The truth is in the teeth. Your puppy is an impressionable, harmless, helpless little creature until those little pointy puppy teeth fall out and are replaced by full-sized adult ones at about six months of age. Once those adult teeth come in, your puppy’s gentle malleable behavior solidifies and become much much much harder to change… and there are some things that once done, can never be truly undone. These few critical behaviors, although unassuming (and even irrelevant) as they may seem, need to be our focus during these precious few months. Here they are…
Bad habits in the home. Puppies will cause mayhem around the house: things will get chewed, important items will be destroyed, contraband items will be stolen, this is all normal. But if we as owners don’t learn from these experiences and improve our managing of our puppies around the home, putting destructibles out of reach and restricting access to problem areas, our puppies will grow into adult dogs that counter surf, destroy furniture and personal items, raid trash, and most importantly cannot be trusted around the home. So what can we do about it?
Puppy proof the home. Put all destructibles out of reach: secure trash cans, remove any food items from counters, store away socks and shoes, use closed doors and puppy gates to limit your puppy’s access to areas of the home that are not puppy-friendly.
Provide ample appropriate toys and chews. Your puppy has to do something all day. Make sure you are the one who decides what they do, do not let them choose. One way to do this is through leaving multiple different toys and chews around the home. Keep the variety going by rotating toys out regularly.
Interrupt and redirect unwanted behavior. When you catch your dog doing something unwanted, interrupt and give them something appropriate to do. This is where the “ample toys and chews” comes in. Catch them and guide them away from the unwanted item providing an appropriate one instead.
Sociability and friendliness. Most puppies are friendly and welcome new experiences (with a little cautious exploration) but, as you may have noticed, not all adult dogs are the same way. This change starts in adolescence (when those adult teeth come in) and continues to about three years of age. Unfortunately for us, once we see teenage dogs become shyer, more hesitant about new experiences, or even react aggressively to something for the first time, the damage is mostly already done (for some breeds and personalities more than others). The good news is that this is all of this doom and gloom is completely preventable because if we lay the socialization on thick during these few short months, we are pretty much set for life. It’s a double edged sword; if we do things right, it’s right for life. Unfortunately the same goes for wrong. Target these few areas to avoid the dark side.
How to speak dog. Dog language has to be learned (even for dogs) and it takes a while and a lot of practice to become fluent. Most importantly it takes talking to a lot of dogs, all different dogs to be exact. Just like it took you many years and many exchanges with many people to develop the fluency and vocabulary you have today, the same applies for your dog. Your puppy will have to speak with all kinds of dogs. They will have to speak husky with their erect ears and perpetual tail-over-back position (which would otherwise be an intimidating gesture in another breed). They will have so speak bulldog with their big eyes, immobile corkscrew tail, uncommon expression, and snorfley sounds. …To speak doodle and poodle and sheepdog with their long flowing hair that exaggerates and conceals their movement and expression. …To speak grumpy dog and friendly dog and crotchety old dog and there’s-a-screw-missing-dog in order to be fluent.
How to speak human. Now this is where it gets really confusing because the way we humans communicate is pretty much the complete opposite of how dogs communicate, and by opposite I mean rude. Dogs avoid eye contact and frontal greetings and acts like hugging and leering over one another are pretty much an obscenity as far as they’re concerned. But, for our dogs to feel comfortable negotiating our human world, they have to learn how to speak people, and thankfully they’re pretty good at it. And just like with speaking dog, the more people they meet, big bearded people, funny smelling people, coming-on-to-strong people, scared-of-them people, people wearing costumes, toddlers, and people on wheels, the more they will be able to navigate our world and our language with ease and confidence.
New and strange experiences. A puppy’s world is full of bizarre and sometimes frightening experiences. Just like human children have to grow accustomed to (with gentle guidance and support from their families) noisy trucks, unpleasant smells and tastes, and overwhelming experiences, so do our dogs. And with very different sensory skills than us, some of our dog’s biggest challenges might come as a surprise. At the very least our puppies need to become comfortable with basic handling and restraint required for grooming and veterinary procedures and the sights and sounds that might occur on a regular neighborhood walk. But if we want a dog that can tackle life’s adventures, our puppies must also become comfortable with strange surfaces, loud noises, bizarre objects like balloons and statues, automated contraptions like car washes and motion activated doors, and much more.
The great news is that socialization works exponentially. Not only are most of these things pretty easy to find on a normal walk through an urban area, each new experience makes future experiences exponentially easier to navigate. Every new and strange experience you expose your puppy to will have a ripple effect, making your dog more and more capable of moving fluidly through the next challenge that comes their way.
Bathroom etiquette. For the most part potty skills can be improved upon and tweaked almost anytime in life. There are however two big potholes to look out for…
Being left in their mess. Puppies are gross and not very aware of their own accidents so no need to panic if your puppy gets a pee-soaked paw here and there. If however, a puppy frequently soils its crate, bed, or living area and has no way to avoid standing in it, this can truly spell disaster. All of potty training revolves around dogs wanting to avoid their own mess. Once a puppy has learned to be okay with living in a bathroom, it is a hard long uphill road towards any semblance of potty skills. If a puppy is frequently soiling their crate or kennel, it’s time for a new set up or more frequent potty breaks.
Frequent accidents in the home for a prolonged period. Puppies have accidents, they’re learning. But if they are having frequent accidents and those mistakes are not being immediately caught, interrupted, and redirected to a more appropriate place, training really starts to slip. If this goes on long enough to become a habit, it can stay a habit. And while there’s a lot we can to fix this later in life, those dreams of having a dog that can hold it all day while you are gone at work will likely remain dreams.
User’s guide to mouths. This is easily the most overlooked aspect of puppy training because it seems irrelevant… there’s a reason I saved it for last. No one envisions their dog getting into a fight with another dog, nipping a child too rough during play or, even more unspeakably, biting someone. But in a doggy world without lawyers, police officers, and formal complaints, sometimes when the going gets tough, the tough use their mouths It’s really much more common and normal than you might think (just work at a grooming salon or vet for a day where nail trims and injections flow abundant). As unlikely as it may seem, this is the one area of dog training where us trainers have to throw in the towel. If a dog hasn’t learned how to use its mouth gently with other dogs and people by the time those adult teeth grow in, there’s nothing we can really do to fix it. Meaning if a dog does damaging bites at a year of age, they do them for life, no matter if it’s for nail trims, when a super-rude dog tries to hump them, when a vet has to perform an uncomfortable procedure, or when you step on their tail.
The great news is that this is super easy to avoid with just a few simple things…
Make puppy friends. Make sure your dog has other dog friends to play with. Every single mouthing and roughhousing bout is another lesson in “the user’s guide to mouths”. Most puppies from larger litters get ample time to practice this with their siblings but its a great idea to enroll in a puppy playgroup (or several) or start mingling with some fellow puppy owners to ensure your pup’s mouth skills stay sharp (but not literally).
Fade mouthing out gradually. Mouthing is a blessing as much as much as those aweful pointy teeth don’t feel that way. Use those pokey teething sessions as a lesson from “the user’s guide to mouths” and fade them out over a few weeks starting with the painful bites working your way down towards the gentle licks last. Or if that’s not your cup of tea, try hand feeding your puppy their dinner. Any time you’re teaching your pup to interact with your hands and other body parts in a gentle way you are on the right track, and are doing oodles more good than banishing mouth contact all together.
So there you have it; the absolute must-do for puppies… whew! It may seem like a lot but it is only for a few short months and it is the easiest, fastest, most fun, and most adorable time you will ever have doing it. Then it will be over and you will have that well-rounded sociable gentle dog you hoped for when you picked out your little ball of fur.