Top 5 Mistakes People Make with their Puppies

While it is easy to believe that all you need to do is“add love” when you bring your puppy home, nothing could be farther from the truth!  There are many ways in which people can unwittingly damage their puppies, which often lead to significant behavioral problems later in life.  In a comprehensive study, 46.4% of dogs were relinquished to shelters because of behavior problems.  And, 47.4% of relinquished dogs were between the ages of 5 months and 3 years.  In my mind, it is no coincidence that this time frame overlaps with canine social maturation. People take  naïve little pups, fail to properly raise them, and then make them someone else’s problem.  It is so much better, in the long run, to prevent these problems rather than trying to “fix” them once they have developed.    

Mistake 1:  Failure to educate oneself about puppy care and training before getting a puppy

Long before you get your puppy, you need to make sure you understand what that impossibly cute but highly challenging creature will need from you to grow up into a the most emotionally well-balanced and mannerly dog possible.  This adds up to about 12 months of work!  Even if you’ve had puppies in the past, it is a really good idea to see what current recommendations are AND make suer the information is from a reliable source.   

Prior to getting your puppy, prepare yourself by reading some books.  I still recommend Ian Dunbar’s “Before You Get Your Puppy,” and “After You Get Your Puppy.”  These are very easy reads and cover the fundamentals.   Sophia Yin’s “Perfect Puppy in 7 Days,” is also a great read, although I believe the title is a bit of a hyperbole.  There is no “Perfect Puppy" and puppy rearing will take months of consistent training, not just one week.

One important “golden rule” that all good puppy rearing resources will describe is that you must ALWAYS have your pup in a comfortable, safe, confined area or be actively supervising him.  I am a big fan of setting up a crate that is attached to an exercise pen as a confinement area.  In this way, the pup can rest in a crate with comfy bedding, but have room to go out into the enclosed exercise pen area to move about and play.  If necessary, it also allows the puppy to eliminate on a puppy pad or piece of sod without soiling the bedding in the crate.  Placing a large piece of linoleum under the exercise pen will protect your floor.  Once your puppy is grown up and is well mannered, you very likely will be able to completely discontinue confinement. 

Mistake 2: Keeping the puppy “safe at home” until vaccinations are finished

This is a vestige of the bygone belief that it is dangerous to let your puppy out into the world until four months of age, when the puppy vaccination series is completed.  This couldn’t be farther from the truth!  I passionately refer you and your veterinarian to the Position Statement on The Importance of Proper Socialization for Puppies  created by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.  While it is true you should not take your puppy under 4 months of age to areas where dogs of unknown vaccination status and health congregate—like pet stores, dog parks, and home improvement stores, it does not mean you shouldn’t let your puppy meet a wide sampling of new people, other puppies, and healthy, puppy-friendly adult dogs.  Puppies go through a sensitive period of socialization that begins shortly after birth and ends between 3 and 4 months of age.  It is critical that your puppy have bountiful socialization opportunities during this time. 

The best thing to do is enroll your puppy in a well run a puppy class.  This is NOT for obedience training. Rather, this provides an opportunity for your puppy to meet other healthy, vaccinated puppies and friendly people in a safe, clean environment.  Well run classes will have knowledgeable instructors who can help you with common puppy questions and can be wonderful resources.  You will also meet other puppy parents who are living the puppy experience and can be wonderful support.  Your puppy also may be able to make puppy friends so you’ll be able to set up playdates outside of class.   These puppy friends may just grow up into dog friends that last a lifetime.

You can also make socialization part of your everyday life.  I often take my puppies to a shopping center and ask people exiting the stores to give my puppy some treats.  This helps puppies learn that new people are not frightening, and, in fact, are pleasant creatures to meet.   Make sure the person does not touch the pup unless the puppy happily approaches them and chooses to be petted. 

I also recommend that puppies meet one friendly person and one friendly adult dog every day up to about 6 months of age.  If you can walk in an area where people commonly walk their dogs, you can ask people if their dogs are friendly with puppies, and if so, allow contact.  Just a few seconds is fine, as puppies are usually quite annoying to adult dogs.  Big word of caution—you will do more harm than good if your puppy is frightened during these interactions!  If your puppy seems scared, you need to back off and get some good advice on how to present the experiences in a positive way.  Usually this means making the situation calmer and easier for the pup, adding even more tantalizing treats into the mix, and letting the puppy move at his or her own speed.  These important early life experiences can’t be rushed!

Mistake 3: Failure to expose puppies to various types of people and experiences

If your puppy never leaves your neighborhood, or even worse, never leaves your house and backyard, the pup will have a harder time later in life adapting to new situations.  Walk your puppy in various places.  Meet people of all ages, skin tones, and style of dress.  Believe it or not, one of my patients reacts aggressively to men encountered on walks who are not in business attire!  Drive in cars, go in elevators, walk near busy streets, and say hello to people who are in wheelchairs, on bikes, and pushing strollers.  Stop and socialize with delivery people and mail carriers. 

Visit friends in their homes or offices with your puppy.  To avoid straining your friendship, make sure your pup has an empty bladder and bowels before entering.  Bring a delightful array of “legal” chew options and keep the pup on a leash to prevent wandering off, which can lead to mischief.  If there is a resident dog in the abode, make sure the dog’s food bowl is removed and no high-value toys (usually food based—rawhide, bully sticks, food-stuffed Kongs) are available, as they might trigger aggression.

Finally, don’t overstay your welcome.   For young puppies, a 5 to 10 minute visit is ideal.  As the pup gets older, you can stay for longer stretches, but always leave before the puppy gets antsy.  Exercising the pup prior to the visit will make things go more smoothly. 

Mistake 4: Asking friends to come over to care for the puppy without establishing certain safeguards

This is a situation that can cause significant and permanent behavioral harm.  Here is the typical scenario:

A Well Meaning Person asks a Well Meaning Friend (WMF) to come over and take the puppy out while the pup’s family is gone for the day.  The WMF gets the happy puppy out of the confinement area and then lets the pup dash out into a fenced yard.  All is well and good until the WMF attempts to collect the puppy.  The puppy begins to run and the WMF begins to chase, becoming more and more frantic at the thought of not being able to get the puppy back into the house.  The puppy becomes more and more frantic as the WMF redoubles efforts to apprehend her.  After 30 minutes of chasing, the WMF corners the puppy and the frightened little thing starts to growl.  As the WMF reaches for the pup, the pup bites.  This previously naïve puppy has now had a traumatic lesson about how dangerous visitors to the house can be.

I have observed this scenario play out time and time again.  Just because you and your WMF have agreed on a plan for them to enter your home unescorted to take care of your puppy doesn’t mean your puppy is privy to the agreement.  And just because your puppy “loves” the WMF in other contexts doesn’t mean the pup will actually recognize the WMF and/or be comfortable when the WMF enters the house while your little puppy is all alone.  To a puppy, this may simply resemble a home invasion.

The scenario outlined above can create significant fear of strangers in puppies.  I had one patient who was strenuously pursued by a WMF.  The WMF ended up chasing the terrified puppy into the screened porch, where lamps were knocked over and furniture upended during attempts to apprehend the puppy.  The puppy bit the WMF when she was finally captured and subsequently developed a profound phobia of human beings that has persisted throughout her entire life.

One easy preventative step is to have the puppy meet the WMF a few times when the family is home.  Then, the WMF should enter the home when the puppy is alone several times to simply offer treats, encourage the pup to approach, and then leave.  In this way, the pup learns to happily anticipate the WMF’s visits and future interactions are much more likely to go smoothly. 

Another easy preventative approach is for the WMF to simply attach a leash to the puppy before letting the pup romp outdoors.  The use of a leash means that there will be no chasing, which is likely to scare the puppy.  Should the puppy slip a collar or pull the leash out of the WMF’s hand, the WMF should scatter a handful of treats in a small area of the yard and then sit or lie down in the middle of the treats.  If the puppy is ignored rather than pursued, eventually she will approach the WMF for treats, at which time she can be gently picked up or leashed.

These recommendations certainly apply to adolescent and adult dogs, but puppies within the “sensitive period of socialization” are much more vulnerable.  One bad experience can cause lifelong problems. 

Mistake 5: Punishing the puppy rather than instructing the puppy

If an infant crawls over to something that has dropped on the floor and reaches to put it in her mouth, would you rush over, wrench the item out of her hand, smack her, and then yell at her, telling her what a “bad girl” she is?  I hope you wouldn’t.  And if you wouldn’t do it with an infant or a toddler, then you shouldn’t do it to a puppy.  Puppies know nothing about “right or wrong.”  Believe it or not, there is no Good Dog Manual that puppies read before adoption.  Yelling at or hitting puppies will only teach them to be afraid of you.   

It’s your job to set up an environment in which puppies are likely to be successful.  This includes limited access to “non-legal” chew items as well as providing a plethora of interesting, varied, novel “legal” chew toys.  Equally important is strict supervision so that if your puppy innocently begins chewing on a fine Italian leather shoe, you can gently exchange the shoe for an appropriate chew toy and make a mental note to store you expensive shoes on top of the fridge in the future.  Even better is to induce the pup to drop the shoe for a treat, and then offer a toy as a substitution.  You should channel all of your latent dramatic capabilities to make the toy seem oh so exciting, so the puppy is NOT thinking about how sad he is to lose the shoe, but how awesome that plush, squeaky Rhinoceros is.  When puppies mature into adult dogs, they will have established their chewing preferences and won’t go looking for new things to chew.  If you train them up right as pups, you will have properly chew-trained dog for life.  

Use the same gentle, educational approach with housetraining.  Set up everyone for success by taking that puppy out every hour and rewarding immediately with treats and attention, whenever business is tended to.  If you see sniffing and circling behavior when your pup is in the house, whisk that puppy up and take him outdoors, posthaste.  And, if you happen to discover any wet spots or stinky piles in the house, take a rolled up newspaper and whack yourself several times about the head and neck for letting a “full” puppy out of the confinement area unsupervised!  Rubbing your own nose in the soiled area is optional.

Although rearing a puppy is hard work that will last a year or more, the results are well worth it.  Being able to influence a puppy through its sensitive period of socialization and adolescence is a privilege.  If done properly, you can look forward to many years of a mannerly, happy dog.  (Caveat: this happy ending assumes your dog is genetically not predisposed to low sociability or high arousal, but that is the subject of another blog!)