So you want a puppy or a new dog? You’ve researched all the different local shelters, adoption agencies, and rescues in your area, you’ve probably also considered getting a pup from a breeder. You’re ready to take the big step of bringing home your new family member! It’s such an exciting time – but let’s just take a moment, take a step back, and look at what you should consider and KNOW before you bring home your new pup!
Preparing your Home
As someone who got a puppy, and then took a trip into Petco right after to throw all the items I would need into a cart – while my new puppy sat completely overwhelmed in the shopping cart. Please, please, please – don’t do that. Get everything your puppy will need together and set-up beforehand so that you can focus on bonding with your new puppy, not scrambling to get what you need set up in your home.
What do you NEED for a New Puppy?
The big thing here is that you need to create a safe, mentally stimulating, and structured environment that provides both clear and easy to understand “rules” while also giving them love, comfort and help them de-stress and transition into their new life as part of your family.
The first thing you want to do is set up your home for a successful transition! Your puppy should not be given full access to your entire house right away off-leash. Not only may this be overwhelming and stressful, but it may lead to safety concerns and behavioral problems.
Setting Up a Safe Space
You will want to set up their “space” – you can call it their bedroom or their den – but this area is the area that is small, and where they can be off-leash looking at toys, have access to water, and explore without you needing to be present. This area should contain a…
- Water Bowl
- Variety of Toys – chew, squeak, different textures and sizes
- Crate/Kennel and/or Puppy Gates
Setting Up Structured Time with You!
The next thing you will need to set up is their time with you. When not inside the kennel or gated area they should either be on leash OR watched extremely closely by YOU. Meaning yes – you will be a “helicopter puppy parent”. You want to be there to both show them the rules of the house, engage them, and support them as they explore the environment. Ideally with lots of treats, attention, and playtime. For this, you will need…
- Collar – I personally like collars with custom name/phone number that is stitched into the fabric. When my pups were young we were constantly loosing dog tags at parks and beaches locally.
- Leash – A standard 6 ft flat leash. I do not recommend retractable leashes unless you are working on off leash training, and even then a long-lead would be a safer choice. I’ve seen many dogs and their owners get injured from retractable leashes (burns)
- Training Treat Pouch – I’m a huge fan of using your dog’s regular food for training so I LOVE using an extra-large treat pouch during training sessions, I prefer pouches that are open on the top so you can quickly get treats out to reward your pup for a job well-done.
- Food/Treats – this is going to be completely individual, if you have use their normal food – do so, but if you need something more exciting test out a couple different options – I usually go for single ingredient treats, the “stinkier” the better. Fish or Venison can be great options.
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Ditching the Idea of the Food Bowl
This is definitely not something I want you to do right away, and you definitely SHOULD have a regular food bowl available. However, as your pup gets older and more adjusted I would like to challenge you to use that bowl as little as possible for feeding your pup. Instead, engage your pup with their food during their training sessions, find fun games to place with the food to make your pup “hunt” for it around the home. Put it inside puzzle toys, and fun engaging activities! The possibilities are endless and the cool thing is by doing this you are mentally stimulating your pup every day. Enrichment in this form both improves their cognitive function and creates positive behaviors – creating a well-balanced dog.
I personally have a small collection of enrichment food-based products that I rotate, and sometimes I offer several scattered in a room for a meal. My favorite ones are Maze Bowl Feeders, Kongs, and Licki Matts – all of which provide a bit more mental stimulation when eating than the typical bowl. But a great DIY option is a muffin tin with tennis balls, you simply put food in the tin, then cover the food with the balls. Instant puzzle toy!
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Training starts on DAY ONE
Now don’t get me wrong here – I’m not saying that on day one you should be trying to teach your new pup basic obedience. However, what I do want you to understand is that structure and rules aren’t bad to start establishing on day one. It is SO MUCH EASIER to build good habits than to fix bad ones. TRUST ME, I know. So even though it’s really cute if your puppy play-bites when they are 10 lbs, you don’t want to encourage that habit, because when they are 50 lbs – it’s going to hurt!
The other part I want you to understand is that just like people all learn differently (aka visual learners, auditory learners, tactile learners) dogs will also all learn differently. As the new parent to this pup, it is your responsibility to learn how to communicate and teach your pup. Starting day one – build trust, and look at how your pup responds to different ways of teaching (do they do well with hand gestures, verbal ques – what are their biggest distractions?).
My biggest tip I have for training ANY DOG at ANY AGE is to:
Make learning FUN and start SIMPLE for them, be their best cheerleader, and watch as your connection grows!
What to ask the Rescue or Breeder?
Once you have decided on a new dog or puppy you will need to get some information from the person who currently cares for them. DO NOT LEAVE without getting this information! It’s so much harder to try to get into contact with certain organizations and facilities once you have the puppy in your possession. And if they are missing some information, asking for it BEFORE you leave to be emailed or mailed to you is ideal.
Regardless of where you obtain your new pup, they should have some type of medical records. And the more detailed those records are the better! Over the years I have worked in veterinary medicine I’ve seen some very “brief” medical records and others that were very detailed – giving us lots of information on what and when things were done to a pup. When you are glancing at records there are a couple of things to take note of…
According to the American Animal Hospital Association, there are two CORE vaccinations that every pup should be inoculated for. Depending on the age of the pup will depend on the vaccination “schedule” recommendations going forward.
Currently, the Rabies Vaccination is required by law starting at 4-6m of age, boostered a year later, then boostered every 3 years thereafter. Though there is a titer available, it is not generally used or recommended in place of vaccination in healthy dogs at this time. The rabies titer is largely used to confirm vaccination status to travel to certain areas such as Japan, or Hawaii.
The other core vaccination is the DAP – which is a combination vaccination that vaccinates against Distemper, Parvovirus, and Adenovirus. This vaccination is given to puppies in a series, then boostered at a year then every three years thereafter. Titers are generally accepted in lieu of vaccinations if done on a yearly basis in place of the DAP vaccination, however not all veterinary hospitals will carry titers, so if this something you are looking to do, make sure to ask your hospital if they carry titer testing kits in house and/or perform them often.
Your veterinarian should be able to look at your pup’s vaccination records and inform you which additional vaccinations your pup needs or does not need. It is quite common for puppies to need to complete their vaccination series after going to their “forever” home at around 8-12 weeks old since the final vaccinations and/or titer testing is usually done at around 16 weeks of age.
Something I do want to note is that there are MANY other lifestyle vaccinations – such as Bordetella (Kennel Cough), Leptospirosis, Giardia, Influenza, and more. Depending on your pup and their lifestyle, and your area your veterinarian may recommend these vaccinations as well.
Internal Parasite Screenings
Beyond vaccinations, there are a couple of other things to note on medical records. First is if the puppy (or dog) has been dewormed and/or screened for internal parasites. Many parasites can easily pass from mother to puppy through mother’s milk or may be given to the dog by their environmental conditions. I highly recommend looking for items like the following in the medical records with the words “NVO” or “Negative” next to them:
- Fecal Flotation
- Internal Parasite Screening
- Giardia Elisa
- Fecal Centrifuge
Another way some breeders or rescues will manage internal parasites is by automatically treating/deworming all pups that they care for. You should know that just because a puppy or dog has been dewormed it doesn’t mean they are free of parasites. Some parasites are very resilient and may take multiple dewormings to be completely eradicated. This may be done with medications like…
- Metronidazole / Flagyl – deworms for giardia
- Panacur / Strongid – deworms for roundworms, whipworms, and hookworms
- Albon / Sulfadimethoxine – deworms for coccidia
- Drontal Plus / Praziquantel & Pyrantel – deworms for tapeworms, roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms
In my experience – we considered a puppy or dog internal parasite “free” if they had two negative (or NVO) fecals done 4-6 weeks apart, along with a negative Giardia ELISA test.
The reasoning behind this is rather complicated and has to do with the fact that Giardia is particularly difficult to see microscopically on fecal examination. And parasites shed in cycles – every 25 to 45 days – so you may miss the time when the parasites can be seen on one test, but catch it on the next.
Another test to look for is a Heartworm Antigen Test, and subsequent heartworm medication. All dogs should get tested for heartworm once to twice per year, and if the dog is more than 6m of age, a heartworm test (which is a blood test) should be performed to check for this parasite.
Heartworms do not live in the gastrointestinal tract like the parasites listed above, they actually live in the circulatory system – passing between the arteries, veins, lungs, and heart depending on the life stage of the parasite. The vector of heartworms is also uniquely different as they are passed by mosquitos.
A common misconception pet parents have during their first veterinary visit is that since their pet was “dewormed” they are free from ALL parasites. This is not true. Heartworms in particular are not simple to treat, they require 3 months of timed injections, along with severe movement restriction to prevent side effects. Prevention of heartworm is in many ways safer and easier for most dogs. There are many different medications on the market today to help prevent heartworm from full maturing, speak to your veterinarian about which option is right for your pup.
Make sure to check your pup’s medical records to see if they have been spayed or neutered. This is especially important if you have other intact pets in the home, or if you plan to take your pup to places like dog parks, daycare, or boarding facilities where they may come in contact with other intact pets.
As responsible pet owners, we need to realize that there should NEVER be an excuse for an “oops litter” of puppies. We have a HUGE pet overpopulation issue as it is, there is no need to add to the problem on a whim because we were irresponsible pet owners. It is my opinion that unless you are currently breeding your dog – two intact dogs of opposite sexes should NEVER come in direct contact with each other if they are over 6 months of age. I’ve seen the six-month-old puppy who is pregnant – don’t make this mistake.
If your pup comes to you intact and you are looking to spay or neuter your pup, there are some considerations as to if you should spay/neuter, and when you should do so. There is an excellent retrospective study outlining the risks of neutering at certain ages – less than 6 months, less than 1 yr, and less than 2 yr – and breaks it down by breed. You should also be aware that even though spay/neutering may prevent roaming, research has shown that it does not actually have any benefit for helping with behavioral issues such as aggression, hyperactivity, or anxiety.
Ultimately you should discuss this process with your veterinarian so that they can fully explain the pros/cons of spaying and neutering, along with the bigger responsibility we have as pet owners to help control pet overpopulation.
It is important to know if your pup is currently on any medications when you are purchasing or adopting. You should know that some dogs will be adopted out while they are on medications. A good rescue or breeder will make you aware of these medications, however, some will not.
If your pup is on mediations make sure to review them with the breeder or adoption/rescue organization and ask if the medications are short-term, or if they are long-term. Also ASK what the medications are for, and ask for a copy of your pup’s full medical records. Ideally, I would ask for this paperwork well before you bring your pup home so that you can read through the medical notes, or get an opinion from your current veterinarian on the dog’s health. This will allow you to have the MOST information prior to considering adoption or purchase.
A quality rescue or breeder should be very open, honest, and transparent about the dogs they are placing in homes. Some may require home visits, or make you answer questionnaires prior to make sure you and your family are a good fit for the dog in question. THIS IS A GOOD THING! Even though at the moment it is inconvenient, these breeders and rescues are truly trying to look out for the best interest of the animals.
Paperwork to Ask for From Breeder/Rescue
- Vaccination History
- Fecal Status
- Heartworm Status
- Current Medications
- Medical Records
- AKC Paperwork (if from breeder)
- Joint Certification Paperwork (if from breeder)
- Genetic Testing (if from breeder)
I cannot stress enough how important it is to know what your pup is currently eating. You will want to purchase a small bag of their current diet so that you can feed them that food for the first weeks to months your pup is home with you. Now I know, you might not like the current brand they are being fed – but if the breeder or rescue has said your pup has been thus-far been doing well with this food – what you don’t want to do is suddenly change up their diet.
The reason for this is that your pup is already going through a lot of stress – new home, new parents, no environment, new rules – it can be overwhelming. Many puppies actually get stress-induced loose stools from those factors alone.
Reason two is that your pup’s entire digestive tract will need to adjust to this new food, and sometimes that alone is difficult, especially if the food is VERY different. Remember our goal during this transition phase is to support and encourage – we have plenty of time to change our pup’s food later. My personal rule of thumb is to wait one month in the new home prior to starting the transition.
But this doesn’t mean you cannot start researching diets that would be appropriate for your pup! I highly recommend taking that first month (or even before) to really look into what diet would be ideal for your pup. You should know that regardless of if YOU find what YOU think is perfect – your pup still gets a say in this – if they don’t do well on that diet, take note and move forward with another diet.
And if you do plan to DIY in the future and you haven’t done it before – I highly recommend starting your pup on a pre-made diet, at least for the first couple of months (for an adult dog) to the first year (for a puppy). The reason for this is simply that fresh foods have their own little “challenges” – you need to get used to the freeze/thaw cycle, how much your freezer can hold, how much your pup eats, what kind of things your pup does well on and doesn’t. Homemade dog food is very complicated to start, and you will already be dealing with a lot in the first couple of months. You can add on DIY later.
Quick Health Assessment
This is something that as a veterinary professional I always did when I chose my own pups, and when I brought fosters home. It helps me establish a base-line and also helped me later ask questions to my veterinarian about abnormalities that I observed during my at-home assessment.
I recommend doing this before you bring your new pup home too! – This way you can ask questions to the rescue or breeder if you see something that seems abnormal to you. It’s much easier to speak to someone in person when you are either doing a “meet and greet” than getting in contact with them over the phone or email later.
Finding a Good Veterinarian
When you adopt or get a pup from a breeder you will probably need to bring your pup into the veterinarian within the first couple of days to weeks of bringing them home. Thus already having a veterinarian picked out and ready to go is ideal! I would even go so far as to recommend that you schedule an appointment well in advance to when you bring your pup home so that there is no added stress on “getting the appointment” within the time frame required by the rescue or breeder.
So here are my tips for choosing a Veterinarian…
Call them on the phone:
I know this seems silly, but you will at some point need to call the hospital to either check in on your pup while they are getting a dental cleaning or to schedule an appointment. If the staff over the phone seems – unhappy, rushed, or is rude – this is a red flag. A good hospital manager and/or veterinarian will respect their staff members and make sure they have adequate staff to perform tasks and compensate them accordingly. Unhappy staff = a management issue that you don’t want to affect your pup’s care. If things are running behind constantly, or no one seems to be able to answer the phone, this isn’t a staff issue, it’s a staffing issue.
Look at Online Reviews:
BUT realize that people sometimes over-react OR don’t tell the entire story. If every review online is 5 stars and there is one 1 star review – I’d read the review and see if the hospital responded. But it’s possible that someone just had a bad day, or that the review was accidentally posted under the wrong account.
Consider the opinions of other Dog Owners:
This is a great way to find a nice veterinarian, but keep in mind that each person has different priorities – one person may want the best price, another may want fast service, others may want longer exams where they can talk more with staff. Just because one veterinarian worked well for one person doesn’t mean it will for everyone.
Look for further certifications:
There are a couple of certifications I like to look for, the first of which is AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) which requires a certain standard of care in order to become a member. The second is Fear Free Certification – which requires hospitals to practice certain stress-free styles of handling in order to reduce patient anxiety.
Prioritize your Needs:
As an owner, you may have certain priorities of care for your pup – if you know they have certain medical conditions you may want a veterinary team that has additional certifications or equipment available. Also if you have a dog that is high stress – asking if they offer house calls might be a good idea, especially if your pup is more comfortable at home. Finally asking about their availability and referral policy for after-hours care, weekend care, and 24/hr hospitalization might be a good idea. Some hospitals may not actually even offer surgical services on-site at all. So knowing what you can do at your vet vs. what you will need to go elsewhere for is a good idea.
Let me give you an example…
As my pups aged I have prioritized choosing a veterinarian that offers acupuncture, and laser therapy – because I know that those are services that I am interested to pursue as my pups get older. I also feed Ash a fresh food diet, and I cooked for both my dogs for years – so I want a veterinarian with knowledge in nutrition, that isn’t completely against a discussion on homemade diets. I also would like to do titer testing instead of vaccinating for DAP for my dogs in the future. On a similar note, I am also looking for a practice that DOES perform anesthetic procedures, such as dental cleanings.
With all those services in mind, I chose a veterinary hospital that suits my needs – that happens to be an Integrative Practice near my home. But keep in mind – you might not actually KNOW what you are looking for at first! Or you might not actually like the bed-side manner of the veterinarian – their way of communicating might not “click” with you. That’s OKAY. After I moved I actually went to two other veterinary hospitals before I found the one I currently use. Those other hospitals were not bad, they just didn’t work for us.
Other Pet Care Service Providers
You may also want to research other pet service providers in your area prior to bringing your pup home. This may be especially true if you know your pup needs a trim, or maybe will be starting in Doggie Daycare, or need a Dog Walker soon after you bring them home because of your schedule. When choosing any service I highly recommend…
- Go to the facility (if you can) – is the facility clean, organized, do staff members seem happy, do the dogs look well cared for and happy?
- Talk to the provider over the phone rather than just over email or text messaging. This will not only allow you to get questions answered but get an idea of their personality and services. You can really tell if someone is passionate about what they do by their excitement and tone over the phone.
- Stalk their social media – see what they post online, are they personable, kind, thoughtful? Do they have videos showcasing their care/services? Does that care match with your beliefs and goals for your pup? What type of training methods do they use? Do they separate dogs by size at the Daycare Facility? Do the dogs seem stressed during their grooming appointments?
- Consider Online Review and Community Recommendations – but be mindful of the fact the reviews may be incorrect or misleading (on both sides of the spectrum!). This basically applies to any review online.
Services to Potentially Research:
- Dog Daycare
- Dog Walker/Runner
- Pet Store
Phone Numbers You Want on Your Fridge:
- Pet Poison Control Hotline
- Local Animal Services
- Microchip Company Phone Number
- Local Emergency Veterinarian
What to Expect the First 24 Hours
Simple to say – anything and everything is an option in the first 24 to 48 hours of bringing a pup home. They may be very shy and want to explore on their own. They may also be extremely outgoing and want to see ALL THE THINGS at all points in time. Most likely they will be stressed and have some anxiety in the first couple of weeks to months – this can be normal.
In either situation start things off by introducing them to their “safe space”. Allow them to explore that area at their own pace to see where the water is, where their bed is, and sniff around. Use some healthy treats in order to establish a positive association with this new space. Once your pup seems to relax, show them the area outside where they can go to the restroom (ideally on a leash or contained to a smaller area of the backyard.
The first couple of weeks to months may be stressful for your pup – it will take a while for them to fully transition to being comfortable in the new situation. For some pups, the stress of a new environment may lead to a couple of different medical signs…
Loose Stools – or Stress-Induced Diarrhea:
Though this is definitely something that can occur it is not something to be ignored! Make sure to discuss this observation with your veterinarian, they may ask you to bring a stool sample in for additional testing.
It can be very normal for a dog to actually not pee or poo for long periods of time when they are first brought home. I remember when I brought Ranger home he didn’t poop for 3 days, and didn’t pee for almost 12 hours! Though this can be normal, make sure to discuss any abnormalities with your veterinary team – just in case additional testing or intervention is needed.
Some dogs when stressed will refuse food. If your pup seems stressed in the first couple of days and doesn’t want to eat there are two things I want you to do.
- First – I want you to write down when they last any ANYTHING (including treats). This I find is really helpful because you may find you are giving A LOT of treats, and your pup just isn’t hungry because of it. But if your pup isn’t eating anything at all for 24 hours, it could actually indicate something else is going on. If that is the case then make sure to contact your veterinarian for an appointment.
- Second – I want you to place the food down for 15 minutes. Then pick it up if your pup doesn’t eat it. Here is the MOST IMPORTANT THING – you are not going to top it and put it right back down. You are going to put it away. Then an hour later you are going to bring the food out, and at this time BEFORE presenting the food to your dog you can top the food with whatever dog-safe food items you would like! The idea here is to set your pup up for success within your home, listen to their wants/needs, while also not creating a picky dog. Dogs are VERY INTELLIGENT, however, at the same time, they do not actually know what is best for them LONG TERM. It is our job as a pet owner to provide them with nutritious balanced foods – and though that chicken breast topper may be nutritious, by itself it is not balanced.
Overall I think it’s important to realize that this first part of the transition will probably have a lot of learning experiences for both of you. You are both learning about each other’s needs and wants and trying to figure out exactly what you should do. Expect things to have a couple twists and turns – expect that you might need help navigating the puppy parenting world. It’s normal to have questions, concerns, and to be worried about your new pup. Seek help to get those questions answered.
Haven’t Found the Perfect Pup Yet?
If you are still in the decision process and haven’t actually found the perfect fit, or maybe you are just starting the process of looking – make sure to head over to my good friend Rebecca’s blog, ATC Pet Talk for more information on The Benefits of Adoption – where she will really break down how to find a local organization to adopt from, along with some of the benefits of adopting a pet! There are lots of wonder pups out there – and when you find the one that speaks to you – whether that be from a responsible breeder, from the streets, or from a local adoption agency – I’m sure it will be love at first sight or sniff.
About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, AS Animal Health -2013) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.
Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!
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