, as this will need to change later on and can make unnecessary strain on you and the pup when it comes to moving them downstairs into a silent room and crate. My advice is to start as you mean to continue and place your pup downstairs in a closed crate at night and to only return at the hour you decided before going to bed. I realise that this sounds harsh, but when you have sat in front of countless grown men and women that look exhausted and beaten down by weeks of sleepless nights, this direct and short-cut style wins out every time on the preventative approach.
15. Leaving Your Puppy Alone
The crate can be used all the way up to 12 months and beyond if you wish, and it will be a good place to leave your dog for short periods in the day as you do your jobs about the home or go to the shops briefly. Before crating your dog, ensure that it has been sufficiently exercised, toileted, fed and given a drink. This will help ensure it is then ready to sleep to coincide with your trip to the shops for example.
In the very beginning, you can start at five minutes and just observe your dog's behaviour from a distance and out of sight. Avoid immediately returning and letting your dog out should it cry, whine or bark. Doing this will reward the actions and the dog will soon be training you! Wait a little for quiet, and then return and let the dog out when you're ready and the dog is calm. Provide your puppy with a soft Kong with some soft food morsels inside to work out to distract it from being left.
Once your pup is coping with short periods in the crate with the door closed in the day, you can extend these periods until they are long enough to enable you to leave the home and know your pup is not distressed and most likely working on the Kong or asleep already. This time can gradually be built up to approximately four hours depending on the dog's age, toileting needs and its own rate of development.
Upon your return, be sure to project a calm, quiet, non-excitable manner. This will help prevent creating any excessive behaviour, which you may later find hard to cope with as your dog leaps all over you as if you've not met before!
Please note. A crate is not a place to keep your dog in all day long. Dogs from puppies to adults need direction, affection, play, exercise and interaction to become balanced healthy animals. Be careful not to fall into the trap of using the crate to ‘keep' your dog due to a lack of training or behavioural issues it may have. Always seek help early on if you are struggling with any aspect of your dog's behaviour or upbringing.
16. Your Puppy and Car Travel
Ideally, we accustom the dog to car travel from an early age such as six weeks, this can then create a positive association with car travel. Five-minute long car journeys at this age are ideal for creating a positive attitude. The dog will soon associate car travel with rewards of attention, companionship and later on shopping and walks in the park. These end rewards are what make the dog love the car and travelling in it.
Dogs of all ages need to be safe and secure during car travel. Be sure that they are not a distraction to you, the driver, by climbing across the seats. Introduce your puppy to an appropriate travel crate in your car. Line it with old towels that can easily clean up any accidents in the early stages should your dog experience any car sickness. Ensure the crate is secure and cannot slip about in your car. Also, give adequate bedding placed onto a grippy rubber mat to prevent the pup from moving about too much.
It is quite normal for a young dog to find the experience of being driven in a car unsettling. You may see the pup drool a little or if less happy a lot, and this may result in vomiting. The key thing in my experience is to not stop the daily journeys, as you will never overcome the problem that way.
Avoid travelling within an hour of having fed your dog. Gradually build up the journey times so that your dog becomes accustomed to the sensation of car travel, and always seek to have a nice destination such as a walk in the park. There are various herbal car travel pills that can assist dogs that do not travel well. Discuss the matter with your vet if this applies to your dog.
Once your dog is older and travels well, you can consider moving him to your rear seat and place him in a body harness that connects to the seat belt for security.
17. Socialisation and Your Puppy.
Despite being the last section regarding puppies, this can be one of the most important areas to address. Most of the problem behaviours I see in adult dogs are a direct result of inadequate socialisation when in the puppy stage. The socialisation period lasts from approx. 5-16 weeks of age. During this time you are strongly advised to allow your dog to meet as many people (of all ages from toddlers to OAP's) and other well-balanced dogs as possible to help ensure he will be relaxed and confident in their presence. Make these introductions gradually and safe with your young dog on a lead and under control. A puppy in the socialisation period can absorb almost anything if introduced in a calm and reassuring way. If you can see that your puppy is struggling with a situation, then stop, back away and approach it again another day…but keep approaching it until the concern no longer exists.
Beyond other dogs and people (these two areas can be the most common area of aggressive behaviour in dogs) you will need to consider many other environments that your dog may need to be able to cope with in later life. The list can vary depending on your lifestyle (rural or city for example). Some keywords for you to consider: Cars, Buses, Livestock, Pubs, Towns, Traffic, vacuum cleaners, domestic appliances, your local vet…simply drop in for a pleasant hello and leave again!
Some dogs lives can be made a misery due to an aversion to certain sounds such as heavy rain, thunder and fireworks to mention a few. There are now a number of sound desensitisation CD's available that allow you to play these sounds before an aversion has even been created to proof your dog in advance. This can be very helpful with some breeds that are more prone to develop such aversions, and so I recommend you search such products out on the Internet, or contact me directly for further advice.
When socialising your puppy in public, keep it on a long line (30-50 feet) until you feel have adequate control via the recall. Use high value treats to reward your dog's recall, and resist the temptation to let it run off and play freely just yet.
The long line will prevent your puppy from running into other dogs and getting itself into trouble due to excessive behaviour on the puppy's part. By all means, meet up with other dogs and owners, but make the decision to do so once you're able to decide that the other dog and owner are ok with it and that you can oversee these interactions.
18. Your Young Dog and the Future.
Most of the areas I cover in this article are aimed at pro-actively addressing the puppy behaviour problems I commonly see owners struggle with. I am taking a prevention rather than cure approach and sincerely wish for you to have a lovely puppy rearing experience and there is I hasten to add, no reason why that can't be you. Taking a sensible and balanced approach to life with your puppy is I believe the way forward. To love and enjoy your puppy, but to set in place sensible balanced rules for life - from the outset.
Please share this article to help save others from the common and avoidable mistakes made with puppies.