Q: We just got a new puppy. When should we start training him, and what should we teach him?
A: You can start training a puppy at any age. Usually, puppies are made available to their new owners at the age of two months, and while they may be unfocused at this age, they are quite capable of learning new behaviors. I would recommend that you start working on establishing good manners and preventing behavior problems from the moment you bring your puppy home. Here is a list of skills that you can help your puppy acquire:
• Socialization (learning to be comfortable around a wide variety of environmental stimuli, people, and dogs)
• Responding to his/her name
• Learning to be comfortable in a crate
• Learning to chew on appropriate objects
• Learning to be gentle with his/her mouth
• Learning to be comfortable with being handled and groomed
• Basic manners and obedience (e.g. sit, down, come, walking on leash without pulling)
You’ll notice that the first item I listed was socialization. (I'll discuss the other items in more detail in future posts.) I consider socialization to be an integral part of preparing your puppy to be a well-adjusted, well-behaved companion. It is critically important that your puppy be exposed to a variety of sights, sounds, and sensations and meet a wide range of people and healthy dogs, particularly in the first few months of life. If you want to set your puppy up for success and help prevent behavior problems like fear and aggression, you must socialize your puppy.
In the past, owners were always advised to avoid bringing their puppies anywhere until they were fully vaccinated. However, a recent position statement by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior cautions that the benefits of socialization outweigh the risk of contracting disease when common-sense precautions are taken. Talk to your vet for specific advice regarding your puppy. Of course, it is not wise to bring young pups who are not fully vaccinated to dog parks or other areas that are highly trafficked by dogs of unknown vaccination or disease status. However, you can socialize your puppy in other ways like enrolling in a puppy class, driving him around town, sitting with him where he can observe people and traffic, or setting up a playgroup at your home with other healthy, vaccinated dogs.
When socializing your pup, keep new experiences fun, varied, and frequent, and pair them with meals or treats. If your puppy looks afraid (tries to run away or hide, keeps his tail or body low, or freezes in place), increase the distance between your puppy and whatever is scaring him. You can gradually start to close the distance as your puppy’s confidence grows.
Need help with a new puppy? Dr. Wan offers puppy classes, consultations, and playdates to Fairfield County dog owners. She earned her doctorate and researched dog-human communication at Columbia University.
Have a dog training or behavior question? Post your questions to me below, or e-mail them to AskDrWan@westportdogs.com. Every month, I will select one reader question to answer.