Getting a new pet is one of the most exciting – and, if you’re like me, one of the most anxiety-inducing – times in your life. It’s not like having a baby, of course, but in some ways it’s almost harder because puppies can’t wear diapers, if you know what I’m saying. Having a pet is a big commitment – one that can span an average of 15 years – so it’s important that you’re as prepared as possible before bringing your new furry friend home. We got a gorgeous little Westie called Milo just after Christmas, and while he’s been the biggest joy of our lives, we would have been much more stressed out had we not extensively prepared ourselves before adding him to the family.
Below are some things to keep in mind before getting your dog and after, when he’s adjusting to his new forever home. Of course, you may do things differently and find that it works perfectly for you – this is NOT a must-do list, rather a list of what we found worked for us and has resulted in an incredibly happy, healthy, fully house, crate and trick-trained puppy at only 4 months old.
1. Consistency is key. This is the most important rule of them all, and one that you should repeat to yourself over and over again, particularly during the more trying moments of getting your puppy house trained, crate trained, whatever. You may get tired of getting up every 10 minutes to take him outside, or it might break your heart to hear him crying his heart out in the kitchen all night because he’s in his bed on his own, but giving in “just this once” sends the message that bad behaviour gets your dog attention and, most likely, his own way. Re-enforcing bad behaviour can be incredibly difficult to undo.
2. You make the rules. Dogs are pack animals, and each pack has a leader. It’s incredibly important that you take this position and maintain it. Letting your dog dominate you (whether by taking your food, demanding your attention, becoming aggressive, etc.) is a recipe for disaster, especially if you have a feisty breed.
3. House training doesn’t happen overnight. This goes hand in hand with #1 – the best way to get your puppy in the habit of doing its business outside rather than on your carpet or bed is to continually take him to an area where you’d like him to go. Puppies typically need to use the bathroom after eating, sleeping or playing – and the younger they are, the more they need to go in between. It can be incredibly frustrating and exhausting, but you will eventually see results if you stay the course. Oh, and when your dog does have an accident, don’t rub his nose in it – it’s an outdated method that is cruel and won’t get you what you’re after.
4. Crate training can be particularly helpful with housebreaking and when it comes to leaving your dog overnight. We crate trained Milo from the day we brought him home, and while we experienced two nights of howling and sobbing, we remained strong and did not go to him when this happened. After those two nights, he never did it again. Better yet, he knows when it’s bedtime now and actually runs in the kitchen and hops in his bed himself! It’s cosy and secure and he knows it’s his, which is helpful.
Milo has only ever had two accidents in his crate, and that was in the first week of being here. Since then, not a single one. The crate you choose for your dog should have plenty of air (we have a black metal one that we lay a towel over for extra warmth/comfort) and should be big enough for him to stand up in but not move around too much. Dogs hate to pee/poop anywhere near where they sleep and will do anything to keep it from happening, there teaching them that they can hold it. Note: small puppies will become extremely distressed if left for too long and forced to relieve themselves in their crates. You should still be giving them bathroom breaks until they’re about 4 months old, at least (your experience may vary – Milo was an early bloomer and could hold it from the time he was about 8 weeks).
Another thing that can help if you’re crate training is to leave music playing. We put a chill album on the iPad and leave it on repeat on the kitchen counter overnight, which soothes him. He was listening to the Ed Sheeran album for ages, but now he’s moved on to Jessie Ware. A comfort item, such as a blanket from his mother or an item of clothing you’ve worn (which has your scent) will work wonders, and you should also include a small toy for him to occupy himself with in case he wakes up in the middle of the night.
5. Get him used to being left alone. One of the hardest things to do when you get an adorable new puppy is put him down, especially if he’s particularly cuddly. We found it so difficult with Milo not to be holding him all the time, and still do! Plus, since I work from home, he wasn’t used to spending any time on his own, either. This can become extremely problematic when you DO need to leave the house for any period, and it can cause your dog to develop severe separation anxiety if not dealt with at a young age.
When you leave the house, start out at an hour or so and gradually work your way up. Again, your pup should be left with ample water (even when not house trained – this is the chance you’ll have to take) and food if you will be gone past his feeding times, plus toys to entertain him, a soft bed to lie on and music playing, as it mimics the noise of their daily lives. Even when you are home, you should allow your puppy to have supervised playtime that’s on his own and doesn’t require your direct engagement. This will teach him to entertain himself and not become destructive simply because he isn’t receiving your attention at the moment.
6. Don’t give him people food, people. It might be tempting to share your dinner with your puppy, especially when he’s got such a gorgeous little face and is begging/barking/crying for it. Don’t give in, as it’ll be a disaster in multiple senses. First, you will be teaching him that his behaviour will get him what he wants and I guarantee you that you’ll spend every mealtime handing half your food over to the dog or listening to intense howling for you to give in.
Second, while certain human foods won’t harm your dog, it’s best to keep him on a dog food diet with only small variations (such as certain raw vegetables and fruits, and only as a treat). Giving him processed foods, or cooked ones with certain spices and ingredients could make him ill and upset his digestion. Try not to eat in front of the TV or at an area that’s easily accessible for him, as it’s sort of torturous to him.
7. Invest in good pet insurance. Your puppy should have visited a vet pretty much immediately after you got him, and it’s imperative that he receives his shots and is regularly defleaed and dewormed to keep him healthy and parasite-free. You should also get your pet spayed or neutered as soon as he’s old enough – generally around 5 to 6 months, though some vets will recommend this earlier. All of that won’t be covered by your pet insurance, most likely, but it’s incredibly important that you purchase quality coverage that spans his entire lifetime and not a single year. Certain breeds are prone to particular health issues as they grow, and the vet bills for treating these conditions can cost you thousands of dollars, not to mention that a dog’s inherent inquisitiveness can get it into some sticky situations at times which will require him to see a vet. Purchase a comprehensive plan now and it could save you a lot of grief in the future.
8. Spoiling your dog is okay, to a degree. One thing we love to do is buy Milo new toys. Pretty much any time we set foot in a pet store or any shop that happens to sell pet supplies, he gets something new. As such, he has a massive toy box in the living room that includes balls, squeaky toys, old shoes of ours which he’s claimed as his own, socks (also stolen from us) and more. With so many toys to choose from, you’d think he’d never get bored, right? Wrong. As great as it is to spoil him, we have since come to realise that he can get overstimulated and therefore bored/uninterested quite easily. Give your dog 3 or 4 toys at a time and rotate these every few days to keep his interest up.
9. Training him to do tricks isn’t just fun, it’s beneficial. I can’t tell you how much laughter and pride we get out of watching Milo do all his tricks – playing dead, rolling over, begging, shaking paws, etc. But while it’s a lot of fun for us to watch, it’s also good for him. Dogs love working for treats (and there are some awesome probiotic ones out there that are really good for them, as well) and it helps them focus their attention when you spend time – only 5 – 10 minutes at once – teaching them. Like anything else, it takes dedication and consistency to get your dog knowing a trick 100%, but when he does, it’s great to see. It’s also another opportunity for you to bond with him.
10. Socialize, socialize, socialize! If you already have other dogs, feel free to skip this part. If not, read on. One of the most important things you can do for your puppy while he’s still young is to get him used to other people and other dogs. Once he’s had his shots and can out for walks, take him to the local park or an area where you know other people will be walking their dogs. Don’t be scared to go near them – most dogs are pretty chill and aren’t out to attack yours (though obviously be wary of ones that seem unruly, aggressive, etc.) and just want to sniff one another to see what the deal is. That being said, I recommend not letting your dog off the leash when not at home in his own back yard, and also make sure to get him microchipped, which is law in most places now, I think.
If you want a more formal arrangement to get your dog used to others, training session can be a massive help. This gives them the opportunity to meet and play with their new doggy (and human!) friends in a controlled environment while also learning discipline and control. If you work a lot and are in a position to do so, think about sending him to doggy day care, where he’ll get a chance to do all of the above and more, and will probably come home so exhausted at the end of the day that you’ll have no problem getting him to sleep through the night.
11. Read a lot, but don’t take anything to heart too much. I can’t tell you how many hours we’ve spent over the past six months Googling questions related to the dog – both before and after we got him. Some information has been useful – like finding out what foods Westies are allergic to and which veggies we can safely give him as a special treat (carrots are his favourite, for the record) – and other stuff, not so much. If you’re having problems with house training your dog or barking or whatever, be wary of Google because instead of tips, you’ll most likely find people at wit’s end who are in your same position, making you feel even more frustrated and pessimistic. Read as much as possible just to hear about everyone else’s experience with their dogs and feel free to try out their suggestions and tips within reason, but remember that your dog may be entirely different and if you are doing the basics right and remaining consistent, it should work itself out in time.
12. Praise him… extensively! The best way to encourage your puppy to behave in the ways you want him to is not by shouting at him for doing things wrong, but for praising him for doing things right! This is easily the best way to get the behaviour you want the most quickly. Dogs aren’t like humans – if you shout at them when you get home for peeing on the floor while you were out, he’s not going to understand what he did wrong – the pee was ages ago, so it’s no longer in his brain. If you take your dog out to the garden or on a walk to use the bathroom and he does his business, give him a treat and/or go really over the top with telling him how clever he is, what a good boy he is, etc. This goes for every single thing he does right. Rewarding him for doing the right things will make him want to do them every single time.
On the flip side, should you have a puppy that is slightly naughty and won’t be deterred, the gentlest and most humane way of discouraging this is by squirting him with a water bottle. It’s enough of a gentle shock to get him to, say, let go of your sock that he’s growling and pulling off your foot even though you’ve removed him and told him “no” six times. You shouldn’t have to do this much – Milo even sees the bottle now and he stops what he’s doing immediately (and sometimes wants to come chew on it). I think we’ve only ever had to squirt him five times or so.
Again, bringing home a puppy can be an intensely trying and exhausting time in the beginning, but stick to your guns and you should end up with a happy, healthy, lively dog who is well-trained and a massive source of fun and joy in your life.
Photos via my iPhone, because I’m a proud mother