Building a Better-Behaved Dog: 5 Key Areas to Address in Puppyhood

Puppy waiting at window
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Old dogs learn new tricks. But, truth be told, some behaviors are best addressed in puppyhood.

In many cases, behavior problems in adult dogs can be traced to their development during their first months of life. Behavior issues are often rooted in fear, with anxious responses and even aggressive behavior learned as ways to respond to given situations. Those responses are commonly developed during puppyhood when a dog learns through negative experiences, or even a lack of experience, what is safe and what is dangerous.

Poor manners also can take root in puppyhood, as young dogs learn through trial and error that certain behaviors, like barking or jumping up, garner desirable results, like attention. Many learned behavioral responses gain strength with practice and repetition, becoming more resistant to change the longer the dog rehearses them.

As an animal trainer working with puppies, I've found there are five areas of particular concern that owners should address during the early months of a dog’s life, rather than waiting to fix them in adulthood, to best ensure a lifetime of behavioral well-being.

Address Fear-Based Behavior Early

The more socialized and well-adjusted a dog is to various sights, sounds, smells and tactile stimuli, the less likely the animal will react in fear or aggression. The most critical learning period is from about 6-14 weeks of age, during which time dogs are the most receptive to altering their perception of and reaction to the world around them.

It can be damaging to do nothing during a puppy's socialization period because he learns through experience whether a situation is safe. Those things that are unknown are often categorized and responded to as dangerous, as it’s less costly for a dog to react to a non-dangerous situation than to not react to a situation that really is dangerous. If a puppy has a limited or isolated environment or has gone through negative experiences in which he learned a certain situation is unsafe and best avoided, he is likely to develop anxious and defensive behavior. 

During socialization, puppies should be introduced to various environments, situations and stimuli they may encounter in life, such as riding in the car or visiting the veterinarian, groomer or kennel, pairing the event with rewards like treats or toys. Social relationships with people, other dogs and other household animals such as cats should also be honed through positive experiences during the early learning period. Social learning helps a puppy better communicate and understand body signaling, develop play behavior and even learn to be careful with how he uses his teeth.

Socialization is of paramount importance for puppies above all other training, including basic manners, because it impacts a dog’s behavior and confidence for his entire lifetime.

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