This information is provided by veterinary behavior specialist Dr. Meghan Herron.
Congratulations on your new puppy! We hope you are enjoying the recent addition to your family. Believe it or not, behavior problems are the number one reason owners give their dogs to animal shelters. Fortunately, most behavior problems can be prevented through proper training and socialization as a puppy. This guide is a brief overview of puppy behavior basics. For a more in-depth understanding of dog behavior, we recommend the readings on the list at the bottom of the page.
Proper handling of puppies during their critical socialization period is essential to the prevention of behavior problems. The critical socialization period in puppies begins at age 3 weeks and continues through age 12 weeks (about 3 months) depending on the breed. Appropriate socialization involves exposing your puppy to a variety of novel people, animals, places, and situations. Early socialization allows for healthy social behavior development, and can help prevent acts of aggression based on fear of other dogs, people, or new environments. Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar recommends 100 people meet and have positive interactions with your puppy before he is 16 weeks old. Sounds like a great excuse for a few parties! An easy and effective means of socializing your pup is to enroll him in a puppy socialization class. This special class provides a means for puppies to form social relationships with other animals and people in a safe, controlled environment. Recent studies show puppies that participated in puppy socialization classes were more likely to be retained in their homes than puppies that did not. Ask your veterinarian about puppy class options near you. The effects of improper puppy socialization can be devastating, leading to fear-based aggression towards people and/or other dogs, plus extreme shyness and anxiety.
Basic Potty Training
As house soiling is one of the top complaints of pet owners, it is important to implement a potty training protocol as soon as your new puppy arrives. The rule of thumb for puppies is that they can “hold it” for no longer than one hour per each month of age, up to about 10 hours maximum. Here are three basic rules for you potty training regimen:
- When you are home: NEVER leave your puppy unsupervised during the training period. That means when you are cooking dinner, using the restroom, taking a nap, or any moment in which you cannot give your full attention… etc., place your puppy in her crate/confinement area with a delicious treat or bone, tether her in the kitchen, or take her with you where you can SEE her at all times. Should she attempt to eliminate in the house you can stop her before she gets a chance by immediately leading her outside. If you aren’t right there with her, she will have eliminated before you have had a chance to prevent it. Every mistake is a step back – help your puppy by always keeping an eye on her.
- Once an hour: take you dog outside to her toilet area. Give a “potty” command (be creative, but consistent) and give her two to three minutes to eliminate. It is extremely important that during the training days you accompany your dog outside. When your dog eliminates, enthusiastically reward her, giving yummy treats and verbal praise.
- When you are not at home: NEVER leave a non-potty-trained dog loose in your house while away! Such a situation is recipe for disaster for the training period; you don’t want your dog to ever eliminate in any place besides her designated toilet area while you are there to give rewards. Thus, it is important that she be confined while you are away. When you leave her in a crate, it should only be large enough for her to sit, stand, and turn around. If she has too much space, she can learn to eliminate in one corner and sleep in another. You want her to make the connection that it is not appropriate to eliminate in “living areas.” If she is willing to eliminate in her space, what is to stop her from going in yours?
There may be situations where you are away from home for longer than you pup is capable of preventing elimination. For such cases, it may be helpful to have a designated “toilet” mat: an absorbent pad or newspaper, outside of the crate. The door can be left open and the area surrounding the crate must be enclosed within a small room or pen. If your pup has learned to eliminate on the mat, the mat can then be taken outside to the toilet area for her hourly potty breaks. Once the pup is eliminating on the mat outside, it can gradually be taken away by making it smaller and smaller. Eventually she will make the connection that her “toilet” is outside.
Remember, BE CONSISTENT and never leave your pup loose and unattended in the house during the training period. Mistakes happen – minimizing their occurrence is the key. Should your pup make a mistake, DO NOT punish her. After the fact, she does not associate your punishment with her inappropriate elimination. The “guilty” look she may display after urinating in the house is really just a scared look as she can read your anger and anticipate that something bad is going to happen. In some cases when dogs are punished for eliminating in the house in front of the owner, they will learn to eliminate in an area out of the owner’s view (i.e. in the basement or behind the couch).
In this case the puppy associates: “pee in front of my owner = bad things happen” and it can be an even bigger challenge to get them to go outside. Strive for: “pee outside = good things happen!"
Crate training is beneficial to a puppy’s life in that it provides a safe means to prevent inappropriate elimination in the house, a place where the puppy can go to escape excessive handling by small children, and a way to prevent destructive and potentially dangerous behaviors in the house when you are away. Additionally, the crate can be used to teach independence by preparing the puppy to be calm when left alone. This independence is essential in the prevention of separation anxiety.
- Pick a crate – select one that has dimensions large enough in which your pup can sit, stand, turn around, and lay down comfortably. She should not have enough room to eliminate in one corner and rest in another. If you have a small puppy that will one day be a big dog, you can still have a larger crate, just block off most of it so that she does not have the entire space.
- Make it a happy place – put the crate in an area of the house where your family spends a lot of time. Allow the puppy to go into the crate on her own and leave treats and toys inside. Let her walk in and out with the door open several times with treats, before you leave her inside with the door closed. You can then start feeding her inside her crate, and eventually close the door when she is eating comfortably.
- Gradually increase the time periods – have your dog start spending more time in the crate with food or a chew toy that takes longer to eat. Be sure your dog is relaxed and calm and begin to leave the room for short periods of time while she is eating in her crate. As long as she remains calm, you may keep increasing the time she spends in the crate, until she is able to remain comfortably in her crate while you leave for longer periods of time.
- Do not respond to cries or whines in the crate – if you experience this problem, the training may be going too quickly for your pup. The most successful training is that which is stress-free. Monitor for signs of anxiety during training, such as panting, yawning, and salivation. You may need to start from the beginning or even consult a behaviorist should these problems arise – they could be early signs of separation anxiety. At the time that your puppy does vocalize in the crate, you should not let her out or punish her for this behavior. If you let her out when she cries, she will learn that crying gets her what she wants, and she will now cry every time. Walk away and wait until she is quiet before letting her out. This process may take a long time and the behavior may become worse before it gets better. Most likely you will need to slow down the training and start at a comfortable level for you pup. The key is consistency and making the crate a positive experience. NEVER use a crate as punishment!
Pheromones Provide Comfort
A pheromone diffuser called "Adaptil," is available in a spray, a collar and a plug-in diffuser. Adaptil mimics the pheromones that a mother dog releases after she gives birth, which is very comforting to the puppy. Studies have shown that using pheromones the first night away from mom helps puppies calm down, because it can be very traumatic to be separated at first. This can be very helpful in the transition from mom and litter mates into the human household. The collar is body-heat activated; you can get it from a veterinarian or on Amazon.com. You cannot get it in a pet store; the ones in pet stores are imitations. The collar and plug-in each last a month. The best place to put the plug in would be near the crate, where you’re trying to create sort of a safe den area.
The Mouthy Pup
Mouthiness in puppies, however undesirable, is a normal, natural behavior. Puppies use their mouths to gather information about their environment. When a puppy’s mother raises her offspring to adulthood, she teaches them about biting. Since most of us acquire our pups without their mothers to keep them in line, it is our responsibility as puppy owners to teach them this important lesson – bite inhibition. Some use of the mouth for exploration is acceptable in puppies less than four months of age, however, biting that is excessive or the least bit painful should not be rewarded.
Here are some tips for discouraging inappropriate mouthiness:
- Avoid aggressive play – especially interactions which involve a puppy’s mouth and your hands.
- Provide appropriate chew toys – such as rawhides, Nyla-bones, or durable stuffed toys. These toys can be used to redirect your puppy’s urge to chew away from your hands or feet. You can even smear peanut butter on his toys to make them more appealing.
- Practice a high-pitched “ouch” – this yelp will in most cases startle a pup and cause him to stop biting. At the point you can redirect the pup to a more appropriate chew toy. Beware: as some puppies develop, they may learn that biting gets them attention. Be careful this “ouch” is not interpreted as attention – if so, avoid this practice.
- STOP giving attention to the puppy when he becomes mouthy – Attention can include petting, yelling, speaking, pushing, playing and even eye contact. Look away from you puppy, GET UP and walk away until the puppy moves on to another activity. A puppy that is desperate for your attention will soon make the association that his biting leads to being ignored.
- Teach your pup how to “sit” and reward him with attention. Once he learns that sitting, not mouthing, or jumping for that matter, earns him your praise, he will be sitting at your feet in no time!
A dog’s adolescence usually starts around six months of age and will continue until she is 18 months to 2½ years of age, depending on the breed. This period of time is notably the most frustrating for pet owners. Lessons she has learned as a puppy begin to take lower priority as her adult dog interests develop. Adolescent dogs become less dependent on their owners for guidance as they begin to explore other dogs, scents, and environments. Additionally, energy levels, especially for larger breed dogs, are at a peak during this time, making exercise requirements much higher than they were during puppy hood. Some breeds, such as Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, and Cattle dogs, require more exercise than others. However, the rule of thumb for any breed is that the more energy a dog spends on exercise, the less energy she will spend on unruly behaviors. Furthermore, as dogs grow larger, many behaviors that may have been cute and lovable as a puppy, such as jumping up, sitting on you lap, liking faces etc., are no longer acceptable – especially for small children or guest that visit your house. Don’t expect your dog to realize this change on her own. Start young and reward her for sitting. Do not allow people to give her attention when she jumps up on them. Yelling or punishing her for jumping up may give her a negative association with you, your family members or guests, causing her to be anxious, fearful, and even aggressive.
All your hard work in socialization and teaching good manners can go to waste quite rapidly during this time period if you do not make an appropriate effort to maintain it. It is pertinent that you continue to expose you dog to other people and animals through her adolescence. Positive reinforcement obedience classes should begin just after age six months – before your dog has had a chance to develop and strengthen undesirable behaviors. Clicker training is a fun and effective method of teaching your dog both basic and advanced obedience skills. The use of a head collar can be a helpful aid in managing your overactive adolescent during training and even on walks. AVOID training classes that utilize choke chains, shock collars, pronged pinch collars or any other painful punishment. Scientific studies show that pain can create a negative association with you, induce fear, inhibit learning, and at times, cause aggression. Make sure the class you choose is a positive experience for both you and your dog!
- After You Get Your Puppy by Ian Dunbar (A must have for new puppy owners!)
- Puppy Start Right: Foundation Training for the Companion Dog by Kenneth and Debbie Martin
- Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right by Sophia Yin
- The Perfect Puppy by Gwen Bailey
- The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
- The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell
- The Dog Who Loved Too Much by Nicholas Dodman
- Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor
- Purely Positive Training by Sheila Booth