Puppy Power: getting your puppies off to a great start


Watching a video that Nando Brown posted of his Malinois Fizz, I couldn’t help but compare her to Hagrid, our resident shelter smart boy who’s now one of the dogs who’s been here the longest. Fizz has had everything right: good breeding, a great upbringing, an owner who more than understands the demands of the breed, who did absolutely everything he could have done to raise a great puppy; Hagrid has had nothing right: accidental breeding (he’s a Mali x GSD with no pedigree), an upbringing that didn’t teach him a soft bite (kind of essential with mouthy Malinois!) and who ended up in the shelter, aged 4.

It made me sad for Hagrid, because despite all those things against him, he could do everything Fizz was doing: spin, twist, sit, stand, down, through the legs, stay, play dead. Well, almost all. I never got him to jump on my back. It’d be like trusting Hannibal Lecter with the cooking. He is who he is despite everything. I wonder who he could have been if he’d had a great upbringing.

Having two puppies here on a 48-hour stay also reminds me just how important it is to do right by your dogs. Like it or not, puppies are like amazing little sponges, yet most of us teach them one or two appropriate behaviours and they learn five or six inappropriate behaviours all for themselves. The windows of opportunity are short with puppies, and some of them are downright contradictory. There are also a lot of things that you have to depend on someone else to do, even if you get your puppy at six weeks as I did with Heston (he was found in a box at one day old). For this reason, it’s vital that you work with the foster home or the breeder as much as you can before you get your puppy. So many of those windows of development are closed by the time most breeders are happy to hand over a puppy at eight weeks or more.

Neonatal period (0-2 weeks)

For puppies in the neonatal period, most of what they experience is with touch, since they are unable to see or hear. Even their smell is very poor. They also respond to warmth as well. Contact and warmth are vital for neonatal puppies, and you should expect the breeder or foster carer to spend considerable time with the puppies on them as well as on mum. Pups like to huddle, so spending a couple of hours every evening with a puppy resting belly-down on your chest is a great way to start getting them used to you before they are too old to be scared. It’s a good way to start that contact, touching all parts of them, especially ears, legs and feet. It’s a great way to start a puppy off in life if it is already used to human touch by two weeks. Very young puppies may easily be physically harmed, but because they cannot hear, smell or see, they cannot be easily harmed psychologically. Anything you can do to start off touch and warmth will help build a great foundation for later. This helps puppies learn that humans are safe.

Transition period (2-4 weeks)

This is the period when adult dog behaviours begin to appear, and watching puppies at this age is amazing. You get to see all those canine instincts appearing. In the third week of life, puppies begin to orient themselves, beginning to find their way around and explore. As their eyes develop, they become more interested in objects at a distance. Growling and play fighting will start to emerge, so it’s vital that puppies have contact with others in their litter to learn how to play. They also begin to hear sounds in this period. Teeth start coming in around twenty days depending on breed, so you really want to start handling your puppy before then so that they are used to it before the bite instinct kicks in. Since puppies can hear from this point on and will move towards things other than their mum, you can also start to call them or encourage their approach. Puppies will also sit at this point, and you can start off rewarding them for this simple skill too. At the end of this period, The Dog Paws blog says you should be rewarding your puppies for calm behaviour, sits, settles and helping them to learn that humans are safe.

Socialisation period (4-6 weeks)

This period of a puppy’s life is marked by a lot of interaction and surveillance. If you thought you were tired before, this is when you need eyes in the back of your head, especially with a big litter! There’s a reason this period of a puppy’s life is called the socialisation period – it is the age at which they learn social play and the age at which they form social relationships with humans as well as other dogs. Their curiosity is really high but their fear response is minimised. Meeting and playing with other dogs is vital during this time – but since puppies are unvaccinated, many breeders and vets are unhappy to do this. It’s a big risk. On the one hand, you risk a number of infectious diseases or fleas being transported by the other animals, and on the other, you risk them learning to associate other dogs with feeling afraid. Even seven-week-old puppies can quickly learn to be very afraid of other dogs, trembling and yelping at the slightest contact, or taking much, much longer to interact with them.

During this period, it is absolutely vital that puppies have handling and contact. Puppies become fearful of handling around five weeks of age, and if they aren’t habituated to handling during this period, they can become very fearful. Like feral kittens who will remain feral if not handled around the three week mark (or at least be very, very difficult to socialise), the same is true of puppies. By fourteen weeks of age, the socialisation window is almost entirely shut, but even at seven weeks, puppies can develop a fear response to human handling. What they need now is handling, and lots of it.

At this age, puppies will also start to eat more solid food. Make sure you do the research to find the best puppy food for the puppies breed so they get all the right nutrients they need. There is no reason at all they should be eating from bowls (except to learn how to eat from one – and remember to vary the materials you feed them in from plastic to metal or porcelain!) and so you can use their food needs to build up that bond with you. The pleasure centre of the brain is part of the reward centre too, so all food and contact combined will teach a puppy how great human contact is. A food bowl with puppy food is a wasted opportunity. Burying treats in a snuffle mat, using them as rewards for approaches, teaching the puppy their name (or to respond to “puppy!”) and you’ll quickly find yourself working your way through their food needs for the day.

It doesn’t help with toileting though, if puppies aren’t getting three bigger meals a day, so this is the time that you need to take regular outside breaks and if you use rewards for toileting outside, you can use them for that. Smell and habit are much stronger tools for puppy house training than reward, so be vigilant with mopping up, change the mop water regularly and make sure that puppies go outside the moment they are awake, about ten minutes into active play and before they nap. Even at this age, puppies will build up toileting habits and routines that can be pretty hard to break.

Around 5 weeks, puppies will also start behaving as a group, following one another about. It’s important at this point to have one-to-one time with each puppy and continue individual contact and handling. Puppies who have little exposure to people and a lot of exposure to other young dogs can become very ‘dog-focused’ and can find it more difficult to form attachments to people. For some types of puppy (some terrier litters, for instance) from 7 weeks, you may find them targeting one individual of the group – which is why it becomes vital that group play is supervised. A puppy that learns early that picking on another weaker dog is fun can learn some very indesirable behaviours. The last thing you want to allow is a young puppy to learn that bullying or hazing is fun. This is especially important with breeds that have been selected for tenaciousness, like terriers or bully breeds.

Puppies also learn in this period to use chewing as a method of investigation. Mouths are like hands, and if toddlers are grabby, puppies can be little land sharks, sinking their teeth into absolutely everything. It’s vital at this point to start to swap “bad” chewing for “good” chewing so that puppies build up a preference for what you want them to chew. Towards the end of this period, you will want to be teaching bait-and-switch, where puppy will swap a toy or whatever it’s chewing for a treat or for another toy. Giving up a toy or something they’re chewing should always bring reward.

This is really the period that you want your puppies to be beginning to experience the world, without overwhelming them and traumatising them by constant, unplanned exposure, but they still need to be with mum and littermates. They are also unvaccinated. That’s a big demand on breeders and fosterers, requiring almost a twenty-four hour presence, eyes in the back of the head, lots of exposure to new things, lots of contact with humans and other animals. Since puppies should not leave their littermates at this time, if you’re interested in buying or adopting a puppy, getting really involved with them at this age will not only help out the breeder but also familiarise them with you.

Juvenile period (6-24 weeks)

This period is marked by learning all the things that are nice and all those that are frightening. Helping your puppy develop their attention spans, building in frustration training and learning motor skills is important. It’s also the period at which serious psychological damage can be done. A single event can cause a fear response and it can take some enormous counter-conditioning or desensitisation to get over it. Take, for instance, the puppy whose first experience in a car is a terrifying one. How many trips in a car where there is a positive association does it take to get the puppy to see the car as a temporary event before something very pleasurable, or a negative association where they see it as a temporary event before something very unpleasant (like the vet). It also covers the period in which puppies move from their family unit to their new family, so it’s vital there is good communication between the breeder or fosterer and the new home.

There are several really important things your puppies need to learn during this period, alongside the usual obedience programmes.

This period is marked most by the fear response, so teaching your puppies how to handle the introduction of novel experience is key. What you really don’t want (even if you are teaching a gun dog or a SAR dog) is a puppy who investigates without checking in with you. Puppies who learn that humans decide when things need investigating and when they don’t are puppies who end up as safe dogs. Even hounds, gun dogs and SAR dogs need to know a cue to investigate. Take it from me… puppies who investigate everything without your supervision are puppies who become Hestons. My collie x retriever had some amazing self-taught investigations during his formative weeks, and although that’s bloody marvellous for an independent dog, it’s a recipe for disaster. He may be the best tracking dog in the town, but it took me a gazillion years to teach him to investigate on cue. “Find it!” is a great cue for dogs of breeds who have great eyes, noses or investigative sequences. “Leave it!” is also incredibly useful!

It’s also the period when puppies get vaccinations and meet the vet, which makes it vital to make that experience as positive as possible. Sadly not all vets are as keen to help you habituate young dogs to the vet, so choose a vet and a surgery that has minimal stress for your puppy. The movement for fear-free veterinary care is only just in its infancy – kind of strange when you think about it! – but if you think of how hard dentists had to work to overcome their fearful reputation in the 60s and 70s, it’s the same with vets now.

Vaccination health is not the only crucial health care you need to begin at this age. Puppies should also get used to having their teeth brushed. Seriously! If I were starting again with a puppy, it’s the one healthcare routine I would build in from the beginning. Dental hygiene is so fundamental to other aspects of health that you need a dog who has a clean set of gnashers. The toxins from mouth bacteria can get into the bloodstream and cause all sorts of health problems, including problems with the heart and kidney failure! So many people are obsessed with what they feed their dog as a way to prolong their dog’s life and extend a healthy lifespan without taking into account that the biggest difference you can make to the lifespan of your dog (other than long-lived parents and grand-parents) is dental hygiene! Unlike the “raw food/biscuit” debate which will rumble on until proper longitudinal surveys have been completed on both sides, there is no debate about dental hygiene and its importance. Handling your dog’s mouth will also help with “mouthiness” as well. The last thing a vet needs is a bite for looking in a dog’s mouth! Just make sure you use specialist dog toothpaste! Minty breath is not for dogs. This from a girl who used to laugh at her neighbour for brushing his cat’s teeth! Now I think it’s the most fundamental aspect of health care.

No article about good starts for puppies would be complete without a mention of food. Although you may think that a packet of dog biscuits from the supermarket is suitable, puppies need specialist foods for their age and also for the size of dog they will become. It’s vital that large breeds or those prone to dysplasia or muscular issues don’t grow too fast. It’s also essential that the balance of energy and protein is just right for a puppy. This is why home-made meals are not recommended by your vet. Indeed, early research on a litter of Bernese mountain dogs showed that their home-made raw diet had left them with severe nutritional deficiencies. There are plenty of good freeze-dried, pre-packaged raw diets or biscuit diets for puppies constructed by veterinary nutritionists that you can buy from internet stockists. But the packets sold in the supermarkets are unlikely to offer the nutrition your puppy needs. One thing is also for sure: one size does not fit all. The biscuits for a small breed dog are not suitable for an older dog, and young dogs have different calorific needs and nutritional requirements than an adult dog.

You can also follow Kikopup on Youtube for lots of great videos. She has some great videos about teaching calmness, settling, sitting, following and not teaching other skills that encourage excited behaviours. Ian Dunbar’s excellent books on Dog Star Daily are free and vital for everyone with a young puppy. He has free books for “Before you get your puppy” and “After you get your puppy”.

If you haven’t booked your puppy in with a really great force-free positive trainer to learn a reliable recall as their flight instinct kicks in, I can’t stress this enough, especially if you have dogs who are led by their eyes or their noses. Okay….what I should say there is ANY dog! All dogs, even ones bred for territorial behaviours, can get into real trouble if you don’t have a recall that has been tested every which way you can. For dogs who are particularly territorial, such as shepherds, you also need to get that socialisation in. This is also very true for dogs who are bull or terrier breeds. Top notch manners around other dogs are absolutely crucial for independent dogs, especially if they have an instinct for the tail end of the predatory sequence. If you get off on attacking moving objects, is there anything more important than learning how to behave around cars, small furries and small humans with faces in the bite range? I couldn’t help but see all those rehoming announcements yesterday for shepherds who need homes without other animals and without children and think that there is a lot to be said for more careful breeding and for the right socialisation to combat latent behaviours that you don’t want to encourage. The cattle dog that nips at children, the collie who stalks bicycles and the shepherd who bites passers-by are all examples of dogs who really, really needed their owner to teach them when it’s okay to do these behaviours and when it is not. All dogs are individuals and all can be very poor examples of their breed, but you owe it to your dog and the people around you to know what floats their boat, effective ways to channel that behaviour and effective ways to focus it in the right way.

That said, all dogs have sets of behaviours that are incompatible with good manners. Biting, jumping up, mouthing, barking and helping themselves are also all behaviours that will need a bit of work.

This is why it’s vital you get your puppy from a breeder or fosterer who knows what they are doing, who knows more than the average human being about dogs. It is their responsibility to do everything necessary until the dog passes over into your hands. The best breeders and fosterers will actively encourage you to help them out in that four-eight week period, or will be happy to do those things themselves. Then it falls on you to take up the reins.

It’s also why a puppy is not for everyone, and not for every period of your life. If you don’t have the time or the skills to take on a puppy, you might want to consider an older dog. Next week, I’ll tell you why.