Eight Weeks Old: Ready for Puppy!
I'm going to bring home a puppy this August! This post is my personal how-to plan for getting off to a good start.
With the big day just two weeks out, I'm brushing up on my puppy skills. For me, this means a thoughtful rewatch of Puppy Culture: The Powerful First 12 Weeks That Can Shape Your Puppy's Future. The DVD is meant for breeders, but full of gold for anyone getting ready for their first month with a new puppy. I'm very pleased to say my library procured this pricey resource at my request. Public libraries are great. Every time I check it out, I feel a little glow.
Anyway, since I'm thinking about this pretty much all the time now, I thought I'd share my notions with you. The following plan is simply mine: in fact, I wrote most of it as a letter to myself, so when I say, "do this" or "you" or "your," bear in mind, I'm talking to yours truly.
That said, the whole reason I'm writing this is because I wish something like it had existed for me when I was preparing for my first puppy, four years ago. I am confident in the plan, and it reflects a lot of research and personal experience, influenced notably by Jane Killion, Jean Donaldson, Emily Larlham and Karen Pryor. All these trainers are well worth your time and I encourage you to check them out.
Without further ado, below is my plan. This is for week eight, the homecoming. I've cleared my schedule so I'll have plenty of time to make the most of it. Can you tell I'm excited?
My new-puppy gear list includes a water dish, a leash and collar, a nail trimmer and a brush (it's quite a furry breed), an exercise pen, a cushion to sleep on, two different toys to swap out for novelty, a meaty bone, some chews (food-puzzle bone, bully stick and dental biscuits), a canvas utility pouch for treats, and most importantly a clicker. I still need to figure out some kind of litter tray—this is my first try at using puppy litter.
At eight weeks, most puppies go through a fear phase in which new (or even familiar) things can really scare them. This is also when most puppies move to their new homes. Moving house during a fear period is a big challenge for a puppy, so focus first just on establishing routine and safety.
How to build a puppy schedule? I've asked this question in the past and found loads of unhelpful sample routines that just don't apply to the specifics of my life. So, here's a formula you can use to improvise. A puppy's day revolves around sleeping, pottying, playing and eating, and can be organized in any number of ways. Here are the rearrangeable parts.
- Feed 2-3 times a day*
- Potty 15 minutes after each meal
- Train 2-3 minutes, a few times a day
- Potty 10 minutes after play
- Nap as needed, 18-20 hours a day
- Potty immediately on waking
- No food 3 hours before bed
- No water 1 hour before bed
Beyond that, how your day shakes out is up to you. I'll share my starter schedule at the end of this essay.
* I plan to feed only one meal in the dish, dispensing the other 1-2 meals' worth of kibble from my treat bag through the day.
Pottying the puppy means taking them outside to their designated potty spot and standing around for five minutes, waiting for them to get something done. Any time they do their business in that spot, give them lots of praise and treats. If they don't go, don't push it. Just move on to whatever's next.
Set up the outdoor potty spot with the same litter the puppy has been using in their indoor litter-box so it feels and smells right. (I plan to build a frame, like a miniature raised bed, so the boundaries of the pooping area will be clear. I'll also put a litter-box in the puppy pen any time I need them to stay put for more than a couple hours.)
If they piddle in the house, don't make a fuss. Just move the puppy to their pen and clean up the accident.
Leave the door of the puppy pen open when they're not inside, so they can go back in whenever they want.
Before the puppy gets overtired and zany, have them nap. Potty them, then put them in their pen with a chew. If they're amped up, play a settling game: stand nearby ignoring them, and drop a treat in every time they show any sign of calming down. Don't click or talk to them; just drop in treats to reinforce a settle. Once they're looking sleepy, go about your life. When they wake, trade their chew for a treat and take them out to potty.
This week, the goal is just to hang out with the puppy and notice any time they do something you like. Puppies offer a lot of different behaviors. Whenever they happen to sit, lie down, come to you, or look at you, click and treat; this will condition them to offer those behaviors more and more often. It will also alert the puppy to the magical realization that they have the power to communicate with this weird monkey of theirs, inspiring them to start really experimenting with what does and doesn't get a click—opening the door to a world of training possibilities.
When the puppy wants something, wait for them to sit before you give it to them. For example, approach the puppy pen and stand there impassively until they sit, then click and give them plenty of attention. Eventually the puppy will offer a sit any time they want something.
Prevent puppy biting by using toys, not hands, to play with them. If the puppy gets to biting anyway, pick them up facing away so their mouth can't reach you, and hold or pet them calmly until they give up trying to bite—or just return them to their pen and take a break.
If the puppy is getting into mischief, change the subject: get their attention and redirect it to some other, better activity. For example, make fast, high-pitched noises; hustle away from them to stimulate chasing; waft a smelly treat in front of their nose; present an enticing toy; or simply pick them up and move them. If they don't have a chance to make a habit of it, most mischief will disappear on its own.
In the meantime, know that puppies bark, whine, chew, chase, dig and jump. Most humans call this misbehavior, not because it's wrong or unnatural, but because it's just not the kind of housemate action we want to live with. If the puppy won't stop misbehaving even after you interrupt and redirect them, say, "No," in a simple, matter-of-fact way and return them to their pen. Use "no" to mean "game over." Wait until they're calm to bring them out again.
Once a day, when the puppy is relaxed and awake, touch every part of their body. Squeeze each paw as if to look between the toes or clip the nails. Look into their ears, eyes and nose. Look under their tail. Reinforce all these activities with high-value, high-frequency rewards (a treat every 3-5 seconds, lots of snuggles, etc). If this goes well, bring out the brush and nail-trimmer and use, or pretend to use, them briefly, just 1-2 seconds at a time.
If the puppy has issues with any particular touch or grooming tool, break the activity down into something they can tolerate comfortably (e.g. I can't squeeze your foot, but I can touch your shoulder), reward their success, and work forward from there.
As the puppy settles into their new home, start adding enrichment challenges to playtime. Puppies who are encouraged to become enrichment-seekers are more likely to grow into balanced, stable dogs, so it's good to offer small challenges, building the puppy's confidence and curiosity by exposing them to experiences that may seem daunting at first, but turn out to be fun and interesting when they give it a try.
This means introducing objects (an umbrella, a boot, a hat), sensory experiences (a crinkling tarp, a vacuum, a box fan), and settings (driveway, stairs, grass) that can be found around the home. Remember the goal is for the puppy to choose to interact. Keep the challenges small so the puppy can succeed, and reward them for being curious and brave. Don't do any coaxing. If they won't engage, give them an easier challenge, and reward even the smallest interaction. Their confidence will grow.
If other pets are around (cats, chickens), they can act as enrichment challenges too, but supervise their interactions to make sure no one has a bad experience.
For food and treats
The first twelve weeks of a puppy's life are a formative learning window in which small training efforts can yield lifelong results. Use this precious opportunity to lessen or even nullify a puppy's natural impulse to guard their food. The approach described below is my personal application of the Puppy Culture protocol and the work of specialist Jean Donaldson. Reader, do not do this with a dog older than 12 weeks.
On two different days this week, give the puppy a meaty bone and let them begin enjoying it. Then take the bone from them, ignoring any stiffening, growling or biting. Immediately give the puppy a high-value treat, like a morsel of warm chicken, then return the bone. After two or three experiences, the puppy should respond to your approach with interest and expectation instead of guarding.
On all other days of the week, set the puppy's food dish down at meal time (give the puppy call: Pup! Pup! Pup! Pup!) and let them begin enjoying it. Then do one of the following:
- Approach the puppy directly, drop a high-value treat into their bowl, and walk away
- Approach the puppy directly, pet the puppy once or twice, then add the high-value treat
- Approach the puppy, take the bowl away, give the high-value treat, then return the bowl
Any concern the puppy may show at first will likely disappear after a few sessions, replaced by expectant interest: what new wonder is coming now? This is the whole game.
For toys and beds
Dogs don't guard just food. They may also guard other things they value, such as beds and toys. So, look for occasional opportunities to teach the puppy that there's no need to guard their fun and cozy things from you.
Every now and then, when the puppy is resting in a cozy spot, join them in their chosen bed with a treat; or scoot the puppy out of their chosen bed, give the treat, then invite them to come back and get cozy again.
From time to time, when the puppy is fully engaged with a toy, take it from them, give a treat, then return the toy.
Putting It All Together
Here's a recap of my daily plan for my first week with my new puppy. I expect each morning to start like this:
- Get up, go to the puppy pen, wait for a sit
- Carry the puppy outside to the potty spot and wait for them to do their business; congratulate the puppy
- Give the puppy water
- Play training games with the puppy in the yard (click-and-kibble for breakfast)
- Bring the puppy back to the potty spot after 10-15 minutes, praising them for anything they get done there
- Bring the puppy back inside and encourage a calm settle
Between naps throughout the day, more of the same. Wait for a sit, potty, offer water, either feed a meal (Pup! Pup! Pup! Pup!) or give kibble while playing and training, and potty again. When the puppy seems tired, or you want to do something else, potty them once more and put them in their pen with a dental biscuit, bully stick or stuffed puzzle bone. In short: nap, interact, chill out, interact, nap, etc. In every interaction, be on the watch for both misbehavior (redirect it) and good behavior (reinforce it).
Within this flow, find time for three simple training exercises each day:
- 2-3 minutes for body-handling
- 2-3 minutes for an enrichment challenge
- 2-3 minutes for resource-training
At the end of the day, put the puppy in their pen with their litter-box, and go to bed.
The best-laid plans ...
What if problems pop up? Emily Larlham has an array of instructionals to help a person troubleshoot. These are meaty videos, packed with strategies for any number of nuanced situations. Here are a few I've learned a lot from.
Reader, if your puppy or dog has issues with resource guarding, please read Jean Donaldson's book Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs.
That's enough to be thinking about for the first week. I always feel annoyed at articles that try to give you the puppy's whole training journey at once, out of order, jumbled up in a very impractical way—or conversely, that give you nothing but fluff. I think, just tell me what to do first. I've tried to do that here.
In my next post, I'll write about the rest of the puppy's formative education window, weeks 9-12, with more on training and socialization. But here in week eight, when both you and the puppy are in the thick of this big, exciting moment, I think it's nicest to just to leave things here.