So you’ve found the perfect puppy and looking forward to bringing them home, but now what?
Bringing a puppy home can be a daunting but super exciting time. Knowing the best things to buy, how to prepare your home and knowing a few key things before your puppy arrives will ensure the process is much smoother and a little less stressful for you both. Download our free basic guide for more help with this, and if you’d like more information be sure to check out our Pre-Puppy Guide.
One of the main reasons people choose to get puppies over rescue dogs is because they are seen as a clean slate (I know there are many other reasons, Im not discussing these here). A dog that hasn’t learnt any of the unwanted behaviours we presume will come with rescues. BUT today I want to make you aware of how tangled this thought process is.
The most important time in a puppy’s life is the first 9 weeks. During this time they go through lots of changes which can mould the dog they will become. These early weeks mixed with genetics can greatly influence the dog you will have later down the line.
When you pick up a puppy, they are not a clean slate. They are a living being that has genetic influences and has spent 8 weeks developing their own personality and view of the world around them. When you pick up your puppy, your job is to continue providing learning experiences to help continue to shape who they will become. BUT please be aware that you’re continuing this process and not starting it. If your puppy has had a less than ideal first 9 weeks or less than ideal genetic influence, your puppy will be no better than your view of the dogs that sit patiently in rescue kennels.
People have many reasons as to why they get a puppy over a rescue but please rethink the ‘clean slate’ option, its so far from the truth.
Don’t forget you can download my HOW TO SPOT A GOOD DOG BREEDER GUIDE straight from the website
Is our behaviour to blame?
Eating is an operant behaviour.
Theres often an underlying reason as to why dogs become picky eaters, refuse treats or wont touch their food. One of these reasons can be a medical reason to which I advise you chat to your vet. For the others, we can prevent them just by being aware of what we are doing when we offer food to our puppies.
Food as a distraction should be used with caution, particularly when in a situation your puppy is worried by. Please don’t confuse distracting with conditioning. Distractions happen when you present your puppy with a treat, before they are aware of the scary thing. The scary thing then often happens and before you know it, the food is now a predictor of something scary. The food becomes aversive, its a warning of a negative event and something to be suspicious off. If you’re using food to help create a better association to something scary, food (and food markers such as you reaching for a treat pouch) must come AFTER a diluted version of the scary thing in order to build a positive association.
Food should be used with caution in aversive situations. If your puppy is worried about something, lets say people, and so you get people to offer your puppy food from their hand to try to change their mind, if the puppy is truly worried by the person, you will run the risk of future treat refusal. You see, food being offered by hand is linked to a scary situation, we therefore poison food and food becomes something they are likely to refuse in future. And we’ve all been guilty of this – how many people hide medication in something yummy? Do it enough and the act of taking food from you will lead to treat refusal or at least suspicion, particularly if your dog finds the taste super aversive. One big example here I see alot is bowl options or positioning of bowls. Sometimes the bowl itself has become aversive or linked to a negative situation (something as simple as their tag hitting the bowl). Puppies may then refuse to eat, not because they’re not hungry but because that set up is aversive.
We as humans hate seeing people not eating and we often worry more when we see our animals not eating. We offer our puppies their bowls and they walk off uninterested. Please take this ‘no thanks’ as their answer. If you have given the meal, you deemed it an acceptable meal. By upgrading their food and offering extras (usually of higher value), you’re likely to inadvertently teach your puppy to refuse their meal as you reinforce the refusal behaviour with a better option. Please allow your puppy choice to not eat the food. I am however a massive believer in life being too short to eat rubbish food, so if you truely feel the food is the issue, offer something else BUT later! Remove the bowl, offer the better food at a later time.
Following on from the above point, we need to stop with the pressure and coaxing to eat. This only leads to two things: all sorts of eating rituals that we cannot keep up OR further disinterest in the food through aversive pressure to eat. Offer the food, accept the ‘im not hungry right now thanks’, be prepared to pick it up, pop it in the fridge and offer it again later.
Quite often puppy mouthing can get worse when a puppy is either over excited or over tired. I can probably say the majority of you reading this can completely relate, right?
If you can begin to spot the signs in your puppy and manage them before they become bitey, you will be able to manage this behaviour while in this stage of development.
Calm lie downs, sniffing, new chews or stuffed kongs are a great way to encourage calm and relaxation (and usually then sleeping) when falling into this area. Redirections to toys are likely to spark more chaos so I advise you avoid this when in this mood.
Calming a puppy down once at the charging around aimlessly stage is often difficult so spotting signs is a must.
Evening routines are important. Late evening should not be play time, this is when we want to teach our puppy about boring relaxing time. All play should be earlier in the day to prevent high arousal games mixing with over tired puppies and thus leading to uncontrollable biting and mad zoomies.
This also goes for play time. If your puppy is likely to start biting mid play- watch for the signs. Does your puppy need a calm break in between small bouts of play? Probably. Our aim here is to ensure we keep our puppy in an able state to think and learn.
Remember puppies can experience different moods just like we can. So while we talk alot about mouthing when over tired or over excited, note that they may also mouth when worried or in pain.
Socialising your puppy appropriately
Whenever socialising with other dogs, I urge you to include calmness as a major part of the play date. Allowing dogs to free play continuously isn’t going to help them learn how to communicate with other dogs (it often does the opposite) or help you in the long run.
Remember, you’re trying to set expectations for your puppy and build habits of how you want them to be and interact when older. None of us want the dog that runs up to all other dogs, jumps on them, bites their ears, gets over aroused and then won’t leave them alone. Yet one problem that I get called into a lot is attention outside. Dogs running off to meet other dogs and ignoring their recall, dogs that drag you on lead to meet others, dogs that jump all over strangers and dogs that generally do not listen outside. Now is your time to prevent your puppy learning and practicing all of that.
We spend a lot of time setting the wrong expectations for our puppies. We should be raising puppies to expect a rough 1:3 ratio. Roughly, 1 distraction you ignore and pass by, 1 you can quickly engage with (eg sniff) and move on, 1 you can have a longer interaction with (eg offlead play). This reflects much more of what we expect from them as adults.
Remember, teaching your puppy that they don’t always get to say hello is a huge part of appropriate socialisation. So remember to teach your puppy how to mooch calmly, how to sniff, how to say hello calmly when other dogs are present and equally how to ignore and walk on by, this is the true meaning of socialisation.
Why it may not always be the case
Motivation vs Information.
Quite often when your puppy isn’t listening to you, you’re given the advise of upping your treat value by meaningful passers by. Swapping that bit of biscuit for a piece of chicken or dried smelly meat. And while I partially agree with this, you need to assess and make a decision based on your own puppy.
Often some pups are not motivated by what I would call, lower value treats, the rich tea of the biscuit tin if you will (and yes some people’s favourite will be rich tea, much like many dogs that actually love the dry biscuit treat- again each to their own). For these upping the treat value to something more appealing may well work.
I generally however advise you also work on the value your puppy sees for you without reinforcement- your relationship. Reinforcement should be a bonus, not the sole reason to want to work with you. Remember to teach your puppy that you’re fun to be around, indoors, outdoors and around distractions.
If your pup is refusing lower value food in particular scenarios, is upping the treat value going to help them? Likely not. See, if a pup is not willing to engage because of fear, frustration, anxiety, etc, upping the food is likely going to cause more problems. Higher value food can often lead these puppies into scenarios they cannot cope with, often giving us a false sense of success. Your pup is telling you they can’t deal with that situation. Instead of upping the treat value to keep them in the situation and almost mask the problem, we need to remove them from it and work at a pace/distance/intensity the puppy can cope with. This prevents problems and ‘unpredictable’ behaviour later on when the high value food is removed.
So really, I want you to think about your own puppy. Do they simply not like the lower value treats on offer? Do you need to build a better relationship with them first rather than just upping reinforcement that eventually has a ceiling? Or do you need to listen to the information they’re giving you in that particular situation?
Popular but often damaging advice
Let them get on with it? He’ll soon learn! It’s ok he needs to know he can’t do that!
Sound familiar? Most advice you get told about in regards to puppy interactions is simply allowing them to get on with it. This advice however can be incredibly detrimental longer term. When puppies are beginning to learn about what is and isn’t appropriate we need to be on hand to help guide them when needed. While it is perfectly ok for an older, skilled dog to help our puppies learn what is and is not acceptable, we need to know when to step in for the benefit of both parties. We should not be allowing older dogs to repeatedly tell our puppies off and we should not be setting our puppies up to fail.
We should be:
- Picking our puppies play friends well
- Stepping in when we need to
Remember that time when you were trying to learn a new skill? I bet you had someone with you patiently guiding you through, letting you know openly when you made a mistake, but helped you fix it so that you could do it better next time? Now imagine if that person just kept yelling at you over and over that every move you made was wrong. Bet that wouldn’t make you feel so good? I bet that would put you off continuing to learn wouldn’t it? Interactions are a skill our puppies need to learn and having good teachers will always be beneficial; having bad teachers will only cause more problems.
Picking our puppies play friends allows us to select older dogs that are, at a minimum, tolerant of puppies. Dogs that can help our puppies learn what is appropriate and calmly let them know ‘thats not it mate’ when they get it wrong, are hugely beneficial. Allowing our puppies to repeatedly play with dogs that dislike puppies, have no tolerance of puppies or are likely to shout excessively at our puppy when they step out of turn is a bad idea. Interactions with these dogs are only likely to knock our puppies confidence and give them a complex around other dogs.
Stepping in when things aren’t going so well will allow your puppy to not practice the unwanted behaviour. It also prevents other dogs having to tell your puppy off which is exhausting, stressful and not fair on them either. It wasn’t their choice to get a puppy, don’t make it their responsibility to raise them.
All in all there is a big difference between ‘watch what you’re doing their kid’ and ‘GET GONE NOW’. Allowing puppies to have conversations with dogs about what is and isn’t appropriate will always be what I recommend but as an owner we need to not allow it to go too far that it sets them up for future failure and puts other dogs under unnecessary stress.
More than just a play in the park
What happens to puppies during the socialisation period shapes what kinds of dogs they grow up to be.This period starts at around 3 weeks of age and ends at around 12 weeks (contrary to popular advice of 12-16 weeks) and is the time when primary socialisation normally takes place. During this time it is easiest for a dog to establish relationships with humans and other species, learn about social behaviour and confidence in the environment around them. They also begin to develop problem solving abilities, physical coordination, bite inhibition and can begin to form associations. The development of a puppy during this stage will depend on the complexity of the environment around them and whether or not exposure to novel things is taking place. Besides being a time for development of social relationships, this period is also a time of extreme sensitivity and psychological stress. By 12 weeks sociability begins to decrease and puppies may become increasingly fearful to novelty. This stage therefore needs to be handled with care.
“Socialisation is the learning process that a puppy must undergo in order to learn key life skills to ensure that it is happy and confident in its environment, and can communicate effectively within its social group”
Socialisation should include (but not restricted to):
☑️People of varying shapes, sizes and abilities
☑️Learning how to cope with change
☑️Learning how to cope with being alone
☑️Learning how to handle situations of unease
During socialisation we shouldn’t be dragging puppies or luring them with food into any situation. We should be allowing them to make decisions without pressure. Food lures can either risk tarnishing food (creating a negative association with it) or startling a puppy when they realise after receiving the food that they are somewhere they would rather not be. Dragging teaches puppy they have no choice and that subtle ‘id rather not’ behaviours are ignored, often leading to more obvious behaviours such as barking or growling being used to get their point across. Just watching from a distance is as good as getting up close and personal. Protect your puppy’s confidence. Don’t put them in situations that you know will be scary for them.
When it comes to dog play lots of free for all puppy play (often found at puppy parties) will only encourage puppy play which is often rude and excessive. If your dog is playing inappropriately, don’t wait for another dog to tell them off. Remove them from the situation and help them learn what is more appropriate. Socialise with older dogs that already know the rules that can be patient with your puppy and can help appropriately guide them.
Habituation to the things around them is a huge part of socialisation. While we would like to create a good association, there are some things in the environment we do not need to socialise to, we simply want them to ignore them e.g. hoover, livestock, traffic.If you miss this and allow your puppy to say hello to everything they pass, this is the expectation you will be setting for your puppy which will become difficult to manage when older. This can be done via simply watching and not doing anything or engaging in different activities. For example, You don’t need to reward your puppy every time you see a car. You could run the risk of your puppy reacting (this can be simply acknowledging) every car that goes past. Simply give your puppy enough space from these initially so that they are no big deal. “Some things are just apart of the furniture”
What if something bad happens?
During socialisation, its almost always not going to go perfectly- whether its the offlead dog that jumps on your puppy, the car that backfires as it drives past, the firework left off at 3pm in the afternoon or the child with the heavy hand, something at sometime may not go to plan.
Socialisation is about creating a library of really good experiences so that when puppies come into contact with a not so nice experience, it isn’t a problem. Puppies that don’t have a large library will find this more difficult than others as their experience becomes 50% good experiences and 50% bad. We want our puppies to become resilient and for that sometimes they also need to see that life isn’t always rosey. I don’t mean for one moment, that you need to create bad experiences, please dont, but when they do happen, you should have enough to full back on that your puppy can file that book, brush it off and carry on. So your aim? To ensure your puppy has enough good quality experiences to build an awesome library!