With my kids back in school, the relatives flown back to their assorted states and my bags finally unpacked from our summer excursions, my mind drifts back to the series I began in August on choosing a dog or puppy to suit your lifestyle. The decision of what breed or breed mix would be best for you and where to go to find your dog can be overwhelming. Was it always this complicated?
In 1978, when I started teaching dogs for hire, at the ripe old age of twelve, dogs enjoyed more freedom. At night they'd be let out to cavort, alone or in packs, gleefully tipping over garbage cans, treeing cats, and cornering skunks. During the day they'd chase the mailman, trail a rabbit or female dog in heat, and meet the kids at the bus. It was good fun, canine style. There were many more love-puppies back then, mixed-breed combinations that few could identify. There were also fewer behavior problems, as dogs were kept outside for the most part. When they did come in, most were too tired to misbehave.
Fast-forward 30 years. In the course of my lifetime, communities now enforce leash laws and dog wardens collect strays. Fenced yards have become a commonplace solution to contain dogs while still offering them some freedom, but certain dogs still feel imprisoned and lash out, often barking incessantly, digging or dodging their humans' control.
And what became of the rampant love puppies that used to line the want ads? Spay and neuter campaigns have reduced unexpected litters, though the impulsive desire for puppies hasn't waned much, fueling petstore and internet sales, and the rise of puppy mills.
I don't mean to be cynical. There is a bright side to 30 years of progress, namely knowledge and understanding. I've always preached that dogs were emotionally similar to little kids, and science finally agrees! It's now accepted fact that a toddler's brain development shares more similarities with a dog's than with an adult's. When training a dog, imagine you are engaging a toddler who doesn't understand your language.
The old adage "Be dominant! Be your dog's leader," is as old school with dogs as it is with children. The new zinger, and my catch phrase? "Don't Dominate -- Communicate!" Rather than a leader, think of yourself as your dog's parent, knowing you can be both firm and kind.
If this article finds you still considering a dog or anxious about how to choose only one, read the first two installments of this series. In the first you'll be led through the decision of breed versus rescue. The second offers a quick temperament test that I call the "Fast Five" to help you select a dog or puppy whose personality will suit your lifestyle.
(Geoffrey Tishman Photography)
Today I'll get you prepared for the first few days with your new dog or puppy -- a day that you've likely long awaited, but that can be a little overwhelming too.
Go shopping a few days ahead of the homecoming. Purchase dog bowls, toys, crates and/or gates and bedding. While few 8-weeks-old pups stray, older dogs will need a leash and collar unless you have an enclosed yard. If possible purchase an ID tag ahead of time that says "Need Meds," on one side and has your phone number on the other. Strangers do not need to know your dog's name but they will quickly help him home if they think he's ill. And while it's unlikely your dog will need medicine, this statement reduces the likelihood that he'll ever be stolen. Finally, enclose an area that will be safe for your puppy or dog to explore. I've always used gates to contain our kitchen. Also designate an area for sleeping, such as a crate or quiet room. My book Puppies for Dummies has a more lengthy description of preparing your home and can serve as a calming guide.
The big day will finally arrive, but stop! Change is stressful no matter your species. Your dog may be too disoriented to reflect enthusiasm. Even shelter dogs, who you'd think would be overjoyed, can feel displaced, having grown accustom to their schedule and the people who've cared for them.
Consider all the nuances your dog or puppy might experience coming into your new home. Did he come from a safe environment surrounded by other dogs and littermates? Was he in a shelter situation or pet store where the routines were familiar, but the stress was high? Did their previous keeper give you a leg up in the housetraining, or was your dog unable to remove himself from his living area when it was time to potty?
Whatever the situation was, be mindful of it. Often dogs sleep in their new home for the first few days--think of it as a coping mechanism--while others piddle or chew. Encourage your household to stay calm, simply observing how your new dog or puppy is relating to your world. Stuff pockets with treats and have everyone reward your dog's interactions.
No one, I repeat no one, should correct your dog or puppy even if he has an accident. Housebreaking mistakes are common as dogs often use this scent to mark new surroundings. A threatening NO startles a dog before they've been give time to bond to you, creating fear and caution, not understanding.
Think of the first few days like acclimating a new guest to your home. Schedule feedings, identify each meal with a catch phrase like "Are you Hungry?" Define a route to the potty area and use words like Outside, Papers and Get busy to organize the ritual. Develop a routine for each of your dog's five basic needs: eating, drinking, playing, sleeping and pottying, pairing words with actions so your dog can both identify and rely on the structure.
The first few nights in your home will be an adjustment too. If your dog or puppy is used to communal living, a Snuggle Puppy (think a warm stuffed toy with a heartbeat) or something similar can be a sleep-saver, giving him a sensation of others as he adjusts to being alone. If he cries out you may choose to relocate to a nearby couch or better yet, position your dog's bedding or crate in your room.
Once he's settled into your home the real fun begins! You'll see new patterns emerge in the first few weeks, as he feels less inhibited and more curious.
I'll follow up with one more blog in this series on the top five complaints I hear from new dog and puppy owners from housetraining woes to jumping frustrations and separation anxiety. Please weigh in with your comments, stories, and questions- I look forward to reading them!