This is Part 1 of my Puppy Series. Although this series will include some specific tips for future bird dogs, the information will be applicable to all puppies. If you would like to see all the posts in this puppy series, please click here.
I want to preface this series by saying the very first step to raising a puppy is by finding the right one for you. Although there are many things you can do to help shape your puppy into the dog you want, it all starts with genetics. We often hear the “it’s all in how you raise them,” but anyone who has worked with enough puppies will tell you that’s simply not true. A good puppy starts with good parents and a good breeding. This doesn’t mean you can’t adopt a great puppy, but if you have a specific goal in mind, such as a wild bird hunter, a great family pet, a competitive protection sports partner, a wonderful service dog, etc., it will really benefit you to do your research and find a puppy from a litter that is properly health tested and proven to have the traits/temperament/performance you’re looking for. Choosing a breed and breeder that fits your life (such as not getting a GSP puppy if you want a weekend warrior) and goals is possibly the most crucial step! If you need help picking the right breeder, please check out this blog post or feel free to reach out to me!
Here are some key areas to address as soon as your new puppy comes home:
Socialization: Proper socialization for young puppies is absolutely imperative. Many people think that socialization means having your puppy meet a bunch of people, but it is so much more than that. “Socialization is creating purposeful, positive experiences for your puppy to prepare them for life in the human world.” (Ref) Anything you want your puppy to cope well with/excel at throughout its life should be introduced before their critical socialization period ends, which is typically around 12 to 16 weeks old. This makes socialization the most important thing you can do with your puppy!
Before that critical socialization period ends (so before they are 12 to 16 weeks old), you should provide positive experiences for your puppy with anything you can. This includes, but is not limited to: seeing/interacting with a variety of humans (with hats, with beards, tall humans, short humans, humans in all forms), seeing/interacting with a variety of dogs (big, small, long hair, short hair, different colors), places (the park, vet, stores, a friend’s house), experiences (being groomed/bathed/nails trimmed, traveling, swimming, training), and anything else you can think of (the vacuum running, different types of surfaces such as slick floors, pottying on a leash or off a leash, seeing different animals such as cats or farm animals, observing other dogs without interacting with them, loud noises, etc). The key being these need to be positive experiences for your puppy to get something out of the experience. Throwing your puppy into a situation where they are scared, such as a bunch of new dogs at the dog park, can be overwhelming and if they don’t enjoy the experience it can create fear/anxiety around that situation in the future! Try to keep all experiences controlled (such as you introducing your puppy to dogs you know on your terms in a safe environment where you can monitor the interactions and step in if necessary) so that your puppy has the best possible experience.
Crate Training: Crate training is an essential part of raising a puppy. The crate does a few valuable things: helps immensely with potty training, prevents unwanted chewing, teaches independence and confidence being alone and helps create an off-switch in high energy dogs. I always recommend that everyone crate trains their puppy, even if their goal is to eventually leave the dog out unattended. Just like children, we don’t leave them home unattended and puppies shouldn't be either.
Crate training can be difficult at first, but the more consistent you are, the easier it will be. Some quick tips for crate training:
-Do not use a crate that is too big! If the puppy can potty and has plenty of room to lay somewhere else in the crate, then it isn’t going to help for potty training. I typically start with a 24” crate for my young puppies and move up to slightly larger crates when they outgrow them. This will vary depending on the size of the puppy.
-If they cry and whine in their crate, you have to let them work it out. If every time you put your puppy in their crate, they cry and you let them out, they have successfully learned how to get out. If a puppy cries or whines in the middle of the night, they likely have to go out to potty and that is one time when I will let them out for that. But if you know they just went potty, they do not need to immediately come back out for whining. If you are consistent with this, it will improve in no time.
-Something I cannot stress enough is: crate your puppy frequently, during a variety of situations, for short amounts of time (30 minutes to a few hours). Especially with GSPs, separation anxiety is one of the hardest behaviors to change and it can be exhausting and stressful. By crating your puppy regularly for short durations, your puppy will learn to relax in their crate regardless of what is going on. I crate my puppies on and off throughout the day; even when I am home, I crate them frequently in a variety of contexts (sometimes I will have them where they can see me but they are still crated, sometimes they will be in another room). I crate them in the car a lot, regardless if I am going to get them out. Sometimes they just travel with me, such as on errands, just for some time in the crate in the car. This really helps set boundaries that just because I am home or you hear me, does not mean you need out of your crate. If you set these expectations from day one, you’ll really set your puppy up for success for being calm and relaxed in their crate at all times, regardless of the situation. I really cannot stress how important this is!
-Please don’t feel obligated to put a towel/blanket/bed in their crate. They are likely going to potty on it or chew it up, which could be incredibly dangerous if they swallow any. My puppies won't have anything in their crate (no bed, no towels or blankets, no toys) until they are constantly not having any accidents and I can trust them not to chew on a bed (I never, ever keep toys in a crate for any dog). For Maple this was around 3-months-old, but for Echo it will be around 4 or 5-months-old because she's ornery.
-Finally, don’t rush free time alone. Most puppies shouldn’t have any time unattended until they are at least 6-months-old, and that’s very dependent on the individual and just enough time for a quick shower. If your 6-month-old is still trying to eat socks or chew on furniture, absolutely no unattended free time until they stop. I don’t leave any of my dogs (including sweet, now 10-month-old Maple) out unattended while I am gone until they are well over a year old. By that time most puppies have outgrown chewing on things and have a decent off switch, so by the time you leave them unattended they don’t do anything but sleep. If you try too early and the puppy does something naughty while you’re away, they will learn they can do those things and it will be harder to correct in the future.
Potty Training: Potty training sounds like a daunting task but it can really be broken down into a simple rule: Prevention is key! Rather than punishing your puppy for having an accident (which only will make them more nervous and more likely to have accidents), prevent accidents from happening in the first place. Take your puppy out as often as necessary. When they first come home, you might be taking your puppy outside every 10 minutes while they are awake. Once they eat or drink, they need to go out almost immediately. If they do not potty while outside, put them in the crate when they come in and try again in another 10-15 minutes. A common problem is that puppies potty as soon as they come back inside. You can easily prevent this by crating them as soon as they come back in and taking them back out to potty later. Once they potty, then you can bring them back in for some playtime inside. If your puppy potties inside, it is the human’s fault and there should be no blame on the puppy!
Please realize that they do have tiny bladders and you WILL have to put in work. If you expect your 10-week-old puppy to sleep through the night and have zero accidents, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Puppies need to go out more often than not and you will have to get up once or twice overnight with them. Have realistic expectations and be prepared for a tough first few weeks.
Here's a helpful graphic to know when to take your puppy out:
Training: I like to start working with puppies as soon as they come home. Young puppies are often so food motivated and so easy to shape, you can set the foundation for so much in such a short amount of time. I like to have puppies work for their meals, which means I portion out their amount of food for a meal and use that as treats until it’s gone (vs. just putting it in a bowl). This does wonders for creating food drive, engagement, focus, and cooperation.
I start by introducing clicker training and teach all behaviors to young puppies using the clicker as a marker. They pick up on this so quickly and you’ll always be able to utilize it in the future for new behaviors, as well! The first thing I always start with is recall because it is so crucial. Other things I like to introduce are place, touch (put your front feet on it), introduction to fitness equipment, standing still and some sit/down. I don’t overdo sit/down with young puppies that are going to be bird dogs because I don’t want them to default to it (meaning if you get out a treat, they automatically sit or down in anticipating of getting the reward for that behavior). More on teaching these behaviors will come in the next blog post!
If you start working with your puppy while they are young, training later can be so much easier. It’s not so much about what you teach your puppy but about how you to do it, so that they understand how to learn, they understand reinforcement and they have a solid foundation to work from.
Other important things to note:
-There’s a lot of conflict around how much to allow your puppy to exercise. This is a great question to discuss with your vet, but personally I am pretty liberal with exercise on their own accord. There are certain things I avoid, such as long walks on concrete, going up and down a lot of stairs, or any intense workouts such going running. I do allow plenty of free runs, but I monitor them to make sure they are self-regulating (not exhausting themselves to try and keep up with other dogs) and am mindful of the amount of time they spend on a free run (usually no more than an hour a day). I don’t buy into the “only let your puppy run for a few minutes a day,” but if this is something you’re concerned about, it would be best to discuss it with your vet.
-It’s really important to give your puppy both on-leash time and off-leash time. If you do only one or the other, you might run into problems in the future. If you only keep your puppy on a leash, by the time they are older and you take them off-leash, they just might blast into the next county because this is such a novel experience for them. If you have the ability to take them for off-leash runs with adult dogs while they are really young, it is so good for their handler awarenesses. I find this so, so beneficial for hunting dogs. At the same time, if you only keep your puppy off-leash, by the time you’re ready to teach them to walk on a leash, they are going to really struggle with the concept of leash pressure. It’s so simply to teach your young puppy the concept of following leash pressure instead of fighting it, which is a whole lot easier to do when they are 20 lbs. vs. 60 lbs. Find a good balance of time on a leash and safe time off-leash!
-If you have a bird dog puppy, definitely introduce them to clipped-winged quail if you have the opportunity! It certainly isn't imperative to introduce a young puppy to birds to make them a successful bird dog (that's up to genetics!), but it can be a fun experience and a great way to build drive. Gun introduction is something that should be done in a controlled manner and should never be rushed. If you're feeling unsure about properly introducing gunfire, please reach out to a reputable professional for their assistance. It is really easy to do correctly and extremely difficult to fix if done incorrectly, so be sure to set your puppy up for success with a proper gun introduction.
The next posts in this series will include more training tips (such as teaching recall) and how to introduce your puppy to birds, but please reach out if you have any specific questions! If you are struggling with having enough time and resources to give your pup the perfect start, I'd be happy to help! Check out my Early Bird Program which includes everything discussed in this post!