Ah, winter has FINALLY released it’s wretched grip from Chicago. And, what does that mean? Puppies, new rescue dogs, oh my! What the heck do you do with that four-legged darling who stares, follows you around and gets into things now that he or she is home? Below you will find our top four behaviors to focus on in the first few weeks of your relationship with your new dog or puppy.
Potty training. Why? Because it’s one of the very few behaviors you NEVER have to teach again. Seriously. Once your furry sweet pea learns to pee and poop outside (or on a pad) and ONLY in your designated spots; you can move on to other behaviors. Dig your human heels in the ground and it will pay off for YEARS to come. Plan to take your dog out (or gently guide him or her to the pad) every couple of hours (more frequently for smaller or younger dogs). Most dogs figure out how to go in a spot, many just need help not going in other places. So, crates, gates and watching your dog like a hawk when he or she has not peed in the past hour is critical.
If you are easily distracted, set the timer on your phone. And, start your relationship right by getting up to take your dog out before he or she whines in the middle of the night. That’s a problem that will haunt you for a long time if you do not prevent it. We like our sleep too! But, if you set your alarm and take your dog out at 4am then again at 7am and have no accidents and no barking in the middle of the night; well, each week add a little more time to the early potty break until you get to a normal wake up time. It gets better, we promise. Gavin was outside ten times a day when he first came home and now he goes out 3-4 times per day with absolutely no incidents nor any crossed paws.
Doggie, be nice with your mouth. In our opinion, this is the absolute most important thing to teach a new dog. If you rescued an adult dog; you likely have no idea if he or she has bitten nor how severe the bite. And, that does not mean you should not be rescuing dogs. But, we believe in helping dogs succeed AND keeping people safe in the process. Even if you think you adopted the sweetest, gentlest dog in the world or you are only seeing issues outside, still make this exercise a priority because every opportunity your dog gets to use his or her mouth GENTLY, he or she gets better at it.
Take a semi-boring treat and hold in your hand. Say “wait” and if your new dog sits or simply does not jump, that’s a perfect wait. Give the treat to your dog with a flat, open palm and say “gentle”. If your dog jumps or attempts to grab it from your hand, say nothing but also do not give the treat. That’s NOT nice waiting behavior. Repeat a few more times. Next, with the same level treat, hold the treat in between two fingers as most folks normally would do to feed a reward. Say “wait” again and “gentle”. If you feel teeth, say “ouch” (very gently) and move your hand away. Try again. Work on this every day. When Gavin first came home with me, his mouth was so wreckless I actually meant it when I yelped “ouch”. Now, I can trust a child to give him a treat and he will take it gently without me reminding him over and over to be “gentle”.
To get to that stage, repeat the same exercise but do not cue “gentle” before giving the treat. If your dog is nice with his or her mouth, praise and give that reward. If not, “ouch” and it goes away.
Reward every good thing you see outside and when people come in. Certainly basic obedience is important but in the first few weeks, I like to focus on anything I see outside or when guests come in that I would like to see again. Look new doggie, there’s a kid and you are not jumping, barking or knocking the poor child over; “yes, reward”. Bouncing pup, you see a dog down the street and you are not growling or snarling, “yes, reward”. We as humans get so caught up in the command and dogs don’t speak our language. Don’t worry about what the command is, just reward for good behavior and your dog will start to offer it. Your mail person drops bills into the metal slot of the door and your dog does not throw himself in a frenzy towards the activity, woohoo! Reward. Once you start seeing NICE behavior around distractions, put it on cue.
Some dogs become extremely overstimulated outside and with new guest commotion. While you are getting to know your new dog, attempting to reward for any calm behavior AND build a relationship with this creature who has no clue he or she can trust you; it may take some trial and error to find the right reward that is kind to their tummy AND trumps scary and distracting stuff. Don’t give up. But, also NEVER give food or toys near another dog, ever. Gavin turned his nose up to cheese, hot dogs, meatballs, even squeaky toys the first few months we were working outside. Once I figured out his greatest passion was running up trees, our leash training became much more fun for both of us because I used that as a reward for loose leash walking AND not screeching like a maniac every time he saw a squirrel.
Love being alone. As trainers, you might assume we push crates. It’s a personal choice. But, our priority is SAFETY! Regardless of whether you want your dog to nap in a crate or on your couch; spend a few minutes each day getting him comfortable, no, SUPER EXCITED about you leaving.
Take a Kong and fill it with some yummy goodies. Hand it to your dog in the space you would like to him to enjoy his alone time and say “be good”. Walk out the door, come back in and TRADE UP with better treats for the Kong (to prevent nasty resource guarding) and put the Kong on the kitchen counter. Have a seat on the couch and ignore your pup for a few seconds. Repeat, repeat, repeat. What this exercise teaches your dog is because you are walking to the door and leaving, does not mean he will be alone for 4, 5, 6 hours. And, by taking the Kong away when you come back in, you create anticipation and excitement that he only gets the super awesome Kong when he’s alone. When you are home, you are the reward.
Again, play with different fillings. If your dog won’t eat the Kong with you standing in front of him, he certainly won’t touch it when you leave. Finn used to LOVE pumpkin but if I gave it to Gavin, I’d be cleaning up orange goop off my floor. For crate training, I used a similar technique with Gavin to make sure when I said “go to your house”, he happily jumped up and trotted into his crate. Lil’ Big Head is close to being able to spend some time out of his crate while he’s alone. And, I’m excited about that but puppies should always be crate trained, the risk to their safety is not worth the freedom in the short time.
Bringing home a new dog is fun, amazing and honestly, overwhelming. Focus on the above four behaviors while you are navigating your shared world together and once you see the trust and the bond start to build, move on to other fun behaviors.