SO WE GOT A NEW PUPPY...HELP!
So, you went ahead and got that Christmas puppy. Congratulations! Time is critical in developing a solid relationship with your new companion, and ensuring that s/he does not develop any unnecessary bad habits or irrational fears. I cannot stress this enough: IT IS ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL THAT YOU SOCIALIZE YOUR PUPPY WITH AS MANY PEOPLE, DOGS, PLACES, AND THINGS AS POSSIBLE, AS QUICKLY AS YOU CAN! The socialization window for puppies closes rapidly after the age of just 12 weeks old. Ideally, a puppy should have already been handled by 200 different people by that time, although most have met less than 20, and been physically handled by even less!
The single most important life skill that all puppies need to learn BEFORE they reach 6 months old is bite inhibition. The amount of pressure a dog uses when he grabs something with his mouth becomes a pathway in the brain between 2 and 6 months old. This becomes part of his nature during that time. It is critical that puppies learn to not bite down hard! This can be the difference between life and death for many dogs, and the time that they learn this is NOW! The very best way to help your puppy learn bite inhibition is in an off-leash puppy class or play group. All puppies in class must be under 5 months old and they must be permitted to play and react to each other off-leash. Puppies are remarkably efficient at teaching each other “HEY, THAT HURT! I’m not playing with you if you bite me that hard!” You can help with this lesson as well, by practicing gentle mouthing and letting go. Remember that puppies do not have hands, they WILL put their mouths on everything as they explore the world. Use this critical time to help them be conscious about being gentle. The lessons of not to grab or bite come later, but he needs to learn to be gentle first.
The next most-important lesson, which puppies learn best before they hit adolescence (at 5-13 months old) is impulse control. Off-leash puppy classes are again, the very best way to fast-track this important skill. As the puppies in my classes play (for 50 minutes of the hour-long class), we are constantly interrupting them and teaching them to turn away, come, sit, lie down, and wait. We use treats to build duration, but being released to play again is the ultimate reward for compliance. By the third week of class, the puppies are spending more time visiting the people and showing off their calm skills than they do running around wrestling!
The very best puppy classes incorporate the maximum amount of off-leash time. After all, you want your puppies to listen to you when they are not on a leash in real life, right? My Puppy Social Skills classes, held through the Stratford Recreation Department, are based on Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Sirius Puppy Training curriculum, and follow this model of 45-55 minutes out of each hour being off-leash with fully interactive participation with all the puppies and people in the room. Our focus is intensive socialization, bite inhibition, handling, and impulse control. Puppies who complete these classes are often MUCH better behaved than many of the dogs who go through the Basic Canine Life Skills class, which is a higher level offering more instruction, but puppies who begin class as adolescents are more easily distracted and need to be on-leash.
Also covered in the Puppy Social Skills class are common behavior challenges, such as house training, chew-toy training, attention-seeking behaviors, polite greetings, household manners, and general husbandry (health, nutrition, grooming, etc). When seeking a class, you want to try to find a good balance between addressing your behavioral concerns and covering the critical life lessons that NEED to be learned NOW (socialization, bite inhibition, impulse control). Once your socialization window closes, it is exponentially more difficult to socialize your puppy with each passing week. Once your bite inhibition window closes, it is closed forever. Do not waste puppyhood!
In addition to puppy class, your puppy should be meeting new people EVERY DAY, not every week, every single day. You should take care to ensure that each new meet and greet is a positive experience for your puppy. At home, set your house rules and stick to them. The more structure you provide, and the more consistent you are, the faster your puppy will settle in to good habits. Use treats, toys, play, and real-life rewards to encourage your puppy and have fun! It is a lot of work in the beginning, but it will all be worth it.
Michelle Douglas, CPDT-KA, CDBC teaches Puppy Social Skills, Basic Canine Life Skills and Intermediate Refined Canine classes through the Stratford Recreation Department, as well as REAL WORLD classes, private in-home training, and behavior counseling through her business The Refined Canine, LLC. E-mail her at TopDog@refinedcanine.com for more information. Stratford Puppy Social Skills classes are held on Tuesday evenings at 6:30, and 2013 start dates are 1/8, 3/12, 5/14, 9/10, & 11/5.