Helpful Tips for a Happy Puppy!

By Kimberly R. Kahn, DVM

Congratulations on your new puppy! We want to help you and your puppy develop a healthy relationship from your first days together. 

Puppies arrive ready to be taught how to live with a family. You have the opportunity and responsibility to teach your puppy proper behavior for life as part of your family. Here are our recommendations for you to help your puppy grow into a happy, healthy dog and a wonderful companion.

Dos and Don'ts

The first step in training your puppy is to decide on your rules. Talk with all family members and make a list of what your puppy will and won’t be allowed to do. Will your puppy be allowed on the couch? Will he be allowed to beg at the table? Consistency is the most important element when training your puppy. Nothing is more confusing to a dog than being allowed to do a behavior at certain times but not at others. 

Be careful not to let your puppy do behaviors now if you won't want him to do those behaviors when he’s an adult. It might seem cute when your puppy jumps up to greet you, but you might not think so when he weighs 60 pounds! It is difficult to un-train behaviors once they have become ingrained.

Positive Reinforcement for Your Puppy

Dogs learn best when they are taught what to do, rather than what not to do. As your puppy’s teacher, you will achieve the most success from using positive reinforcement. When your puppy is doing a behavior that you would like him to continue, positively reinforce the behavior by giving praise or treats or attention.

Using correction, or telling your dog what not to do, generally doesn’t work for teaching a puppy proper behavior. Instead, use prevention (i.e. put shoes away so your puppy can’t chew on them) or “time-outs” (i.e. stop playtime if your puppy is overexcited). You can also pre-empt unwanted behavior by asking for the behavior that you would rather your puppy be doing.

Timing is crucial when delivering rewards or managing your puppy’s behavior. Dogs only associate your praise (or removal of your attention) with the behavior they are doing at that exact moment. You have only half a second to give either a reward or a “time-out” for a behavior. Your puppy simply can’t understand that the “time-out” you just gave him is for the shoe he chewed on 5 minutes ago. 

Be very careful to never reinforce the behaviors on your “don’ts” list. For example, if your puppy receives a nice head rub when he jumps up on you, he is being positively reinforced and is likely to continue jumping up for attention. Consistent enforcement of your rules is the key to successful training: positively reinforce the correct behaviors and never reinforce the incorrect behaviors.

Diet and Feeding Your Puppy

Puppies should be fed puppy food until they are almost fully grown (about 9-12 months old for most dogs). Giant-breed puppies should be fed puppy food designed for their special health needs.  A consistent diet will keep your puppy’s digestive system healthy. Determine which treats agree with your puppy's digestion and use those treats for training only! It can be hard to resist, but don’t give your puppy treats just because he likes them.

We recommend that puppies younger than 3 months start out eating three meals a day. Do not leave food out all day. Instead, leave the food out for 15-20 minutes and then remove any uneaten food. Don’t offer your puppy anything else (other than treats for training purposes) until the next scheduled meal. There might be exceptions for toy breed puppies – please ask us. Feeding at scheduled mealtimes will help you monitor your puppy’s appetite, help prevent overeating, and aid in housebreaking. For most puppies, by 4-5 months you can gradually switch your puppy to twice-daily meals.

Crate Training Your Puppy

We strongly recommend using a crate when training your puppy. A crate provides your puppy with a safe and secure place of his very own, particularly at times when you can’t keep a close eye on him. Crates are also an important part of housetraining. Crates aren’t just for puppyhood: with the right training, a crate can be your dog’s preferred place to spend down time or seek refuge from scary things like fireworks or thunderstorms. If your puppy really doesn’t like a crate then you can substitute mat training to partly fill the role that a crate plays.

Here are some basic tips about using a crate:

  1. Get a crate that gives your puppy only enough room to stand up, turn around, and lie down. Some crates are adjustable to grow along with your puppy. Consider covering the crate with a blanket. Dogs naturally seek out enclosed, cozy places for their dens, and you want your dog’s crate to feel snug and secure.
  2. The crate should be in a central location in your home rather than an area where he will be isolated from people. Puppies love human contact, so if the crate is where you are then your puppy will be happy to be in the crate.
  3. Put a cozy pad or blanket in the crate. Give your puppy treats and toys in the crate to teach him that it is a fun place.
  4. Use the crate when you’re spending time in the same room as your puppy, as well as at bedtime or when you leave the home. This way your puppy won’t just associate the crate with your absence. Never use the crate for punishment or your puppy will learn that the crate means bad things! 
  5. Don’t let your puppy out of the crate if he is barking or whining. Wait until he is quiet and calm (even for a few seconds) before you let him out. Teaching your puppy to sit before being let out of the crate is great way to give him a polite way to say "please may I come out now."

Housetraining Your Puppy

The first step in housetraining is to establish a schedule of feeding and elimination (urination/defecation) times. Feed your puppy at the same times every day and follow a similar routine for his elimination. Make sure to take him out (or, if you are using indoor “pee pads”, take him to the pad) first thing in the morning, after naps and meals, and right before bedtime. This is the minimum! Very young puppies or smaller breeds might need “potty breaks” every 1-3 hours.

The key to housetraining is to give your dog lots of opportunities to eliminate in the right place and prevent opportunities for him to eliminate in the wrong place. This means that until your dog is fully housetrained, he should always be in one of the following 3 situations:

  1. Indoors in a crate or a dog-safe area (i.e. a small room blocked off with a baby gate). Puppies have a strong instinct not to eliminate in their “den” (i.e. their crate). If the crate is the right size your puppy won’t have space to eliminate. If you use a blocked-off room or dog pen, keep a pad in the area so that your puppy has a place where it’s ok to eliminate.
  2.  Indoors under your direct supervision. This means being close enough for you to pick up your puppy if he is about to have an accident. If you’re close enough to prevent or interrupt an accident, you can bring your puppy to the place where he’s supposed to eliminate and then praise him for doing the right thing!
  3.  Outdoors with you. Choose one spot outside your home and take your puppy to that spot (or to the pad) each time. Wait 5-10 minutes and praise your puppy as soon as he is done eliminating. If your puppy hasn't eliminated, put him in his crate/area for 5-10 minutes and then take him directly outdoors to try again.

Never punish your puppy for accidents. Those “accidents” are really the result of human errors in timing or management. Simply clean up the mess with an enzymatic cleaner, like Anti Icky-Poo or Nature’s Miracle. If you happen to catch your puppy as he is urinating or defecating, quickly pick him up and take him directly outside (or to his pad).

Chewing and mouthing

Chewing and mouthing behaviors are a necessary part of your puppy's development, particularly during teething. It is important to teach your puppy what is acceptable to chew/mouth and what is not. Provide him with a wide variety of safe chew toys such as Kongs, Buster Cubes, rawhides, and heavy-duty cloth toys. You can stuff hollow Kongs with treats (peanut butter, soft cheese, or wet dog food) for hours of chewing entertainment.

Avoid plush toys with pieces that can be chewed off, tennis balls, and any chew that is too hard to dent with a fingernail. If you catch your puppy chewing an inappropriate object, use a happy voice to interrupt him and immediately substitute one of his toys for the object. Then praise him when he chews the toy.

When your puppy starts to chew on your hands or clothing, quickly remove your hand/clothing without saying anything and ignore your puppy until he stops trying to chew. He wants your attention, and getting a “time out” teaches him that chewing isn’t a successful attention-getting technique. Another approach is to grab a toy and put it in his mouth so that you make him chew the toy instead of you. This helps him associate his toys with the urge to chew.

Socialization with Your Puppy

It is essential that your puppy encounter a wide range of people, pets, and situations in order to build his confidence about the world around him. Early socialization (before 16 weeks) is key to prevent long-term behavior problems. Studies have linked aggression and fearfulness in adult dogs with inadequate socialization in puppyhood. Puppies that aren’t exposed to different situations in a positive manner are at risk of becoming fearful of new situations.

Expose your puppy to men, women, and children of different ages and appearances, as well as different situations and unfamiliar places. Some things that commonly spook puppies include bikes, skateboards, canes, strollers, hats, and loud trucks. When your puppy encounters any of these things, give treats and praise to make the experience positive. From his earliest weeks, take your puppy with you wherever and whenever possible (depending on his vaccine status you might need to use a carrier or cart or carry him in your arms). Explain to people, especially children, how to greet your puppy in a non-frightening way. Should your puppy become frightened, act confident and nonchalant and get him out of the situation without making a fuss. Use a happy tone of voice to distract him. 

Many puppies don’t see people wearing masks in the home and so are frightened when they see people in masks outside. Wear masks in front of your puppy so that he knows that the masked creatures he sees outside are humans.

Get your puppy used to the feel of different surfaces under his feet, particularly if your building has different surfaces in the lobby, elevator, and hallways. Take your puppy on the subway, bus, or in cabs.

Exposing your puppy to other dogs and areas where other dogs visit is a crucial part of socialization. Please ask us about which of these would be safe for your puppy at different points during his puppy vaccination period: carrying outside, puppy playgroups, indoor play dates with fully-vaccinated dogs, and walking outside.

During socialization it’s crucial to avoid the 3 F’s: flooding, forcing, or going too fast. You can make your puppy’s fear worse by exposing him to too much too quickly or by forcing him into situations that make him very afraid. If you know that he is afraid of a particular situation, avoid it and contact us. For slightly timid puppies Adaptil pheromone collars can ease the socialization process. If your puppy is showing a lot of fear, it is beyond time to talk with us about a referral to a trainer who is experienced with helping fearful dogs gain confidence.

Children and Puppies

Puppies sometimes seem to view children more like littermates than authority figures. Don’t expect your puppy to respond to a child’s directions the same way he would to yours. Depending on a child’s age and maturity, having children participate in training can be confusing for puppies. Always supervise children when they are playing with or training your puppy.

Teach children to respect your puppy physically and emotionally so that they don’t exhaust or overstimulate him. Caution children about leaving around small toys that your puppy could eat or putting your puppy in places where he could fall. Sometimes children treat puppies more like toys than living beings (i.e. picking up and cuddling them, which many puppies dislike). If you feel that your puppy is avoiding or nipping your children more than seems normal, your children might be unintentionally doing something that the puppy doesn’t like.

Playtime with Your Puppy

Play serves many important functions for a puppy: creating a strong bond with owners, learning about acceptable and unwanted behavior, and burning off some of that puppy energy! To keep your puppy engaged, play a variety of games with him, and provide him with a variety of toys such as Kongs or sturdy stuffed toys. Treat-dispensing toys are a great way of exercising your puppy’s body and mind. Please avoid any chew toys that you can’t dent with a fingernail; these are too hard for your puppy’s teeth.

Down Time and Absences

The saying “a tired puppy is a happy puppy” isn’t always true. An overtired puppy, like an overtired toddler, can be cranky, disobedient, and feel overwhelmed. Puppies need about 18 hours of sleep per day. While it’s important to get that puppy energy out, it’s as important to teach your puppy to rest calmly and to engage in relaxed solo playtime. A puppy that has been taught to spend quiet time on its own will become a well-adjusted, adaptable adult dog.

On a related note, it’s crucial that your puppy get used to and comfortable with being apart from you. Due to COVID many puppies are used to a constant human presence and get panicked when left alone. Prevent separation anxiety by teaching your dog how to relax when you are across the room, in another room, or away from home. The books and other resources listed below can help guide this process.

Walking Your Puppy

For dogs, walks are both physical and mental exercise, entertainment, and stress relief. Give your puppy a chance to sniff thoroughly; that’s an important part of being a dog. Dogs who aren’t allowed to sniff and explore can become frustrated and hyper/reactive during walks.

Even if your puppy isn’t ready for walks outdoors it’s never too early to get him used to the feel of walking on a leash. Using an appropriate harness or collar, start acclimating him to the leash while in the calm, familiar environment of home. This will give him a good foundation for walking in the highly-stimulating (and distracting) outdoors.

Grooming, Body Handling, and “Clothes”

The first 4 months of your puppy’s life is a crucial time for getting him used to the grooming and body handling that he will experience regularly throughout his life. Through patience and gradual training you can teach your puppy to be comfortable with having his ears examined/cleaned, paws handled/cleaned, nails trimmed, teeth brushed, eyes cleaned, and coat brushed. This will spare him the stress and fear that too many dogs face when they need these types of handling and grooming. Please see the toothbrushing and ear cleaning handouts in the puppy folder, ask us to email additional handouts on nail trims and ear handling, and check out the books and websites listed below.

Many dogs will need to wear harnesses, coats, booties, and other types of “clothes” in certain seasons or settings. Think ahead and get your puppy used to wearing a coat or balloon booties (used for snow/salt) so that you don’t face a struggle down the road.

Pet Insurance and Savings Accounts

While everyone hopes for a long and healthy life for their puppy, most dogs experience at least one major illness or injury during their lives. The cost of veterinary care for those incidents can add up: emergency surgery or hospitalization at an animal hospital can easily cost a few thousand dollars!

Pet health insurance is a great way of ensuring that when the unforeseen happens, your dog can get the care he needs. It is very important to shop around for pet health insurance, since coverage varies based on such factors as your dog’s breed and any pre-existing health issues. Pawlicy.com is a great resource for comparing plans. If you can’t find a plan that you like, consider setting up a savings account specifically for veterinary care. Whether you choose pet insurance, a savings account, or both, the important thing is to be prepared!

Classes and Trainers

We encourage you to enroll your puppy in puppy kindergarten (aka basic obedience training) classes. We also encourage attending puppy playgroups or socialization sessions. To really get your puppy off to the best possible start, work one-on-one with a skilled trainer. No two puppies or families are alike, and a tailored approach can make all the difference in getting your puppy well-settled into your home and way of life. Please ask us about recommended trainers, classes, and playgroups.

Veterinary Visits with Your Puppy

We want your puppy to have the best veterinary experiences possible. We use treats, low-stress handling, and pheromones in our efforts to provide positive visits. You can help lay the foundation for positive visits by making sure your puppy will be hungry (so they’ll be more interested in treats) and bringing special treats and/or treat-dispensing toys/mats. Just as one might bring a favorite toy to a child’s pediatrician visit, bring your puppy’s toys or favorite chews.

If you are concerned that your puppy might be nervous or fearful of vet visits please let us know right away so that we can work together to make their experiences better.

Other Helpful Resources

The following books are our top picks for general training and puppy health:

  • Perfect Puppy in 7 Days by Sophia Yin
  • The Puppy Primer by Patricia McConnell & Brenda Scidmore

For extra housetraining tips:

Other places to find good (and free) information on puppy and dog health and behavior:

Recommended local puppy trainers:

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