A smiling young woman sits in long grass with her back against a tree trunk. A Beagle with a relaxed expression and tongue hanging out lays in her lap facing the camera.
If you've recently brought home a new puppy or dog, you may be wondering what the best ways are to bond with your new family member. Here are a few simple activities to try:
Teach them their name. Measure out your dog's meal, but instead of giving them the entire meal in a bowl, hand-feed your puppy one piece of kibble (or one spoonful of canned or other moist diet) at a time. Before feeding them each piece/spoonful, say their once in a happy tone of voice. Do this for the first half of each meal for the first 3-5 days. If you have another dog(s), be sure to practice this game with each dog separately. Once each dog understands the game separately, you can use gates or leashes to keep them physically separated as you practice saying each dog's name and feeding the named dog their food/treat until you are sure everyone can stay calm together in the presence of food. This is also a great warm up for training two dogs at once.
Puzzle toys, Kongs, and snuffle mats. I recommend skipping walks for the first three days, even if your dog is fully vaccinated. Your dog needs time to get to know and trust you, and changing homes is super stressful. Instead of walking them when stress levels are already high, try letting your pup decompress for a few days with puzzle toys, snuffle mats, Kongs, and other chews. Remember how I said to hand-feed the first half of your dog's meals? The second half can be fed out of any of these items, or you can even scatter their kibble in your backyard lawn (so long as you don't use fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides on your grass). Filling food toys and scattering kibble is also a great activity to have kids help with. IMPORTANT NOTE: Stressed dogs are more likely to resource guard food/toys. Now is NOT the time to work on DROP IT. Instead, give them a safe, quiet place (such as a crate or exercise pen) to enjoy their goodie and just set it down and walk away. This is not a photo op! Then practice tossing a high value treat (such as a dime size piece of steamed chicken breast or low-fat cheese) any and every time you walk past them. Give them a wide berth and be sure to walk past them and not toward. This is one of the easiest ways to prevent resource guarding in puppies, and a great way to build trust with an adult dog.
Turn yourself into an obstacle course. After a week in your home, your dog grows accustomed to you, you can switch to handing-feeding part of their meal for saying their name a couple of times a week instead of at every meal. Now you'll use part of your dog's meal to lure them under, over, and around your body. This could be done by standing with your feet a little wider than shoulder width apart and tossing a kibble through your legs so that your puppy runs under. You can also sit with your legs straight and flat on the floor in front of you and lure your dog to walk over them using the food. Some dogs may find it easier if your legs are spread apart so that they can get all four of their legs over your first leg before needing to step over your second leg. Next level: Sit on the floor with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent so that your pup can crawl under, following a treat or toy. (NOTE: Some dogs and puppies may find this one a little too close for comfort; just skip it for now if they are hesitant). Bonus round for super confident pups: Keep one leg flat on the floor and the other knee bent. Use food or a toy to lure your pup over the flat leg and under the bent one, treat or tug as a reward, then go back in the opposite direction.
Toy play. While not all dogs readily play with toys, many will revel in a game of tug or fetch, and those that don't can be taught to! It's important to limit fetch to just bonding play and as a reward for training, but not to use it as a form of exercise for your dog as the repetitive stopping and quick turning can wreak havoc on their joints and spine, especially in puppies. When first teaching fetch, it's important to practice on a longer leash and have two identical or very similar toys to play with. That way, your puppy can't just run off with the toy, and you can wiggle/squeak the second toy in front of your pup as they start to return with the first one. This causes the majority of dogs to drop the toy they have so that you can toss the second toy and pick up the first. For tug, be sure to pull very gently with puppies under 6 months old (you don’t want to rip out their teeth!), and keep the tug toy level with your dog's head/mouth, pulling it parallel to the floor and keeping any pulling in line with your dog's spine (not side to side). This helps prevent neck injuries and also keeps your dog from as easily over-excited (and extra chompy - ouch!). Until your pup learns a more formal DROP IT, you can simply stop pulling, hold the toy still, and offer a treat or second tug toy as a trade item to get your dog to let go. You don't need to "win" the game, but you do need to manage your dog's excitement/arousal levels throughout the game, and always end before your dog gets too worked up. NOTE: DO NOT attempt tug with any dogs who have shown signs of resource guarding (lowering their head over possessions if approached, putting their paw over the item and staring, showing the whites of their eyes when in possession of something/when approached, growling, snarling, etc). Please work directly with a trainer to learn more appropriate ways to play and to remedy the resource guarding if you have any concerns.
Sniffy walks. When allowed a full range of motion (i.e. when off leash), dogs rarely take a straight path. Instead, they wander around, following whatever scents and/or movements that catch their attention. Studies have proven that exploring and sniffing lowers a dog's heart rate and reduces cortisol levels (the main stress hormone). Reducing stress together is fantastic for bonding, HOWEVER, there aren't a lot of places you can safely take dogs off-leash, and you should never allow a dog that is new to your household off-leash in any situation other than an enclosed yard. You don't want to risk the dog getting spooked and running off, or just having too much fun to hear you, especially without training under their belt. The solution is to walk your dog on a 15ft leash (I love the EZYdog Track n Train Leash, although you do need to tie a handle). You'll first need to learn some long leash gathering and handling skills (Grisha Stewart's BAT leash skills are perfect to practice), but when done right, you'll have little-to-no pulling so long as your dog is not stressed or over-stimulated by the environment, and your dog will learn to stay near you. It's truly a great foundation for teaching Loose Leash Walking. The best part? Your dog will associate you with feeling relaxed and calm, and walking on leash will be associated with a feeling of connectedness instead of frustration. For more information, you can also search “decompression walks.” NOTE: If your puppy isn't fully vaccinated, your "walk" may be in your backyard or a friend or neighbor's yard.