You may think that the biggest problem you'll have with a new puppy is being overwhelmed by all the cute. And in a way, that is your biggest challenge. You have to get past all the fluffy, floppy, big-eyed, clumsy cuteness to create and enforce rules and training that create a happy, balanced dog when all that puppy cuteness fades away. Many dogs that hit the "teenage" stage at about a year old end up in shelters because the owners didn't realize how much attention, exercise, training and patience a puppy would require, especially as that ball of fluff grows into a bigger, stronger dog. But if you set the right foundation, the transition from puppy to dog will go a lot more smoothly.
Here's what you need to know so you enter your relationship with a new puppy with eyes wide open.
Socialization, basic training and exercise
Nipping, barking, leash training, basics for sit, stay, lie down and recall, reigning in the prey drive, getting enough exercise, learning to interact appropriately with other dogs including reading and responding to social cues and not getting into fights or being reactive ... you get the idea. There's a long, long list of things that puppy owners need to tackle to help make this new dog a great companion.
That's why one of the first and most important things to do is to sign up for a puppy socialization class. Not only will your puppy have a chance to interact with other young dogs in a supervised setting — making sure that no one gets bullied and shy dogs can build up their confidence — but also you as the owner will learn a lot about reading dog body language so you can understand and predict what's going on in the play group. You'll be able to "hear" what your puppy is telling you all by how he moves around. You'll also learn what play cues look like versus bullying behavior, and how to help guide your puppy through social situations. Ultimately, a puppy socialization class sets up both of you for success when you're out in public.
When you take the role of responsible dog owner to heart, then by the end of puppy socialization classes you'll be ready and excited to move into basic obedience classes. It's in these classes that you'll learn all sorts of things like using positive reinforcement to get your dog to perform basic commands like sit, stay and come to me. These, along with commands like leave it, drop it and lie down can be life-saving.
If you want your dog to be a great companion, then be prepared to spend just as much time training yourself as you will spend on socializing and training your puppy.
Vaccinations, boosters and vet bills
Puppies need to have immunizations starting at 6 to 8 weeks of age, and they require booster shots until they are about 16 weeks of age. The basic immunizations cover diseases like distemper, parvovirus and rabies, but there are a lot of other issues that puppies can have, including worms (often contracted from their mother), hernias (which sometimes need surgery to fix), retained baby teeth, demodectic mange and other issues.
In other words, if you're taking on a puppy, be prepared to give the time and money it takes to make frequent trips to the vet during the puppy's first several months of life. Here is a great rundown of the costs of adopting a new puppy (which is less than the cost of buying one!) and it includes everything from your initial vet bills to the "snip-snip and microchip" that happens when the pup is a little older.
It's a great idea to also get puppy insurance. You pay a small monthly fee so that if anything big happens — like the puppy breaks a leg, swallows something, or (heaven forbid) gets attacked at the dog park — you don't get hit with the giant vet bill. There are several pet insurance companies to choose from and with a little research or a recommendation from your vet, you can sign up and be covered for those just-in-case moments.
Housebreaking and crate training
Everyone wants a dog that is housebroken, so potty training is a top priority for a new puppy owner. Depending on the dog, housebreaking can be a super easy task, or could take months of diligent effort, patience and plenty of carpet spot remover. Figuring out a strategy that works for your dog, having the time and energy to take frequent breaks, and enforcing the rules will all be part of successfully housebreaking your puppy.
Along with housebreaking comes crate training. Having a quiet place for a dog to go when the household is busy and it's not safe to have a puppy underfoot, or when the puppy just needs a break, or whenever people will be gone is vital to keeping everyone's sanity — the puppy's included! Crate training is all about providing a relaxing, secure, comforting place for a dog to be. It keeps the pup out of trouble, helps ease or even cure separation anxiety, and gives humans space when they need it. But crate training is tough work. A long-term strategy and consistency are both musts.
Chewing, teething and general destruction
Gnawing, digging, shredding, scratching ... puppies create havoc everywhere they go with their boundless energy, curiosity and desire to test the durability and edibility of practically everything in their environment. One of the biggest frustrations new puppy owners should be ready for is not knowing what clothing, furniture, plants and other household items are going to last through the first months or year of having a new puppy. This is perhaps where your patience will be tested the most.
There are ways to avoid the majority of destruction, and this includes giving your puppy tons of exercise and a structured, consistent environment for training. Having hardly any energy left to wreak havoc as well as clearly knowing what the household rules are (including, perhaps, only being allowed in certain rooms or having certain toys to play with) gives puppy little need or desire to eat a slipper or tear into the laundry basket.
Separation anxiety and developmental fear periods
Having a dog that is comfortable being alone and isn't dependent on you is a great thing. You may like the idea of being needed, and it may feel impossible to ignore the whimpers and cries of a puppy learning to be alone, but your dog is more mentally stable when he knows how to be alone for a few hours at a time and doesn't panic when you leave the house or even go into another room. Putting in the work to know what separation anxiety is, recognize the degree to which your puppy has it (most dogs have it to some degree) and figuring out how to help them get over it will be one of the biggest gifts you can give your dog (and you) — and it will last their entire life.
Another thing to be prepared for is the developmental fear periods your puppy will experience as he grows up. These are normal stages in a puppy's life that usually happen at around 8-11 weeks and again around 6-14 months. These are periods where your dog is seeing the world in a new way and figuring out what is and isn't dangerous. It is also a time when life-long phobias or triggers can be created. It's important to know how to recognize and respond to the behaviors your dog has during these periods to keep him calm and balanced (but not coddled, either).
Study up on the critical developmental stages of your puppy's life so you can be ready for how to respond and to know what social situations are and aren't helpful for your dog during these times.
Getting the whole family on the same page with training
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be getting every member of the household to follow the same rules and routines with a puppy. The only way dogs really learn rules is through consistency. It is easy for a puppy to never quite get the training down when different family members treat the puppy differently. For example, if the rule is no feeding from the table, or no getting up on furniture, everyone has to abide by it. The hard part is keeping up the rules when your new puppy is just so darn cute and really wants a nibble from the dinner plate, or really wants to come sit on someone's lap. Big problems start small, and that includes allowing a little leeway here and there on rules as the puppy is learning the ropes.
It is also a challenge to get everyone on board with consistent ways of training. Having the same words or signals for commands helps a puppy immensely to understand what is being asked of him, and making sure everyone in the household provides those same words or signals when asking for something is a bigger challenge than you might expect.
Adopt, don't shop
While puppies are cute, they come with a whole host of issues that have to be handled with unending patience. That's one of the best reasons why adopting a dog from a shelter is a better idea than buying a puppy. You know a whole lot more about what you're getting into thanks to the evaluations the shelter staff have given the dogs available for adoption, and you can avoid many of the obstacles that puppies come with.
So many people think that by buying a puppy, they're avoiding possible behavior issues that shelter dogs may have, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Not only do most shelter dogs have excellent personalities and fit right into homes with families and other pets, but it is actually easier to know and address issues that may come up, and ensure that the dog and family are a perfect match for each other.
Further, with a shelter dog you will already know about most health issues and how much care you'll need to provide, whereas with puppies, minor and serious health issues pop up as they grow and you can never be quite sure just how large your vet bill will be in the first six month or year of the puppy's life.
The reality is that unless a puppy comes from a highly reputable breeder (which means an expensive transaction), it is nearly impossible to tell what personality your dog is going to have, regardless of breed. Backyard breeders and puppy mills pay no mind to what kind of dogs they're producing, and even famously friendly breeds like golden retrievers can have severe personality and health issues, including aggression and genetic disorders.
Even if you want the experience of raising a young puppy, it is a great idea to go through a shelter or rescue. You might have to wait a little longer to get a puppy, but they're there and waiting for you!