You’ve planned for months. Maybe you have been searching the local shelter’s website day in and day out trying to find your next pet. Perhaps every time you thought you found the perfect fit, they were scooped out from under your nose. Or, perhaps you prefer to purchase from a breeder. You’ve been eagerly watching the updates they send you each day monitoring your fluffy friend’s progress towards adoption day.
Whatever the case may be, you’ve reached the end goal. The furball was plopped into your arms, you signed some paperwork, received some paperwork in return, and then the process is all over. Now, you’re sitting in your living room watching them sniff around and wondering to yourself about what comes next.
There are a few broad categories of care that you need to consider for your new friend. There are some medical tasks that you should be ready to address in the coming days or weeks, and equally as pressing, there are some behavioral training steps you’ll likely want to take.
Let’s start medically…
Most puppies are not going to be adopted out until they are at least 8 weeks old. The American Animal Hospital Association categorizes vaccines as a core vaccine (i.e. recommended for most dogs) versus non-core (i.e. lifestyle and location-based vaccinations). The core vaccinations are the ones that are most important because they protect against viruses that can make your new pup very sick. These viruses can even be fatal.
The first vaccine is a combination consisting of Distemper, Parvovirus, and Canine Adenovirus 2, +/- Parainfluenza virus. It is commonly abbreviated DA2PPV or some similar acronym. This vaccine must be given on a schedule, most typically beginning around 8 weeks and receiving a booster shot every 3–4 weeks until the puppy is older than 16 weeks of age. This booster schedule maximizes the puppy’s own immune response by priming the body to respond and also by allowing the puppy to grow out of the protection they receive initially from their mom.
The second vaccination is against the Rabies virus. Rabies is still a major public health concern, and should never be treated lightly. While it can affect your pets, it can also spread to us. Rabies is nearly uniformly fatal with only about 20 individuals actually surviving after developing symptoms. Additionally, most states in the United States legally require Rabies vaccination of all domestic dogs. This vaccine is usually given for the first time between 15–20 weeks of age.
The most commonly given non-core vaccination in my experience is called the Bordetella, or colloquially, Kennel Cough vaccine. This vaccination has a few forms including an injectable, an intranasal, and an oral form. The oral and intranasal vaccinations typically don’t need booster doses; whereas, the injectable requires a booster 3–4 weeks after the initial dose.
There are a variety of other non-core vaccinations including those against Leptospirosis, Canine Influenza, Rattlesnake venom, Lyme Disease, and Canine Coronaviruses. I won’t spend much time discussing these, but most would require a booster vaccine 3–4 weeks after the initial dose. As a general rule, vaccination at or after 16 weeks of age is also recommended for the same reasons mentioned earlier.
Puppies, believe it or not, can carry external and internal parasites that can cause problems for us or our children. For instance, hookworms, an intestinal parasite in dogs, infect millions of people each year in the United States. Our domestic pets can contribute to shedding them into the environment or passing them on to us. Usually, the breeder or the shelter you adopted your pup from will have already dewormed them at least once. Still, your puppy will require multiple rounds of dewormer as they grow.
In the United States, we have a variety of climates, and so parasitism is variable by state and sometimes even within a given state. Your local veterinarian will know what’s best for your specific area. Generally speaking, the CDC recommends that all puppies are dewormed regularly throughout their first several months of age.
Routine fecal testing is generally recommended as well depending on your area. This will screen for parasites that may be more difficult to kill with our broad-spectrum deworming drugs — Parasites such as Giardia, Coccidia, and Tapeworms. I usually send a fecal collection cup home at the first visit and recommend bringing it back regardless of how outwardly healthy the pup is.
External parasites, like fleas and ticks, may also be prevalent in your area. Many puppies will need to begin some form of flea and tick prevention during these first several months of life. This, of course, also depends on where you live. Even in my area where the incidence of these parasites is low we often need to begin new puppies on prevention medication because they come in infested with fleas or ticks.
Spaying and Neutering
If you plan to get your puppy ‘fixed’ this procedure has likely crossed your mind already. Fortunately, there’s not really a rush to get either of these procedures done depending on how old your pet is. If you adopted from the shelter your puppy will have almost certainly already had these procedures done, and you can move on.
The topic of spay and neuter is not as simple as it used to be. There is more and more research surrounding the timing of spays and neuters that makes the situation a little more complicated. Generally, I recommend the procedure after at least six months of age, and depending on the breed I will usually recommend it even later. Large and giant breed dogs especially tend to benefit from waiting until a little later in life to allow their growth to complete. There are some medical and potential behavior tradeoffs that occur with waiting, but we won’t delve into all of the nuances of this discussion here. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for six months of age or older for smaller breed dogs, and 10–18 months for large or giant breed dogs.
Now let’s shift to behavior…
It is never too early to start training your puppy where you want them to do their business and where you don’t! This crucial step is also imperative to solidifying their role as a member of your family, and it can be frustrating. It is usually straight forward and requires a little patience and a lot of repetition.
It’s recommended to take young puppies out as frequently as possible. This means going out with them at least once an hour. In my opinion, this allows for the most effective training to take place. By being present with your pet, you can immediately reward their behavior to help expedite the learning experience for them. Positive reinforcement is likely the best driver to solidify your desired behaviors. This can include a small, tasty treat, or if you forget to bring one with you can be simple verbal or physical praise.
No appropriate pee or poo should go unrecognized or unrewarded! This simple rule will help make this process easier for you. Don’t be discouraged by setbacks, your pup will be trying their best! In the event of an accident, be sure to avoid yelling or scolding your puppy. This can be seen as a form of reward and can actually inadvertently enforce the behavior. Remember too that your pup is under enough stress already. They’ve just moved homes and are meeting new people. The last thing they need is negative attention.
It is important to remember that your pup needs to learn to interact with both people and other animals. Not all dogs are going to be 100% perfect in all situations, but the earlier you start working positively with your pet, the more likely they will fit in.
Socializing with other dogs can be immensely beneficial, but as we discussed in the medical section, vaccinations are not usually finished until about 4 months of age. This is far too late to begin socializing. So, puppy classes are generally what I recommend to new pet owners. They are a compromise to balance the behavioral and medical aspects of new puppy ownership. Usually, they will accept puppies after 12 weeks of age that have received at least 2 vaccinations of the DA2PPV combination. Puppy classes usually are safe because they should have regimented cleaning protocols and enrollment requirements.
Outside of socializing with other pets, you should seek to have your puppy meet new people. This can be whomever you’d like, just make sure to keep things in an environment where your puppy is in control. Though all of the Ooh’s and Ah’s are fun to us, they can be overwhelming to a puppy who isn’t ready to be the center of attention. So start by having a friend introduce themselves slowly, maybe feeding the puppy a few treats. Then you can slowly graduate towards letting them hold or play with the pup.
Self-soothing and attention-seeking behavior
Self-soothing is the term used to describe the process that human babies go through to fall to sleep on their own or relax themselves through a perceived crisis. This will be a step that you have to get through as well with your new pup.
Some animals are immediately receptive to being on their own, but not all of them. I wish there was a more sophisticated way to train your furball that you don’t need to be within eyesight 100% of the time, but there really isn’t. Ignoring them is your best bet. Especially when they get fussy. A little attention deprivation goes a long way to helping them learn to cope on their own.
This can be immensely difficult, especially during the potty training because you never want to miss the whine that means, “I need to go out now!” It gets easier over time though, and you should start small. Try leaving your pup alone for a few minutes at a time during the day. You can use puzzle toys, like treat containing kong toys*, to help distract their mind through the initial threshold of watching you leave.
During this same time period, you will be constantly witnessing new behaviors that your puppy will use to try to get your attention or some other perceived reward. It is important to recognize behaviors that you don’t desire early and learn to redirect them.
For instance, many puppies will seek to get your attention by biting or scratching at you or your family members. This behavior is normal, but obviously, one that you wish them to discontinue as they age. It is important to not scold or yell at them as that is likely to inadvertently enforce the behavior rather than discourage it.
If you are at home with your puppy, try carrying a small number of training treats in a ziplock bag with you. You can also carry a small chew toy if possible. What this will allow you to do is quickly reward good behaviors when you see them (with the treats) and redirect behaviors, such as biting, when they occur (with the toy).
Your goal is to instill in your pet’s mind through reward and repetition that the chew toy is appropriate for the teeth and the claws, but your arms and legs are not. It takes discipline on your part, just as much as it takes it on your pup’s, but these simple behavior training steps are something we all must go through! Just trust that you’ll get there, and don’t let setbacks get you down.
Now, I realize that there are probably a million other thoughts running through your mind beyond what I’ve touched on here. Remember, that puppies are each unique and come with their own set of challenges. Not all dogs will learn at the same rate, so just focus on the basics and you’ll get there!
There are obviously going to be variations in the medical needs of your pup as well, so don’t let this be an exclusive guide. Your veterinarian in your local area will be best suited to getting your new friend everything that they need.
*It should be noted that there are literally thousands of toys out there. Be sure to pick a toy that your pet cannot readily swallow; and likewise, discuss with your own veterinarian about which toys to avoid for your dog breed.