It has been a very rough summer for me as far as losing pets I love (not my own, but those of friends and dear clients). And this past week, as those of you in Omaha know, a wind and hail storm blew through and flattened much of Omaha, including trees, power lines, many of our neighbors’ homes and cars, much of my (and everyone else’s) gardens, and my brother’s incredible, professionally-built skateboard ramp.
In response to all of these discouraging things (during what is normally such a fun time of year), I have decided to retreat to my other favorite season, Christmas time, and post a Christmas Puppy newsletter to cheer us all up. If furniture stores can celebrate Christmas in July, we should be able to also! And puppies are much more exciting than couches! So thank you for humoring me. Now when I see my leafless tomato sticks in the backyard, I can look right past them and say, “Wow! Green grass and sunny weather at Christmas time! This is as fun as a new puppy!”
I used to say that no one should give pets as gifts. My reasoning was kids (and adults) should not be surprised with the long-term responsibility of another living creature during a birthday or other holiday already filled with mayhem and celebration. (Remember last year’s pony commercial? The girl got a pony when she really wanted a phone like all of her friends! Haha. That was funny.)
My new saying is “If there is room at the Nativity for a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and a Golden Retriever, there is room under the Christmas tree for hamsters from Aunt Jodi.” I now believe that if a family is ready for a new pet, how fun to get one during a time of celebration.
And the two weeks after this past Christmas were some of my very favorite “work” days ever. I met the baby Golden Retriever (the new puppy of the family who inspired the newsletter, “My Dog, Ebony”), four baby guinea pigs, one baby chinchilla, and a baby gerbil. You brought me two new kittens, two baby Yorkies, one baby Beagle, ten baby rats, and two baby hamsters from Aunt Jodi.
And I came home after that whirlwind of adorable babies to our own new gerbil baby, Princess, a Christmas gift to our oldest daughter. As cute as our now one-year-old gerbil is, today I thought it would be fun to talk about puppies, and probably more helpful to you. If you do need gerbil information, the main thing you need to know is if she escapes, grab quick. Princess is an expert at escaping, but is so inquisitive that she comes right back to see what we are doing, and then we can grab her. If you have a normal pet, a Christmas puppy, or any puppy for that matter, you are going to need an encouraging word, actually about a year’s worth of encouraging words.
Here is a start: It gets steadily easier as they grow up. I believe God starts puppies off as cute as He does to keep them alive. If my theory is true, then it is probably also true that Golden Retrievers do not outgrow their puppy cuteness because they take so long to outgrow all of their puppy antics. It is a survival tactic. But don’t worry! Even if your puppy is a Golden! I will walk you through finding a pet, puppy-proofing, buying supplies, feeding, and training. Then come see me with your new family member, and I will set you up for a very successful relationship. Pets, as you know, are challenging, but well worth the investment.
Obtaining Your New Friend
If you are reading this, you probably have a cute fuzzy face already staring up at you and are wondering what to do next. If, by chance, you have not yet adopted your puppy, I will give you my input. Remember what Larry Burkett used to say when people would ask him for money advice on his radio show, “Opinions are usually worth what you pay for them.” But he DID know finances, and I am no Larry Burkett, but I DO know puppies.
My favorite puppy sources are rescue groups and the Nebraska Humane Society, or your local humane society, if you do not live in Nebraska. Honestly, The Nebraska Humane Society is worth the drive if you are having trouble finding the right pet to adopt in your hometown. And yes, they do have puppies, purebreds even, if you are into that sort of thing. I will just mention, mutts and older dogs are worth considering too, so unless you have your heart set on a particular breed and age, consider the rest of the dogs who also need loving homes. Whether you get a pup or an adult, a purebred or a mixed breed, make sure you learn all you can about your breed or combination of breeds (as best you can guess), especially potential health issues, personality tendencies, and grown size.
My next favorite puppy sources after humane societies and rescue groups are high-quality, home-based, small-scale breeders. Never, under any circumstances, buy a puppy from an organization that works with puppy mills, or that you suspect might work with puppy mills. This includes many pet stores and all high-volume puppy sellers. For the record, neither PETsMART nor Petco works with puppy mills–both organizations are among the Pet Savers, like you and me. Breeding puppies and raising them and socializing them and looking after all of their medical needs and all of their parents’ medical needs is just not possible on a large scale. If you are currently looking into the adorable face of a pet with such a background and thinking, “Oh no! What have I done? I may have inadvertently supported an evil puppy mill!” do not return them there! I know…you would never do that (that is why they gave you a “money-back guarantee”–no risk for them!), but don’t feel bad either. Consider your pet rescued from such an awful place, and yourself all the wiser.
If you have ever baby-proofed, skip this part–that is essentially what we are talking about now. If this is a new experience, or if it has been a while since you have puppy- or baby-proofed, I hope this will help. To start, go through your house on your hands and knees. No, really! You need to have a puppy’s-eye-view. Do you see any small toys? Any electrical cords? Get them up out of reach! Lock up any medicine, cleaners, trash bins, and anything else that you do not want scattered or ingested.
Next, check all of your houseplants. If you are a plant genius, bring me the scientific names of each plant, and I will help you determine if they are toxic. If you are, like me, the opposite of a plant genius, pick up your mystery plants, congratulate yourself on keeping them alive for all this time, and put them all up on a high shelf, just in case they are poisonous. Now you are ready to set up the house for a puppy.
Write out a list of everything your new puppy needs. If you just walk into PetSmart without a plan, you will go broke and then have no financial resources to support your puppy long-term, because everything that store has is cute and looks to me like A Thing My Pet Needs. So even today, with a houseful of pets whose novelty should have worn off long ago, I never go shopping at PETsMART without a list. If I go without a well thought out plan, I come home with too much stuff…or a cat.
Here are some considerations for your list…a collar and leash, puppy food, two puppy bowls, and a kennel. Get an enclosed kennel that is large enough to turn around in and stand up in, but not large enough to urinate in and then move to a dry area. You will also need a tag with his or her name and address (if it is a puppy with a name already, not just a concept), training treats, and a few toys. Too many toys at first will overwhelm your puppy, so take most of them out of your cart. Put back the pig ears and real bones too. They are not safe.
Set out your new bowls, and fill one with water. The other will be trickier, but not much. What food is your puppy on now? That is perfect for the first week! Give him or her about one cup of food per ten pounds per day, in three feedings. For example, if you have a ten-pound puppy, feed a level 1/3 cup scoop three times a day. Weigh your puppy weekly or so, and adjust feedings as he or she grows. At every stage of growth, you should be able to feel your pet’s ribs, but not see them, and if you look from above, you should see a well-defined waist.
If you would like to switch foods, wait one week while your puppy gets used to his or her new home. After that first week, mix the old and new diets half and half for one week. After this, it is safe to switch completely to the new diet.
Even though puppies will lose their baby teeth between four and six months of age, I prefer getting a puppy used to dry food, for dental health later in life–and dry food is easier for you. However, canned or dry food can both be nutritionally sound. Large breed dogs (retriever and bigger) need large breed puppy food to aid them in slow, steady growth, which minimizes the risk of joint issues later in life. All puppies need puppy food for the first year of life and dog food after that. My favorite brand is Science Diet. There are numerous good brands available though, so read the labels, talk with friends, and if all else fails, ask me, and I will help you.
My least favorite diet is the BARF (bones and raw food) diet, but even that I would be willing to walk you through, and we can come up with a safe and healthy dietary plan for your little wolf pup.
There are several ways to potty-train a dog, and as an owner of a leaky Poodle, take my advice with a grain of salt. However, I believe the most humane, reliable way to train a dog is with a kennel and ALL positive reinforcement. Never, never, never (never) hit your pet. Do not tap his nose. Do not spank his butt. Do not swing a newspaper at him or put his nose in anything gross. Please do not yell at or otherwise scare him either. All of these things are mean and will not work. And they are so 1970’s.
Back to your pup, who is lovingly and properly cared for from the beginning. Your kennel will be your greatest training aid. Dogs will try not to soil their sleeping area. Remember though that puppies do not yet have perfect bladder control. In fact, some toy breeds, most notably Yorkshire Terriers, start out with anatomy similar to the dolls you can feed a bottle and they instantly pee. But don’t worry! Unlike the dolls, Yorkies, and all puppies, grow up and are able to pee within socially acceptable boundaries! We just need to help them get there. Besides having poor bladder control, puppies also do not automatically know that if they potty, their beds underneath them will be wet. So a small kennel is the beginning, not the entirety, of potty training.
Have the door of the kennel open when you are home and chewies and toys in it so he will know it is a den and not a jail. When you cannot be with your puppy, and during the night, have him in the kennel with no blankets or treats and with the door closed. Many people balk at having their puppy locked up, but most dogs like having a safe place they can think of as their own. When they are trained, you can choose not to use a kennel anymore, and have them sleep on a dog bed or with you.
An eight-week-old puppy needs to go outside to urinate an average of every two hours, including overnight. He or she will need to defecate about one half hour after each meal. (Food does not go through their system that quickly, but having food in their stomach stimulates a defecation reflex.) The time between bathroom breaks will steadily increase as they get older, gain more bladder control and a larger bladder capacity, and mentally connect the need to go potty with the actual act. Puppies are usually fully potty trained between six and twelve months of age. What all of that means is that you are in for a LOT of work!
When he or she is out of the kennel, have him or her on a slack leash or within sight all of the time at the beginning. Take your puppy out every few hours, after meals, and when he or she seems to need to go. Even if you are perfectly vigilant and take your puppy outside like clockwork, I guarantee that there will still be accidents.
Like most things I tell you (as you know if I have ever said to you “Give your cat this medicine twice a day for a week”), this is very simple for me to say and very difficult for you to do in Real Life: Ignore EVERY potty mistake your puppy makes. Act like you could not care less if he ruins your carpet (again). If he is caught in the act, pick him up (watch your shoes), and take him outside. If he finishes outside, praise him. If not, do NOTHING until the next potty event. If you find a puddle inside (or worse), clean it up without discussing it with your pet. When he does potty outside, cheer like he just won an Olympic swim event. EVERY TIME. You will feel silly and your neighbors will roll their eyes, but next year at this time, THEY will be cleaning up their carpet, and you and your dog will be outside laughing at them.
Those are the essentials of training: Reward the good behavior, and ignore the unwanted behavior. I guarantee that with an impressionable baby dog, whose goal in life is to please you, this will ALWAYS work. This will even work with an older dog, or a dog who is not as eager to please, and (I mean it) with cats and pocket pets. Positive reinforcement is always the shortest distance between untrained and trained. I keep saying it, because on your twentieth “Super Dog” trip outside while he is peeing (watch your shoes), it will not feel like a short distance between untrained and trained. But I promise you your hard work and patience will pay off.
More on Positive Reinforcement
You know from previous newsletters how twitchy I am about negative reinforcement. In Real Life, most dogs and cats can handle a bit of negative reinforcement every once in a while. Some, including my own Noodle the Poodle, cannot. I have yelled before when I have found pee in the house, and Noodle cowers like he is about to be smacked. So then I cry, and sit down with him (next to, not in, the puddle of Poodle piddle), and try to undo what I have just done. But it is best not done in the first place.
So I am not saying that you need to raise your pet perfectly. I am saying, lean toward positive reinforcement as much as possible. Use treats and praise to reinforce good behavior. Ignore unwanted behavior. It is kinder, will strengthen your bond, and has been proven time and time again to produce stronger, longer lasting results. You will see the most dramatic example of this with potty training, but it also works with learning manners, learning tricks, and even overcoming destructive behaviors and phobias.
After your puppy is home and settled, bring him or her in for a new pet check-up. You will learn if your new pet has any abnormalities that need to be dealt with, or more likely, gain the peace of mind that your pet is perfectly healthy. And once again, bring a list! Not of dog supplies this time, but of puppy questions for the veterinary team. We will get you started on preventative care (wellness exams, vaccines, deworming, and all of that), help you learn about your breed, coach you on puppy training, help you find a puppy class trainer, help you find a great groomer if need be, put together a diet plan, outline a life-long health plan, and if you want us to (this is probably our favorite), help you brainstorm a fitting name for your new pet.
So congratulations. And good luck. Call me if you need help, or just an encouraging word. If you are still deciding on adopting a pet, I have two thoughts. The first is, in an ideal world, probably the best time to get a new puppy is during the summer, when it is as far as possible from the craziness of the holidays, and when the whole family probably has more time to invest in training and socializing. And the second thought, and this is huge, as you know if you have ever stood in a snowstorm while your adorable puppy stands knee-deep in snow, wondering why in the world you wanted to stand outside with him, potty training a new puppy when you are pretending it is Christmas in July is MUCH easier than potty training a puppy when normal people celebrate Christmas.