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Stacy Braslau-Schneck Offers 5 Puppy Priorities

What most people consider “standard dog training” — like teaching “sit” and “come” and “stay” — can be taught at any time. But when you have a new puppy, there are other concepts for your puppy to learn that are actually more important and more time-critical than these classic commands and ideas. So as a professional dog trainer, I believe there are five truly important priorities for a new puppy. They are: housetraining, play biting, chewing, socialization, and alone training.

Housetraining is teaching your puppy where she should potty. You can start right away, but be aware that pups have to mature into the physical ability to control their bladder and bowels. Take your pup to where you want her to “go” frequently, and be ready to reward her for relieving herself there. When she’s not “empty,” keep her confined to a smaller space, like a gated-off kitchen or other noncarpeted area, ideally with newspapers down to facilitate the cleanup of inevitable accidents. (And be patient — it takes humans two to three years to learn this.)

Play biting is something that puppies do naturally; it’s our job to teach them to control their needle-sharp teeth so that they bite appropriate targets, and that their contact with our skin should be increasingly soft and infrequent. Many puppies will respect a high-pitched loud yelp and will back off (but watch out for the puppies who think this means you’re a fun squeaky toy; try a deep bellow instead). Teach the puppy that all fun ends when biting becomes too hard or frequent. Meanwhile, find other outlets for their innate need to play-bite with tug toys and friendly, appropriate dog playmates.

Chewing training is teaching your puppy to direct her need to exercise her jaws to appropriate items, such as hard rubber chew toys, edible tough items like bully sticks or Himalayan chews, and chew treats like bones, antlers, and hooves. I like to feed all of my dog’s meals out of Kong toys (or food-dispensing toys, for dry food meals).  For puppies, be sure to provide a variety of chew items within easy reach of your pup at most times, so she can default to those, and you can see what holds your pup’s interest and what’s durable.

Most pet owners are acutely aware of these first three — they see the urgent need to stop their pups from peeing and pooping in the house, biting the human family members, and chewing up furniture, shoes, and toys. But the last two are just as important. Your puppy needs to learn to be comfortable with the things she’ll be exposed to in this world, and she needs to learn to be comfortable when home alone.

Socialization has gotten a lot of attention, but it’s much more than having your puppy meet and play with other people and dogs. Your pup needs to understand that there are people and dogs that she cannot meet and must merely pass by. In addition, she needs to be comfortable with everything else in our world — traffic sounds, automatic doors, stairs, elevators, skateboards, vacuum cleaners, leaf blowers, horses, and more. It’s not just about exposure; it’s teaching the dog that these are good and normal and safe.

Finally, pups in our society need to learn to be comfortable being left alone. Often puppies go from a litter to a doting household that spends a lot of time with them — for a week or so. Then school starts again, vacation time is over, appointments must be met, and the pup is suddenly by herself for the first time ever. This can be a stressful shock for a social animal like a dog. You can ease your pup into this by leaving her in a limited space with a good chewie for short but increasingly longer periods of time — a few seconds, then a few minutes, then a quarter-hour, then a half-hour, then more. Sometimes it helps to set up a monitoring system — a way to record video, or to watch remotely — so you can see what your dog does while alone. Adult dogs spend a lot of their day sleeping, and it might help to time your initial departures for when you expect your young pup to take a nap. Just don’t try to “sneak out” while they’re asleep; you want them to learn that you leave and they can survive it.

These five priorities will be your main focus during the first few weeks and months with your new puppy. Pups can certainly start learning some basic commands like sit, down, come, and leave it during the same time. But to truly set your puppy up for a successful lifetime in a human household, the five priorities of housetraining, play biting, chewing, socialization, and alone training should be your primary concern.

Stacy Braslau-Schneck, MA, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, and CAP2, of Stacy’s Wag’N’Train,, in San Jose, serves the Willow Glen, San Jose, Silicon Valley, and Santa Clara County areas. 

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