How to Survive Your Puppy

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Today I’m talking to Megan Lundberg about puppies! Megan is a professional dog trainer in Colorado Springs, Colorado and she and her husband have two Siberian huskies and a Silken Windhound. Megan runs the Puppy Day School Program at Canine Coach and spends nearly 30 hours a week with puppies who are between 9 weeks and 9 months old.

Now, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m dealing with some serious puppy fever over here. But I also have some deep-seated puppy fears. Puppies are so full of potential… but there’s also so much to them!

What do you look for when you’re trying to pick a puppy? What do you suggest to owners?

When I’m looking for a puppy, I’m first looking at different breeds for their size, grooming needs, and their usual personality traits to determine what type of dog will be right for my household as well as any training goals I have.

Whether you end up getting a puppy from a responsible breeder or a great rescue or shelter, you can learn about what you are interested in by researching different breeds. 

With personality, I look for a balance of traits, and that’s what I encourage owners to do as well. There is no “right” or “wrong”, it’s just about what type of dog is going to fit best with your family. You should consider traits like:

  • Clinginess vs independence. Does the puppy want to stay near people, always be touched by people, or does she prefer to be exploring and doing things by herself?
  • Confidence. Does she immediately run up to new things to check them out? Does she observe then check things out? Or is she very cautious and hesitant?
  • Biddability. Is it easy to get her attention and train with her, or does she disconnect easily?
  • Patience vs pushiness. If you’re playing with her then stop, does she wait, try to re-engage (by mouthing you, jumping on you, barking at you), or does she wander off?
  • Persistence. When there’s something she wants, does she try hard to get it, or try a little then give up?
  • Vocalizing. Is she a talker, or is she pretty quiet? Look in context of play, and also when frustrated.

If you’re going through a responsible breeder they will be asking you all kinds of questions to get to know you, your family, your lifestyle, and your goals and will typically match you with a puppy rather than having you pick as they know their puppies best and the puppy you see in the 10 minutes or hour when you go to visit is not giving you the whole picture of who that puppy is.

Breeders who do temperament evaluations find a lot of value in using the results to help place puppies, but beyond that it’s very much up to the new owners as to how the puppy will grow up.

What should owners expect in those first few hours and days home with their puppy?

That moment you arrive home with your new puppy is so, so exciting! You feel like you want to show them everything, the whole house, the whole yard, all their toys, their bed, meet your other pets, and that’s an overwhelming amount of information for your new puppy.

The biggest thing to expect is that your puppy will be overwhelmed and stressed.

Their entire world just changed, no littermates are there, they don’t know you, they don’t know where they are, and for most puppies that’s pretty scary. Some handle the change no problem but it’s more normal for puppies to be reserved and cautious, and not very playful for the first few hours if not the first few days.

The first experiences your puppy has right when they get home are important. I have the puppy area set up before the puppy comes home.

My favorite puppy setup is to first lay down a Shower Pan Liner which is a heavy rubber lining you can get from home improvement stores that is 100% waterproof, doesn’t wrinkle, it’s easy to clean, and is very tough. I get a 5 ft by 6 ft section.

I set the crate on that, and then put an exercise pen around the crate. The crate has bedding, and in the pen are a couple toys and chews, and can have a water bowl. I have this setup at the edge of the main living area.

That way the puppy is included, not isolated, can get accustomed to the daily routines, and also isn’t being surrounded or feeling vulnerable. This setup is used all through puppy raising so when I can’t be supervising and guiding my puppy’s interactions and curiosity, I know she’s safe and can entertain herself.

So right when we get home, the very first thing I do is take the puppy in the backyard by herself to potty if she needs to. We do this on leash, as I don’t want her to dart off if something spooks her. Whether she pottied or not, the next step is to be carried inside.

Every door in the house is closed, and my other pets are put away first, well out of the way and out of sight such as an upstairs bedroom- your spouse or a friend can put them up while you’re having puppy potty. I typically don’t leave the leash on but you can keep it on if you feel the need to as long as it’s kept loose so your puppy isn’t pulling you. 

With a very sleepy or overwhelmed puppy they are carried and set down straight in their pen, and I sit with them calmly if they are overwhelmed or scared. Their whole world just changed and that can be very scary and it’s normal for some puppies to need time to just hang out and observe and not want to jump right into exploring.

With an awake, curious puppy I set them down and follow them as they check out the house. As every door is closed, the world is starting small, and safe, and that’s incredibly important for a new puppy to feel safe. They don’t need to see everything all at once!

Start small, safe, easy, limited chances for getting into things they shouldn’t, limited chances of something startling or scaring them, and their world will slowly expand. 

After checking things out, or maybe even during, they may need to go out to potty especially if they didn’t right before you came in. Then it’s pen time to rest and relax and take things in.

With my personal dogs and cats, I let them out at this time and they can sniff noses through the pen. If the dogs are a bit too excited I have treats to reward them for laying down and being more still and calm. I’ve also put a second pen around the first as an additional buffer if the new puppy needs more space. 

When you’re interacting with your puppy, from that first day and onward, focus on inviting them to do things with you. Invite them to play, invite them to snuggle, invite them to train, and take your cues from them as much as possible about what things they want to do as it will strengthen your relationship, communication, and trust, and as that builds they will be more and more open to your invitations.

What common issues do you hear about from owners?

The most common issue by far is biting. Puppies have needle sharp tiny little teeth that HURT and tear clothes and make you bleed, and especially in homes with kids people want that behavior gone. So the first thing is to understand why puppies are land sharks, because obviously adult dogs aren’t like that, so why are puppies so bitey?

Puppies explore the world with their mouths and are learning what is fun and good to chew on, how to use their mouth, and most importantly they’re learning bite inhibition.

Bite inhibition means learning how to control the force of their mouth. If you watch young puppies play, they’ll be playing nicely then inevitably one will squeak and yelp when the other bites too hard. Both puppies pause for a moment, then they go right back to playing.

If the same puppy is again too rough and causes the other to squeak, often the play will not resume after the pause. They’re learning how hard is too hard, and that too hard makes the play stop. 

Humans can imitate a puppy yelp or say “ouch!” in a high tone, and that can help until about 10-12 weeks old when squeaky noises become fun and exciting, like squeaky toys.

Most people know to do this yelp, but personally I rarely use it. It can scare your puppy and make them hesitant to interact with you, and it doesn’t seem to have quite the lasting effect as when puppies yelp at each other.

I find the best method is to be proactive in preventing playful biting in the first place. Any time my puppy is out of her crate or pen, I am actively engaging with her, and that means we have toys around.

Whether we’re playing, training, outside to potty or exploring the yard, or hanging out on the couch, I always have a toy in my pocket or within reach. In being proactive I try to invite her to play with toys ideally before she starts trying to put her mouth on other things, like me, but if she starts getting mouthy then I always have a toy right there wiggling and ready for her.

And many people know to redirect biting to toys, but all puppies hit that point where they don’t care about the toy and are chomping for your arms, ankles, shoes, clothes, even leaping for your face.

At the very first sign of that, play stops instantly and I put the puppy in her crate. I’m very strict about teaching my dogs that human bodies are not toys, and that playful biting on us does not work. Most often when your puppy is in that mode they are overtired, overstimulated, and need a nap anyway!

Now, the bite inhibition is a crucial part of puppy development that puppies must learn before their teeth start falling out at about 4 months old. I do allow puppies to bite and chew on me if they are doing so in a gentle, sweet, cuddly, non-playful way. 

Tell me a bit about the work that you do, and how it’s different from “average” puppy daycare.

Puppy Day School is different in that it is training focused, with small groups of no more than 12 puppies. Any more than 6 puppies and there is another trainer there with me. It’s a very intensive program so we offer two days a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and puppies come for a minimum of 8 consecutive sessions.

The room is set up with a row of crates along the back wall, where each puppy has their own crate that we provide. Spread across the room are all kinds of obstacles like platforms, a kiddie pool full of empty water bottles, balance disc, wobble board, pool noodles, hula hoops, all kinds of things for the puppies to explore and climb on, as well as toys scattered around. We have a fenced in outdoor area for potty breaks and more play.

Puppies come in at 8 to 8:30am and go straight to their crates where they get a stuffed Kong to work on. Once everyone is there and settled, the day really starts! Throughout the day we rotate between potty breaks and outside play, training, and nap times. Each puppy has an individual training session where we work on basics cues and manners, handling and grooming, and confidence building and body awareness.

We also vacuum, we play thunderstorm and fireworks noises, anything we can think of to help puppies learn to live successfully in their homes. They are picked up between 4:30 and 5pm, so it’s a full day of learning and playing!

What sort of things are most important for puppy owners to tackle early on?

I find the most important things to teach early are calmness and relaxation, which includes teaching the ability to notice but not react to distractions, and body handling and grooming to get them used to nail trims, brushing, and prepares them for vet visits and grooming.

We really emphasize these skills at Canine Coach where one of the first things you teach your puppy is the Settle exercise in Kindergarten. We have a Puppy Package that includes a 6 week Kindergarten, unlimited socialization class we call Practice & Play which is offered twice a week and you can come until your puppy is 5 months old, 2 seminars, and you also get training gear including a harness, long training line, treat pouch, and clicker.

So the things you’re learning in Kindergarten and in Practice & Play are real world skills you’ll be applying at home and out in the world, and rewarding that solid foundation of calmness and attention makes learning all their basic cues like sit, down, come, and manners like leash walking without pulling, so much easier. 

How should puppy owners vet potential dogsitters or doggie daycares for their puppies?

Here in Colorado I would start by making sure that any facility is PACFA certified and meets the standards of cleanliness and care. Beyond that, find a facility or person that is able to meet your expectations and the needs of your dog.

If you have a calm, older dog, then a large facility with constant barking may not be best. If you have a very active dog, a facility without a good area to run and play may not be best. Read reviews and talk to the owners to make sure you’re comfortable leaving your dog in their hands.

Facilities can be very scary for puppies, and most facilities cannot take puppies younger than 4 months old as they cannot have their rabies vaccine until then, so finding a friend or family member who can have the puppy in their home is usually best- or if you have several dogs and cats like I do, I have a friend just stay at my house!

Now, most puppies are enthusiastic little sponges. But some aren’t. What tips do you have for ultra-intense or wallflower type puppies?

The sensitive wallflower puppies are so misunderstood and I struggled with my own puppy, Denali, she’s my first dog ever, I didn’t grow up with dogs, and we knew before we got her that she was very reserved and sensitive and I was confident I could help her be a social butterfly.

I made a lot of mistakes by forcing her into situations I knew were safe but that she wasn’t ready for. In my mind, that would show her that nothing bad would happen, right?

But that actually works the opposite way, where throwing them in the deep end doesn’t teach them to swim, they drown. What the shy, sensitive, cautious puppies need is to feel safe, and to be given time.

During Practice & Play at Canine Coach it’s quite common to have a wallflower puppy. We put a pen around them, with their owners, during play time. This allows the puppy to be safe, to watch play, and to interact through the pen as they feel ready.  We reward with treats and acknowledge with praise anything the puppy does that shows curiosity and bravery.

When these puppies want to play, we open one side of the pen and allow the puppy to go out, and come back in, but we’ll block other puppies from coming in. The shy puppy has a safe place to get away.

I’ll also often invite that puppy to stay after class to explore as I clean up, giving them a chance to familiarize themselves with the room and obstacles. In Puppy Day School, we also use pens, we may hold a puppy, and try to find them an appropriate playmate to play one-on-one with.

Back to Denali, once I learned to give her that time, to reward curiosity and bravery, to protect her, to not let strangers pet her, she really started to bloom. She’ll never be a touchy-feely-snuggly dog with strangers but she trusts me and I work hard to protect that trust.

Tell us a few stories about some of your turnarounds with these sorts of puppies.

Abby! Abby is a labrador weimaraner mix, chocolate color, I think about 4 or 5 months old when she started in Puppy School, and she was absolutely terrified on her first day.

She was cowering, tail tucked, head down, baring teeth at other puppies, yelping and screaming and even peeing herself when other puppies approached her.

We helped her feel safe by using barriers and interrupting rowdier more confident puppies from trying to pester her. She was so stressed that even by herself without any puppies out she was sitting, leaning against the door, with her eyes bulging and stress panting.

She slowly started warming up throughout the day but didn’t play until about her 3rd day of school. A month later, after 8 consecutive days of school, Abby was playful, confident, and met many new puppies she immediately tried to make friends with instead of being fearful. She needed time, to feel safe, and to do things at her own pace.

One of the coolest benefits of day school is that puppies form friendships by being around the same puppies consistently, and that set of social skills helps them be polite and confident when greeting new puppies too.

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