Every year, thousands of people decide to bring home a puppy or newly adopted dog, but very few of them take any time to set their puppy up for success.
In my over 7 years working in a pet supply retail store, rarely did a day go by without someone coming in with a newly acquired puppy or dog (who, sadly, usually looked terribly overwhelmed by all the sudden environmental changes) that had either been purchased completely on impulse (always a terrible idea), or they had planned to get the dog, but hadn’t gotten any of the supplies they would need to care for the dog ahead of time (not the best idea, either).
Do yourself and your puppy/dog a HUGE favor and have everything ready before you take him home! I have been preparing for my puppy since before his mother was even pregnant, and with just one week until he finally comes home, I am dotting all my i’s and crossing all my t’s, making sure everything is ready. Here is my puppy preparation checklist:
Adjusted sleep schedule – You should start going to bed/waking up earlier at least 1 week ahead of time and be prepared to wake up at least once in the middle of the night for the first few weeks. Most 8 week old puppies wake up around 5:00am. He will also have 1-2 daily “puppy crazies” (aka a “witching hour”) where he goes nuts and then passes out. Figure out what times of day that happens and then plan to play fetch, gentle tug, etc., at those times instead of insisting he remains calm during your dinner – it’s just not going to happen. Fighting it usually makes it much worse so don’t wait for him to nip your toosh to start playing; initiate the play yourself.
Socialization – Hopefully your breeder (or rescue) has done a great job of pleasantly introducing your puppy to novel objects, children, adult strangers, dogs, household noises, and car rides (I can guarantee you that pet store puppies have not received any of this critical early socialization). Go on daily car rides (even if they are sometimes just around the block) to go to fun, new (safe!) places – not just the vet! Carefully introduce him to other healthy, friendly, gentle, vaccinated adult dogs and puppies (find an early puppy socialization class, not an obedience class that allows young puppies), cats and other animals, lots of kids and men and women (just 1 or 2 at a time, several each day), also exposing him to lots of new noises. Most importantly, ensure that each experience is fun and pleasant (including early vet/groomer visits without any services being performed). This is NOT the time to take your dog to Great Aunt Sally’s to meet all of your first, second, and third cousins and their 5 dogs. Overstimulation can be just as damaging as understimulation. Introduce your pup to the calming music of “Through a Dog’s Ear” (during cuddle time or while he is relaxing chewing on a Kong or Nylabone) so that you can later play it during potentially scary situations (like fireworks) to help him relax. Victoria Stilwell also made some great CDs of calming music + scary noises to help set puppies up for success (or to help adults overcome their existing fears).
Crate – Have a crate with a divider panel (either a 2- or 3- doored wire crate, or a Navigator plastic crate) set up next to your bed so that he won’t feel lonely without his littermates. You can gradually move it to another location over the course of a couple weeks if you wish. I put the crate at my bed level for the first couple of nights so that I can stick my fingers through the bars to help soothe the puppy (he may cry off and on for the first few minutes). I do not recommend putting any bedding/fabric inside because not only is it a choking hazard, but he may also eliminate on the bedding because it will absorb the moisture. As he gets older and can hold his bladder overnight, you can introduce a (relatively) chew-proof bed (I suggest the Kong crate pad with bumpers from PetSmart). Set the divider panel just big enough for him to turn around, lie down and stretch out a little, but too small for him to pee in one area of the crate and sleep in the other. If you use a standard plastic crate, you will need to continually buy/borrow new crates as he grows. Be ready to wake up after 3-4 hours (he will most likely cry to get out) and carry him straight to his potty. Calmly praise/treat and then return him to his crate for the rest of the night. You may also give him appropriate chew toys in his crate (see #6) and play calming music (see #2).
Exercise pen – For times when you must leave him home alone for more than an hour at a time, or for when he needs time to run around, but you can’t watch him closely to keep him out of trouble, have a 36in high wire (or plastic) exercise pen set up as his “puppy hotel” (24” pens are too easy to climb/jump). The floor should lined with a waterproof barrier such as a heavy-duty tarp, a super heavy duty shower curtain liner, or a scrap sheet of vinyl flooring. For times when you can’t take him out every 1-2 hours, create a “puppy Port-a-Potty” using whatever substrate he will eventually be eliminating on. Some options would be an oil pan with sod, a fake grass set-up (Spotty Potty is my favorite, but Pet Loo may be another good option), or a even a plastic frame with disposable potty pads, but beware! Potty pads and area rugs are easily confused, and they are also fun to shred and swallow. Also, leave some fresh water in a spill-proof bowl or a hamster-style Lixit bottle. If you will be gone all day, you will need to leave food, too, so that your puppy doesn’t become hypoglycemic (especially for toy breeds).
Potty Schedule – Be prepared to take your puppy to his potty place every 30-60 minutes during waking hours, and every 3-4 hours during sleeping hours. Toy breeds may need to go as frequently as every 10-20 minutes during active hours, and giant breeds may be able to hold it longer. Praise and treat/play immediately for getting it right; gently interrupt and redirect to the right spot when he gets it wrong (and then use an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle, Simple Solution, or Woolite’s Sanitizing Pet Stain & Odor to prevent him from resoiling). The plan is always to prevent him from ever getting it wrong, never to scold or scare him (which will likely cause him to hide his potty). If you can’t come home on your lunch to take him to potty and give him time to walk and play, have a friend, neighbor, relative, or dog walker stop by. Be aware that if he is alone for 8-10 hours by himself (even with a “port-a-potty” in his “puppy hotel”), it will take longer to potty train him, and he will likely be hyperactive and extra nippy when you finally come home, so be prepared to exercise your puppy sufficiently before and after work. Extended alone hours will also negatively affect your puppy’s brain and social development, so try your best to get some midday help. To help with predicting potty times (most pups go within 10 minutes of eating), feed 4 meals per day until he is 12 weeks old, then 3 meals until 6 months, and then 2 meals per day if your puppy is weighs at least 5lbs by that time. Life will center around your puppy’s bladder for the next few weeks….. He will either be in his crate, in his exercise pen, leashed to you, in your arms, or within arm’s reach at at times so that he can be brought to his potty area be that a “port-a-potty” or outdoors and he (theoretically) won’t have any chances for accidents.
Chew toys – Have a variety of textures offered to suit his moods. My favorites based on durability, safety, and dog enjoyment are Kong Dental Sticks (the red rubber kind with ridges), Classic Kongs (the beehive shaped kind), Nylabone Flexible Dental Bones (the dark blue nubby kind), and Nylabone Flexi Chew Bones (the clear blue kind). As for Kongs, unless you have an incredibly delicate puppy, skip the puppy rubber and go straight to red. For both brands, go for one size larger than the package recommends. Supervised chews may include raw cattle hooves (available at www.greentripe.com), occasional dried cow/lamb ears, and (more rarely) grass-fed, free-range bully sticks. Don’t give him any chances to learn to chew on shoes, wires, trash, furniture, etc. Pick your stuff up and give him plenty of correct choices. You can also use bad-tasting sprays such as Bitter Apple as a deterrent for enticing items that you can’t remove from the environment.
Food – Start with whatever your breeder, shelter, or rescue group was feeding your puppy, and after two weeks, start a gradual transition (about 10% increase in new food each day) to the best food you can afford. Nutrition (especially) during the first year of your dog’s life is arguably one of the most important factors affecting his overall health, so don’t think you’ll be saving money by buying food a 40lb bag at the grocery store. Look for a food that is made and sourced in the USA (including their vitamin & mineral supplements), and one that is made at a low temperature (ideally one that is baked or dehydrated), and only buy what you will use within 1-3 months (keep it tightly sealed and away from heat, light, and moisture during that time). I highly recommend that you look into a “fresh food diet” (cooked or raw, but not canned or kibble) for the very best nutrition – just make sure that it is “complete & balanced” for puppies or for “All Life Stages.” I use dehydrated foods (Ziwi Peak and Real Meat) as “complete & balanced” treats so that my puppy can be rewarded without missing out on the best nutrition. Check out www.dogfoodadvisor.com for unbiased reviews of dog foods available across the country.
Pet Insurance – Even with the best possible supervision, puppies do stupid things, eat inedible substances, and sometimes they just get sick. Having pet insurance really comes in handy when your puppy tears the cartilage out of his knee jumping off the couch, or gets his eye scratched open by the neighbor’s cat, or nearly dies from eating sugar-free gum off the ground (all things that have happened to my clients’ dogs). Check out www.petinsurancereview.com to get rate quotes or look into www.unitedpetcare.com or www.petassure.com for disocunt programs with contracted veterinarians. Don’t wait until you have a $3,000.00 vet bill for your 3 month old puppy to decide to get insurance – they do not cover pre-existing conditions!
Time for training – Practice daily handling (pretend) nail trims to get him used to it, as well as playing with water, and some some basic brushing and gentle handling/restraint techniques. It’s critical to prepare your dog for every way they may need to be handled at the groomer, vet, or in an emergency. Introduce the “cone of shame”, muzzles, bandaging, ear & eye wash as a game before he ever needs them. Also, use meal times to work on basic obedience such as leash skills, Sit, Down, Stay, Come, and Leave It for about 5 minutes at a time, a few times per day. Enrolling in a puppy class or taking private lessons with a local positive reinforcement trainer can make a HUGE difference in your success as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to training. What worked for your last dog (or your friend’s dog) may not work for your current one, and an experienced trainer will have many techniques to teach each behavior.
Walks – Be sure to introduce your puppy to his leash and collar within the first couple of days of bringing him home. Give him treats for putting on the collar/taking it off, and and for clipping the leash on and off. Introduce a harness with treats as well. Once he’s comfortable wearing his collar and/or harness, practice having your puppy follow you around on his leash throughout the entire house to get used to the concept long before he’s had enough vaccinations to walk at the park. 7-10 days after his first Distemper/Parvo vaccination, you can begin attending an early socialization class (see #2, usually offered through a vet or a designated training center) to start the training process. Don’t wait until he has learned bad habits to start training – prevent them instead! You can also carry him around your neighborhood to get him used to the sights/sounds he will be seeing until he has had at least his second vaccination. Most neighborhoods are safe to walk your puppy in after his second vaccination, but avoid parks and green belts where lots of dogs roam until at least 2 weeks after his last vaccination. Be sure to rinse his feet after walks with lukewarm water (gentle soap/povidine iodine is optional) to remove germs, chemicals, and oils. I also highly recommend titer testing at 6 months of age to make sure the vaccines actually worked!