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New Puppy? What to Focus on First!

What a difference a day makes

You and your little four-legged bundle of joy arrive home. 24 hours later you begin to question your sanity, wondering what has happened to the furry little angel you fell in love with the day before. The honeymoon is over before it began!

What you want is a puppy that loves everybody, comes immediately when you call, chews only on dog toys, walks nicely beside you on leash at all times, goes potty outside, greets your guests politely, and sleeps quietly in her crate all night.

What you have is a tiny vampire that pierces your pant legs, hands, and ears, piddles in the house, balks at the leash and collar, wakes you up in the middle of the night shrieking, and eats your house.

Help

First piece of advice: Take the week off from work if at all possible! The first week will go so much better if you do. There are many things to teach a new puppy to set up him or her for a lifetime of success living with you. But you can’t try to “fix” everything all at once! You’ll go crazy and you’ll drive your puppy crazy.

The first week is not the time to work on walking perfectly in heel position on leash, a down stay, or never jumping up to greet you. There will be plenty of time for those behaviors if they are important to you. For now, it’s best to focus on what you can teach your puppy in a hurry, the behaviors that will benefit both of you the most.

Here are three important things to focus on during a puppy’s first week in her new home:

  1. She can trust you to keep her safe.
  2. You will throw a potty party every time she eliminates outside.
  3. The crate is a wonderful place to be.

Trust you: pleasantry only

Avoid verbal or physical reprimands. You should avoid this type of reprimand anyway, but especially during the first week. You don’t want the first thing your puppy learns to be: “My new human yells at me; I don’t understand why, and I’m scared.” That doesn’t mean that you must put up with naughty behavior like nipping. Interrupt and redirect instead.

Your job this first week is to build up your bank account of trust with your puppy.
To make sure that you’re able to redirect the puppy’s attention onto something else easily, flood the place with dog toys. The house should look like a bomb went off—a fleecy, rubbery, furry, crunchy, squeaky bomb! You do not want to be more than a few feet from the nearest redirection device. Since you will need toys ALL the time, ensure that they are accessible. Make it easy for the puppy to do the right thing, and hard for the puppy to fail. That means toys are everywhere and easy to find, but electrical cords and other dangers are either high up or blocked off behind ex-pens, gates, furniture, etc. whenever possible.

Your job this first week is to build up your bank account of trust with your puppy. Be a deliverer of good things: treat-based training sessions, games with toys, long-lasting chews, lots of love and praise.

A pacifier for your pup

Another way to set up your pup for success and minimize problems like nipping and furniture chewing is to provide appropriate chew toys. Think of a long-lasting food toy like a stuffed Kong or a bully stick as a pacifier. If you want to hold the pup in your lap for cuddles but nipping is a problem, let the pup chew on a bully stick in your lap while you hold the other end. Puppies need things to chew on. It’s not just nice to have. It’s a must-have. The more appropriate chewing outlets you can provide in the day, the more you can prevent problems.

Train, train, train (but what?)

The more you train, the faster the unwanted behaviors like biting, barking, chewing, and nipping will disappear.
Clicker trainers look for good behavior to reinforce rather than finding “bad” behavior to punish. It’s your job to not only prevent failure as much as possible with smart management (like hiding the electrical cords), but to begin creating a reinforcement history with the puppy right away. The more you train, the faster the unwanted behaviors like biting, barking, chewing, and nipping will disappear.

Your puppy will need a LOT of training. There are many new behaviors to teach her. But, what do you focus on first? Here are three behaviors that will get you and the pup off to a great start:

  1. Nose-to-hand target. Why? Because it’s easy and you can get in a lot of clicks and treats early on. It’s the “low-hanging fruit” behavior, so to speak. Most puppies can learn a hand target in one session easily. With this training, you are making it easy for her to earn treats, quickly building a reinforcement history and putting “cookies in the bank.” (See How to Teach Your Pet to Target).
  2. “Sit.” Again, this is an easy behavior to capture. Most puppies offer sits frequently. It’s something you can begin capturing on the first day. It’s also a great default behavior for your pup. The first behavior your pup learns often becomes the “go-to” behavior whenever the pup is unsure in a training session. A sit makes a great default behavior and gives the pup a rewardable alternative to jumping up for attention.  
  3. “In your crate.” Since the crate is something you want to reinforce heavily, it makes sense to include it in your training sessions while you’re playing the clicker game. Earning clicks and treats over and over again for going into the crate helps build up that positive association even more. Going to the crate also has the potential to become a default behavior for your pup. It is not a bad go-to behavior to have! (See Getting Started with Crate Training). 

Potty party

Of course, one of the first things to focus on in order to make everybody’s life more enjoyable is potty training. Again, if it’s possible to take the week off from work, do it, because you can make huge strides with potty training. The crate (more below) will help a great deal with potty training. So will sticking to a routine, like letting the pup outside every 30 minutes (not an exaggeration), immediately after your puppy wakes up, and shortly after eating/drinking. Each and every time your pup goes potty outside, be prepared with treats and praise; make her feel like she is the smartest puppy on earth. (see How to Potty Train Your Puppy the Clicker Way).   

Concentrate on the crate!

After you bring home a new puppy, it can feel like you’ve lost all freedom. A crate or ex-pen is the ticket to getting some of that freedom back. Confining your puppy in a safe, happy place when you cannot watch her is a built-in solution to many behavior challenges. It prevents problems (chewed up shoes or furniture, house soiling) before they happen.

The easiest time to place a puppy in a crate for the first time is when she is already asleep (and I mean out cold!). Pick her up and gently place her in the crate that you’ve already filled with good things, and she will barely notice or not notice at all. Keep the crate door open at first and then as long as she remains asleep, then gently and quietly close it and enjoy!

All meals in the crate

One of the easiest and fastest ways to create a positive association with the crate is to hand feed your pup all her meals in the crate. It’s so easy, it’s almost cheating. Young puppies typically eat three meals a day, so this schedule buys you three periods per day of long-lasting happiness in the crate. Dole out the puppy’s meal in tiny handfuls (or even kibble by kibble if you’re patient enough!) until the whole meal is gone, and then let the pup out. For the first few meals, keep the crate door open, and gradually progress to closing the door partially, then all the way, delivering the kibble in a steady stream through the closed crate door. In this way, you are classically conditioning the association between crate and food. It is the easiest path to having your puppy make the leap that crate = happiest place on earth.

Crate time = happy time

During this first week, try hard to minimize the amount of time the puppy spends unhappy in her crate. This means avoid putting her in there when she’s wide awake, full of energy, and in full-on “play mode.” She is likely to be unhappy and unsuccessful during that time, as the last thing she wants is to be confined. Instead, crate her after she’s already asleep and can be picked up easily and carried into the crate without a fuss.

If your puppy only gets that beloved thing when she’s in her crate, the crate will take on value very quickly.
If you have to put the puppy in the crate when she’s wide awake, always offer a preferred chew toy like a stuffed Kong or bully stick—whatever she loves the most. If your puppy only gets that beloved thing when she’s in her crate, the crate will take on value very quickly. If you are in a hurry and need to take care of a child or another urgent matter, at the very minimum scatter a handful of high-value treats as you close the puppy in the crate.

Make the crate as physically comfortable for the pup as possible. The temperature in the room where the crate is located should not be too hot or too cold. If it’s warm, a little fan blowing on the crate can be helpful. If it’s cool, draping a sheet or other covering over the crate is a good idea. Give your pup the bedding she prefers. For some pups, this is soft and cushy. And for others, it is a cold, hard floor! Cover half the crate with bedding and leave the other half “plain” and notice where the pup prefers to sleep. This is good information.

The first night

By now you have gotten in at least a few meals’ worth of “crate = food,” so the pup has already started to form the beginnings of a positive association with the crate. When it’s your pup’s bedtime and she’s asleep, carry her to the crate, lie down beside her, and leave the door open. Let the puppy see that you are still there and hear you breathing. If she’s super-tired (which she is likely to be since it’s been a very big day), she will probably fall asleep quickly, within a minute or two. If not, and she fusses, take her out and try again when she is truly out cold. Once your puppy has fallen asleep in her crate, gently and quietly close the door, trying not to wake her up. Stay right there outside the crate for several minutes (grab a book if you need to!) so that she can still see and hear you if she stirs.

For the first few nights, camp right there next to the crate on a blow-up mattress. If that isn’t possible, put the crate right next to your bed. The first time the puppy wakes up in her crate, you want her to see you and hear you breathing. Stay as close as possible in order to maximize her comfort in the crate. Gradually increase this distance at the pup grows comfortable in her crate.

Pick your battles

When you first bring home a puppy, it’s safe to assume that there will probably be a fair amount of undesirable behavior that occurs. For safety reasons, some of it cannot be ignored. But, sometimes you can let lesser transgressions slide so that you don’t become “that person” who does nothing but stop behavior all day long.

If the pup is chewing on YOU, an electrical cord, or a leather sofa, you have to interrupt immediately and redirect her. But if she’s chewing on a metal desk leg or cheap plastic chair that she can’t damage and probably won’t enjoy, you might just leave it and don’t bother to say anything. Your pup will probably get bored within a few seconds.

Is she digging a hole in the yard the first day or two? Let her! Digging is a completely normal and instinctive dog behavior. You can always section off a small and sanctioned “digging area” for her (away from the fence so she doesn’t learn to dig her way out!) or create a sandbox and hide “treasures” in it for her digging pleasure.

During the first week, be particularly observant. Notice what types of activities (like digging or chewing) interest your puppy. With that information, you can brainstorm ways she can do those activities safely and within acceptable parameters.

A successful launch

For the first week, your job is to make the pup’s new home a fun and happy place where desirable behavior is rewarded handsomely. This does not mean you have to put up with all manner of naughtiness. But, always be thinking about what you can add to the situation (more training sessions, a chew toy, a digging area, play time, a baby gate) to help your puppy succeed and make it hard for her to “fail.”

The more reinforcement your puppy receives from you in training sessions, the more creative and confident she becomes.
If you focus on rewards and adding positively to your pup’s new life experience, the two of you will bond more quickly. The more you teach her, the more you will see how smart she is and what she’s capable of. The more reinforcement your puppy receives from you in training sessions, the more creative and confident she becomes.

For more puppy-training tips, check out Puppy Start Right: Foundation Training for the Companion Dog by Debbie Martin. 

About the author
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Lori Chamberland is the Director of Karen Pryor Academy. She also provides limited in-home dog training in the Hudson, MA, area. A canine sports enthusiast, Lori and her dogs have competed in agility, K9 Nose Work, and Treibball. 

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