Bringing a puppy home often carries with it a sense of hope for the future. You’re excited by all of the new things you’ll get to teach your little buddy, and dream of the adventures you’ll go on together. Out of all of the things you could start working on, when you integrate your puppy into your life, how do you decide where to begin? Whether you’re hoping to develop a specific skill or to avoid unpleasant behaviors the first, and most essential, thing you should teach your puppy is that you are safe and trustworthy. You’ll be building your relationship for their entire life, but there are things you can do now to get off to a good start.
At this stage, remember that your puppy is an infant with little physical control and no concept of right or wrong. However, your puppy is developing the concept of “safe vs. unsafe”, and during this stage of life, your puppy is soaking up this information like a sponge. In fact, because we know our puppies are absorbing information rapidly, we often take advantage of it in other scenarios. Most puppy guardians tend to emphasize socialization and get started on teaching manners early, but think less about what our puppies are learning from us and about our relationship on a daily basis. In addition to structured training and socialization opportunities, focus on the quality of your relationship with your puppy.
What does it look like to build a healthy relationship? First and foremost your puppy needs to know you are safe and can be trusted. This is where you might stop and think “Of course my puppy is learning that I’m great! I feed her, play with her, scratch her belly. She loves me!” And you might be right. All of those things are fantastic for teaching your puppy that you are fun and rewarding. However, paying careful attention to the ways we might inadvertently sabotage our relationship can help prevent future issues. Whether it’s your reaction in those frustrating moments when your puppy seems to be more “tornado” than “best friend” or the training methods you choose, there are so many opportunities for your puppy to learn all about you, and what type of relationship they will have with you for the rest of their lives.
Have patience. Patience is often in short supply when your sleep schedule has been disrupted, you’re stepping in suspicious smelling puddles, and your hands are a mess of tiny cuts. When you find your blood pressure rising in response to your latest puppy related incident, take a step back, give your puppy a break in their pen or crate, and consider what you want your puppy to do differently.
Make a plan. The fastest way to address most puppy issues is to teach your puppy that it is highly rewarding to do the things you like, and to prevent their ability to perform behaviors you don’t like. Remember, every time your dog practices a behavior you’re more likely to see it in the future. If you proactively manage your puppy’s environment, and train for skills you would like to strengthen, your puppy will quickly learn how to work cooperatively with you rather than feeling like you are in conflict with each other. Your puppy will feel safest with a social partner who is on their team, and sets them up for success.
Learn to communicate. Unfortunately, our dogs do not speak our language. We begin teaching it to them through training, and many dogs become highly perceptive at picking up on our signals. This is only 50% of the conversation though. Your puppy is also attempting to communicate with you. When you learn what your puppy is saying, you can respond more accurately to his or her needs and emotions. Just like people, dogs feel most comfortable with those who listen to them.
Choose kindness. How you teach your puppy is even more important than what you teach them. When you consider a variety of training methods, think about whether your puppy would find the learning process enjoyable. You are your puppy’s primary teacher, which means that when learning is fun, you are also seen as fun. Selecting a force-free, science-based organization to help you train will make it easier to build your relationship, and reduces the risk of behavior issues associated with punitive training methods.
Give yourself a break. Rest is important for both you and your puppy. When puppies are awake and active they want to be with you all the time, but this can be exhausting for both of you to keep up with long term. It can also wear you down quickly if you’re the only source of entertainment they want to engage with. It’s beneficial to teach your puppy that they can also enjoy time apart from you by giving them independent activities. A stuffed Kong, or other enrichment activities, can help your puppy to feel more confident while alone, and give you some needed time to recharge.
The bond you have with your dog is unique. Enjoy this opportunity to cultivate it from the beginning. It’s amazing what you and your puppy can do together when they trust you and have confidence in your relationship.
Author: Rachel Marderosian, CPDT-KA