From time to time I get the question of what new owners should be working on with their puppy in the first couple of weeks home. There’s an abundance of great training books and online material that if you put it altogether would probably result in an overwhelming list of behaviors your puppy should learn and experiences they should have. However, like us, dogs can be life long learners and we don’t really need to cram everything possible into the first couple of weeks. I like to simplify what we should be working on in the first couple of weeks into what I’m calling the 3 R’s for puppies – relationship, routine, and real world experiences.
I think this is by far the most important thing to work on with your puppy once you bring them home. Obviously you’ve gotten the puppy in the first place with the hopes of having a great relationship. This puppy will be a companion for many years, a team member in whatever activities you plan to do together, and maybe even a dog that helps you with your work or as a service animal. So of course you’ll want to start off right by cultivating a positive relationship.
Every puppy will be different and will adapt emotionally at a different rate to moving away from their first home. Some puppies will want to interact right away and perhaps cuddle with you. Some might really want to run around and play with toys. Others might need some alone time to process what’s going on with periodic check-ins to see if they are ready to interact. Most of all I think you should give puppies abundant opportunity to interact with you in the way that they are most comfortable, and where appropriate reward them for the interaction. Use the early days at home with you puppy to find out whether they really love to curl up close to you on the couch, whether they really come alive once you go outside to play with a toy, whether they really prefer soft toys or tennis balls, and whether they really prefer cheese sticks or crunchy treats. Most of all try to find out the things they feel most positive about and incorporate those into your interactions with them.
The initial adjustment period for some puppies can be a while – maybe a couple of weeks or more – and you will be able to observe the situations that they are ill at ease with. Hopefully you’ve observed your puppy early on either in person or video and have feedback on their typical behavior, so you’ll have some idea of what to expect once they are comfortable. Don’t expect your puppy to be firing on all cylinders in situations where they are ill-at-ease. Also don’t assume that because your puppy doesn’t do something in the first couple of weeks home with you that she will never want to do. For example if your puppy doesn’t feel comfortable getting onto a flat plank right away, don’t assume she’s going to have difficulty with an agility dog walk later on. In fact most initial skill building activities whether it’s for agility or obedience or other activities will not go as well as they should until the puppy is at ease with their environment. And you can’t make a pup love a wobble board through sheer repetition. Really the best thing you can do is just interact and play with your puppy to help them feel more comfortable. Trick training and skill building can always come later on. If feel you and your puppy are ready to move forward with some skills and tricks, see my blog post on Early Puppy Skill Building
Another thing that can crop up around the time you bring your puppy home is an initial fear period. Suddenly puppies seem skittish about noises and things in the environment they were previously comfortable with. Other people and dogs may now be scary and they may back off or run away. Also they start noticing all sorts of things in the environment that they took for granted before – for example, a car going down the street. Fear periods need to be handled with compassion and lots of rewards for ignoring the scary “things” but also being mindful not to help the puppy avoid everything they react to. Through careful observation you’ll be able to find the cross-over point between something that’s a bit challenging but can be worked through and situations that the pup finds too hard to cope with yet. Working through a fear period together will also strengthen that all important relationship and put you on that path to success together.
This is all about introducing your pup to the everyday routine of when she’ll be fed, when she goes out to potty, when she goes to sleep, and so on. It might also include regular times when you go out to play or spend time in a kennel when Mom is busy and so on.
First let’s deal with eating. Many pups may not be as hearty eaters for the first day or two at home. Some deal with it just fine and others take some extra time to adjust. At this stage puppy should be on 3 meals a day, if they are between 8 and 16 weeks, and you should be feeding the same kibble or other food that they had eaten since weaning. If possible food should be offered at roughly the same times each day. The first week at home is not the best time to start transitioning to a new food unless the puppy quickly devouring their food for several days in a row. If your puppy is fussy or not eating their full meal try to help them by making sure they are in an restricted area where they cannot wander off or find toys to play with.
Sometimes it helps the puppy to have you there in the area, but do not hand feed your puppy. Put the food out for 10 minutes and remove any food that is left after that. Present the same amount of food at the next mealtime. Healthy puppies will shortly regain their appetite and be eating a similar amount of food as they were in their first home. If pups are taking 5 days or more to return to normal eating habits you could try mixing in a high quality canned food. It’s also fine to introduce some high quality (protein and or high fat) foods for training treats.
For first time puppy owners potty training can cause the most anxiety. Really the key is giving your puppy ample opportunity to go to her designated spot and to make sure it’s a routine that happens first thing after specific activities – coming out of a crate, waking up from a sleep, after a meal, and after a play session. Accidents will happen but making a big deal about it will not help your puppy learn what they should do. Only consistent routines and consistent praise when they do the right thing will work.
Crate training in my opinion is one of those necessities that helps you deal with other things, such as potty training or keeping your dog safe in a vehicle. Sometimes your breeder may have started crate training where the puppy is used to sleeping in a kennel at night perhaps with a litter mate or two, or even on their own. Or maybe you’re starting from square one. In either case a new crate and a new environment will likely be strange and unsettling for your puppy. Do start getting them used to their new crate from day one. Feeding your puppy in their crate or giving them something safe to chew in the crate can be one way to help. Another way to help can be crating them in the same room as your other dogs if they are also crated.
I don’t recommend being too terribly hard core about making your puppy stay in the crate alone for extended periods for the first few nights if they are obviously distressed. Having the crate in your bedroom or sleeping on a couch and letting them know you are nearby can help. However, once puppy is feeling more at ease with her new home you can expect them to be in their crate and should probably anticipate a few nights of interrupted sleep aka break out the earplugs. Do expect things to be more difficult if your pup is the only dog in the house and she is crated away from everyone else. The same goes for keeping your puppy alone in an x-pen in a separate area during the day. As social animals pups will want to be part of a doggy or human pack and you may need to find extra incentives, like something safe and tasty to chew, for them to be happy in an isolated environment. I would also start with a short duration and work up to longer periods over time.
Real World Experiences
Our day to day lives involve a lot of things that pups can start getting used to right away, such as traveling in a car, going out to stores or coffee shops, or even being at a dog show. Often times your breeder will have transported your pup by car to vet appointment or social outings so they may be familiar with the sensation of traveling by road. You should have a secure and appropriate sized kennel for your puppy to travel in the car. Even if they have traveled in a car previously expect that they may be unsettled in a different car and crate. With patience your pup will get used to car travel over time. Note, it is particularly important not to leave small puppies unattended in cars in situations where the temperature can rapidly rise and they can get easily overheated.
One of the dilemmas of getting socialization before the pup’s full vaccination series is complete is finding appropriate places where pups are welcome but they are not necessarily in close contact with other dogs. Busy parks or dog parks should be avoided during this period not just because of the risk of encountering unvaccinated dogs, but also because of the potential social issues where large numbers of dogs may come together without a lot of supervision. Instead fairly controlled environments, such as pet stores, can be ideal. Your pup is likely to encounter store clerks who are absolutely infatuated with puppy cuteness and may offer treats as an enticement to interact. Hardware stores, depending on their dog policy, can also be a great place to visit with the wide aisles and lots of interesting noises. Coffee shops or other cafes with outdoor seating can also be appropriate place where you puppy can meet and greet friendly strangers and gets to observe traffic, people arriving and leaving, potentially strange sounds as the doors open and close etc.
The ideal scenario for experience outside your home is where there is a variety of stimuli but it is not too crowded. Puppy can remain on the fringes and in their comfort zone, interacting as they desire. I like to save other favorite but more crowded venues like public markets (in areas where pets are permitted) until after pups are fully vaccinated and have had a few weeks at home (somewhere around 14 weeks old). If you decided to bring your puppy to a dog show I suggest finding a neutral place for her to hang out with the rest of your pack that is a distance away from other dogs and the main action of the show. At this early stage encourage human interactions but remain quite selective about interactions with other dogs and pups. The last thing you want at this stage is a frightening encounter with a dog that isn’t puppy friendly.
You’ll notice that I haven’t included puppy classes on my list for the first couple of weeks home. Certainly there can be risks bringing pups together that are not fully immunized, but I think the biggest risk is in having unpleasant or frightening experiences with bigger, more dominant puppies. The “puppy” classes nearly always have a component of free play time, which I liken to giving a preschool class a box of legos and asking them play nicely while the teacher leaves the room. That’s not to say you should avoid all puppy interactions as your puppy gets older, but be selective making sure puppy playmates have appropriate manners and are of a similar size, where possible. (See my blog post on Young Dog Exercise Guidelines for more information on appropriate playing.)
If you do want to try and find puppy socialization opportunities after the first couple of weeks I recommend researching classes suitable for puppies in your area to find out if they separate younger and older or bigger and smaller pups and how they supervise activities. The other option is waiting to start classes until your puppy is a bit older – maybe 16 – 20 weeks – where they have learned some simple skills at home and are ready to tackle a beginners obedience and rally class. By then the focus should be working with you and not being distracted by the environment and other dogs. This option may be suitable if there are other dogs at home or other puppy play dates available to you.