On Welcoming Man’s Best Friend to Our Home: Guide for first-time puppy owners

Getting a new puppy can be one of the greatest joys in life. From the moment you lay eyes on them, to the first time you hold them, cuddle them, and comfort them, they have a way of making it into your heart and staying there. New puppies often times become family members, best friends, confidantes, or even a source of emotional support. You soon learn that not only do they rely on you, but you come to rely on them. Our desire to own and love puppies is a testament to the strength of the human animal bond, as we need them as much as they need us.

Previous research has found that dog ownership can increase mental, social, and physiological health status in humans [1]. From as early as infancy, a canine bacteria-filled environment provided by presence of a dog can strengthen a baby’s microbiome and immunity, making them less likely to develop various conditions, from asthma to obesity [2]. Children can benefit from pet ownership, as it teaches them to take on responsibility and be accountable for their actions. By adolescence, dogs help teenagers to feel autonomous and competent, and are especially valuable for boys, as boys often report less disclosure than their female counterparts [3]. Dogs serve an emotional support role for people of all ages, and it has even been found that individuals from children to adults all report being more likely to turn to their dogs for support during emotional distress than any of their human relations [4]. Many dogs can be trained as emotional support animals for veterans of war, who often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or for other patients with mental illness [5]. Importantly, dogs can even help detect diseases from cancer to seizures in humans, and recently, even Covid-19 infections [6,7]. Needless to say, their role in our lives is extremely important.

The joy of the human-animal bond, for both parties, cannot be overemphasized. [Source: Alexandra Dwulit]

To ensure proper care of our canine friends, it is important to start early, when we first set eyes on them and decide we want to welcome them into our lives. Here is a brief guide, written by an Animal Behavior PhD student who previously studied canine cognition and the human animal bond, and with years of experience with dogs, on how we can best welcome them into our lives.

Before we even bring them home…
It is important to make sure we choose the right type of breed, or mixed breed, for our home. Some breeds, such as Golden Retrievers, are known to be good family dogs due to their docile, gentle and friendly nature [8]. Although they are active, they do not require nearly as much stimulation as Border Collies, for example, who were bred to be herding dogs for sheep [9].You should consider your lifestyle when choosing a breed, whether you want to be very active with your pup or more sedentary, whether you want more of a challenge training your dog or have a more easy-going pup, or even if you’d rather your pup jumps in your lap or just lays next to your feet. It is very important for your dog to be a good fit for your family, but also important to consider whether you are a good fit for him!

It is also important to consider whether we are comfortable with adopting a rescue dog, or would rather get our pup from a breeder. Dogs from a shelter or rescue may have had previous owners, and occasionally may come with their slew of behavioral problems. Pups adopted from a breeder should not be taken from their mothers earlier than 8-9 weeks of age [10], and it is important to do your research on the breeder prior to adopting.

Before bringing our pups home, it is wise to make sure our dogs have a place to call their own when first introduced to our homes, or a “safe space.” Dogs can be very social and lovable, especially breeds like Golden Retrievers, but that doesn’t mean they do not desire a place to call their own when they are tired, want to nap, or just have some downtime. It is important, however, that their “safe space” only be associated with positive memories, and never a place to go to as punishment. Getting a crate appropriate for your puppy’s size is seen as a good thing by many dog trainers and behaviorists, especially when that crate is associated with positive things [11]. Eventually, when you must leave your puppy home, that can be their go to space, so it is important it is large enough for your puppy now and can accommodate its size as an adult.

Baby gates can be your best friend at this stage, as puppies often always want to be around you when they are not sleeping, and they can be quite needy. They (mostly) do not listen when you ask them to “stay” yet, so putting up baby crates to separate the areas you want your puppy to be in can be a good idea. Especially if your puppy is not potty trained yet, it might save you a lot of hassle! When I first got my puppy, baby gates became our best friend. We allotted a space in one of the downstairs rooms as my dog’s space and put baby gates around her crate. As a result, her space encompassed much more than just the crate, and she had the freedom to move around when we weren’t home. It can be nice to put blankets and a dog bed inside your dog’s crate or area, as well as provide them with plenty of toys, a treat or two and of course, water.

Here, a puppy looks up to its owner in its designated “safe space,” with a crate inside an area separated by baby gates. [Source: Alexandra Dwulit]

Your new puppy is moving in with you, so of course besides a bed, he also needs food and water bowls, plenty of toys, treats, and of course, food! Be sure to have all this prepared beforehand, so when your puppy moves in, you do not need to hassle about searching for these things!

First days at home
The first days, even weeks, can be a difficult transition for not only your puppy, but also, you. Although you are excited to have this fluffy creature around, this fluffy creature can be a lot of work. The first few days it’s best to ease your puppy into its new environment, and not overwhelm him with too many activities or people. Let your puppy adjust slowly, first getting used to his bed, his food, and of course, you.

At this stage, puppies often cry at night, or when left alone. If your puppy starts crying at night in its crate, wait for it to stop crying, then approach it, as recommended by a veterinary behaviorist [11]. Approaching your puppy when it’s crying teaches it that crying will attract your attention, while approaching it after it stops crying teaches the puppy that crying does not necessarily bring it your attention. It is important your puppy learns to be alone, as most of us leave for work during the day. Responding too much to his crying early on and never leaving him alone can lead to separation anxiety later in life [12]. When having to leave for work, often it can be soothing for the puppy to leave classical music on, such as Mozart, as it’s been found that such music can have calming effects on our puppies [13].

Dogs are creatures of habit, and it can be beneficial to develop a schedule for your puppy [11]. The first few weeks he will not be potty trained yet, so it can be good to create a schedule where you take him out early in the day, a few times during the day, and later at night, having him pee and poop in the same place consistently. Feeding can be done as recommended by your veterinarian, though I prefer to feed my dogs twice a day. Be sure to always provide access to water for your puppy! They can be easily excitable and forget that they need water if it’s not around! Try to wake up, let out your dog, feed him, and walk him at the same time each day. It can be hard to do so, but the more predictable your dog’s environment, the safer they will start to feel with you. Predictability and schedules can be a good thing for dogs and will help your puppy adjust to his new home sooner.

Be sure to find a reliable veterinarian for your puppy, and make sure he comes in for all his check-ups and vaccines. Whatever new experiences you present to your puppy, be sure to always use positive reinforcement, or rewarding your puppy if he does something well. Veterinarians and behaviorists recommend always using positive reinforcement and never punishment, as punishment can lead to problematic behaviors later in life, such as anxiety [14].

Making friends
Before he has all his vaccines, veterinarians will often tell you to avoid taking your puppy to public places such as dog parks, or even from interacting with other dogs, to minimize risk of getting a disease from others’ dogs before your own dog is vaccinated. Be sure to schedule an appointment for your puppy’s vaccines early, within the first week or so of bringing your puppy home (assuming your puppy is around 8 weeks old when brought home), as socializing is extremely important for your puppy, both with humans and other dogs. Dogs’ “critical period”, or period when they are most sensitive to learning, for socializing with other creatures is from 4 to 12 weeks [11], so it is crucial they are exposed to other humans and dogs in this time period. Although dog parks may not be a great idea until they are a bit older, setting up play dates with other puppy owners can be a great idea, or introducing your puppy to family friends and other humans. It is important these interactions be as calm and positive as possible, so your pup associates socializing with positive memories. Dogs that are appropriately socialized, from puppy age to beyond, are less likely to develop behavioral problems such as aggression and anxiety [15].

Two golden retrievers playing, celebrating the recent snowmelt. [Source: Alexandra Dwulit]

Training and problem behaviors
If you decide to enroll your pup in doggie training classes, it is best to do so prior to 3 months of age, as this is prime time for your puppy to learn to adapt to new experiences [16]. In the first few months, you can teach your puppy to hop into your car for rides, learn some new tricks, walk on a leash, and of course, to be potty trained! Whatever you are teaching him, positive reinforcement training should be used, rewarding any good behavior, and ignoring any bad behavior.

Bring treats when going on a walk, or when you are training, and reward any good behavior! [Source: Alexandra Dwulit]

At this stage, often puppies will nip, not out of aggression, but out of a desire to play [17]. They may also chew or gnaw on household objects, mostly due to teething [17]. I find it best to ignore the puppy’s biting behavior and not engage, as that does not encourage your puppy to think you are willing to play. It can also be helpful to let out a high pitched “yip,” letting the puppy know that their bite went too far. When with littermates, puppies will often bite each other in play behavior, but when one goes too far, they let out a “yip” sound, signaling the biting has gone to far [11]. It is important to be patient and not get frustrated, and instead, if your puppy is biting, provide him with a substitute, such as a chew toy. Baby carrots can be great chews for teething puppies, and a tasty, healthy snack as well! Any problem behavior that surfaces in your puppy should be handled right away, as that can prevent more serious problems from developing later.

When biting and teething, it’s best to provide your puppy with a substitute, such as a toy. [Source: Alexandra Dwulit]

When going on walks, your dog should learn to walk with a leash. Bringing treats along can help, as puppies often tend to be better listeners when good treats are around! Harnesses are much preferred by veterinarians over collars, as collars may contribute to back pain, throat damage or other discomfort [18]. Sometimes, when a puppy has had enough of walking, he will start biting on the leash, jumping on your leg or otherwise not participating in the walk. To prevent this, limit the duration of your walks early on to around 20 minutes, and try to calm your puppy during the walk if any inappropriate behavior surfaces.

As lovely as it may being having a new floofball around your home, our furry friends can also be a lot of work, but nothing that cannot be learned or managed! The more you know about puppies early on, the easier it can be navigating your own, so you and your puppy can have a long, healthy and mutually beneficial relationship for as long as possible!

Alexandra is a first year PhD student in animal behavior, studying how early life cognition, microbiome, and epigenetics relates to aging and development of behavioral disorders in monkeys and hopefully soon, pigs. She has years of experience with dogs, previously working at the Canine Cognition Center in Vienna, Austria. When not learning and researching about our furry friends, Alexandra loves to hike, bake and paint, and travel whenever possible.

[1] Friedman, E. and S. Heesok. (2009). The Human-Companion Animal Bond: How Humans Benefit. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 39(2):293-326.

[2] Gupta, S. Microbiome: Puppy power. Nature, 543, S48–S49 (2017).

[3] Papini, D.R., F.F. Farmer, S.M. Clark, J.C. Micka and J.K. Barnett. (1990). Early adolescent age and gender differences in patterns of emotional self-disclosure to parents and friends. Adolescence, 25:959-76.

[4] Cassels, M.T., N. White, N. Gee and C. Hughes. (2017). One of the family? Measuring young adolescents’ relationships with pets and siblings. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 49:12-20.

[5] Brooks, H.L., K. Rushton, K. Lovell, P. Bee, L. Walker, L. Grant and A. Rogers. (2018). The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry, 18(31):2-12.

[6] Wells, D.L. (2012). Dogs as a diagnostic tool for ill health in humans. Alternative Therapies, 18(2)12-17.

[7] Else, H. (2020). Can dogs smell covid? Here’s what the science says. Nature, 587:530-1.

[8] Weeks, S. (2021). “Double Trouble! Why a Golden Retriever might be the best choice for a household with little children.” Vets on Call, December 2021. https://vetsoncall.pet/blog/double-trouble-why-a-golden-retriever-might-be-the-best-choice-for-a-household-with-little-children/.

[9] “Border Collie.” American Kennel Club, December 2021. https://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/border-collie/.

[10] Meyers, H. (2021). “What’s the best age to bring your new puppy home?” American Kennel Club, December 2021. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/puppy-information/best-age-bring-puppy-home/.

[11] Horwitz, D.F. (1999). Counseling pet owners on puppy socialization and establishing leadership. Veterinary Medicine-Bonner Springs then Edwardsville, 94:149-56.

[12] Busch, M. (2019). Preventing separation anxiety when you work from home. Preventive Vet, November 2021, https://www.preventivevet.com/dogs/preventing-separation-anxiety-work-from-home.

[13] Kogan, L.R., R. Schoenfeld-Tacher, A.A. Simon. (2012). Behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 7(5):268-75.

[14] Hiby, E.F., N.J. Rooney & J.W.S. Bradshaw. (2004). Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare, 13:63-9.

[15] Howell, T.J., T. King and P.C. Bennett. (2015). Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialization practices on adult dog behavior. Veterinary Medicine Research and Reports, 6:143-53.

[16] Optland, Lynne. (2016). “AVSAB position statement on puppy socialization.” CPDT-KA K9 Connection Pet Dog Training, November 2021. https://www.k9petdogtraining.com/post/2016/09/27/avsab-position-statement-on-puppy-socialization.

[17] “Play Biting.” Aspen Grove Veterinary Care, November 2021. https://aspengrovevet.com/play-biting/.

[18] AKC Staff. (2021). “Is a dog harness better than a dog collar?” American Kennel Club, November 2021. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/dog-harness-vs-collar/.

[Edited by Sabrina Mederos]

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