A: Right away! Puppies retain what they learn starting at five weeks. You won't get your pup until eight weeks, so get ready to start teaching as soon as you bring your pup home!
Q: What should I teach my puppy?
A: Puppies need to learn everything: house training, crate training, polite greeting, leash walking, basic manners such as sit, down, and settle. If you're not teaching your puppy what to do, she'll figure something out on her own. Unfortunately, the behavior the puppy chooses isn't usually something we approve of! Most importantly, your pup needs to learn self control, often called impulse control.
Q. How can I teach self control to my puppy?
A: I take the "life training" approach. I teach self control precisely when the pup is showing no self control! For instance, if the pup jumps up to get to the food bowl in my hand, I won't lower the food bowl until the puppy is sitting. I don't yell at the puppy, I don't push her into a sit, I let her figure it out. When she figures it out, voila!, she gets her dinner. But not until then.
Another way I like to teach self control is to moderate my energy level when I'm playing with the pup. I don't let the puppy get out of control. I'll gently ramp her up to a moderate level, and then I'll stop playing and hold completely still. When the puppy matches my energy level, I'll start to play again. This stop-and-start play helps the puppy learn to ramp her energy level up and down.
Q: What about socialization? I keep hearing a lot about it, but I don't really know what it is.
A: Socialization makes the difference between a confident, happy, and friendly dog or a scared, fearful, and shy dog. Keep in mind that sometimes "fearful" takes the shape of a barking, lunging, and often scary-looking dog. Socialization is the process by which you introduce your puppy – a puppy is classified as younger than 20 weeks – to new things, places, people, surfaces, and sounds in a controlled and pleasant manner.
Until the age of 20 weeks, your puppy is like a sponge, soaking in all the different experiences. Around 16 – 20 weeks, though, the "socialization window" begins to close, and the pup starts to see things through a different set of lenses. In its first weeks at home, the pup is open to lots of new experiences, but when the window starts to close, the pup begins to look at new things a little differently. If you've done a great job socializing your puppy, you probably won't even notice this transition because your pup got accustomed to lots of different things early on. If your pup didn't get out, didn't experience the world, you'll really see this transition. Your puppy will be wary of new things, even harmless objects such as fluttering plastic bags, well-meaning but rambunctious kids, even inanimate objects such as trash cans or mailboxes.
Q: I need some ideas to help me socialize my puppy – what should I be looking to expose my puppy to?
A: Good socialization requires a little planning. You'll need to have some really delicious food treats (I like chicken chopped into pea-sized pieces) before you take your puppy out. And you'll need patience, lots of patience. When you're socializing your puppy, that's all you're doing – you can do errands, too, but if the pup becomes overwhelmed, you've got to be able to take the puppy out of the situation immediately. In other words, if you're at your kids' soccer game and the puppy is scared by the whistles and the motion, you've got to be able to move the dog further away, even if it means returning to your car with the pup.
You've also got to be ready to tell people how to pet your puppy and how not to pet your puppy. You have to be ready to tell kids that they can't pet your puppy if she's looking scared or hesitant. Remember: socialization is for the puppy, not for the public. It's ok to say "no" to requests to pet your dog if it's better for the puppy.
Think about the things your puppy will see throughout her life. If you've got kids, your pup is likely to see skateboarders, bicycles, kids running and screaming, etc. Expose your pup early to those things she'll be seeing throughout her life. Think about the different seasons, too. For instance, if your pup was born in the spring, the first time she'll see hoodies and snow pants won't be for another eight months! Get your kids to put their snow pants on and wear them at the dinner table a few nights. Have them walk around with their hoods over their heads. Believe me, if your pup doesn't see someone in a hoodie until she's 8 months old, there's going to be some barking! It's best to expose her now to those things, even briefly, so at least by the time winter arrives, she'll have seen these things.
You also want your puppy to meet lots of different people and different dogs. It's not good enough if your pup gets along great with your other dog or your kids. You want your pup seeing different dogs and different people every day. Old people, short people, people with facial hair, young people, tall people, people in uniform, people who walk funny, babies, people on crutches, people in wheelchairs, people who dress differently, etc. You want your dog to see big dogs, black dogs, barking dogs, sleeping dogs, lazy dogs, playful dogs, energetic dogs, dismissive dogs. The more people and dogs your pup is exposed to, the better adjusted (read: easier to handle) she'll be both as a puppy and later in life.
There's no shortcuts when training or socializing puppies. You just have to get out there and do it. I think it's kind of fun and I love trying to think of new things and places to take my pup. Just make sure the pup's having fun and get them out into the world!