An Early Start

As with humans, a dog’s early learning experience is very important to their development and their future behaviour. It is therefore critical that puppies are provided with constructive learning experiences during the crucial early period of their lives. Most people don’t acquire a puppy until the dog is roughly eight weeks of age, and in some cases later — here is my list of key do’s and don’ts new dog owners should think about right away.

Do carefully look at the parents of a puppy if possible. Breed predispositions aside, the behaviour of a puppy’s parents is the best predictor as to his or her future temperament. If you are getting your puppy from a breeder and they do not offer to let you interact with both parents (if they are on site), find out why.

Don’t agree to meet your new puppy in a parking lot, dog park or other similar venue, as you may be dealing with a so called puppy broker with ties to a puppy mill. A responsible breeder will invite you to come and see the environment where the puppy was born. You would be surprised how many times people have told me they were not permitted by a seller to do this, which should raise a red flag

Do ask for a puppy’s veterinary records. Depending on the age of the puppy, it should have already received initial vaccinations against several conditions. Ask your own veterinarian about what vaccinations are necessary and follow up on boosters if recommended. Also important is the deworming process, as worms are often transmitted to them internally from their mother. If not completely eradicated, these parasites can have a negative effect on a puppy’s behaviour and future health. And, do take your puppy for a veterinary exam at the earliest opportunity.

Don’t just take the word of a seller that a puppy is in good health.

Do start socializing your new puppy as soon as you can. The initial weeks and months of a dog’s life is a crucial period for this. Introduce him/her to new sights and sounds in a controlled environment, making sure that these are positive experiences; otherwise, your puppy could become anxious or fearful later in life when encountering new things. When puppies learn at an early age that the world is not to be feared, they are more likely to become well-adjusted adults.

Don’t put the puppy at risk in any way when doing early socialization. For example, they shouldn’t be taken to dog parks or allowed to interact with unknown dogs until vaccinations are completed. After you have the green light to do this, I would recommend that all introductions to unknown dogs be done with both dogs on a leash until you can be sure they will react to each other in a non-aggressive manner. In any case, don’t encourage overly rough play, as this can escalate quickly into negative consequences, especially if a puppy is engaging with an older, larger dog.

Do start behaviour training at an early age. Formal classes are valuable for socialization, and I recommend them for first-time dog owners; experienced owners can certainly begin training on their own at home. Remember that dog training is a completely unregulated field, so if you obtain the services of a trainer, make certain that they utilize current methodology where the focus is on reinforcing the desired behaviour using positive means, and not trying to shape behaviour through negative consequences.

Don’t use force or old-school punishmentbased training methods; one very counterproductive example that comes to mind is rubbing a puppy’s nose in a mess it has made during housetraining. Recent studies have shown that physical punishment can actually contribute to the development of fearful or aggressive behaviour. It’s more desirable that your puppy obeys your commands because it wants to please you, as opposed to obeying your commands because it is afraid of what will happen if it doesn’t.

Do always be consistent when teaching a puppy appropriate and expected behaviour. Make sure that all family members use the same approach and react in the same way in similar circumstances. When puppies, and dogs in general, know what to expect they are less likely to become anxious, due to the predictable results of their actions. Anxietybased behaviour is one of the main problems reported by dog owners to behaviourists.

Don’t leave young puppies unsupervised for any length of time, unless they are in a confined, safe area. Puppies are continually learning during their waking hours, and if left to their own devices they can easily pick up bad or destructive habits, such as chewing or digging. As much as possible, puppy-proof the environment by removing potentially harmful things that puppy can get into and swallow, and providing acceptable and safe items to chew on during the teething process

Deciding to get a puppy is a major commitment in terms of time, energy and effort. Make certain that you and other family members who will be involved are prepared to make such a commitment.

On a personal note, I acquired a Mastiff puppy a little over a year ago, so I have some recent experience with many of the things I have written about in this article. I will be honest and say that there have been times when I could have put more effort into following my own advice about continually supervising a puppy. For example, Henry (pictured) has developed a bad habit of climbing onto recliners in our living room. Now, if I don’t place the foot rest for the recliners on them when not in use, Henry will plop down on top of them. While you may think that isn’t a big deal, in the picture Henry is about a year old, and is already too big for the recliners. As Mastiffs are not full grown until around two years of age, he’s still just a puppy, albeit a really big one. Fortunately, he is overall an obedient dog with few other behavioural issues and a calm, confident demeanor. Practice makes perfect, or at least nearly so.


Kerry Vinson, founder of Animal Behaviour Consultants, has a BA in psychology, has previously taught social science courses at the college level in Ontario, and has extensively studied animal learning and behaviour modification. In addition to having conducted seminars on canine behaviour, and assessing dogs with behavioural problems, he has been designated by the Province of Ontario as an expert witness in the areas of general canine behaviour, canine aggression and it’s retraining. As such he has testified in a provincial Inquest as well as numerous other dog-related court cases between 1999 and 2018. For more information he can be reached at (705) 295-3920, (905) 352-3353, or visit:

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