A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.
A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.
Three months ago, I adopted a four-month-old Belgian Malinois. I named her River.
It has been the longest three months of my life. And I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I just mean that it feels LONG. So much has happened. I look back on the first few days with River, when she was tiny and new, and I find myself getting nostalgic. Nostalgic! For something that happened 90 days ago!
It’s been a wild ride. In this video (short documentary?) I’ll tell you all about it. Down below you’ll find a written version that includes details that didn’t make the final cut of the video, as well as links to more information about the subjects discussed.
UPDATE: If you like this video, you’ll also like Puppy Survival School, our new online course. Click the banner below to check it out:
The adjustment period is that awkward stage after you get a new dog where you and the dog are learning to live together, and the dog is learning the rules of the house. It’s the time it takes for him to go from being your new dog, to just your dog. It can take two weeks to six months. I’m just shy of the three-month mark, and I’d say we’re pretty much through it.
We’ll do a run through of what River’s training has been like. You’ll get to watch me practice what I preach. And I’ll show you some of the dumb mistakes I made that betray my carefully crafted image of an internet dog training guru.
If you’re planning on getting a dog, this might be helpful. There’s already a ton of excellent puppy advice out there. But that’s kind of the problem, right? The information overload. You know you’ve gotta think about housetraining, socialization, basic manners, puzzle toys, teaching the pup her name, and preventing behavior problems… but like, when do you do those things? What order do you do them in? With this video/article, I’m trying to provide context for all that. To just show you how I did it.
And we’ll also talk about crippling self-doubt. And mental health. Things you don’t immediately think about when you think about puppy-raising, but that nevertheless are a big part of the experience for many of us.
My plan for 2016 was to get a new dog, to get back into dog sports. My dream breed? A Belgian Malinois. An intense, beginners-need-not-apply working dog. They’ve been on my list for a while.
I didn’t think I’d actually get one, though. At this moment in my life I prefer to adopt shelter dogs, and Mals are not exactly common in shelters. So I planned on looking for some sporty little mixed breed from the pound.
But then Jonas got sick. Jonas was my agility partner back in the day. He was the dog I learned the most from. And he died on the final day of summer. After that, I had no desire to get a puppy any time soon.
But late one night, just two weeks after losing Jonas, I was browsing a local shelter’s pet listings. Just to look. JUST TO LOOK. And what to my wondering eyes should appear but AN ENTIRE LITTER OF PUREBRED MALINOIS PUPPIES.
Next morning, I went to the shelter’s adoption center, located in what used to be a pet shop in an old mall. And there they were: eight baby Mals.
They were beautiful, precious little demon children. They had warning labels on their pens that read:
“The Belgian Malinois is a very high-energy working-class herding breed. They require constant mental and physical exercise. If not properly stimulated the malinois can become frustrated and act out negatively. It is important to understand the needs of this breed and see that those needs are met on a daily basis. Highly recommend experience with this breed. Not recommended for apartment living or dog owners who don’t have experience with herding breeds or working class dogs. Great candidate for a potential ESA or service dog.”
And they were all taken.
The staff said each puppy was spoken for. Their new owners just hadn’t picked them up yet. If I wanted, I could leave an application and they’d call me if any of the adoptions fell through.
Yeah, like THAT would happen. But I left an application, tried not to let the soul-crushing disappointment bother me too much, and moved on with my life.
At 5 pm, the impossible call came. “We have a Malinois puppy for you. You can pick her up tomorrow.”
Sometimes life doesn’t suck.
Now that I’d found myself about to become the guardian of one of the most challenging puppies possible, I had to get my head in the game.
My puppy raising strategy: set her up for success by preventing bad behavior through the use of supervision and management tools, and creating plenty of opportunities and rewards for good behavior.
First I went to the pet store and bought a crate, exercise pen, a variety of chew toys, and pet stain remover. Then we cleaned up the house, puppy-proofing all the areas she would spend her time.
Read more on puppy prepping: What to Do With a New Puppy: a Guide to the First Week
So then it was time to bring River home! First stop, her bathroom area in the backyard. Housetraining starts right away. She peed almost as soon as we put her down. Then we took her inside and put her in her exercise pen to meet Merlin and our foster cat, Violet. The animals had a lot of short, positive interactions throughout the day.
Day one was pretty low-key. It’s just about getting to meet the people she lived with, taking lots of trips out to her bathroom, and crate training: getting her ready to spend the first night in the crate.
I introduced her to the crate by tossing treats in, letting her go in to get them, then feeding her more treats while she was inside. She was free to go in and out as she pleased, but she soon start to prefer to stay in – that’s where the snacks were.
I did sessions of this throughout the day, eventually closing the crate door for a few seconds at a time. In the evening, I watched TV while she ate dinner in a Kong in the crate, with the door closed, right next to me.
River sleeps in her crate in the living room. To help her adjust, I planned on sleeping next to her on the couch for a few nights at least. At 1am, after a very long day, I put her to bed with a Kong and she fell asleep, sleeping through the night. Which I knew was a fluke, a honeymoon period thing, but it was quite nice.
The first few days were glorious. River was perfect, I was in puppy love, and I had an ample supply of enthusiastic puppy sitters. River was very calm. She didn’t bite. She didn’t chew much. She was happy to spend most of the day safely contained in her pen in the living room.
None of this would last, of course. The first few days with a new dog are often like this. The dog is calm and well-behaved and as they get settled, they become less calm and less well-behaved. It’s not that the dog is being “good” on purpose; it’s not like they’re trying to make a good first impression or trick you or something. It’s just that they’re not doing much of anything, because they’re shy or uncertain. People tend to interpret dogs doing nothing as dogs being good. When the dog gets more comfortable, they start doing more things. Including things like destructive chewing, barking, harassing the cat, etc.
I took full advantage of this time. Since River was doing a lot of good behaviors, I could heavily reward the behaviors I liked and create good habits for the future.
River didn’t eat out of an actual food bowl until about two months in. Every morning, I rationed out a day’s worth of kibble. She got three small meals in puzzle toys every day, and the rest was used for training. Any time someone saw her doing something good throughout the day, they’d give her a kibble.
For example, we rewarded her every time we saw her sit. This is a training method called capturing. She picked up on that REAL fast. By the end of day one, we had a puppy who sat constantly, any time she wanted something. Which is nice. A dog who knows how to say please, pretty much. On day two I added the sit cue to her sitting behavior.
I introduced her name by saying it right before anything good (treats, play, petting, etc) happened.
On day three, I started leash training her. She wore the leash around the house and on mini-walks around the driveway.
Every morning after exercise and training, we worked on separation training: she ate a breakfast Kong in her playpen while I left the room, coming back in every minute to say hi. It’s important to teach your puppy how to be on their own during the honeymoon, before you have to go back to work or school and leave them alone for real. This helps prevent separation anxiety.
Bedtime on day two was more what you’d expect. I let her take a nap in the evening, which was a mistake. Because at midnight, when I tried to put her to bed, she was wide awake. She started panicking in her crate, so I let her out into the pen. Then she started barking at scary shadows in the dark house. I put her back in the crate, dropping kibbles in for as long as she stayed quiet. I realized that she was calm as long as I was talking, so I kept talking to her until she fell asleep. This process took about an hour. It definitely helped that I was sleeping on the couch. If I tried to sleep in my bed and leave her alone downstairs, the whining would never stop.
River constantly tries to get Merlin to play. A couple times, he agreed, but he was too rough, and she was too little, and she got intimidated. They’re still figuring each other out.
Merlin was unhappy. He had a lot of upheaval in his life the past month – first losing Jonas, his lifelong companion, and now he had to put up with this whippersnapper! He was really sad. I felt real guilty, but I knew this is just how it goes. He would adjust. I spent as much time with him as possible, taking him on a daily walk by himself and playing Frisbee.
Socialization is about introducing the dog to all kinds of people, places, animals, and things, and trying to make it a positive experience. Because I know some nerd is gonna bring it up: technically socialization is about interacting with people/animals. Habituation is about experiencing new places and objects. But for simplicity’s sake, I’m lumping both these things under the umbrella term socialization.
Socialization was my main priority with raising this pup. She was already four months old when I got her, which is at th the tail end of the sensitive socialization period. We had a lot of catching up to do. Right now, socialization was mostly about getting to know and trust her new family, and exploring her home.
On day three, we invited a few people over for a very calm meet-the-puppy gathering.
By day five, the honeymoon period was ending. River was becoming more active and we were starting to get a glimpse of her true Malinois personality. The biting and chewing and crazy impossible energy.
There were many mornings when we’d get up at 6:00, and between playing, training, and exploring, she’d be going non-stop until 11:00-12:00, when she’d finally take a nap. There were nights like that, too: from 9:00pm to 12:00am, she entered Hyper Attack Puppy Mode, and it was all I could do to keep up with her.
So the honeymoon was over, and we just settled into the grind of doing the work.
Housetraining basically consists of watching River like a hawk and taking her outside every hour. For the first couple weeks, she had one accident in the house every evening. Partly a matter of me getting too confident: “she hasn’t had an accident all day! We got this!” And partly me being completely exhausted. Either way, I didn’t supervise/manage enough, which gave her the chance to pee on the carpet.
I introduced “real life” rewards for sitting. Any time she wanted something, like going outside, playing with a toy, or leaving her pen, I had her sit first.
We played a lot, of course. Working on building a relationship, and building her trust in me. So that when we go out into the world later for socialization, she would know that she can rely on me to be a safe place to retreat to, if necessary, so she’d have more confidence to go out and explore.
By day ten, Merlin was starting to feel better. He wasn’t quite so serious all the time anymore.
After several days of only meeting through barriers, like the pen, Violet and River can now be loose in the house together. River really wants to play, but Violet plays it cool.
Okay, it wasn’t a disaster. But to my perfectionist dog trainer mind, it sure felt like one. For River’s first big socialization outing, we took her to the vet to get her vaccines. Until this point she’d been happy to meet people, so I wasn’t really expecting any issues there. But I clearly should know better – meeting people in the comfort of your home is quite different from meeting people, in a scary place, who are going to manhandle you and stab you with needles. She was terrified.
After the initial exam, the vet left the room for a few minutes, and River curled up on the table and closed her eyes. Seems peaceful, but no – she was shut down. She was so overwhelmed that she just… stopped.
So her first car ride, first “adventure,” was terrifying. This is not the way you want socialization to go.
But. You know. Shit happens. Just gotta focus on moving past it.
Now that she had her shots, we could take her to more public places. Her next outing was to a “puppy party” at the local humane society. Puppy parties, or puppy socials, are gatherings supervised by professional dog trainers where your pup can meet other puppies and people. As the importance of early puppyhood socialization is becoming more widely understood, these events are popping up everywhere. You can probably find a trainer, shelter, or pet store in your area that offers them.
River was nervous. She looved meeting all the new people, but she was shy around the other dogs. At this first party, she mostly sat in my lap.
Shout out the the Arizona Humane Society’s awesome training program. If you’re in the Phoenix area and you’ve got a pup who needs socializing or a dog who needs training, check ’em out.
This was a long drive, and River was not a fan of the car, so I had someone go with me and sit in the backseat with her.
Next day, I took her on a car ride by myself. She cried the whole way. But then we arrived at a hiking trail! And that was fun! And when we were done, we got back in the car, and this time we went to her favorite place: home! For two weeks, once or twice a day I took her on short car rides to somewhere fun like the park or a trail. Pretty soon, River learned to chill out and sleep on car rides.
Two weeks in: One night I waited until she was asleep, then quietly went upstairs. At 4am, she started crying, so I went back downstairs and slept the rest of the night on the couch. Next night, I slept upstairs again, and River slept through the night. From then on, I could sleep in my own bed again. A little bit of life returning to normal.
On day seven, I gave River her first pig ear. This was the most amazing thing she’d ever seen, apparently. I tried to take it from her, and she snapped at me. Not a big deal, but I made sure to work on that. Over the next few weeks, we played a lot of trading games.
This article on resource guarding desperately needs to be updated, as I no longer agree with the “Why” section. But the “How To” section is still solid.
As I started taking River to more places, I noticed some fear issues. She was afraid of dogs. And people? Kinda weird: If you’re closer than ten feet to her, she loves you! But if you’re farther away, she barks and growls defensively.
It was hard to take her on walks or to the park, because she fearfully barks at everything.
This set off my own fear issues. River was showing signs of becoming reactive. I’ve done the reactive dog thing twice now, with Friday and Merlin. I hated it. ‘Tis not my forte. I was really hoping not to do it again any time soon.
So I freaked out a bit, and pushed River into “socialization” situations she wasn’t ready for. This can make reactivity worse. I had to chill the eff out. Be a leaf on the wind. I made a plan.
There are many ways to handle fear/reactivity. A variation on a dog training game called “Look at That” worked for River. Basically, every time the dog looks at a trigger -the thing that sets them off- you mark and reward before they have a chance to bark. This changes things for the dog. It becomes a game.
We went a park every day. When we arrived, River was overwhelmed, and she would bark at everything. We’d go to a quiet area. Close enough to see the people, dogs, and scary soccer balls in the distance, but far enough that she wasn’t reacting. Every time she looked at a person or dog, I’d say “yes” and give her a treat.
Soon, her body language changed. The way she looked at the “triggers” changed. She’d look at, say, a person pushing a stroller across the parking lot. And then she’d look at me. “Did you see that? I looked, where’s my treat?”
So yeah. At this point my life is consumed by River. I’m doing all this work for not a lot of reward yet. Not doing any of the things I got a dog for. Which is normal! This is to be expected.
But this part freaks people out.
You may have seen that friggin’ adorable River video I posted a couple weeks back:
So cute! So funny! Such wacky adventures!
But that’s the highlight reel, right?
You don’t see the frustration. Or the self-doubt. Or the fact that my life now revolves around making sure she A) doesn’t develop fear aggression and B) doesn’t eat the batteries out of the TV remote.
So. A person might get bombarded by cute puppy highlight reels, and be bombarded by the cultural narrative that tells us that raising a puppy is just full of joy and happiness. And then that person gets a puppy, hits day 7-14, and finds themself not happy at all. They’re just doing a lot of thankless work for a puppy who doesn’t love them yet. So they think either something is wrong with the puppy, or something is wrong with them, because this is supposed to be fun.
Now this person has arrived at the next part of the adjustment period:
This is the part where everything is terrible and you think you’ve made a huge mistake.
Not everybody goes through this part. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who get a dog and have no problems whatsoever. But those are not the people who are emailing me for help at three in the morning.
I write a lot about the WTFWIT phase. It’s accidentally become my specialty. And you’d think since I spend so much time helping others get through this that I would be immune to it myself. But no. It can happen to the best of us, and I am not the best of us.
For me, it started at the three week mark. It coincided with a depressive episode. I have depression, BTW. I have since I was 12. It comes and goes, tends to come at real inconvenient times.
With a new dog, you’ve got sleep deprivation, stress, and the total disruption of your daily routine. This is a trigger for the WTFWIT phase. It’s also a trigger for depression. So. Double whammy.
The day after Halloween 2016, I woke up completely exhausted, with terrible brain fog and no focus or patience or energy to deal with River. And I was really beating the crap out of myself. Literally, what were you thinking? Why would you get such a difficult dog breed when you know you’re prone to depression? You’re not good enough for this dog.
It’s all good now, don’t worry. But those were dark days. I lost my sense of humor about it for a while. I wasn’t enjoying the puppy at all, we had no bond yet. She was basically a stranger living in my house eating my money and chewing on my hands.
Here’s the thing: I knew this was normal. I was experiencing a textbook case of WTFWIT. Everything would be fine. I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Something I tell everyone who asks for help with their WTFWIT phase is to remind yourself why you got the dog in the first place. Try to make time for something beside housetraining and supervising. Hiking with dogs is one of my favorite things, so I took river on a lot of hikes. Short ones, ’cause she was still a baby.
Being so depressed, I had a really hard time with training. So I temporarily abandoned a lot of the stuff we were working on, like basic obedience. I put all the energy I could muster into socialization and getting her over her fears and resource guarding. That was the priority. Heel, Down, and Stay could wait.
She now had fewer accidents. Instead of every evening, it was once every few days. Then once a week. Remember what I said about her learning to “say please” by sitting? She learned that if she sat at the back door, someone would let her out. When she had to pee, she sat at the door. Because she was starting to get this concept, she could have more freedom in the house.
River and Violet the cat became friends. Violet is absolutely River’s favorite person. I try not to be jealous.
River harassed Merlin constantly. Every chance she got she was chewing on him to get him to play. Ninety percent of the time, he did not want to play. But he was good-natured about it, fortunately. I made sure he had his own place, my bedroom, to himself to get a break from her. I did some training to get River to leave him alone, but mostly, it was a matter of her outgrowing it and moving on to other things. By week six, she’d gotten over her Merlin obsession and redirected her obsessive focus into… bowling.
My WTFWIT phase came to an end, and it was thanks in part to an old toy bowling ball.
Until now, River enjoyed playing with toys, but she wanted to play on her own. You could throw a ball for her, but she’d just carry it off to chew it. But then she found the bowling ball. It was too big to get her mouth around, but she found that was really cool if people kick it for her. River was learning to play interactive games with people.
I could shape the bowling ball-chasing into fetch and Frisbee training. Most importantly, it became much easier to wear her out. All I had to do was kick the bowling ball around for 30 minutes and she’d be tired after that. It was miraculous.
She was getting easier to deal with. Thanks to the intense work over the past six weeks, she was pretty much housetrained, she was great in the car, she was okay being left home alone, she slept in to a more reasonable hour in the morning. We were starting to develop a bond. I was starting to feel like she was my dog.
This is the final phase of the adjustment period: The “We Can Do This” phase.
Day 45-ish. The first day I’d been able to take a deep breath since River came home. Or since I stumbled across a random litter of homeless Belgian Malinois puppies. Or since Jonas died. It was the first time I could relax and go, “okay. This is gonna be awesome.”
Now, yeah, raising river is a lot of fun! All the good stuff you look forward to when you get a puppy? I’m doing that now. There is a lot of joy and happiness in this. I just had to work for it.
We resumed training. Thanks to our socialization work, she was now able to be calm and focused at the park. So on our almost daily park trips, we started practicing the training we’d done at home. Sit, down, tricks, recalls, etc. River occasionally got flustered by strangers and dogs, so we’d still play a bit of Look At That as needed.
Her disc dog training has begun in earnest. She is now even more obsessed with Frisbees than Merlin is.
Resource guarding – Thanks to a combination of formal training exercises and just her getting to trust me, she doesn’t guard against me anymore. She sometimes does with other people, though, so I just have to generalize what she’s learned with me to others.
Fear/reactivity – Still shy, but no longer at risk of becoming reactive or fear-aggressive. As long as I stay vigilent and keep up with socialization, we should be good.
Counter-surfing – River has developed a habit of taking stuff off of tables and counter-tops. It’s because I slacked off on management. Yeah, yeah – I’m always telling people to MANAGE YOUR FREAKIN’ DOG. I didn’t manage my freakin’ dog enough, and now she’s very tall and nothing is safe. But we’ll deal with that. Probably make a video about it.
This experience renewed my appreciation for just how hard the adjustment period can be for puppy adopters. I mean, I know the puppy-raising process inside out. I know to have faith in the work, and trust that if you do the work, things will get better even if in the moment if seems like nothing is getting better. I knew all this and I still had a hard time. Imagine being someone who isn’t even clear on what the process is. It’s no wonder so many puppy owners consider throwing in the towel.
I had so much ambition when I adopted River. She was going to be obedience trained before the first month was over. She was going to love visiting the vet. I was going to be so vigilant and make sure she never developed any annoying habits like stealing food off the counter.
But sometimes your pup’s first vet visit is a disaster. Sometimes you have mental health issues that knock you on your ass. Sometimes, your puppy is a living creature with a mind of their own.
You’ll screw things up. That’s okay. Because it’s about the long game. The big picture. It’s all about what happens next time. Like, one bad car trip doesn’t doom you. It’s all about the next twenty car trips.
Next up for River: agility training, Frisbee training, obedience training, and adolescence. I’m recording all of it, of course, so you can follow along on the madness.
For more details on the strategy I used with River, as well as more help surviving the adjustment period, check out my book (you knew there had to be a product plug in here somewhere). This ebook focuses heavily on the most common challenges faced by new dog owners: housetraining, puppy biting, and bonding. But it also deals with the more complicated matter of fighting off the monsters in your head.
Sound like something you could use? Click here to check it out.