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welcome to puppy kindergarten!

Before class starts, there are a few simple steps to prepare you!

Step 1: Review orientation materials

Welcome to Puppy Kindergarten! I'm so excited for you to start this journey with your puppy!

First, please know that you're not alone if you, at some point, wondered what you got yourself into with a puppy! Just about every puppy parent I've met has wondered this at some point - myself included!

Second, Puppy Kindergarten is all about giving your puppy a great start to their lives with you and learning how to navigate this big, great, wide, confusing world! To do so, we'll be using a lot of positive reinforcement - which is just a fancy way of saying we'll be looking for behaviors we like to see and rewarding our puppies for it! The more a puppy is rewarded for particular behaviors, the more they repeat those behaviors (that's actually puppies, human children, giraffes, dolphins, even butterflies! Everyone learns with positive reinforcement!).

We'll be using treats, petting, praise, play, and toys - whatever your puppy likes - to reward various behaviors and help our puppies develop a repertoire of appropriate behavior to pull from when they want attention, when they don't know what to do or are confused, or when they have options (that's pretty much all the time)!

Below is a summary of some tips, ideas, and advice around a few of the most important topics for you and your new puppy!

 

MANAGEMENT (AKA PUPPY PROOFING)

Have you ever heard the quote, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” Well, in the world of dog training, that “ounce of prevention” can quite literally provide you with some quick fixes to some of the behaviors you don’t want to see happening – all with minimal effort on your part. As long as you are willing to compromise on some small changes to your home or daily routine, you’ll find that you can prevent or eliminate altogether some of your dog’s most annoying, or even troubling, behaviors.  

This prevention tactic is referred to as management or, with young puppies, puppy proofing! And there are many management tools and strategies that can be utilized to prevent the rehearsal of the very behaviors you don’t want. Here’s our most commonly discussed and preferred strategies: 

  • Baby gates – Physically limit access to rooms, furniture, windows, or even people 

  • X-pens, crates, and kennels – Restrict your dog from wandering, eliminating, or getting into things when you cannot supervise them, or need to leave the house 

  • Tethers and tie-outs – Keeps your dog close to you, if/when the above confinement strategies are not preferred (like if you are outside), or if your dog does not yet have great coping skills to handle the other types of confinement 

  • Leashes, drag lines, and long-lines – Can be helpful in guiding your dog to more appropriate places without having to physically touch them or grab for their collar 

  • Fences (physical preferred) – Prevent wandering or running away when dogs do not adhere to the boundaries of the yard that you wish they would 

  • Window coverings/decals – A personal favorite! Window films can be installed to prevent your dog from seeing most, if not all, visual stimuli that would cause them to alert or alarm bark: squirrels, birds, neighbors, dog walkers, bikers, cars, mail men, etc. 

  • Put away food, mail, garbage cans, laundry, shoes, etc. to ensure these items cannot be reached, accessed or stolen 

  • Interactive toys, long-lasting chews, frozen kongs – These are just a handful of examples of enrichment activities that may keep your pup happily occupied and mentally-enriched 

 

The ticket here is that your focus needs to shift from “how do I stop my dog from…” or “how do I correct my dog after…” (reactive strategies) to “how do I set my dog up for success, and prevent them from even….in the first place!?” This is where being proactive, and setting your dog up for success, involves arranging the environment to manage these behaviors. Specifically, arranging the environment to eliminate temptation, reduce the likelihood of performance, or altogether prevent the behavior from physically happening in the first place. Management strategies and plans are, unfortunately, not foolproof. Our own human error can be a cause for mistakes being made, and the more adults and/or children that there are in the home increase the chances for accidents, miscommunication, or lack of consistency between family members. Additionally, tools can break, be chewed through, be hopped over, etc.  

HOUSE TRAINING

As you know, our puppies aren’t born knowing where we like them to do their business, so we need to teach it to them. The concept seems simple to us (go outside and do your business there), but it can be a tricky and frustrating process getting your dog to understand it. Housetraining your dog can be a very individual experience, so don’t get discouraged if things don’t seem to be going your way immediately!

  • Prevent accidents from occurring.

    • Direct supervision is absolutely key to successful house training.

    • If you can’t keep an eye on your dog, utilize some means of management (something from above)!

  • Reward doing their business in appropriate areas!

    • Choose a spot in your yard and designate it as “the potty spot”; this is the area you’ll take your dog to every time to go potty.

    • Take your dog outside to go to the bathroom on leash – you want to see it happen, so that you know it happened and so you can reward it!

    • When outside with your dog, try not to interact with them or play with them as this may serve to distract them from the purpose of going to the bathroom and teach them that playing is fun in the potty spot, too.

    • If your dog hasn’t done their business after 4 or 5 minutes, take them back inside; supervise them closely; and take them back outside within the next 15 to 30 minutes.

    • If your dog does go outside, throw a little party for them right there in their potty spot! Offer a treat or two, praise them, and you may even include a short game if that’s their thing.

  • Anticipate when your dog needs to go.

    • Always try to take your dog out soon after eating, after drinking, after playtime, and after naptime (or getting up from resting).

    • Set a schedule with repeated trips outside: first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and a variety of intervals in between, depending on your schedule. Set alarms or timers on the oven or on your phone to remind you to take your dog out on the schedule you’re setting.

    • Keep track of your dog’s potty schedule in a journal, log, or on your phone (a Google document can easily be shared with family members caring for your dog, too). Document when your dog eliminates, when they eat, and when they are most active.

    • Learn to recognize when your dog may be “asking” to go outside; this may be whining, sniffing the floor, wandering to the door or sitting by it, circling, pestering you (outside of the norm), barking, etc. BUT, know that your puppy may not have a signal, so it's your job to get them outside and be proactive!

  • Accidents happen!

    • Don’t punish your dog for having an accident in the house. This often makes house training more difficult for us.

      • Scolding your dog is usually not effective because it’s been a while since the accident (and they do not associate the scolding with the accident)

      • Your dog may learn to be afraid of going to the bathroom in front of you and it’s safer to go to do their business on the sly or in an out-of-the-way corner of the house when you’re not looking.

      • Scolding doesn’t tell your dog where you’d prefer them to go.

    • If you notice your dog had an accident, calmly clean it up; if you turn or enter a room and catch your dog in the process of doing their business, you can use a noise or cue to interrupt them. This may momentarily stop the flow, so you have the opportunity to pick them up and take them outside (to finish on grass or an appropriate area).

  • Clean up accidents inside well.

    • It’s important to thoroughly clean areas your dog has previously gone inside.

    • Use an enzymatic cleaner designed for eliminating pet odors.

    • If your dog has done their business more than once on a particular rug, remove the rug until after they’re fully house trained. If your dog chooses carpet to go to the bathroom, limit their access to the carpeted areas with baby gates and allow them in those rooms only when you can supervise them closely.

KENNEL TRAINING

I almost always recommend that my clients utilize a crate or kennel in some way with their dogs – particularly when they are leaving the house. Knowing that your dog is safe and sound in a kennel, instead of roaming the house, finding things to eat or destroy or get into, is excellent peace of mind. When we want to utilize a kennel, though, it’s important to introduce it slowly. We don’t want to toss Rover in the kennel for 8 hours and hope for the best because we want him to see the kennel as a fun place, a safe place, and as his own room or house. I suggest Kennel Games as a great way to introduce the kennel and begin working with the kennel as a fun tool for a person and their dog to use. Read this post from the SKDT Blog for some great starter games (and games to continue even after your dog has been introduced to the kennel)!

  • Avoid using the kennel for punishment or time-outs; we want the kennel to be seen as a good thing - not some place they go when they get into trouble.

  • Include a toy or two in the kennel with your SideKick; however, ensure that the toys cannot be chewed to pieces and won't have bits broken off and swallowed.

  • Prepare stuffed Kongs in advance and freeze them! This gives your dog something fun and tasty to enjoy every time they’re in the kennel and only when they’re in the kennel; freezing the Kongs also helps them to last longer for your dog!

  • Encourage your SideKick to explore the kennel on their own and at their own pace.

  • Find the Goldilocks of places to put the kennel in your house: an area that isn't so high-traffic that it's loud and distracting, but not so low-traffic that it's isolating for your SideKick.

  • Try to promote calm behavior in the kennel as often as you can. If your dog lays down, they get a treat tossed to them in the kennel; if your dog is quiet, they get a treat tossed to them. If your dog chooses to play with a toy or their Kong in the kennel, they get a treat tossed to them or maybe some praise.

  • Take things slow.

    • Try not to toss your dog in the kennel for a full, 8-hour work day immediately after introducing them to it; instead, try to build gradually up to more and more time spent in the kennel.

    • There are a lot of steps between being able to close the door with your dog in the kennel and leaving them home alone for a full work day.

    • Plan out the steps you want and can take with your dog. Maybe you start with closing the door and heading toward the doorway to the room. Maybe you close the door and leave the room briefly. Maybe you leave out the front door and come back, etc. I call it painting by numbers to achieve our big picture, end behavior.

SOCIALIZATION

When we think of socialization, we often think of it as meeting new people and meeting other dogs. While this is true, socialization is really so much more! It means introducing your puppy or dog to new things, experiences, and challenges. Positive experiences with new sights, sounds, objects, people, etc. are important for mental and social development in dogs and these experiences need to be offered strategically. Mistakes – even unintentional, well-meaning mistakes – in socialization can lead to shy or reactive behavior.

Additionally, socialization does not end when your puppy gets older – it continues for a lifetime! Consider this: at your age, have you seen everything, heard everything, smelled everything, and experienced everything this world has to offer? Probably not; and neither has your dog!

For lots of ideas and where to start with your puppy’s socialization, check out the blog post I wrote for my website!

Goals of Socialization

  1. Introduce your puppy or dog to new or challenging items and experiences.

  2. Use baby steps when introducing new things.

  3. Make socialization a fun and positive experience (and recognize when your dog sees the experience as such).

  4. Focus on quality over quantity. We don’t need to meet 100 dogs to teach Fido that other dogs are cool; we can, instead, have 10 really great introductions to other, well-socialized dogs or the dogs that Fido will spend the most time with or interact the most with in his daily life!

Questions to Ask During Socialization Opportunities

  1. Does your dog have an escape route?

    • Can they move away easily, if needed?

    • Create an escape route if your dog doesn’t have one.

  2. Is your dog using the escape route repeatedly or are they reluctant to come back?

    • If your dog keeps trying to escape or doesn’t appear to want to return, take a break and try again some other time.

    • Is the dog coming back of his own volition? Whenever we’re providing socialization experiences, we want to make sure it is the dog’s choice to return and try again!

  3. Are you using food to lure the dog back?

    • Sometimes, food can be too distracting for our dogs; it can be too tempting of an opportunity to pass up.

    • When the food is gone, though, they may suddenly realize they’re too far or too close or in too scary of a situation and our positive socialization experience has soured for them.

    • Be aware of this as you’re working with your puppy/dog!

PUPPY NIPPING/MOUTHING

Puppy nipping/mouthing/biting is a perfectly normal and natural behavior – unpleasant as we may find it to be. And, if you do nothing but put appropriate management in place, the behavior will recede with age/maturity and patience and everyone will move on with the rest of their lives! Really, the goal is to survive puppy biting and not make things worse!

Certainly, I have more suggestions and information than that, though! Puppy biting is definitely frustrating for humans, but the more tense or panicked we become, the more the biting escalates. Of course, the harder puppy bites, the harder it is to stay calm; puppy bites harder and so a vicious circle forms!

 

What not to do

I don’t usually put a lot of focus on the “don’t do this” for puppy parents, but, especially when it comes to puppy nipping, mouthing, biting behavior, there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet and social media.

The fact of the matter is that puppies bite; it’s normal behavior that we happen to find unpleasant. It doesn’t make your puppy bad or aggressive and they’re not doing something “wrong” that needs to be corrected. Moreover, young puppies, going through this biting stage, are also going through some very important behavioral development; they’re in a critical fear period or socialization period and are working on developing opinions about you, their new home, the world around them, etc. Adding force, startle, intimidation, and suppression tactics to your toolbox can have some serious effects on those opinions.

  • Avoid yelling, yelping, startling, slapping, hitting, or “tapping” anywhere on puppy’s body.

  • Avoid pushing or shoving away, attempting to physically restrain your puppy, holding or yanking their collar, grabbing and/or squeezing their muzzle, and pushing their lips into their teeth.

  • In general, avoid pinching any part of your puppy, spraying, pinning, or rolling, as well.

 

Stopping puppy biting or punishing puppy nipping/mouthing isn’t the goal; it’s normal and natural behavior. Our goal, however, is preventing the puppy from using you as a pin cushion and learning other ways to have their needs met.

 

Recommendations

As mentioned, we’re looking to survive this biting phase without making things worse. If left alone and managed, the behavior will decrease over time with patience and maturity, but, in the meantime, you can work on opening and developing lines of communication with your puppy, helping them to navigate this tricky human world, build trust and a bond between you and your puppy, and develop skills valuable for their whole lives!

 

First and foremost, as with most training, consistency is the biggest goal! Rome wasn’t built in a day and no one has ever lost 20 pounds over night! The same goes for any training or work you’re doing with your puppy – it works as a whole and over time. Think marathon, not sprint.

 

Prevention

One of the biggest ways to manage mouthing behavior is being able to predict when it’s going to happen and prevent it. Go back to thinking about the when and why of the behavior. What can your puppy expect from these interactions? If you know there are certain times of day or when your dog appears to be in certain moods, you can be more prepared:

  • Have a toy ready in your back pocket to offer or to throw for your dog before they can even get to you and before they start mouthing or jumping (or doing other puppy things), such as right when you come in the door for a greeting.

  • Have treats ready in your pocket or your treat pouch (and on you) to toss away from you or, at least, onto the floor - again, before your dog even gets to you.

  • Use treats or food and toys to keep the bitey end of puppy busy, such as when you’re clipping on the leash or putting on your puppy’s harness.

  • Avoid putting your puppy in the situations that anticipate biting and really practice not getting bitten.

  • Utilize baby gates or a playpen to block your dog’s access to you - particularly when "in a mood" or when you're unable or don't feel like actively working with your puppy (no shame in that – we all need a break!). More on that later!

 

Practice the Three Second Test

Most puppies (and dogs) don’t want to be picked up, hugged, squeezed, and touched a whole lot – unless it’s on their terms. I know – I’m sorry to burst that particular bubble! I fully understand that puppies are cute and fuzzy and we just want to squeeze the ever-loving adorableness out of them…but, that’s a people thing, not a puppy thing. And your puppy is probably quick to tell you in their puppy way that they’re not a fan.

Plus, you’ve just met your puppy and you’re both getting acquainted with one another. Learn to work with your puppy hands-off, using food and treats, toys, and engagement to encourage puppy to do what you want and go where you want – without going straight to touching or moving them with your hands.

It’s a good idea to utilize and practice the Three Second Test: touching or interacting with your puppy for no more than three seconds, then observing what they do.

  • Wait for your puppy to come to you. Yes, I know this is hard.

  • Keep your hands low; maybe even keep a treat in your hand for the puppy to focus on.

  • Try not to get too handsy – just one at a time is fine! And touch some place neutral (and away from the mouth), such as the shoulder area or the hindquarters.

  • Pet gently for three seconds.

  • Withdraw after those three seconds, “asking” if the puppy wants more interaction.

 

Try to determine if the dog is saying, “Yes, this is fun; let’s keep going!” or “No, thanks; I’m not into this.”

“Yes” Signs:

  • Leaning into you or your hand

  • Coming closer to you

  • Offering eye contact

  • Bringing a toy to play with

“No” Signs:

  • Tight face

  • Tense body

  • Pulling away, leaning away, or walking away

  • Lack of movement altogether

  • Of course, nipping/biting/mouthing or targeting the hands or clothing in some way

 

If you aren’t sure if the dog is giving a “Yes” or “No”, then it’s best to play it safe and give the dog space or walk away yourself. Practicing this and paying attention to the responses the dog is giving provides you and the dog the opportunity to communicate – and gives both of you the opportunity for comfortable interaction without worry of overstepping or worry about any reactions to forced interaction or petting! On top of all of that, if your hands are not on puppy (or in the puppy’s face or space), there’s a much better chance they won’t be nipped at or bitten!

 

Mental Enrichment

In general, puppies are pretty excited by everything in life; it’s pretty unlikely that your puppy needs more excitement in their life. They don’t need high octane play or meetings, such as what you find at dog parks and doggie daycares. What they do need help with is learning that the world is no big deal; it’s not cause for alarm or major excitement. And they need help learning how to relax and settle down even though the world may be exciting and new and fun. Focus the exercise you give your puppy on mental enrichment; this is great for burning puppy energy, exercising that developing brain, and providing opportunities for calming and relaxing!

Mental enrichment activities often focus on natural dog behaviors: sniffing, foraging (sniffing for food), chewing, digging, dissecting and destroying (appropriate things, ideally), and licking/lapping (such as a stuffed Kong or Kong-like toy). There are lots of options and ideas out there! A quick, easy resource with a lot of ideas in it is this link to the 100 Days of Enrichment challenge I did with my dog. There are SO many ideas that you could take advantage of with your dog and each post or idea within the challenge usually contains a few different levels, so it's easy to adjust for ability level.

 

Rest & Routine

Puppies, much like babies, thrive with a structured routine of feeding, resting, play, and sleep. This structure can help you and your puppy with the nipping/biting/mouthing behavior, but also house training and chewing and other things! Puppies should usually get about 18 to 20 hours of sleep a day! One of the biggest reasons why we see puppy biting is the puppy is overtired – and not just in the evening time! I cannot stress this enough!

 

Prioritize and provide nap and quiet time and within a structure/routine for your puppy, providing consistent and scheduled time for napping in the morning and in the afternoon (just like you’d put a baby down for a nap), working within your puppy’s house training habits/abilities, of course. This scheduled time could be in a kennel or crate (and in conjunction with your kennel/crate training); it can be in a playpen with a comfy place to rest; or it could be in a puppy-proofed room away from excitement and possible disturbance.

Management & Confinement

Simply put, if your puppy can't get to you, you can’t get mouthed, nipped, and bitten. I don't want to exactly say that you should set up protected contact like you would see with a wild animal at the zoo...but that's kind of the effect we’re going for when the puppy is really in the mood or you need a break.

You might work with a crate, a baby gate (or four – let’s be honest), a puppy playpen, a tether (your puppy’s leash attached to you or something sturdy), etc. Whatever you decide to use, save yourself some frustration and use it! Before putting into use, of course, work on teaching your puppy that the confinement is a good thing – we want them to be comfortable with being behind a barrier. This is a life skill you can utilize the rest of their lives!

The various tools mentioned above can help to prevent biting; they provide the puppy with a quiet place of their own to rest; and they help the puppy learn some independence and self-soothing without the help of a human. As mentioned, a puppy behind a barrier can’t bite you and you have more options for moving away or closer and rewarding appropriate puppy behavior. Examples:

  • Having puppy in their pen when the kids come in or when the household is moving about is perfect for preventing biting during this excitement (or other exciting times).

  • The barriers or tether allow you to reward calm behavior from a safe distance, tossing treats or toys away from you or to the puppy.

  • Letting puppy drag a light line, just on their collar, may allow you to move or restrain puppy, without having to even touch them. (Of course, make sure your puppy is only wearing the line/lead/leash when supervised to prevent it from getting tangled, caught, or chewed).

 

A confinement area also gives you a place to put puppy or for you to escape to when the biting gets too much. When puppy has turned into a full-on land-shark, it’s understandable that you might need a break. BUT, really make an effort not to rely solely on “time outs” or this approach. Time outs involve teaching your dog that nipping and mouthing means an end to playtime or interaction if it is occurring during play or greetings.

  • When you’re playing with your dog and teeth touch skin or clothing, leave the room briefly (maximum of 20 seconds), taking care to do this immediately and calmly.

    • Do not yelp, shout, scream, or shriek; these things are more likely to rile your puppy up further (this is why children are typically the most exciting targets of a puppy’s mouthing and nipping).

    • This strategy involves YOU leaving the room or area – instead of attempting to collect the puppy and put them in a kennel or crate or behind a baby gate or play pen. It takes time to collect the puppy and they’ll have the opportunity to nip on your hands and clothes further, continuing their fun game and the interaction!

    • With short dogs, it might be sufficient to stand up and “be a statue” (boring, unmoving, silent, ignoring the puppy) for that short time; this is not successful, however, if your puppy chooses to nip at or grab at your shoes, ankles, pant legs, etc.

  • Having playtime or greetings with the confinement mentioned above in place helps you accomplish the time out quicker and easier.

    • When you need to step away (because teeth have touched skin or clothes), you could hook the loop of your dog’s leash on a doorknob or have it already tethered under a table or chair leg (something stable) and step outside of the radius of your dog’s leash with your back turned.

    • Playing near the baby gate, play pen, etc. makes it easy to step over that quickly and quietly.

    • Both options make it so that your dog can’t follow you and leaving the room doesn’t become a fun game of “Chase the Feet,” as well.

  • When you return after the 20 seconds, calmly re-engage with your dog, playing a game that won’t rev them up too much. Avoid games that encourage nipping or mouthing (wrestling, play-slapping, roughhousing, etc.) or that get your puppy really excited.

  • If biting starts again as soon as you return, your puppy may need some down time to cool off and settle down (mental enrichment, nap time, etc.).

 

Toys & Chews

It goes without saying that toys are important when you have a puppy! We need things to entertain the puppy and to redirect that mouth onto! And, c’mon, the toy aisle is one of the most exciting aisles in the pet store anyway!

  • Purchase and have available several different types of toys and chews for your puppy, selecting carefully.

    • Some chew toy packaging may indicate an age or weight requirement or limitation.

    • Choose toys that do not resemble off-limits household items, clothing, or furniture. At least for right now, we don’t want your puppy to get confused!

    • Some chew toys are designed specifically for teething dogs and may be very useful to you and your young dog or puppy (but may be too soft and not appropriate for a heavy chewing adult dog).

  • Variety is important!

    • You need a range of toys that allow your puppy to do normal puppy things, but that also serve as great socialization: toys to chase, tug, squeeze; toys to chew and destroy; toys you can stuff and toys that dispense food; toys that squawk, squeak, crackle, crinkle, and any other noises you can think of!

    • I recommend rotate the toys regularly and keep only a small selection of them available at a time (no more than 10 toys out at once).

  • More than having the variety of toys available…make sure that you’re playing with your dog with these toys! You playing with their toys with your dog will attach meaning and positive associations with the toys and teach them THESE are the things we bite, mouth, chew on, and play with!

 

Teach What you Want to See

Be proactive with your puppy; instead of focusing on how to stop the puppy nipping / mouthing / biting (which we’ve already talked about not necessarily wanting to do), think about what you’d prefer your puppy to be doing! If you want your puppy to engage with a toy (instead of your hands), ignore the kids when they’re running around, or leave your pants or shoelaces as you walk by, you can teach those behaviors – or, rather, behaviors alternative to chomping, biting, and chasing!

Step 2: Take the quick welcome quiz!
Step 3: Prepare for class!

Purchase, prepare, and gather the following items for group class:

  • Your dog's regular walking equipment

    • A flat collar, martingale collar, and/or body harness (prong, choke, shock, or spray collars are not allowed in class)

    • 6 foot nylon, leather, or rope leash (no retractable leashes)

  • A portable place to lay (a towel, blanket, mat, bed, etc.)

  • Treats! More than you think you need and a good variety of (high value) treats

  • Treat pouch or means of holding treats - that is not a plastic bag or small container

  • 1 or 2 (non-squeaky) toys for distraction and keeping your dog occupied between exercises if they're a little antsy

  • Water bowl (and a water bottle with some water from home)

  • You may want to bring a chair if standing for the length of class is not feasible or is difficult

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