It took me a long time to decide that I wanted a puppy. I’ve generally traveled a lot and not felt that I’d have the time. After nearly 6 years living in San Francisco, though, it seems that I’ve become relatively stable. What’s more, the travel I have planned for the future is domestic and much more focused around camping and nature.
Like many computer programmers, I find myself predisposed to sitting in front of the computer for long periods of time. I’ve been looking for ways to make myself “stop and smell the roses.” I also have a predisposition towards being reclusive, and a puppy seemed a way to force myself away from these traits.
I’ve had two other dogs in my life (a Cocker Spaniel and a Staffordshire Terrier), so I had no illusions about what dog ownership entailed. Still, I’ve learned a lot from the process.
This is part of a series of posts.
Picking a Puppy
Its distressing how many dog owners don’t understand the needs of their dog… not just of dogs in general, but of the breed they have chosen. Dogs have a long history of companionship with humans, but each breed was selectively bred for a different reason. At first, I was considering a Shiba Inu, which is a rather independent but aloof and hard-to-train breed. Instead, I decided on an Australian Shepherd.
My decision was based upon some experience with the breed, and knowing that every single person I knew who had owned an Australian Shepherd had raved without end about their dog. They are known to be one of the most intelligent and loyal dog breeds. As working dogs (shepherds), they are meant to be alongside their humans all day long doing jobs. This is both good and bad.
On the one hand, “aussies” are incredibly trainable. A well-trained aussie can be off-leash in a distracting environment and still respond well to its human. I kept an eye out for them at dog parks and noticed that they were rambunctious and energetic, yet always ready to respond to the human’s command. On the other hand, such an energetic and smart breed is a huge time commitment. Not only do they need to be physically exhausted (which requires much more effort than many other breeds), but they also need intellectual stimulation. Aussies who don’t have work to do are known to become bratty and often destructive. Uninformed owners mistake this as the dog not knowing right from wrong, when in fact they are expressing their displeasure by acting out.
In the end, I decided on a Miniature Australian Shepherd (officially called a “Miniature American Shepherd” by the AKC). “Minis” range from 20-30 lbs or so, unlike their full size counterparts (35-60 lbs). Miniature breeds can be a bit controversial in that they are often bred for looks and size at the expense of health and intelligence. It was therefore important to me to find a good breeder. Honestly, the choice to get my dog from a breeder at all was something that gave me quite a bit of reservation. Most dog lovers will emphatically ask that you rescue a dog from the pound rather than getting it from a breeder. However, when picking a lifelong companion its even more important to choose a dog that will fit your lifestyle. I justified my decision to go with a breeder by the fact that I have rescued a dog in the past, and that I made sure to do my homework about the breeder. For those in a similar position, there’s lots of good information out there about picking a good breeder, and I highly encourage you to do the same.
Once I found a breeder, I made the two hour drive to go see the litter of puppies. At first I had a specific boy dog in mind. As soon as I arrived, though, one girl puppy in particular immediately took to me. She came right over and sat in my lap, happy to stay with me even once her litter-mates got bored. She also had one blue and one brown eye (not uncommon in aussies) and a beautiful “blue merle” coloring. She was so drawn to me that the breeder nearly insisted that I choose her, and I couldn’t say no.
It would still be another two weeks before I took her home, and I had a lot of preparation to do!
Preparing for a Puppy
A surprisingly large amount has changed with regards to dog training in the last ten years. All forms of “negative reinforcement,” especially choke/prong collars, are highly discouraged. Instead, classical conditioning and positive reinforcement have been shown to be much more effective. Plus, they’re a lot more pleasant for both dog and owner.
The best book I read on the topic of puppy training was Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right. This short book is so jam-packed with excellent advice, exercises, tips, and equipment that I read it twice in the two weeks before I returned to pick up my new puppy. Some of the most important take-aways for me were:
- Not putting out a food bowl, and instead using food as a reward for good behavior.
- Correcting bad behavior through removing attention (what a puppy craves most, such as by turning your back).
- Using body language and not words. Verbal commands come later; dogs implicitly understand our body language, but spoken language must be trained very carefully. Over-using or introducing commands too early make them meaningless and the dog will never actually learn to respond to them.
The First Week
When I picked up my puppy, I still had not picked her name. I wanted to get to know her a little before doing so. She was quite sad on the two hour drive home, even throwing up in her travel crate. Unfortunately this is quite common, as like with infants, a puppy’s ears are not fully developed and carsickness comes about quite easily.
Even at home, she was timid about eating and did not want to explore much at first. Stairs were an insurmountable challenge. The first night, she whimpered in her crate about half the night, despite me being right next to her. This first day was, while exciting, also rather sad.
The second day went a lot more smoothly. I put her treats and toys in her crate and left the door open so that she learned the crate contained good things, but she would not be trapped there. At the same time, I gated off the room so that I could always keep an eye on her. As soon as she started circling or sniffing I took her outside and waited 10 minutes to see if she needed to potty before bringing her back in. I stayed around the house all day, and in the evening read a book on the couch for many hours before going to bed. By 8pm she had fallen asleep in her crate on her own, and I just closed the door and went to bed on the couch myself. She didn’t whimper all night, except once to be let out to go potty. Two nights later, at 13 weeks old, she was already sleeping through the night and holding her bladder.
By the end of the first week, thanks to the tips in the Perfect Puppy book, she had learned to “sit to say please” and eagerly stayed at my side at all times. She didn’t have all her shots yet so she couldn’t walk anywhere outside, but I was able to carry her to the coffee shop or brief meetings with friends.
Like many puppies, she attracted a lot of attention from strangers. At 14 weeks old she was still too young to exhibit most of her “true personality,” which would come out later. She mostly just quietly stayed at my side, though at the same time, it required constant vigilance to make sure that she went outside to potty, got enough exercise, and did not get into trouble.
Many friends have asked me about the time investment to having a puppy. For the first month, I would estimate that it’s about a 4 hour time commitment per day. But even that hides the truth: there is never a moment in the day where you can stop watching them. Puppies nap (and wake up) constantly, so unless they’re in their crate, there’s a chance they’re about to get into trouble. The general rule for crates is “one hour per month old,” so at three months a puppy can only stay in her crate for a maximum of three hours. Even that is deceptive, as they are likely to cry very loudly if you leave during this time. Instead, its best to train them with short-but-increasing intervals. What’s more, the only way to ensure a well-behaved adult dog is to correct bad behavior in-the-moment, which means always being aware. I took a couple days of vacation from work during this first week in order to create enough time to get to know my puppy and make sure she had a good first experience.
I finally named my puppy “Azuli” after the first week of getting to know her. It comes from her one blue eye (“Azul” is blue in Spanish, plus “i” for her eye). I learned later that the “ee”-sound suffix tends to work well for dog names, as its easy for a dog to distinguish. Indeed, Azuli (or “Zulie” for short) was responding very well to her name even within the first week.
All in all, the first week was hard, but I know the payoff for having a well-behaved companion for the office, camping, and everything else in life will be worth it.