In 2006 I drove from East Haven, CT to Orange, MA (several hours of roadtime) to see a litter of puppies. I’d heard from a friend at work that her father, who lived in MA was getting a puppy from some friends who’d just had a litter. The father was an English Lab (they are known for a broader chest, a boxier head, etc) and the mother was an American Lab (they have a pointier face and are a little smaller in general). I saw a picture of the large litter, fell in love and decided that since my two Shelties were getting on in their years, I was going to need a puppy.
People get puppies all the time – on a whim, at the drop of a hat, without truly thinking things all the way through. I see this more and more as I settle into my new life down here in the South. We live in a mobile home community (a trailer park, but no one’s name is Earl here) and it seems like everywhere I look there’s a dog that someone is having a problem with. Bad choices ruin good dogs. So I thought I might offer some helpful advice here.
When you get the urge to get a puppy – – – – STOP. Give it some honest consideration before bringing home that bundle of fluff.
Please don’t buy a dog from a pet store. Most of them come from puppy mills and are the product of gross negligence and animal cruelty. Please don’t give those people any more money and encourage them to keep breeding. If no one is buying, no one will be breeding in cages. Shelters are packed full of dogs of all sizes, breeds and ages. If you can adopt a senior dog that’s awesome. Most of them have some kind of training already, or are at least housebroken.
Puppies are a LOT OF WORK. No matter how well you prepare for the bundle of joy, you’re still going to want to make puppy stew out of them in the first couple of days.
BEFORE you GET the dog, stop and think about a few things. Puppy-proof the house. Get a crate. Get the collar and the leash. Get the food and water bowls and decide where those bowls are going to stay for the long-run. Get toys, especially chew toys. Do a little research and take a hard, honest look at your lifestyle before deciding what breed to get. Don’t assume that because you have a small house or an apartment that you need a small dog. Big dogs actually do very well in small places and are less spastic than little dogs. Do you have an active life, take lots of walks or go jogging or hiking? Do you travel a lot? Do you work long hours? If you’re going to be working all day and have no one to spend time with the dog, you might want to reconsider the decision to get a dog. May a cat is a better choice. Or a fish. Dogs are tremendously social creatures. The minute you leave the house is the same minute that they start anticipating your return. Do you have the time necessary for a dog? To enjoy the dog? The dog you’re thinking of getting might live for fifteen years or more, depending on the breed you get. If the thought of ever giving the dog up even crosses your mind – please do not proceed to the next step. Get a stuffed animal. Or a cat. Cats don’t care if you’re home or not.
Take the time to figure out what breed is best for you and your lifestyle. The Lab I got in 2006 was the perfect breed for me. I was looking for a big, calm, social dog with an easy disposition who could go for walk in the woods with me and would like the water – at the time I lived just 1500 feet from Long Island Sound. So, I got a crate, got toys and bowls and cleared down the decks for a puppy. I had money set aside for all the puppy shots he would need over the first year and cleared it with my boss that it was okay for me to bring the dog to work.
I picked the smallest pup in the litter. I picked a MALE because males are just plain easier than females. They have fewer medical issues when they get older, they’re less territorial and they’re easier in general to train. I brought him home and his training began immediately. I had a fenced in yard but I put a collar and leash on him right away, and I left it on him. When we got out of the car I put him down in the yard, let him sniff around and once he’d emptied himself out I brought him into the house to get familiar with his new home. Every two hours I’d pick him up, carry him out to the yard and wait until he’d done his business before bringing him back in.
Routine. Routine. Routine. If a dog knows what to expect from you, then you can know what to expect from the dog. Get him on a routine and keep that routine going. At exactly 5:00 that first night and every night after that for the last eleven years (with a few emergency exceptions) he got his dinner. I sat down on the kitchen floor in front of his bowl with him and I fed him puppy kibble out of my hand, one kibble at a time for a few minutes. Then I put some in his bowl. And while he ate, I put my hand in the bowl and moved the kibble around. I took some out, I put some back in but he had to eat around my fingers without nipping. I did that every night for the first month. Then just several times a week for the first year. I made it clear to him that I controlled the food, I OWNED the food, he did not. A dog who is food aggressive and guards food is a dangerous thing. I wasn’t taking any chances. I saw how big his parents were.
I chose a name for him in the first few days with a little help from a pet store clerk. I wanted a name with a hard consonant sound at the start of it. Coda. The hard consonant gets the dog’s attention quickly, and that’s important.
Why leave the leash on? It’s a psychological thing. I left the leash on the puppy for a couple of weeks. To the end of his days I could go out with Coda and have him off-leash without him straying more than ten feet away from me, because he was still wearing the leash psychologically.
Housebreaking happened quickly. Every two hours, even in the middle of the night for the first two weeks, he went out and I didn’t bring him back in until he’d at least peed. I’m a big fan of crate training. I made the little crate as cozy as possible with a blanket and toys for him, and put it up on a chair beside my bed so he could see me at any time. He came from a litter of eleven pups and he missed his brothers and sisters during those first few nights. He cried less when he could see me. Unless you’re prepared to sleep with a hundred pound dog for fifteen years, you just don’t let a puppy into bed with you even if he’s crying. He’ll adjust. I set my alarm clock, two hours at a time. I’d open the crate, scoop him up and carry him out to the yard. This eliminated the chance of him coming out of the crate and peeing in the house on our way to the door. After a couple of weeks he would completely housebroken.
Coda loved people right from the start. I took him on daily walks around the neighborhood and to the dog park several times a week after work. A well socialized dog is safe and predictable. He got to meet new people and new dogs every single day. I took him in the car with me everywhere, in his travel crate in the back seat. He learned to just chill out in the car, and nap. He got used to being in traffic, going through car washes, going into stores with me… I tried hard to expose him to every kind of situation possible so he’d never be spooked. I took him on charity event walks with large crowds of people. I took him out to the woods for walks and to the beach for swims. He had a third crate in my office and he often spent the day napping in his crate with the door open, being very patient because he knew he’d get to run at the dog park after work. Routine.
Who wants chewed up shoes? Nobody. Make chew toys available to the puppy at all times. Make a big deal about giving them a new toys, make it clear that the toy is for THEM. If you make a big deal over the thing, so will the dog. You’ll be far less likely to find your slippers chewed up if the dog has something to chew on, and they know that it’s theirs.
Get the dog fixed. Spay or neuter the dog as soon as medically possible. Not only is it a great idea for correcting or heading off many behavioral issues, but it’s a great idea for heading off a lot of potential medical issues as well. And the world doesn’t need any more back yard breeders or unexpected litters in shelters.
He did like to jump on people when he first greeted them. We put a quick end to that. I put the leash back on him for the day and when he’d go to greet someone I’d stand on his leash, restricting his movements from a jump to a low bounce instead. Even years later he did not believe he COULD jump. He’d just bounces a little when he greeted someone. I didn’t need anyone getting knocked over by a big dog jumping on them.
Did you know that when a dog’s needs are met right away they won’t be so likely to bark? I can count on my fingers the number of times Coda has barked in his adult life. He barked once at a UPS guy who also gave me an uneasy feeling. He barked the other day when he saw our friend, Nikki walking across the lawn towards the house. And I mean he let out one bark, one single WOOF, and that was it.
Talk to your dog. You’ll be surprised at how intuitive they are. Teach them to associate some of the words to objects or actions – it’s amazing how much they pick up! They also just like to hear your voice and feel the attention that you focus on them when you’re talking to them. Dogs need to be engaged physically, emotionally, mentally, just like people do.
A tired dog is a GOOD dog. Lots of exercise is key for the early years when you’re training. A dog with too much pent up energy can’t listen to a command or obey properly. Take the dog for a long walk or a run or play fetch before trying to teach them to SIT or STAY or shake hands or anything else.
Treats for training? Absolutely. At least to start. Even single pieces of kibble can be used as a treat for training. It’s not really even the taste of the treat they’re looking for, it’s the overall FEEL of the reward experience. If you make a fuss over that chunk of kibble, it’s going to be the tastiest thing that dog ever ate! Use food treats to begin training, but gradually replace that food with the reward of praise. Come, sit and stay are the three most basic and most important commands. They could actually save your dog’s life someday.
If you don’t want your canine companion on the couch or on the bed, then don’t invite them up there one day and scold them the next day for getting up there themselves. The furniture is either off-limits or it’s not. Be consistent.
Puppies are cute. Every stinking one of them. But they aren’t going to be puppies forever. If you’re only looking for a puppy, then don’t bother. They grow up into dogs. And dogs get old. An old dog is going to cost more money in vet bills and their needs are going to change. They’re going to need to go out more often, they might even have an accident in the house occasionally. They walk slower. They aren’t as much “fun” as a younger dog. Again, if that’s not something you can cope with, then don’t get the dog at all. When you get a puppy it’s a very long commitment you’re making. It’s their whole lifetime, not just the cute stage or the fun stages. It’s the hard parts, too. When your dog gets old he doesn’t love you any less than he did when he was a puppy.
None of the above are hard and fast rules on dog training – every dog is different, but every dog is also the same. They all have needs, and they all love YOU more than they love themselves. They’re the only creature on the planet you can say that about. Your dog won’t be with you for your whole life, but you ARE their whole life. Please keep that in mind before bringing home a dog you don’t have the time or the energy or the money for. Shelters across the country are packed full of dogs that someone once thought were good ideas.
Coda was almost fourteen when he passed. He had a grey beard and his days of chasing the ball were over at about twelve. His hips bothered him so I changed up his food, I gave him glucosomine treats and eventually arthritis meds from the vet. They were a little pricey but his comfort was worth it. He had a memory foam bed and eventually had such trouble getting in and out of even the Subaru that I had to stop taking him to work. But he still had lots of friends in the neighborhood to come visit him. If I was working longer than three hours at a stretch I’d get a neighbor to come get him out to pee. It wasn’t until the discomfort outweighed his joy that my husband and I took one last trip to the vet with him. He loved the vet. We took his bed with us and lay on the floor next to him while he got the sedative and then the last shot. I signed on for all of it the day I brought him home. He was my buddy, my pal, my best friend. He gave me all the love in the world and I was with him right through the end of his days.
DOG is GOD spelled backwards. They are reflections of God’s unconditional love for us, daily reminders He gave to us because we need to know what that kind of love looks like in this cold and often cruel world.