Preparing for adopting a puppy

I have had a few requests since the end of winter to share some thoughts on what advice I give to anyone considering making the commitment of getting a puppy. Spring and early summer are the most popular times of year for families to welcome a new puppy. The warmer weather certainly makes some of the hard work it takes in the first months of caring for a puppy a little easier.

I will focus here on new puppies, however I always recommend anyone considering adding a dog to their family give serious consideration to adopting through a rescue organization. Most, but certainly not all of the dogs looking for homes from these organizations are older than a puppy, but this can have its advantages, depending on your situation, lifestyle and the amount of experience you have caring for dogs.

The first consideration of course is what type of dog is the one that best suits your home. Entire books could be written on this subject. It deserves very serious consideration and a willingness to accept that the end of the day, there may actually be no type of dog that will work with your current situation. Careful research of breed types will help considerably, even if you plan to adopt a mixed breed or rescue, as a general sense of the characteristics of the breed or mix of breeds in question will help determine if a given dog’s size, temperament, exercise and grooming requirements will work for you.

Once you have a short list of potential breeds and a good knowledge of what to expect from each, it’s time to consider where to look for your new pet. For specific breeds the Canadian Kennel Club keeps a list of registered breeders, or an online search or call to your vet will quickly point you in the direction of a local breed-specific rescue. These organizations do great work and are an excellent place to look if you have your heart set on a certain breed, but would at the same time prefer to give a good home to a dog truly in need.

While I’ve certainly seen many healthy and happy puppies come from ads in the newspaper or online, this is also probably the highest-risk place to look in terms of finding the right pet. If you go this route, make sure you ask the right questions. Have the puppies been vet checked? If recommended, have the parents been screened for genetic disease? Can you meet the mother? These are just a few, your vet can provide you with a comprehensive list. Always make sure you are allowed to see where the puppies are kept and have been raised. Remember, a conscientious breeder will have as many if not more questions for you, as they will want to be satisfied that their puppies are going to great homes.

I don’t believe that puppies should be sent to new homes before seven weeks of age; some breeders will try to find homes for pups as young as five weeks. I find that puppies tend to adapt better and develop fewer behavioral issues if they are not separated from their mothers too early.

Once home, for most puppy owners the priority is going to be house training. Unlike kittens, who seem to come programmed to use a litter box and usually require no special training in this area, puppies do need to learn. They do however have one innate understanding when it comes to knowing where to eliminate, and that is, you don’t mess the area you have to sleep in. Wild canines are den animals, they sleep in very tight and cozy quarters. In the wild this is the safest and warmest way to go, and it is instinctive for them to not eliminate in this confined area.

Crate training makes use of this natural behavior. We recreate the den in the form of a small enclosed crate, just big enough to sleep in. This not only gives the puppy a sense of having their own safe haven, it also provides a place where we can almost always be confident that the puppy will make the effort to ‘hold it’. The crate must always be a safe place of refuge and never be used as a punishment; this will defeat the purpose. Over time we teach the puppy that what they innately ‘know’ about not soiling their little den applies to the entire house.

The next key area that new puppy owners will need to focus on early in their new relationship will be obedience training and socialization. Fortunately the best approach to both of these things can be achieved in the same setting. I strongly advise that all puppies be taken to a good, structured puppy training class. Even if you have lots of experience training dogs, there is no better early socialization than a well-run puppy class. Most classes are available to pups after their second set of vaccines, typically at around 12 weeks. This is within a crucial window of behavioral development. Many experiences in the weeks around this time will impact a dog for life. Getting them into a controlled and supervised setting where they are exposed to a number of other dogs, allowing them to have a little fun and explore without being a ‘free for all’, is hugely beneficial.

Lastly the first year of life for a puppy brings a number of key health care issues that need to be addressed for them to have the best chance of living a long healthy life. Puppies should see their vet at eight, 12 and 16 weeks for routine check ups, vaccines and parasite prevention. I advise that until a puppy has been through this full set of visits, they should stay away from any areas where other dogs congregate such as off-leash parks. Of course they need to get out in the world, but until they are protected from certain diseases and parasites, it is advisable to keep their exposure to a minimum. A comprehensive puppy schedule with your vet should also cover things such as nutritional counseling, and advice and guidance on basic care such as nail trimming and ear cleaning. Your vet will also be very happy to give you guidance on house and obedience training, keeping your puppy safe and many other aspects of raising a healthy, happy and well-adjusted companion.

There is nothing quite like bringing a puppy into your home. It is a huge commitment and a lot of work but the rewards are plenty!


Dr. Nigel Skinner

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