From the moment of birth and through the first several weeks of life, a pup is surrounded by its litter mates and a very attentive canine 'mom' who usually only leaves the litter for very short periods - to eat and relieve herself. As the weeks go by everyone in the litter will begin to open their eyes and discover their legs. But these litter mates will not necessarily develop at the same pace. As their vision and mobility improve all that adorable snuggle time turns into very active playtime. But some pups may be bigger, stronger, faster, or more coordinated than others in the same litter. And just as 'Mom' didn't intervene when some got to suckle more than others, she will not intervene if some play to rough for the others. Why? 'Mom' knows that the pups must not only learn their position in the pecking order, but must also learn to overcome problems and insecurities on their own.
So for about the first eight weeks of life 'Mom' knows to let the puppies learn, explore and develop at their own individual pace and will interfere to protect her pups only if she perceives genuine danger, usually from an external source such as another animal or a stranger.
Unfortunately this is the same age at which most breeders, rescues and shelters will allow a puppy to leave its secure little world to be placed in their new home. So the puppy's new humans need to understand that he has just made a major change in his life that adds to his confusion and even to his insecurities. But the canine 'Mom' has already given the puppy the coping skills needed to adjust to his new situation. It is imperative that the new owners not interfere with the natural learning process and development of the puppy as it transitions to understand its place in its new home. The primary responsibilities of the new owner are to 1) protect the puppy from real danger, and 2) act as the new pack leader to continue furthering the learning process. It is NOT to provide comfort at every moment during this adjustment or to rescue the puppy from scary situations.
Now the question may arise "Well how do I put that into practice in practical terms?" It's really quite simple. Here are a few pointers:
- Maintain a Calm and Positive Attitude. Animals are very perceptive regarding our emotions and attitudes. Try to remain calm and positive when interacting with your new puppy. Excitement at playtime is OK. But refrain from being too excited or nervous as you go through the steps below. Remember that dogs often reflect the personalities of their owners.
- Safety First. Be sure that there is nothing at floor level or within the puppy's reach that he might chew or swallow that would be harmful to him. Many people don't realize, for example, that the wire from the lamp on the coffee table may dangle or even rest on the floor. A puppy WILL chew this wire - out of curiosity - and could be seriously hurt. Children's toys are also quite dangerous for puppies as they often have small parts that could come off if the puppy chews. These parts could cause the puppy to choke or even to become sick. Remember, at this early stage the puppy will investigate everything. He does not yet know what he is or is not allowed to play with or chew. If it's within his reach it is fair game!
- Make the Proper Introductions. If there are other pets in your home you MUST introduce each of them to the puppy individually. In so doing you will be able to gauge their reactions to each other. The puppy may seem frightened by this. Do NOT be overly cautious and make the puppy feel you are protecting him. Just allow all of the sniffing and licking and examining to continue as long as necessary. If there are young children in the house they must also be introduced to the puppy and immediately taught the does and don'ts about how to handle the puppy. This is for the protection of both the children and the puppy!
- Understand His Investigation Process. Your puppy needs to use all of his senses to investigate his new surroundings, its contents and the people and pets already in residence. He must see, smell, hear, taste and touch nearly everything in sight. Some smells, sounds, tastes or even touches may cause him to seem frightened, yelp, or pull away. That's OK. Let him continue to investigate independently of you as long as you know his surroundings are safe.
- Restrict Space. Indoors, restrict your puppy's space to one room at a time for a while. Preferably a room you are in. Let him investigate using all of his senses. Outdoors be sure you puppy is in a fenced yard or otherwise confined area if he is not on a leash. Be aware of the size of your puppy particularly with small breeds. They may be able to easily escape from very small openings even in a fenced yard.
- Allow Mistakes to be Made. If, for example, your puppy walks right into the sliding glass door thinking he can get through it he probably wasn't walking fast enough to get hurt! So let it happen a few times. He will learn that the door has to be open to get through it. Like children puppies need to make some mistakes to learn what works and what doesn't.
- Allow Your Puppy to Feel Uncomfortable. In other words, if he seems frightened or concerned do NOT rush to his rescue. Allow the investigation to continue. Chances are he will learn to either accept whatever is concerning him or to understand that this is something he doesn't want to bother with anymore.
- Use Your Voice. Know when to use a commanding voice vs. baby talk vs. a normal conversational tone. It's great to talk to your pet as if he understands you when you are both busy in the same room. Maybe you are in the kitchen preparing his meal and he is walking around investigating the sights, sounds and smells in the room. You might say out loud in a normal voice, "oh, Sammy smells his food being prepared." That's great - he will get used to and find comfort in just hearing your voice. But when you turn on the blender and he runs under the table because the sound frightened him, do NOT resort to baby talk to comfort him. Use the same conversational tone and just tell him it's OK. Reserve baby talk for playtime if you use it at all. But as you start to train your puppy to come when called, sit, stay, etc., be sure to use a firm, commanding voice. That does not mean that you need to be harsh, angry, or even loud. Simply firm will do.
- Be Consistent. Always use the same voice and same commands to achieve a particular result. If your puppy is in a crate or restricted to a room you are not in and cries to be near you do not give in. If it's convenient talk to him in a normal conversational tone so he knows you have not left him. Do not baby talk, do not let him out for a few more minutes, and do not reach your hand in to comfort him. If it is not convenient, for example if you have gone to bed and he is crying in the kitchen or laundry room, ignore it. While this may be annoying for his first night or two it will stop more quickly if you do not give in to him.
- Be Patient. Understand that your puppy may make some of the same mistakes several times. Let him. And remember, keep him safe but do not rescue him. Picking him up to console him when he is frightened will lead to him becoming a dog that suffers from anxiety.
- Maintain a schedule for feeding time, walks, playtime and bedtime. This will help your puppy adjust to a normal routine.
- Maintain a routine, such as how and where feedings are offered. This will help your puppy adjust to a schedule and understand what is expected of him.
- Ensuring that your puppy is getting enough exercise and stimulation is a huge factor in keeping him happy and relaxed. Remember that a puppy needs to chew, both physically due to the teething process and mentally as a form of investigation and an activity. Be sure your puppy has two types of toys. Those that you play with when you engage with him and those that he likes to chew or play with on his own. It's a good idea to have multiple toys of each type that you swap out every day or so. This will help to eliminate boredom which will help to eliminate both destructive behavior and the nervousness that can arise from boredom.
- Finally, leave and arrive quietly and without fanfare. This applies to leaving the room for a moment as well as leaving the house for several hours. It's OK to let the puppy know you're leaving, even to see you leave. Simply say, in a normal tone of voice, 'Be good' or "See you later' and leave. Upon returning do not fuss or allow the puppy to become excited. Again, simply address him in a normal tone of voice. If your puppy does become too excited, jumping or barking to welcome you back, ignore him until he calms down. Literally turn your back on him and do not look at him or speak to him. Once he is calm you can engage with him verbally and then playfully. These simply steps will assure that your puppy does not develop separation anxiety but will see your comings and goings as part of normal routine. Separation anxiety is one of the most common reasons dogs are surrendered to shelters and sadly, it is a behavior problem often caused by the family that really wanted to love the dog but can no longer tolerate the behavior they caused.
Please check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this series: The Types and Causes of Anxiety in Dogs.