Getting Your Puppy off to a Great Start in Life – by Maxwell Muir

You have your new puppy and what a joy it is! It is the cutest little dog in the whole world and you can’t wait to take it out and introduce it to the world around you.

Often pups are taken from their litters and mother at around 8 weeks of age and introduced to their new homes and their human family. This is where their lives start to change drastically. One of the things I hear from owners quite often is the urgent need for them to get their puppy socialised and in particular before they are 16 weeks old. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the puppy. The first 16 weeks are indeed a critical learning period for pups but each individual is different and the experiences they have in this time will help to shape their behaviour and future associations towards a wide variety of people, dogs, and other things in the environment. The truth is that dogs are continually learning throughout their lives just as we do. The world can be an exciting and stimulating experience for a new pup venturing out for the first time so it is really important that they make good, enjoyable and happy associations.

A calm and relaxed home environment without too much control and rules is crucial. If there are children in the home it is important that they are taught how to handle, play and interact with pups properly.

Exploring and discovering the world can be a daunting prospect for some pups. They are by nature very curious and inquisitive creatures, this can be used to develop their brains by providing stimulating games for them that satisfy their needs. There are many toys on the market today but a little imagination can also go a long way. I like to leave boxes and items of interest loaded with scent lying around for them to investigate. Putting their senses to work helps them develop their skills and confidence. You will be surprised what you have lying around that will be of great interest to your pup. One of my favourites is to tape up an old cardboard box with some tasty morsels inside, I then place that box inside another box and tape that up also. Providing them with things to rip and tear their way through while using their nose to get at something is immensely satisfying for a dog. It will also help with any teething and chewing problems. If your puppy likes to dig then provide a place for it to do this where you can bury items for your dog to explore and find. You can also join in the activity with your pup by encouraging it which will help in developing a strong relationship together.

Puppy’s also need lots of sleep and rest periods so it is very important that they are raised in a calm and relaxed home environment with frequent time-out periods free from distractions and intense activity. Your dog studies you every minute of the day when you are around them, even when you are not directly interacting with them. This is where they learn to make associations with family members and evaluate who they can trust and feel safe with. Calm family dynamics are very important in raising a calm and confident puppy. If home life is stressful with a lot of noise or yelling it will in turn stress the dog making it difficult for it to stay calm and feel safe.

Choose carefully where you walk your puppy and in particular which dogs they meet and interact with. I would suggest avoiding some of the more hyperactive adolescent dogs that may have crude social skills. Many relationships can suffer at this stage of development when we place a leash on the dog. Short tight leashes cause frustration and constant tension which causes the puppy to pull. It does not take long for them to develop a pulling habit. Taking them to a relaxed and quiet area and letting them explore the place on a long lead where they can use their senses to the full is invaluable to them.

Pups also naturally want to meet other dogs and when they see them they will be more than eager to make contact. How the other dog reacts and how we in turn use the leash can shape our dogs’ association of other dogs and people. Your puppy also needs to learn how to cope on its own when meeting other dogs. If we are over protective and do not allow mingling with other dogs then we can be giving the puppy the wrong messages. They should be socialised with dogs of all ages as they will learn to use their social skills to deal with a wide variety of different canine personalities and learn what is and is not acceptable behaviour to other dogs. If they are only socialised with dogs of their own age they will not benefit from changing their behaviour when in the company of older dogs who may only be able to tolerate them for so long.

Many training classes put a lot of emphasis only on obedience training exercises such as Sit, Stay and Down. While these exercises are okay in themselves they seem to replace initial training for life experiences that shape a puppy’s behaviour. The life you have with your dog should be a relationship where guidance can be given based on trust and encouragement. Learning to cope with life’s challenges is far more important in the beginning. Obedience is not the core of a relationship. It is good to plan out your dog’s social development by going out of your way and taking them to new and exciting places where they can be exposed to such things as farms and livestock, beaches, wildlife, people and children. Dogs can learn to be dependent on familiar locations and while training classes and exercises done in your local hall or park are good, you should try to expand and widen out. There are no fences out there in the real world to protect them from bikes, joggers, strange and scary looking people with big hats, sticks and long coats, traffic, animals, and an abundance of loud and sudden noises.

Your training field is the world itself and how much you expose your dog to it will determine how well they cope in the long term. If your puppy does show a fearful reaction to something that is strange, it is a perfectly natural behaviour. We humans are exactly the same. Allow your dog to cope and investigate in its own time without pressure or over-protective soothing from us. All too often you will see that a dog’s behaviour is not too far off from a reflection of how we behave ourselves. If an owner has a fear of big dogs and does not want their puppy to meet bigger dogs then that puppy can easily develop a fear of bigger dogs reflecting the owner’s own feelings. If we are apprehensive or scared we will give all the signals and panic through our own body language and facial expressions which will be picked up by the puppy causing them to feel the same way. We have to be careful of the messages we give to our dogs. Bringing a puppy up is mostly about organising and planning rather than actual training. The key to getting a strong bond with your puppy is in shared activity together. When it shows an interest in something you should also be interested with them. Explore life together, take a delight in it and enjoy the world.

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