The first six months

Puppies are never too young to learn

Sassy and Michelle play tug-of-war with Michelle's socks, Sassy growling her puppy growls and Michelle yelling at the puppy for tearing the cotton with her needle-sharp teeth. Sassy is a three-month-old Airedale Terrier purchased from a breeder.

Tiger is still peeing in the corner, even after he's been outside to relieve himself. Tiger is a four-month-old Chow Chow mix adopted from the local animal shelter.

Misty chases Sean and Traci and grabs their pant legs. Last week Traci fell and banged up her knee and Sean smacked the puppy for chasing his sister. Misty is a five-month-old Shetland Sheepdog given to the family by a neighbor.

Dixie takes her owner for a drag every morning and sometimes darts out the door for a romp on her own. Dixie is a six-month-old Labrador Retriever acquired from a pet store.

Sassy, Tiger, Misty, and Dixie are prime candidates for banishment to the back yard or surrender to an animal shelter or rescue organization.

Old dog tales

The first six months after puppy comes home are critical in shaping the relationship between puppy and family. Lapses and mistakes here can take months to fix, and families often do not have the time, persistence, or inclination to repair companionship-gone-wrong. Thus a trip to the shelter or rescue group with a tale of woe and a plea to find this "good dog but he . . . " a new home, a trip often followed a week or month or year later with purchase or adoption of another dog and a new beginning on the same path.

It's easy to blame the puppy or the breed - Labs are really too energetic or terriers are too nippy or "We only took this puppy because he was free," but the truth is that almost any dog can be suitable for almost any family if the family is willing and able to spend the time and energy on the first six months.

Many of the early problems in puppy training occur because of the persistence of an old belief that dogs are not ready for training until they are six months old. Other problems occur because owners excuse puppy behavior that is likely to become unacceptable dog behavior.


Puppies are ready to learn when they are born. Training merely formalizes the learning so that the family and the puppy can get along and build a bond that lasts a lifetime. The trick is to teach and reward appropriate behaviors and squelch inappropriate behaviors so that Sassy or Tiger becomes the dog of your dreams - faithful, well-mannered, playful, obedient, a joy to live with and brag about.

New puppies

New puppy care is relatively easy if tiring. Just get the little guy outside to relieve himself, feed him three times a day, and put him in the crate to sleep. He doesn't really need a leash because he can't run fast enough to get away, he's fun to play with because he'll chase the ball and act ferocious, he's ready to lick your face at a moment's notice, and he's sooooo cute when he's asleep.

Christmas puppies reach the terrible three-month stage about the end of January, and then the troubles begin. At three months, most puppies can run faster than most kids and many adults. As the days and weeks pass, they begin to assert some independence that may translate to growling if a toddler approaches the food bowl or a grade school youngster tries to retrieve a stolen action figure.

By four months, the pooch is agile enough to slip out the door when the kids come home from school and big enough to knock a nine-year-old on his backside. He may also be bold enough to steal snacks from tiny hands or from the table. By five months, a big-breed puppy is large enough and strong enough to drag even older kids and small adults - if they are lucky enough or foolish enough to clip a leash to the collar.

By six months, the pup may have destroyed the furniture in his teething frenzy, eaten a dozen pairs of socks, ruined bedspreads and stuffed toys and carpets, and required a couple of trips to the vet for intestinal upsets caused by his destructive activities. By this time, the kids may be afraid of the growing pup, Mom may be disgusted with his antics, and Dad may be ready to ship him out as an economic measure.

All this trouble can be avoided if the pup is trained from the moment he arrives in the home. And it can become a thing of the past if appropriate remedies are applied. In other words, those Christmas puppies can be well on the way to becoming loyal, affectionate, and obedient family pets by Easter with a modicum of persistence, a change in focus, and a determination to save the relationship.


While almost any dog can be suitable for almost any family, chances of building a strong bond are increased if people select a breed or mix suitable for their character and circumstances. Active families will be happier with active dogs; neat families will be happier with dogs that don't shed and drool; and quiet, shy families will be happier with mild-mannered breeds that need only moderate exercise. However, if a mistake has been made in the selection of a breed, all is not lost. With flexibility and determination, there's no need to give the pet away or to doom him to the backyard or the animal shelter.

It is up to the adults in the family to exert control over the relationship with the puppy. Control is physical and mental. Physical control involves guiding the puppy to do the right thing or placing him in a position to do the right thing. It does not mean spanking him with a hand or object when he makes a mistake. Mental control means developing a relationship with the puppy that clearly places you in the role of leader. If you have mental control, the puppy looks to you for approval and obeys your commands.

Control is established in a number of ways.

With a leash and collar: Even if Sassy couldn't possibly run fast enough to escape, she should learn to wear a collar and leash when she is less than three months old. If she pulls on the leash, you can change direction and coax her to follow you. Make it a game. Let her chase you; if she's a pantleg-grabber, distract her with a toy or treat. Don't drag her around; make it fun to be with you and she'll learn quickly.

With food: Feed Tiger at least twice a day. Teach him to sit before you put the bowl on the floor by holding it above his head. When he tips his head to look up, his haunches will hit the floor. Praise him and quickly put the bowl down. If he stands up too soon, have someone hold him gently in sitting position while you put the bowl down. Treats are great training aids for puppies. Just make sure that Tiger obeys a command before getting his treat.

With a crate: Crates are dog rooms, not dog prisons. They are safe havens for a tired or sick puppy and a necessity for putting puppy out of harm's way. Crates protect furniture and carpets from puppy damage when you are not home. And crates are great relievers of frustration - when Misty is running amok and the kids are screaming that she stole their cookies and you just discovered a pile of feces in the corner, it's great to send her to her room until she calms down and you get things under control.

With companionship: A dog that travels with its family is a dog that has good manners out of necessity. And a well-mannered dog is a joy to take along on trips to the kids' soccer game or the park or a family picnic or even a vacation. On the other hand, a dog that is banished to the back yard or the garage because it is ill-mannered generally becomes more so out of boredom, loneliness, and lack of direction.

With formal training: Obedience training has lost its mystique in recent years. No longer the sole province of Hollywood trainers and show competitors, obedience training has been modernized and adapted for family pets. Dog training clubs and schools exist in just about every nook and cranny of the country. Kennel clubs and breed clubs offer assistance to pet owners and provide literature about selecting a breed and breeder and training a puppy at hundreds of dog shows throughout the country. Many animal shelters offer counseling services and obedience classes to help prevent or solve problems so that families can develop a solid relationship with their pets. And dozens of books are available to help owners understand puppy behavior and train pets at home.

By spay or neuter surgery: Dogs that are spayed or neutered tend to be less aggressive and to stay at home. Sterilization also reduces the occurrence of certain cancers. However, be aware that the early (before six-to-eight months) sterilization that has recently become popular with shelters and some veterinarians can lead to physical problems for the dog in later life because they reduce the action of hormones that are important for appropriate growth. For more information on the pros and cons of early spay-neuter, see "Early Spay-Neuter Considerations for the Canine Athlete: One Veterinarian's Opinion" at and "Early Sterilization in Dogs and Cats" at

Keep the dog you have

When the bond between man and pet fails to blossom or breaks down, dogs frequently end up in an animal shelter. Many young dogs surrendered to shelters are euthanized because they have behavior problems that need never have developed. They are runaways or chewers or nippers or growlers or barkers or domineering or fearful or just plain difficult to control. Sometimes they are adopted by families that can deal with the behaviors, but often they are returned to the shelter because the new owners are as frustrated as those who surrendered the pooch in the first place. And most often, these dogs are euthanized before they get a chance at a new home.

The trick to a fantastic long-term relationship with a dog is to prevent bad behaviors from developing and to train away bad behaviors that have formed. The first six months are crucial to achieve that end.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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