You’ve got a puppy. Congratulations! Now is the time to prevent behavior problems in adulthood. Many serious issues can be prevented by properly raising your pup. More dogs die each year in the United States due to behavior problems than due to all contagious diseases combined. Make sure your dog won’t be an unpleasant statistic: Follow these five simple tips to raise a behaviorally healthy dog.
Touch Him All Over Every Day
One of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent future behavior problems is to touch him all over his body every day. Make it a pleasant and rewarding experience. Small dogs can sit in your lap; dogs that will be too large for your lap at maturity should lie on the floor or their bed. Praise your pup and give him treats while gently stroking his body, from ears to gently massaging all four paws and manipulating his legs. Stick your fingers in his mouth and rub his gums. Tug lightly on his tail. If you do this every day with your hands and sometimes also rub him all over with a brush, you’ll raise a pup who’s easy to groom and handle, and who will not be fazed by children that want to handle him in ways adults don’t usually do. Pups who will be clipped as their adult coat grows in, like Poodles, should also be accustomed to clippers by rubbing the clippers (turned off at first) all over their bodies.
Prevent Resource Guarding with Games
Resource guarding (food/toy aggression) is a serious problem that results in the euthanasia of many dogs. Thankfully, you can prevent this, and play with your dog at the same time using two easy games. The first game is called “Grab Bag.”
To play Grab Bag, feed your pup (preferably when she’s not especially hungry, but is interested in eating) a small serving of dry kibble or, if she eats canned or raw, a bowl with some bland biscuits inside. Let her take a bite, then take the bowl away and turn away from her so she can’t see what you’re doing. Add something really yummy to the bowl, and give it back! Your pup will soon learn to be thrilled if you take her food away, because she’ll be getting a special treat. Never attempt Grab Bag with a dog that is already guarding its food; it’s a game to prevent, not treat, this serious behavioral condition.
The second game is called “Mine’s Better.” To play Mine’s Better, play with your dog with a boring toy that has a fairly low value to your dog. Then, pick up a toy that’s slightly higher in value to your dog, and wave it enticingly, cooing to your pup about how you have the better toy. She’ll drop the low value toy and stare at the higher value object. When she does this, praise her and immediately initiate a game with the high value toy. Ask her to make trades with you for other toys or for food several times a day, and you can eventually add a cue like, “Swap me,” to get any object away from her– your underwear, the trash, chicken bones– with the promise of another desirable item.
Train Every Day
Have at least one 15 minute obedience training session every day. If you run out of behaviors to teach your dog, get a book of tricks or work on improving how quickly he responds to each cue. Don’t overload a young pup with lengthy training sessions, and don’t use positive punishment on puppies. In fact, don’t use positive punishment at all. Research clicker training and start clicking with your dog young. It’s fun to look for ways to “catch your puppy being good!” Every training session is a chance to bond with your puppy, and the more behaviors he learns early, the easier it will be to teach him even more later in life.
Build Good Exercise and Socialization Habits Early
It’s never too early to start exercising your dog every day, especially if your puppy is of a high energy breed. While it is best to ask your vet before taking a dog that’s not fully vaccinated on walks in public, you can push her in a doggy stroller, providing good mental exercise and socialization through exposure to new sights and sounds. For physical exercise, indoor play and play in your yard can be plenty for a young pup. Fetching starts early with most dogs who retrieve naturally, and provides excellent exercise.
To socialize and exercise at the same time, go on a scavenger hunt. List 5-10 things that your pup has never seen but which are easily found, and go on a scavenger hunt for positive experiences socializing with these new stimuli. Some good examples to start with are a person using a wheelchair, an automatic sprinkler, a person wearing a large hat, a garden gnome, a revolving door, a fountain, a park bench, a person of a different race than your own, a loud stereo, and a squirrel. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask a stranger, “Would you please give my puppy this treat? We’re practicing socialization,” so long as you’re not offended if someone declines.
Encourage Appropriate Chewing
A frequently asked question about puppies is, “How do I stop my puppy from chewing?” The answer is, “You’re asking the wrong question.” Instead, you should be asking how to get your puppy to chew his toys, and only his toys. Chewing is mandatory for puppies. It’s part of both mental and physical development.
As soon as you bring a pup home, before he realizes your socks and couch are delicious, immediately reinforce chewing of his toys. Have lots of them and rotate toys every week so he doesn’t get bored. A great chew treat for a puppy is canned food frozen inside a properly sized Puppy Kong toy. The cold will soothe teething gums, the canned food is yummy, and the hard rubber holds up to power chewing. Every time you catch your puppy chewing an appropriate toy, praise him and offer a treat. In addition, instead of scolding if you do find him gnawing table legs or scarfing boxer shorts, redirect him by throwing a favorite toy horizontally across his line of vision, then praise him enthusiastically when he abandons the inappropriate target and chews his toy.