Frequently Asked Questions About Puppy Behavior and Training, Answered by a Veterinarian

When should I start behavior training with my dog?

The most critical stage in a puppy’s behavior development occurs between 5-18 weeks of age.

We know, for instance, that:

  • dogs who are not handled at all until they are 14 weeks of age spend the rest of their lives fearful of humans.
  • puppies separated from their mother younger than 8 weeks old suffer lifelong negative physical and behavioral consequences.
  • puppies learn “bite inhibition,” or how hard their jaws can clamp down on another creature without hurting them, primarily from other puppies.

…all of which combine in the real answer, which you may not want to hear: puppies should ideally remain at the breeder or rescue with their mother and siblings and human handler until they are 12 weeks old, and during that time, be actively socialized, by the breeder, well before you ever adopt her.

If you got your puppy before she was 12 weeks old, all this beautiful socialization your breeder was supposed to do is on you now. But don’t fret! It’s still possible to socialize your puppy, you just have a lot more work ahead of you.


Are there different kinds of socialization?

Per our friend Laura VanArendonk Baugh, CPDT-KA KPACTP, owner of Indianapolis dog training business Canines in Action, and author of Amazon best-selling dog training book “Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out“: “‘Socialization’ is such a misleading word, because it sounds like the puppy just needs to see something or meet somebody. I have a very specific goal for socialization: for the puppy to walk away from each encounter feeling braver and more confident than he did going in. And yes, that should be cumulative over the weeks of puppyhood. It’s not about seeing or meeting — it’s about knowing how to handle such a situation and feeling competent to handle it the next time.”

Every dog under 18 weeks old should be purposefully "socialized” to actively enjoy the presence of (through hand-feeding and/or playing with)…. cats. kittens. veterinary exams. large adult dogs. small adult dogs. large puppies. small puppies. children of varying ages. toddlers. babies. screaming babies. men and women. small men and women. large men and women. men with beards. men and women wearing hats. men and women wearing sunglasses. dancing humans. crowds. uniforms. wheelchairs. crutches. bikes. rollerskates. livestock. men and women wearing large coats. loud men and women. senior citizens. veterinary technicians. groomers. thunderstorms. crates. slippery floors. ear cleaning. ear hair plucking. nail trimming. teeth brushing. stairs. cars. trucks. traveling in cars. traveling in crates. patting by humans. handling by humans. movement by humans. traffic. soccer games. thunderstorms. tornadoes. fireworks. elevators. pointy sticks….. etc.

LITERALLY: Print out a checkbox list of the above items, and make sure your puppy gets exposed to every last one of them before they're 18 weeks old and the socialization window slams shut.


How exactly do I properly socialize my dog to that giant list of things?

Here's the basic premise. Say you want to introduce your dog to going to the pet store. If you drag your reluctant puppy into the store by her leash, laugh as she sits paralyzed in fear. At the same time, three or four big dogs pounce on her, hand her off to some loud "squee!”ing stranger, ignore her when she tells you she's anxious, but then yell at her when she pees on the floor, you can bet she'll never want to go inside a big scary pet store ever again.

On the other hand, if you let her pull you inside because she's brave and curious, be fully prepared to leave if she looks anxious, give her lots of treats and praise every time she takes a cautious step forward, and allow her to run away and hide if she gets scared of a big scary dog or loud scary person, and generally spend every second of the encounter listening to your dog's fear, paying attention to her non-verbal cues, reacting to her anxiety, teaching her that if she wants to run away from scary things you will let her do so… by doing all these things, you will teach her that you promise to pay attention to and validate any anxiety she expresses, which will give her the support she needs to explore bravely!

Apply this logic to every new situation, including strangers entering your home, new locations, new sights, new smells, new tastes, new people, places, and things. You will teach your dog that mommy and daddy will back you up and/or rescue you if you're scared while you explore and learn how to be brave on your own. Good, brave puppy!

While introducing your puppy to new situations, ask yourself the following questions from the puppy's point of view: How was the stimulus presented? Was the outcome pleasant or fearful? Does trying to get away work? Does it hurt?

Ensure every outcome of every encounter is pleasant, and your puppy will return for more! Behavioral training success always depends on your ability to monitor your pet's response.


How do I stop my dog from chewing on me / pooping in the house / barking / jumping / insert other totally normal dog behavior here?

I'm not a trainer.

That said, here is what little I have learned after 19 years in practice and 11 years as a daddy. These rules appear to apply equally to dogs and humans, so if you've already raised children, you probably have a good idea of how this works.

RULE #1: Dogs do not understand the word "NO", they only understand the word "YES.”

RULE #2: You can't STOP a dog from doing anything. You can only redirect them to do something different instead.


You can't stop a dog from jumping up on you, and any attempt to push the dog to the floor will only confuse the dog. You can, however, teach a dog that sitting quietly and waiting for attention is more valuable than jumping because sitting still earns… attention!

You can't stop a dog from chewing on your ankle. You can, however, insert chew toys in your dog's open mouth any time she wants to chew on something and convince her that her chew toys (and ONLY her chew toys) are perfectly chewable.

Puppy chewing on a toy.

You can't stop a dog from barking like a fool any time someone knocks at the door. You can, however, teach a dog that when someone knocks on the door, he's supposed to go sit quietly on his mat and wait for a treat. (this one takes professional guidance from an actual dog trainer, but oh so worth it)

You can't stop a dog from hating nail trims. You can, however, convince her that suffering through a nail trim is worth significant cookies or a favorite peanut butter-filled Kong.

You can't stop a dog from pooping inside. You can, however, convince her that it's more valuable and better rewarded if she poops outside.


How do I potty train my dog? (Crate training)

Dogs, for the most part, can be trained to enjoy being inside a crate. If you work this training carefully, gently, and positively, your dog won't see the crate as punishment, nor jail, nor cruelty. As long as it’s the dog who primarily chooses to be inside the crate, most puppies like to have a small, cozy space (her "den”) to cuddle in once in a while, so she doesn't have to protect your entire house.

Now, that said, even though most dogs can be trained to enjoy being safe in their crate at least some portion of the day, a word of caution again from Laura VanArendonk Baugh, Indianapolis dog trainer extraordinaire: "it still helps to specifically train the crate as a fun/safe/cozy place. I work with way too many dogs whose people heard that dogs like dens and so just locked them in and left. That's where freak-outs and bad crate behaviors start. Humans like bedrooms, too, but not if we we’re pushed inside and locked in. Make it a cozy refuge!”

That said, of course, you can take her out of the crate any time you want to play with her! As long as you're staring at your puppy or have her leashed to your belt and don’t let your attention wander, you should soon learn the subtle signs that she’s about to have an accident on your floor and run her outside (hit the bell on the way by).

Essentially, to be successful at crate training, your puppy should only ever be in one of three places: either a) inside the crate, b) outside going potty, or c) attached to your hip while you're training her and playing with her… then back in the crate.

Ideal Crate Training Routine (your mileage may vary):

  • Morning: Wake up, take the puppy out of her crate, walk her to the front door, and use her paw to whack the bell you have hanging from the doorknob before you run her outside to pee. Celebrate the pee, have a party, play, hooray!
  • Back inside. Put food and water bowls down for 10-20 minutes only, allow the puppy only that amount of time to drink and eat as much of her ration as she wants during that time, then pick it up.
  • Full stomach of food and water stimulates the bowels, so outside to poop (whack bell on the way out). Celebrate again! Party time, woohoo!
  • Back inside, entice the puppy into the crate with a favorite toy and cozy blankie, and go about your day. Don’t make a big deal out of leaving.
  • Afternoon: 4-6 hours later (how often do you go 12 hours without a toilet break at work?): Repeat pee / eat / poop routine, then back in the crate.
  • Evening: Repeat pee / eat / poop routine, then back in the crate overnight.


Another expert weighs in potty training

Here's more about potty training by our friend Melissa R. Shyan Norwalt, Ph.D., CAAB

“Housetraining is a pretty big issue sometimes. Sometimes our expectations are too high or too low. Sometimes we still use the techniques our parents taught us — stick the dog or puppy's nose in the mess and yell “Bad Dog!” and then take it outside. Unfortunately, all most dogs learn from this chastisement is to avoid the owner when eliminating (“if I poo in front of you, you grab my neck and stick my face in yucky stuff”), and/or to hide the in-house elimination so that they don’t get their noses pushed into the mess.

General Comments:

Timing: Puppies need to go outside every one to two hours. They need to go out after vigorous play (with 5-10 minutes), after eating (within 15 minutes), after drinking (within 15 minutes), first thing after waking up in the morning, last thing before going to bed at night. If you want the housetraining to go even more quickly, if the puppy wakes you up with whining at 3:00 am, take it outside. You can retrain this later, but teaching communication skills about elimination are really important—if the puppy is trying to communicate this need, reward this behavior with going outside responses.

Activities: If your dog asks to go outside (on leash) but doesn’t eliminate, it may just be enjoying the “great outdoors.” This sometimes frustrates people, who have busy schedules and limited time, but it’s good for the dog to have yard or leash time, and it will help with housetraining in the long run.

Delayed or No Eliminations: Sometimes people complain that they stay outside “forever” with the dog, finally give up, come in the house and the dog immediately eliminates inside. This usually means that the dog has learned one of two things: 1) the sooner I eliminate, the sooner I have to get trapped back inside the house. I like it outside, so if I hold it, I get more outside time; 2) if I eliminate when my owner sees me eliminate, I get yelled at (i.e., dog eliminates inside house and owner catches it in the act and yells: dog learns to avoid eliminating when owner is around).

Dog Doors: I love dog doors. Training a dog to go through a dog door is easy. And the dog can take itself outside whenever it wants to, even at night. I never have to walk my dogs, get up to let them out or let them in. We have a lovely big fenced yard where they can hunt and chase and eat grass. Some people worry about critters getting in—this is actually pretty rare. Critters don’t like to be chased by dogs, so the dogs usually keep them out.

Doggy Door Bells: You can teach your dog to ask to go outside. Hang a bell from the door handle. Put a little bit of peanut butter on it—so the dog will want to lick or bite the bell. Encourage the dog to push it harder, and every time the bell rings, open the door and let the dog outside (or put on a leash and walk it). Give lots of praise and encouragement. The only caveat is that you have to answer the bell—don’t ignore it and don’t tune it out—let the dog out! This is a great communication device, and is the next best thing to a dog door.

  • Puppies younger than 5 or 6 weeks may not have the muscle control needed to “wait” until it’s time to go out. They just “go.” If you want to “housetrain” a puppy that young, expect to take it outside every hour or so. Expect to have to watch it closely at all times. When it begins to sniff and or circle, take it outside.
  • Puppies seven weeks old and above will have the brain development to control those muscles. But they still need watching and frequent taking outside.Truthfully, the easiest puppies to train are those which have been kept on dirt or grass most of the day, rather than in a house, basement, or garage. Puppies who start out eliminating outside only have to learn one thing to be housetrained: how to communicate that they need to go outside. (The owners also have to learn to “listen” and to oblige the request!!!) Puppies who start out eliminating inside, have to learn three things: 1) what used to be acceptable is no longer acceptable; 2) Outside is the only acceptable place to “go;” 3) How to communicate that they need to go outside. Learning one thing is always easier than learning three, but most puppies are going to be raised inside, so what do we do? There are three primary training techniques: paper training, “umbilical cord” training, and crate training. If you have the time to spend (take a week’s vacation), you can train most puppies and dogs within one week. Accidents will happen but the training will go pretty quickly.
  • Paper Training:The idea behind paper training is that dogs can learn to go to a particular substrate, and you can control the location of the substrate. If you can’t watch the dog or puppy, gate it in a location near an outside door (like a kitchen or family room). Give it things to chew and other toys so it isn’t bored. Cover the entire floor with newspaper or puppy pads. If you notice the animal sniffing or circling, take it outside. Let it eliminate on the paper. Gradually, every few days, decrease the amount of floor that is covered by the paper, always ensuring that the “shrinking” moves the paper to collect near the outside door. When you let the puppy outside in the yard, or if you take it for an elimination walk, place used (previously eliminated on) paper where you want the dog to eliminate. The odor cues will help. Continue to shrink the size of the paper indoors until it is a single sheet, just inside the door. Then train the puppy to tell you when it has to go by using something like the “ring the bell” technique (see below). (Note: my mother always used this technique and it worked very well.).
  • “Umbilical Cord” Training:The idea behind this is that puppies and dogs like to wander off to eliminate. By doing so they don’t get yelled at (until later, but see above), they don’t have to eliminate where they “hang out” with you, and they get that wonderfully rewarding feeling of eliminating when they feel the need. So put the dog on an “umbilical cord.” Attach a six-foot leash to the dog on one end, and to your wrist or ankle on the other. Every time the dog begins to wander off, ask if it wants to go out, and take it outside. Now, sometimes the dog will learn that this is a great way to get taken outside for more attention and outside time, even if it doesn’t have to eliminate. But it’s better to put up with this, and to praise and reward for outside elimination. If you catch the dog this way (it sniffs, it squats, it tries to wander away while sniffing), take it outside, and reward it for eliminating (praise, petting, and treats). The primary goal of this technique is that it rapidly teaches communication skills for both parties involved. You’ll tune in on when the dog needs to go out, and the dog will learn to ask you to be taken out. The disadvantage is that the dog will likely ask to go out just for fun sometimes. But there are worse alternatives.

Puppy walking on a leash.

  • Crate Training:The idea behind crate training is that dogs normally won’t eliminate where they sleep, nor in a small confined space where they cannot escape the mess. This isn’t always true, but is true most of the time. Sometimes anxiety and stress can lead to elimination problems in a crate. Sometimes waiting too long, especially for puppies, to release them from the crate will lead to elimination, because they just can’t hold it any longer. One key important point: you must crate train the dog before you stick it in a crate to housetrain it. That’s another blog—but, believe me, just shutting a dog into a crate and walking away is a really bad idea. Crate Training—after taking the dog out for its morning elimination, put it in the crate for an hour or two (depending on age). Give it chews and toys so it’s not bored. Take it out routinely. Gradually build up the time it can tolerate in the crate. Always reward outdoor eliminations. Put the dog in the crate at night so that it won’t eliminate while you are sleeping, then let it outside the first thing in the morning. Do not use the crate as a punishment for a mistake.

While private owners don’t have to follow USDA standards for crate sizing, I believe they are a good source of guidance. A crate should be big enough so that the dog can stand upright, sit (with 6” of space above its head), turn around, and lay down full outstretched on its side. However, if a crate is much bigger than this, the dog may eliminate in it because it can get away from the mess. For rapidly growing puppies, I like the crates that have a moveable back wall. You can increase the crate size as the puppy grows. Once the puppy has learned to ask to go outside, you don’t need the crate for control any more.”

Just like your new puppy, there is a lot to learn, you have taken the initiative to get your puppy on the right path by searching out answers from a professional that is looking out for the best interest of your new puppy. If you have more questions or want to make sure that your puppy is happy and healthy, schedule an appointment.

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Contributing DVM