6 things I wish I’d been told about puppy raising

All tuckered out
Georgia, my in-laws’ puppy.

There’s a wealth of information out there about how to raise a puppy. How to pick the right puppy from a litter, how to house train, how to crate train, how to teach basic obedience commands, how to avoid bad behaviors: You name it, there’s an article or a book or a blog post about it.

Before we adopted Pyrrha, I did tons of reading about raising puppies and dogs. But it wasn’t until we started raising foster puppies myself — and now, having adopted an adolescent of our own — that I really learned what raising a puppy was all about. This, of course, is true for everyone.

Being his adorable self
Our former foster puppy Laszlo!

But here are 6 things I wish someone had told me about puppy raising in advance, 6 things that I didn’t find in all of those books:

  1. Feed your puppy out of food toys. This is a tip I first heard from our trainer, Deven Gaston. Essentially, feeding time is a wasted opportunity for stimulation and exercise if we just plunk a bowl of kibble on the floor. We now feed Pyrrha and Eden out of food toys, and it takes them about 15 to 25 minutes to eat each meal (depending on the difficulty of the toy). They have fun, they use their brains, and they get a little bit tired! We like toys from Busy Buddy, especially the Magic Mushroom. I also like the XX-large extreme Kong to start puppies out on; it’s not as intimidating as some of the more advanced toys. The only complication with food toys is that you’ll need to feed your dog in a room that doesn’t have a ton of furniture (or walls/baseboards that you mind being scratched up). We feed Pyrrha and Eden in our basement and in our large master bathroom, which have concrete and tile floors and few things that they can destroy in their urge to get their food.
  2. Have lots of old towels on hand. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that raising dogs would be really messy. Go to your local thrift store and buy up an armful of cheap, old towels before you bring your puppy home; you’ll use them all. They serve a variety of purposes: crate bedding (personally, I’m all for not continuing to waste money on expensive crate beds that my dogs are just going to turn into confetti); outdoor clean-up; drying off after baths; DIY tug ropes (rip/cut them into long strips and braid them together), etc. Stock up on old towels; you won’t regret it.
  3. Rotate their toys. I’ve written about this before, but rotating dog toys is a great strategy for both your housekeeping sanity and your puppy’s interest levels. Puppies are like little kids: Anything new is the MOST exciting! Puppies are also like little kids in that they have short memories. Putting toys away for a few weeks at a time, and then bringing them out (and rotating the old ones) will keep your puppy engaged — and keep you from spending hundreds at the pet store for more toys to keep your puppy interested.
  4. Clear the floor! (And the coffee table and the low shelves…) Puppies, like babies, like to explore with their mouths, so ensuring that they can’t get anything hazardous or breakable is essential. Don’t want your puppy to chew up your new shoes? Don’t leave your shoes lying around. Despite being general mess-makers, puppies can also encourage orderliness and organization by forcing us to put our things up and away!
  5. If you have carpet or a rug anywhere, that’s the first place a puppy is going to pee in the house. I don’t know why this is, but every puppy (and dog) that I’ve house-trained has much preferred urinating on carpet or rugs than on hardwood or tile. Maybe it simulates grass? Maybe it just feels better on their paws? But if you have an expensive Persian rug that you don’t want ruined, I’d roll it up and put it away until your puppy is reliably house-trained.
  6. For socialization, host a puppy play-date at your house. Every puppy-raising manual stresses socialization, but finding appropriate socialization for your puppy can be stressful in itself. Dog parks are overwhelming and not recommended for pups, especially if they haven’t had their full rounds of vaccines. And even just meeting other dogs out on walks isn’t ideal, since leashed greetings are difficult to negotiate properly. Instead, host a play-date at your house and invite a dog or two that you know well and trust. I’ve found this to be the great way to teach proper play, and it’s also one of the best ways to wear out your bundle of joy! We’re big advocates of hosting play-dates over here.
Sweet Vera
Vera, a foster for one day!

What are some things you wish someone had told YOU about raising a puppy? I’d love to hear what you’d say to someone who had just gotten a pup!


Pyrrha’s first softball game

Before we left on our beach vacation, I took Pyrrha to her first softball game.

As you can see from her ears, she was a little uneasy at first.
As you can see from her ears, she was a little uneasy at first.

The event was busier than I had anticipated, with lots of people, kids, and a few other dogs.

She is still having some reactivity issues.

Softball game | Doggerel

Can I just take a moment to complain again about irresponsible dog owners who walk their dogs on retractable leashes? UGH. This young woman had her mix breed on a retractable leash and the dog just started coming for Pyrrha. I get up immediately and start backing away from them, calling to the woman, “Please, my dog is shy…” but she does NOTHING to rein her dog in. The dog just keeps coming for us. Finally, Pyrrha lets out a HUGE warning bark, and that’s enough to stop the dog. The woman finally pulls her dog back, and I hear her mutter, “Jeez, we didn’t do anything!” Again: UGH! Ugh. The ignorance of some people…

Obviously, not everyone who uses one of these contraptions is irresponsible, but I see this behavior happen time and time again with retractable leashes. Unless you have great verbal control of your dog, just say no to retractable leashes. (Or, say no to them in crowded areas like a softball game on a Friday night.)

Anyway. Aside from that incident, Pyrrha did really well. She was nervous at first (as she still is in all new environments), but after about 15 minutes, she was sitting on my friends’ feet and even taking a nap in the grass. I’m always proud of her growing ability to overcome her fears. This event, though, was a reminder that I still need to be really vigilant about her socialization. She still has lots of room to grow!

Teaching kids and dogs how to behave with one another

Click for source.

NOTE: This is a piece I wrote a while ago, and since I don’t have any good photos of Pyrrha or any good updates lately, I thought I’d post it to start a conversation. Pyrrha is pretty scared of children, especially infants and toddlers, and this is an area I really want to work on with her. I welcome your thoughts, comments, and advice! — Abby

Despite what this adorable picture suggests, in general, kids are pretty terrible with dogs.

Kids like to tease dogs. Even if they’re just babies and unaware of what they’re doing, kids like to mess with dogs. They like to stick their hands in the dog’s eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. They like pulling the dog’s tail. They like riding on the dog’s back. They like squeezing dogs around the neck to express affection, even though the dog interprets this as invasive and frightening. This doesn’t mean that kids themselves are terrible. They’re often unaware of what they’re doing and how to read a dog’s body language.

Kids have a tendency to freak dogs out, for all the reasons listed above. Kids are really noisy. Their body language can be erratic and unpredictable to a dog. They like to get right up in dog’s faces, in their food, in their beds, on their backs. It’s no wonder that many dogs are afraid of children and that many, unfortunately, lash out in fear-based aggression.

But dogs, undoubtedly, bring (most) children an immense amount of glee. Even babies will light up at the sight of a dog. It always warms my heart when I see this. And there are many dogs who seem to love nothing more than children. (Bo is one of them: He drags me after strollers and runs up to every kid we see, beside himself with excitement, or with the prospect of food crumbs on grubby faces.)

There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that dogs and kids were “made for each other,” but that’s not always the case, and the majority of dogs AND kids need to be taught how to behave around one another. So how do we train them to behave well with each other? It’s not something that exactly comes naturally to either species.


As someone who doesn’t have kids, I often worry about those parents who don’t train their kids well with regard to dogs. I have responsibility for training my future dog how to act around kids; I expect that parents have the responsibility to train their children how to act around dogs. When we’re out walking, I can’t tell you how many times parents have let their little children run up to Bo to pet, squeeze, or hug him, without so much as a glance at me or a question if my dog is even friendly toward children. Thankfully, Bo is wonderful with kids, as I mentioned before. But what if he wasn’t?

I always walk Pyrrha very carefully around playgrounds and around people with young children. Thankfully, we haven’t had any parents let their tots run up to us (and I think this has a lot to do with breed; Pyrrha looks “scarier” than Bo, the golden retriever, does) and if a kid wants to pet her, they usually ask first. But this certainly wasn’t always the case with Bo. Parents would let their little children run right up to him without asking me.

But: Have you ever had to intervene in a situation between children and your dog? What would you tell the parents, perhaps by way of educating their kids?

Karen London posted a great short list of things she tells children about dogs, covered by the funny but true heading: “Don’t lick the dog,” from Wendy Wahman’s picture book for kids. That book sounds like a great resource for any parent of young children. I feel like I should buy a bunch of copies to hand out to parents on the downtown pedestrian mall here…

The Lab babysitter. Click for source.


One of Pyrrha’s last remaining big fear thresholds is little children. We seem to have ameliorated her previous big fear, which was greeting other dogs, and she hasn’t snarled or raised her hackles at a dog in two months. I consider this a huge victory! But the kid thing is another issue entirely.

Pyrrha is OK with kids who are calm and move slowly. This, unfortunately, is not many children. She’s submitted to attention from older children, perhaps 5-7 years of age, and she doesn’t seem bothered by pre-teens or teenagers.

It’s the babies and toddlers who really make her anxious. This is, obviously, a really difficult thing to work on. I wouldn’t let my infant around a German shepherd who was scared of babies, and I always keep Pyrrha removed and completely controlled when she’s in the presence of small children. So what do we do? How do I work on exposing her and acclimating her to this fear? It’s not like you can ask an infant to work with you, to make all of its movements calm and controlled, to stop squealing erratically.

She once growled at a toddler who tried to come near her. I removed Pyrrha from the situation and put her inside. It was a scary and disheartening moment. I want a dog who’s OK with little children. But how do we get there?

For those of you who adopted an adult dog, how did you expose your dog to kids? How can we help Pyrrha overcome her fear of small children, without endangering babies or eclipsing Pyrrha’s fear threshold?

As always, I’m very open to your suggestions!

In which Pyrrha has an uneasy “play” date with Silas

Sunday delivered the most beautiful spring weather. We spent the whole day outside with Pyrrha, mowing the lawn, tending to our plants. We ran a brief errand and bumped into our friends James and Sara and their Great Pyrenees mix, Silas. We told them about Pyrrha and said we’d be hanging out all day in the yard if they wanted to come over and bring Silas.

Pyrrha in the freshly mowed lawn
Pyrrha, sitting in the freshly mowed lawn.

At this point, I knew that Pyrrha reacted fearfully toward other dogs on lead, but I’d heard from her foster that she was great with them in open spaces. I figured that this would be a good interaction, especially knowing that Silas was super-calm and steady. Enter my first dog-parenting misjudgment.

We were in the backyard with Pyrrha when James, Sara, and Silas showed up. As soon as she saw Silas, she EXPLODED. Snarling, barking, growling, hackles up, teeth flashing everywhere. Thankfully, James and Sara are as calm as their dog is. I didn’t know what to do, but James encouraged me to lead her to the back of the yard and then let go. He then released an unleashed Silas and I held my breath.

Silas, I love you
Silas, being his wonderful, chill self.

Pyrrha did not lunge at him, which I was afraid of, but just started slinking around him, sniffing him. If he ever faced her, however, she started snarling and growling again. But Silas was SUCH a champ. He was the perfect dog for her, because he refused to respond to any of her bitchiness. He’d just saunter away and let her do her thing.

Dogs, coexisting
The dogs, somewhat coexisting.

After about 10 minutes of Silas studiously ignoring her, she started to calm down and they began to coexist together. They certainly weren’t going to play with one another, but they were happy to be side-by-side and even face-to-face for the rest of the afternoon.

What I Learned: I definitely underestimated how Pyrrha might react to a new, big, strange dog in her new yard. Silas was THE best possible dog to meet her like this, however. I think he may be a critical part of her rehabilitation. And James and Sara were awesome, too; they didn’t take Pyrrha’s behavior personally and knew that she’d get over it. Which she did.

Dogs and James
Silas relaxes; Pyrrha sniffs out James.

I’m listening to your majority opinion now, and I think all of you are right: Pyrrha still just needs more time to calm down and adjust and grow in confidence. There will be plenty of time for doggy play dates. For now, we just need to work on some basic bonding and training. But the afternoon wasn’t nearly as disastrous as it could have been, and I daresay she was almost disappointed to see Silas go at the end of the day. I think Pyrrha and I both learned a lot. So, a thousand thanks to Silas and his wonderful humans; you guys deserve dog socialization medals.

I am going to take it slow with Pyrrha for now and politely decline any future, well-meaning invitations for play dates. However, I feel like the fact that she was able to happily coexist with Silas after some time bodes well for her future. She can get there eventually, but for now, we’re going to start with some more basic bonding work instead of rushing her into the presence of new dogs.

Those of you with shy dogs, how did you gradually introduce them to other dogs? What are some of your recommended techniques?

Dogs with bad manners

Dogs in flight. Click for source.

(So, I couldn’t find a photo illustrating dogs with bad manners. These two are just REALLY excited to go outside…)

On Tuesday, I read the article “He Just Wants to Say ‘Hi’!” by Suzanne Clothier, who wrote one of my favorite books about human-dog relationships. Clothier’s basic premise is that we, as dog guardians, often misinterpret canine behavior and are frequently slow to recognize dogs with bad manners–especially if it’s our dog who is the rude one.

As Clothier says:

It never fails to amaze me how willing humans are to excuse and rationalize a dog’s rude behavior instead of teaching them good manners. Part of developing appropriate social behavior is learning that no matter how excited you may be, there are other folks in the world and certain basic rules of politeness still apply no matter how excited you may be.

I realized I had totally seen this in action when I was walking Bo at the park some months ago–and I was definitely the one at fault. While we were walking in the park, we passed a big cluster of dogs on leashes with their people. Bo happily bounded up to the group and was wagging all over the place. A woman with a pair of greyhounds walked over to let her dogs join the circle. Bo went over to greet the pair, and the senior male greyhound growled and snapped at him. His woman instantly jerked the dog’s collar and reprimanded him, saying to me, apologetically, “Sorry, he’s just a grumpy old man.”

But after reading Clothier’s article, I realized that I was the one who should have been apologizing. The old grey was just trying to teach the over-exuberant Bo some manners. Instead, we humans interpreted the greyhound as reacting “aggressively,” where it was Bo who was at fault. Bo listened closely to the greyhound’s reprimand, however, and immediately backed off. It was just us humans who didn’t understand what was going on. I wish I could see that woman again and tell her that her genteel old boy wasn’t the one to be scolded.

Clothier suggests that we need to pay more careful attention to the ways that our dogs interact with other dogs. We should be able to recognize when our own dogs are being rude AND when other dogs are approaching our own with impoliteness. While we can’t control other people’s dogs, we can be advocates for our own–and that sometimes involves physical action. Clothier writes:

I encourage handlers to be quite active in protecting their dog – whether that means quietly walking away to a safer area, or, when that’s not possible, literally stepping in physically to present the first line of defense. Stepping in between two dogs is a classic act of leadership. Dogs do it with other dogs all the time, so this same gesture coming from a human leader is understood and appreciated.

This simple act of stepping between an approaching rude dog can do a lot to defuse the situation, if you know your dog isn’t one to tolerate impoliteness. Finally, as she says, we have to remember that we are responsible for our dogs and we cannot expect perfection:

We cannot expect our dogs to be saints – at least not until we can rise to that level of tolerance ourselves. And that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. We can expect our dogs to be tolerant to the degree that we educate them, socialize them and protect them – with respect to their individual needs and boundaries.

I’m glad I read Clothier’s article and glad to have had my eyes opened to a particular aspect of canine behavior that I had previously misinterpreted.

How about you? How does your dog handle rudeness? Do you feel like you’re able to detect when your dog is being the impolite one? How do you defuse building tension between dogs?

SPCA Day: Stillness and energy

The weather was pristine this weekend and made my morning and afternoon at the SPCA that much more enjoyable. The dogs were happy, as always, and I had a great time with them.

A few notes on what I learned:

Lesson #1: Never underestimate the power of a pit bull body slam


Eden was kind enough to teach me this lesson. As you can see, she is a very lovely lady. But don’t let her demure, elegant gaze fool you: This girl is a tornado. Just trying to snap a leash on her was like trying to wrangle a bronco. In a tiny kennel. She dragged me all over the trails and I decided, for the sake of my arm sockets, to take her to one of the fenced-in areas to let her run around–something she clearly needed.

I took her leash off and she tore around the fence, running at full speed. I picked up a tennis ball and she chased it merrily for a while but that soon bored her. I turned around to pick up a tug toy on the ground and as I was standing up, WHAM! Thick pittie skull smacked me right in the tail bone; I think I actually heard our bones crack against each other. I was knocked down, which she found very amusing, and in quite a bit of pain. Tailbone injuries are the worst! Had no idea how painful that would make the rest of my afternoon there. Walking up hills was awful.

But, whatever. I pushed through the rest of the day and managed to get Eden back into her kennel without any further fiascoes. The enduring lesson? Don’t turn your back on a rambunctious dog who REALLY wants to play with you. Your whole body, in fact.

Lesson #2: Let dogs sort out inter-dog social situations on their own.


I was in a fenced-in area playing with the sweet-faced Roscoe (who was ineptly described as a “St. Bernard mix” by the shelter. Hardly!) when another volunteer, L., walked by with a tiny 10-month-old mix named Blossom (photo not on file). The two began to play bow through the fence and L. asked me if she thought they would play well together. I said we should try it, even though I was a little anxious. Blossom was much smaller and shyer and so we decided to keep Roscoe on his leash in case things went south.

I always get nervous when dogs meet other dogs, and maybe this just contributes to the anxiety of the meetings. We led Blossom in and Roscoe sniffed at her and then immediately stood over her and started playfully gnawing on her neck. Blossom started to whimper a little and my first instinct was to pull them apart. But L. gently stopped me and said, “We’ll let them sort this one out on their own. Roscoe doesn’t appear to be trying to hurt her and Blossom is willing to yield.”

L., a more seasoned volunteer, of course, was right. In just a few minutes, the two were happily chasing each other in circles and bowing and wrestling. The formerly bashful Blossom was even taking well-timed nips at Roscoe’s legs. It brought me a lot of joy to watch them play together and reinforced the lesson that dogs often need to be left to themselves to sort out social situations. Human interference usually makes things worse.

Lesson #3: Not all GSDs are shy, anxious messes.


So, Estella is probably not a pure GSD, but she looks pretty darn close, especially in person. (This photo makes her nose look bigger than it appears in real life.) I first saw her in a pen near one of the trails and she quietly approached the corner of the pen to sniff me and the dog I was walking.

All that I’ve read about GSDs has made me pretty nervous about wanting to adopt one. It seems that, as a result of bad breeding, GSDs are especially prone to nervous dispositions, which can often lead to anxiety and shyness-based aggression. I now expect almost ever GSD to act this way, especially a GSD in the county animal shelter.

Estella, however, graciously proved me wrong. She is an older lady, approximately 7 or 8 years old, and maybe a tad overweight. I didn’t get the chance to walk her this weekend, but I did make a point to spend some time with her in her kennel. When I approached the door, she sat politely and looked up at me noiselessly. This in itself is unusual for any shelter dog. I held out my hand for her to sniff and walked into her kennel with a biscuit. I offered it to her and she gently took it from me and laid down by my feet while I stroked her coat. It was a brief encounter, but it was encouraging just the same.

Looking forward to my next visit; I never know what I’m going to learn or experience next!

36 ways to socialize my future dog

A classy poodle being socialized in Austin, TX. Source: Flickr user pooneh

“Socialization” is a popular buzzword among dog people. Most behavioral problems in dogs tend to be linked to their owner’s failure to “properly socialize” them. I’m inclined to believe that this may very well be the case. I imagine this is why so many people are talking about it.

I think about the challenges of socialization a lot, especially since we’re planning to adopt a young adult dog. I’m often afraid that it will be “too late” to socialize a dog that may have had its bad social skills reinforced. I’ve heard many people say this isn’t true, but I still get nervous about it. Is it extra-hard to socialize a dog when you’ve already missed that “critical socialization stage” in its youth? I try not to worry about it too much.

That said, we’re blessed to live in a very dog-friendly town and surrounding area. My town has a pedestrian mall that welcomes dogs. Our city is filled with beautiful parks, including three off-leash dog parks, and is surrounded by the lovely Blue Ridge mountains and its many winding hiking trails. I want to take my dog everywhere, as much as this is possible. I want a dog who is calm, happy, and trustworthy in almost every situation, but I know that this takes a lot of time and patience.

While I’m waiting on our future dog, here’s a cursory list of all of the people and places that I’m planning on introducing him or her to:

  1. Old men.
  2. Old women.
  3. Men of all shapes and sizes.
  4. Women of all shapes and sizes.
  5. People wearing hats or masks.
  6. People in wheelchairs.
  7. Teenagers, who congregate freely on the pedestrian mall in large packs. They will not be difficult to find.
  8. Young children (ages 3 to 10). Start off with kids we know and can trust around the dog.
  9. Babies. Introduce from a safe distance at first.
  10. Homeless people on the downtown mall.
  11. Busking musicians on the streets.
  12. People of different races from Guion and myself.
  13. People on bicycles.
  14. People walking their dogs.
  15. Training class, which we will enroll in.
  16. Dogs on the downtown mall, which won’t be hard, because there always dozens and dozens of them.
  17. Dogs in the dog park.
  18. Cats! Is there any safe way to do this?
  19. Other small animals like rabbits, mice, guinea pigs. Echo concern on #16.
  20. Livestock, if at all possible.
  21. Riding in cars.
  22. Riding in a boat.
  23. Eating outdoors at a restaurant; handling the business of sitting patiently while we’re eating and waiting while being tied to a table.
  24. Outdoor concerts.
  25. All types of staircases.
  26. Hiking trails and state parks.
  27. Picnic areas.
  28. Lakes, probably Lake Monticello.
  29. Rivers, specifically the Rivanna.
  30. PetsMart in town.
  31. PetCo in town.
  32. Horse and Dog Lover’s store downtown.
  33. Veterinarian’s office and exam room.
  34. Dog groomer’s.
  35. Urban Outfitters on the downtown mall (which allows dogs inside).
  36. Backyard cookouts and potlucks.

OK. I can only come up with 36 places/people/things right now. I’m sure there are more.

Do you have any creative suggestions? What are some of the ways that you socialized your dog? Do you have any special advice for a newly adopted adult dog?