Written by Cynthia Robertson-Gillette KPA CTP, CPDT-KA
Bringing home a new puppy is exciting, but overwhelming! It can feel like you have one shot to teach them everything they need to know for the rest of their life. The good news is, that's not the case. Learning is a lifelong journey together. When you first bring your puppy home, this is what we recommend you work on.
1. House Training (aka potty training): House training is guiding your puppy to appropriate places to go to the bathroom. Puppies have little muscular control of their bladder, in addition to having tiny bladders and digestive systems, which means that they will relieve themselves frequently and without much forethought (just like a human infant).
As a guardian, it is your job to help them navigate to suitable places where they can relieve themselves. Many people choose to take their pups outside as frequently as possible to grass, dirt, mulch, or rock surfaces. Other people use indoor potty systems, such as puppy litter boxes or potty patches (real or artificial turf spots, or sod in a baby pool).
As dogs mature, they develop surface preferences for where they eliminate – meaning they start to prefer to potty in places where they have a lot of practice going to the bathroom. Therefore, it’s important for them to frequently practice going to the bathroom in similar places we want them to use throughout their lives. This is also why I tend to not recommend potty pads, as carpet can feel very similar to pads under their paws. Potty training, as with much training, is not one-size-fits-all. It’s important to find a system that works with your family and lifestyle. Patience, consistency, and repetition is key. A great motto to follow is “when in doubt, get puppy out!” 2. Socialization: Letting your pup safely experience the world and form positive associations. Puppies have a primary socialization window from about 3 to 14 weeks of age, meaning this is our main opportunity to create confidence in the world. Socialization is much more than interacting with other dogs and humans – it also includes introducing them to new surfaces, sounds, sights, smells, and being groomed and touched. A key element that is often missed is that these experiences should be POSITIVE experiences for your puppy, rather than neutral or negative experiences. Learning about dog body language is an essential skill as a puppy guardian, as it is imperative to go at your puppy’s pace and be sure they are feeling comfortable during these experiences. Another misconception is that your puppy must interact face-to-face with new people, other animals, and other novel items. If your pup has noticed the novel thing, via sight, smell, or hearing it, you can create a socialization experience. Distance is actually a very important factor in creating positive experiences – for example, if you are scared of or unsure about snakes, it is much less stressful to be able to observe the snake from a distance rather than being forced to touch or hold the snake. Now, imagine you get to watch the snake from a distance which feels safe to you, and someone is handing you hundred-dollar bills – you are going to have a much better association with snakes! Like handing out money to humans, we want to use yummy treats with our puppies to help create positive associations with potentially scary things in life. Your dog doesn’t need to perform any behaviors or behave any specific way to “earn” these treats, we simply want to pair the scary/novel item with the treats to create this positive association. For socialization, slow and steady wins the race. It is much better for your puppy to have a few amazing experiences with new/novel things rather than many neutral or negative experiences. Puppy socialization classes led by certified trainers are a great option to help safely introduce your dog to new animals, people, and environments, and a great way to learn more about dog body language. 3. Bonding and having fun: Raising a puppy is no easy feat. It can be normal to experience what is known as “puppy blues,” where you may feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and like you made the wrong choice by getting a puppy. This is why bonding with your puppy and leaning into moments of fun and joy with your puppy are so important. Try to find areas that spark happiness within you, and really take in those moments – whether it’s watching your puppy chase leaves, warm puppy snuggles on your lap, the unique scent of puppy breath, or the way their big bellies rise and fall when they sleep. Playing with your puppy is a crucial part of bonding, and it helps reduce stress and increase happiness in both you and your pup. Try to let go of expectations of ‘perfection’ and allow both yourself and your puppy to make mistakes. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or angry, it can be wise to take a break. Ask friends, family members, or neighbors, or hire a positive reinforcement dog trainer or dog walker to help manage the puppy duties and to give yourself time to re-fill your cup. Dogs can learn new skills and behaviors at any age using positive reinforcement training techniques. There is no rush to teach your dog “sit” or “stay,” which is why we recommend focusing on house training, socialization, and bonding during the first few weeks with your puppy.