Reducing behavioural problem in youngsters.

As a vet in general practice, I believe that prevention is better than cure; and that the same applies to behavioural problems. If you take on a puppy or young dog, prevention starts before you even bring him home. Find out as much as possible about the parents of your dog and how the litter has been raised. By the time you get your puppy home he should already have had lots of good experiences with people, household appliances, other animals, the car, and even the vet. If you know that any of these areas has been neglected, you should slowly build up his experiences at home. Be careful not to present your new dog with too much all at once and allow lots of time for him to explore new and scary things. Clicker training can be a great way to encourage a puppy or young dog to explore their environment without too much pressure and builds a foundation for future training.

Food is something most puppies enjoy, and you can use your pup’s mealtimes to build a great bond. I like to do lots of hand feeding with my puppies, as well as using their meals as reinforcement in training instead of using a lot of treats. Hand feeding also reduces the risk of food guarding in later life as your puppy will see your hand in his bowl as a good thing! I also add extra goodies to the bowl while puppies are eating as an anti-food-guarding exercise. Many ‘behavioural problems’ are simply misunderstandings on your dog’s part, so it is important to decide what the ‘house rules’ are to teach your puppy what is expected and to make sure everybody follows the rules. Puppies need to chew, especially when teething, (peaks of chewing are seen at 4 to 6months, and again from 10 to 14months) so provide lots of safe things which are okay to chew and keep anything you don’t want chewed out of reach. Use a crate, puppy pen, or stair gate to restrict your young dog to a safe space when you can’t monitor his behaviour but ensure that he gets appropriate physical and mental stimulation and is not without company for longer than he can cope with. Don’t punish your puppy or young dog for going to the toilet in the wrong place, or for damaging something, as they won’t relate ‘the punishment’ to ‘the crime’ and will simply start to fear you.

Remember that there are periods in your young dog’s life when he will find it harder to learn new things. Baby puppies aren’t afraid of anything, but from 7 to 20 weeks (depending on the breed) they can become wary of things they haven’t experienced before. This doesn’t mean avoiding new experiences, but it may mean taking things more slowly. A second fear period can occur later on, often around adolescence. Puppies may test boundaries at this age too, as well as starting to develop adult behaviours such as urine marking, fighting with other entire dogs or bitches, and being distracted by the scent of other dogs. With sympathetic training your dog will come out of adolescence as a model citizen!

Perhaps the best advice on preventing behavioural problems is to seek advice from a professional as soon as you experience anything you don’t like or don’t know how to deal with. All problems are easier to solve at the start, rather than when the behaviour has become established


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