Add a Dog to Your Life the Right Way

Cute dog chews ball

An original MP Q&A with Mikkel Becker, certified trainer, dog behavior counselor, and lead animal trainer for Fear Free.

How can we choose the right puppy for our family, and do we know if we should adopt or purchase one from a breeder?

When it comes to a new puppy, the main thing to look at is how well socialized that puppy has been. This helps them be better adjusted and reduces fear, anxiety, and stress. It can help set them up for a happy, healthy life. Adopting vs. purchasing from a breeder depends if you’re looking for a specific breed or size. If you go with a breeder, make sure it’s a reputable organization that treats the puppies well and provides a healthy living space. If you’re non-breed specific, there are many puppies out there for adoption who would love to join your family! If you’re going to be away from your puppy for a long time with traveling, work, everyone out of the house, etc. I would hold off on getting one – you need to ensure they’re getting a lot of interaction as they grow up.

Potty training, leash training, and how to avoid developing bad habits like digging up the yard, scratching and biting humans, and barking at all hours. What are your tips for these behaviors?

Provide them enrichment opportunities like a sandbox in the backyard – give them a viable option to do those natural doggy things. Redirect them to the desired outlet. Supervise them in the backyard, make the trash inaccessible, etc. Have lots of different toys on hand to redirect the puppy if they try to chew your hands or furniture. For barking all the time, try to figure out what the barking is all about. Puppies learn early on that barking can get your attention! It will make you look at them or potentially play with them / feed them. Teach them that you will give them attention when they’re quiet to encourage that behavior instead. Another thing to think about is separation anxiety – make sure they’re getting enough of your attention throughout the day.

How can we develop a schedule with a meaningful routine for our puppy that enables it to live a happy life as a puppy while also meeting our needs for civility and quietness?

A big part of this is being able to teach your dog to have his or her alone time, without you, and also providing a puppy-proofed area to do so – I like to call it a “Fear Free Fortress.” They really do need to learn early on that they will be safe and happy even if you’re not in the room. Give them food puzzles, safe chews, plenty of toys, etc. so they are always having interesting and novel items to entertainment themselves. It’s similar with human children – they can become comfortable playing on their own. Also, consistency can be calming for pets so make sure you have a decently predictable schedule for them.

What should we be aware of when creating such a schedule, and is it okay to modify the schedule once it has been set?

Once you’ve set a schedule, especially when it comes to meal time, they do like consistency. Changing things drastically is not going to be pleasant for them, so start early on with introducing them to many places and people – a dog walker, a doggy daycare, different family and friends, etc. This can be a source of positive variety and help them have an emotional buffer to cope with stress and changes later in life.

Tricks are often more for humans than for dogs. However, they can be playful ways to improve one’s bond with their dog. How can we teach our puppy tricks, and what should we do if our puppy isn’t picking them up?

Train them through rewards – if they do the behavior, they get a treat or toy! Sometimes we do too much, too fast with a dog. Break it down and make it easier for them. Let them go to puppy preschool before expecting them to excel in college! Puppies have a very short of attention span and are very “wiggly” so keep in mind what they are capable of at this stage in their lives. Also, ensure you’re conducting training and teaching tricks in a quiet, low distraction area of your home.

What are three ways we can reduce or puppy’s unnecessary fear, anxiety, and stress?

  1. Pair new, novel activities like a trip to the vet or daycare, or getting their nails trimmed, with good and positive things like a treat or their favorite toy.
  2. Make sure it’s always their choice to approach something scary or uncertain – never force it, or you’ll backtrack and be counterproductive. Let them go at their own pace.
  3. Ensure they are well-socialized, meeting different people and going to different places, in the car, to the vet, to the dog park, to doggy daycare, etc.
  4. Utilize tools and techniques that will help the puppy succeed – such as a front clip harness that helps with pulling.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The entire first year of a puppy’s life is critical if he or she is going to grow into a dog that a family can live with. Education about behavioral health is just as important as education about parasite control, vaccinations, and when to spay or neuter. Consider it the “vaccination” against behavior problems.

Fortunately, the rules for behavioral health are pretty straightforward. The first thing to focus on is praising puppies for all appropriate behaviors! In other words, “Pay for what you like!”  A tiny tidbit of treat, a scratch behind the ears or even a “good boy” when a puppy sits, chews on his or her own toys, or eliminates outside all help teach the puppy what he or she can do to make good things happen. Second, avoid punishment – remember that punishment comes with a big risk. It has been shown to increase fear and anxiety and thus the possibility of aggression. Worst of all, it can severely damage the owner’s relationship with the puppy. It can be confusing to the puppy and while it may frighten him into not doing something, it doesn’t teach him what we do want him to do.