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Cheryl S. Smith

Learning Dog Training from Television

You can find a substantial amount of dog training on television these days. But, just like network sitcoms and dramas, quality varies. So how do you watch a television show dealing with matters canine and evaluate what you're seeing? Your training philosophy may or may not be the same as mine, but in the spirit of somewhat scientific inquiry, I think these points will help you make an assessment.

1. Remember you are watching television. That means, at the very least, that you're not seeing training and results in real time. Any ill responses can be edited out. What looks in the program like it took mere minutes may actually have been edited down from hours of real time. Events may even be shown in an order other than what occurred in real life. Some of this may be done simply to meet time constraints, but other reasons could be less benign - to make the star of the show look better, to imply that the technique being shown is faster/easier than it actually is, to omit anything producers would prefer viewers not see. Always keep in mind that television presents a skewed view of reality, partly from necessity and partly from motives of one sort or another.

2. Give some thought to any disclaimers or warnings the show may contain. Yes, we live in a litigious society and producers want to protect themselves, but if a dog training program is broadcast with the caveat "do not attempt this at home," then it isn't serving any real educational purpose. It's either nothing more than pure entertainment, or it's a purely commercial message masquerading as a regular show. Think about it -- if you aren't supposed to use the techniques being shown, what are you meant to get out of the show?

3. Turn off the sound so you don't hear what the trainer or the voiceover may be saying, and watch the body language of the dog. Make up your own mind about if the dog is enjoying the experience, if the dog is stressed, what you think the dog might be learning. Most programs repeat regularly, or you can tivo it. So watch the first time with the sound off, make note of your observations, then watch again with the volume up, and see how the show's version of what is happening agrees or disagrees with what you saw. Don't just assume that the trainer is right and you are wrong.

4. Ask yourself "Is this something I want to do/would enjoy doing with my dog?" Unless your dog has serious behavioral issues (in which case you need face-to-face help from a behavior specialist), training should be enjoyable for both of you. If you don't like what you're doing, odds are you won't do it as often or as wholeheartedly as you should. Training works best in frequent short sessions, so you need to do it often. If you don't like what you're doing, that's not likely.

5. Don't be swayed by the physical appearance, voice, or "presence" of the show host. You may enjoy listening to him or watching her, but that has little to do with the effectiveness of the training. Watch the dog or, if the camera angle permits, watch the face of the owner as training is done to her or his dog. Do they look like they're enjoying the experience, or are they apprehensive or alarmed? Show hosts are chosen because producers expect the audience to like them and tune in to see them. That doesn't make them reputable experts.

6. Look for any follow-up information. Does the show go back and check in on how the dogs and owners are doing? Are the owners given any instructions for how to continue their training? Don't just assume that whay may have looked like it worked in the show continued working indefinitely. Training is a fluid process that often requires ongoing adjustment.

This is just a half dozen techniques for assessing what you're seeing. If you watch just to watch, it doesn't matter, but if you're thinking of applying anything you see on tv to your interactions with your own dog, please take the time to give it some serious thought.

(Originally appeared on the IAABC website at

Let Your Dog Develop Some New Moves

In the sport of freestyle (also known as dancing with your dog), both teamwork and originality are rewarded, so why not let your dog be a full partner by contributing to your choreography? This isn't as bizarre an idea as it sounds, and can even help your dog display more dash and joie de vivre in performance. Crossover dogs -- those who have been trained traditionally and are used to waiting to be told what to do -- will benefit particularly.

You start by teaching your dog to be creative. Choose a location where you don't ordinarily train -- a different room will do -- to help your dog understand this is a different game you'll be playing. Equip yourself with a clicker and a good supply of high-level treats. At first, this can be a frustrating experience for your dog, so you need rewards good enough to motivate continued effort.

You're going to click and treat novel behavior. You have to decide before you start whether you will click each new behavior once or three times. This depends on knowing your dog. Crossover dogs may need those three clicks to keep the rewards coming. With clicker-savvy dogs who are used to figuring out what behavior is earning them clicks, three clicks may be enough to convince them that you're actually training a behavior, and they will just keep offering stronger versions of the same behavior. So be honest in appraising your past training efforts with your dog.

Stand up, with your clicker at the ready, and observe your dog. Click for some movement by the dog -- it might be a paw lift, a head turn, a step back, almost anything that involves movement. Avoid clicking for sitting or lying down because a stationary dog can't offer as much behavior. Also avoid prompting your dog -- be quiet and wait. If your dog is slow to offer behavior, you can click the same movement up to three times, but then you must wait for something different. If your dog is quick to try different things, only click a behavior once.

So a creativity session with a crossover dog might go like this:

Dog takes a step toward you, gets click and treat

Dog takes a step toward you, gets click and treat

Dog looks toward sound from outside, gets click and treat

Dog stands still for a second then takes a step backward, gets click and treat

Dog cocks head, gets click and treat

Dog cocks head, gets click and treat

Dog cocks head, gets click and treat

Dog cocks head, no click, dog lifts paw, gets click and treat

Dog cocks head and lifts paw simultaneously, gets click and treat

Dog cocks head, no click, then freezes, staring at handler

After several seconds, handler moves, dog turns to follow, gets click and treat

Keep sessions short. Set a timer for one minute, or count out 20-25 treats and when they're gone you're done. This is fairly intense work, and you don't want the dog to lose interest and shut down. Also note that if you're clicking three times, the dog doesn't have to offer the behavior three times -- that's a maximum, not a minimum.

For dogs who are truly stuck -- they just sit and look at you, waiting for a cue to do something -- you can jump start the process by playing some lively music and moving around to it. The dog should start moving with you, and you can click for going in different directions, the dog's postion relative to you, head turns to watch you. Once you get the dog up and moving, gradually fade the music and your movement over several sessions.

Practice this creativity exercise several times a day over several days (with a dog who is readily offering new behaviors) or up to three weeks (with a stuck dog). Remember that you are training absolutely nothing in all this time other than that trying new things will be rewarded. You will almost certainly see, at some point, a behavior that you would love to put on cue. Keep it in mind, but don't do anything about it while you are working on the creativity exercise. In my case, I was taping creativity exercises for a clicker seminar and my dog Nestle offered a beautiful hop, launching his front end into the air. It was just the move I wanted for a new demonstration freestyle routine (can you guess our music?), but we were working on creativity. So I let it go by. We worked on creativity again the next day, and I saw the hop again, and again let it go after one click. (Nestle has been clicker trained his whole life, so it's one behavior, one blick for him.)

On the third day, we were finished taping creativity, Nestle was offering behavior at a good rate, and I felt we could try and train that hop. We moved to a different room, I stood with my clicker and let Nestle fool around, but without clicking anything, and within 10 seconds he offered the hop and I clicked and treated. He tried another behavior or two, then returned to the hop and got clicked. After that, I saw only better or worse variations of the hop -- different heights, with and without a preceding bow, with and without vocalization. Within three days I was putting it on cue. (Our demo music, by the way, was the Bunny Hop.)

Now, some important rules for this game. When you are working on creativity, you may not change in the middle of a session to trying to train some particular behavior you saw. You have to have faith that the behavior will come back and give you the opportunity to capture and shape it another time. If you continually go between clicking only novel behavior and clicking specific behavior, you will confuse your dog and inhibit the offering of new behaviors. You can bring a creativity session to anend soon after seeing a behavior you want, take a short break, thye move to a different location and start a session where you will work on that behavior. But you can only do this after you've done enough creativity practice to have your dog readily offering new behavior. This may mean several weeks of at least daily session with traditionally trained dogs.

So your first goal is purely creativity. Don't be too quick to want to train something. You do that all the time. Enjoy this differend experience. Watch for your dog to enjoy it too.

Your second goal is to be able to train an offered behavior, but without destroying your dog's willingness to continue to play the creativity game. So don't try to train anything specific until your dog is readily offering behaviors. Use a different location to train a good benavior. And continue to intersperse creativity sessions to help your dog understand that both types of work will be rewarded.

If you take the time to do this, you may not only find yourself with some move the freestyle world has never seen before, you may find you have a more joyful, energetic partner. And that's an even more important goal. As Fred Astaire was wont to whisper in his partner's ear, "Now you're dancing!"

(For more information on the sport of freestyle, visit the WCFO's website at

New Year's Resolutions

'Tis the time of year when the thoughts of many turn to the year ahead, and how to better make one's way through it. While in this philosophical mode, why not include your animals in your thinking? Of course you can make resolutions for their benefit, but you may also be able to take some things your animal shows you into consideration when setting goals for yourself.

For the Animals

What would your animal wish for the new year? If that animal is a dog, top of the list would almost certainly be more time with you. But don't just make the nebulous promise to "spend more time." Instead, make a resolution to take some training classes with your dog, or get involved in a dog-related activity, whether that be a competitive sport such as agility or some noncompetitive event such as a hiking with dogs group. Having a schedule of doggie things to do will help to ensure that they actually happen.

If your animal companion is feline rather than canine, it may be a bit harder to figure out what would be the most favored resolution. But think about what your cat enjoys. Would she like a "hit" of catnip more often? Or is she always on the lookout for something to climb? Some cats may crave more lap time with their humans. With actual physical objects as the "want," it's easy - buy the desired object and give it to your cat on Christmas. (If your actual Christmas day is filled with family, then reserve the day after for your cat.) An easy way to provide more cuddle time is to choose a tv program you watch regularly and make sure you have a lapful of cat before you settle in.

Birds' wants could vary greatly depending on their size and species. Finches might love more servings of mealworms, parrots might want a new interactive toy. You need to know what is involved in the husbandry of your specific type of bird.

Outdoor animals also vary widely. In our area, chickens, sheep, llamas, horses, cows are all still fairly common. What might they like to see in the coming year? A better place to get out of the weather? Tastier food or more treats? Something to play with (yes, outdoor animals may want to play, too)? More attention from their human? A friend of their own kind (all of these are group animals, genetically accustomed to being with others of their ilk)? Maybe you can't provide all of these options - you only have enough pasture for one horse, for example. But you can provide some. Or a horse may be happy with a goat (who doesn't need much room) as a pasture mate. Do think about what you can provide to make the new year brighter.

For the Humans

Now to the part that takes a bit more effort - changing your own behavior. Before you decide on what to change, take some hints from your animal friends.

Dogs are natural geniuses at living in the moment, getting every ounce of enjoyment out of the good times. Sure, they have less to worry about (at least if they have good owners), but even in bad times they are quick to forgive, forget, and get back to enjoying life. So take a hint from the dogs and don't spend the good times worrying about what might go wrong or what went wrong yesterday.

In the same vein, don't think you have to wait till you win the lottery to enjoy life. Look at your dog enjoying lying in a patch of sun or chewing on a plain old stick. That's pure happiness. And it doesn't require any money. Resolve to find some time to enjoy our fabulous scenery, often mild weather, our trees and mosses and many natural wonders.

Cats are renowned for their self-sufficiency and focus on their own comfort. You don't want to become selfish, but you should take some time for yourself now and then. Resolve to make some "personal time," whether you spend it on a day of pampering at a spa or hiking in the river valleys. You'll be a better person for it in the long run.

And speaking of spas, cats could teach us a thing or two about personal grooming. They spend plenty of time keeping themselves in prime condition. Of course you shouldn't sit primping for hours, but people do tend to feel better about themselves when they're looking good. So budget a little time and money for some primping - a new haircut, a manicure, a massage, whatever helps you feel ready to face the days ahead.

When we look to our feathered friends, the one talent we most admire is flight. While we need a mechanical assist to literally get up into the air, we can soar to new heights of accomplishment without any outside assistance. So what do you want to achieve in the coming year? Choose some goals, whether they be personal or professional, and chart a course to a new landing zone.

And all those outdoor animals? As already noted, they are happiest with communal living. Take a note from then and consider how you can tighten the bonds with friends and family in the coming year. Time is often our most valuable asset, so vow to make some time to strengthen your personal relationships.

There's a lot of food for thought in this short article - keep even half of these vows, and you and your animals should all enjoy a fulfilling new year.

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Dogs are interactive companions. You can't just feed them and forget them - if that's what you want, get a fish. You need to spend time with dogs. With that in mind, have you ever considered combining your dog, leisure-time activities, and some exercise to boot?

This is where dog sports can come in. The variety may astound you. Perhaps you've seen one of the local kennel club's dog shows or agility trials. Or you've watched ESPN's Outdoor Games and seen dogs dock diving or working in the field as retrievers. Canine musical freestyle appears frequently on Animal Planet's Pet Stars. That's only a tiny partial selection, and on top of the dog sports, there are dog camps, where dogs and their humans come to have fun, learn new things, and make new friends. These all go on year-round, so fall could be the perfect time to get out there and try something new with your furry friend in the crisp autumn weather. Here's a quick look at some possibilities.

Agility tops the popularity poll in dog sports right now. Contrary to what you might see on television, it's not all shelties, border collies, and Jack Russells. Any breed (or mix of breeds) can take part, provided they're physically sound. Spectators think it's all about the obstacles, but teamwork is really the key. In order to run an agility course with any semblance of mastery, you have to develop a working relationship with your dog. You could train your dog to navigate teeter totters and weave poles and fly over jumps, but if you don't have teamwork, you can't run a course successfully.

A number of dog sports are based on the jobs for which specific breeds were developed. So there's lure coursing for the sighthounds, herding for the entire herding group, retrieving tests and field tests for the sporting group, go to grounds for the terriers, and more. There's still training involved, but instinct plays a part as well. Setting a dog to doing what it was bred to do can show you a whole new side of your four-footed friend.

If you've visited any dog shows, you've seen conformation in action. This is for registered purebreds only, and contrary to press coverage, is not a "beauty contest." Each breed is judged on how closely the individual conforms to the written breed standard. The dogs are shown standing still ("stacked") and moving at a trot ("gaited") to determine how well they are put together, as well as if they're the right color in the right places, have the correct coat, and so on. Breed winners go on to compete for best in group. The seven group winners compete for best in show.

Obedience competition has been waning in popularity for a long time, but the newer Rally Obedience is proving popular. Signs lead dog/handler teams around a course that requires them to heel in a variety of patterns, sit, down, come, go to heel, and more. AKC matches only allow purebreds, but other clubs welcome mixes.

You may have heard something about dancing with dogs - that's canine musical freestyle, and it is indeed dancing with a canine partner. Handlers choose a short piece of music and choreograph a routine. Weaving through legs, spinning in circles, walking on hind legs, rolling over are all popular moves. You don't have to be Ginger Rogers to compete, but it helps if you at least have a sense of rhythm.

Tracking will introduce you to the wondrous abilities of the canine nose (and get you plenty of exercise in the bargain). A "tracklayer" lays down a scent trail and some time later the dog is asked to follow it. Once you're actually starting to run tracks, you don't know where the track goes and you must rely on the dog's abilities.

If fast and furious competition fires you up, but you'd rather not do all the running, there's flyball (a relay race over hurdles), racing in various forms (Jack Russells over hurdles, sighthounds on the flat), lure coursing for the sighthounds (racing after a dragged lure).

Carting can be both fun and useful. Many breed clubs in the Working group, such as Bernese mountain dogs, Newfoundlands, Bouviers, and others, offer carting trials. Dogs have to maneuver carts through a sort of obstacle course and also do some longer distance open-road carting. You can also actually use them to haul equipment around home while you're doing chores. And there are sulkies rather than carts, so you can ride behind the dog. Variations on carting are weight pulls (where dogs attempt to pull maximum weight) and sled dog racing.

But if organized sports don't appeal to you, there are various forms of dog camps. Some focus on a specific topic (agility camp) while some are just all-around good times. Dog camping organizations include Camp Winaribbun at Lake Tahoe, Camp Gone to the Dogs in Vermont, Camp Dogwood in Illinois, and Dog Days of Wisconsin. Dog Scouts of America is one of the older organizations, patterned after the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. At their camps, dogs and humans go for group hikes, learn new skills, and earn a huge variety of merit badges. While the parent organization is in Michigan, local (Sequim, Washington) dog training center Legacy Canine has formed a Dog Scouts troop and will be hosting a camp in 2007.

Here is just a partial list of dog sport organizations and dog camps if you would like to get out there and get involved. Have fun!

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(Originally appeared in Dog World)

Picture yourself in a scenic foreign land, sitting at a sidewalk café sipping the local brew. One of the locals walks up, stands in front of you, and says "Bixtelfipple," or something equally unintelligible. Not having a clue, you smile sheepishly. Imagine your surprise when the local smacks you in the side of the head. Again comes "Bixtelfipple." Confused and apprehensive, you start to get up. Now you are shoved back into your seat and then smacked in the head.

What does this tale have to do with dog training? The answer is simple - dogs don't know English. When you give a dog a new command, the dog is in the same situation as you at that hypothetical sidewalk café. Trainers, especially novice ones, tend to forget that they are teaching in a foreign language. And people in general rely too much on language, trusting in words to make their meaning clear.

Some instructors have found a way to help drive these points home in their classes. They have their human students play a game that is actually an exercise in operant conditioning. Mandy Book of Oz Training explains why she uses the game in her classes: "People just expect their dog to understand. Take part in this is a real 'aha' experience for them. They get some sympathy for what their dogs are going through, why they are having trouble, plus an effective demonstration of how important timing is."

Nonverbal Training

So, what is this eye-opening exercise? Quite simply, one person has to "train" another person to perform some behavior using only a nonverbal cue such as a clicker, whistle, or squaker. This exercise is taught often to dog trainers at the Oz Training School. Members of one of the Oz puppy classes sit frozen in their chairs as the instructor explains that everyone will play the game either as a trainer or a subject. No one is eager to volunteer. The instructor stands waiting until finally a reluctant hand goes up.

Once the first trainer/subject pair is selected, the subject is sent away out of earshot. The group then decides on the behavior that will be taught, or "shaped," to use operant conditioning terminology. They choose sitting in a chair, and the subject is called back.

The trainer squeaks as soon as the subject has moved in front of a chair, which stops her forward movement. She begins touching everything in the vicinity. The trainer chooses to continue squeaking because the subject is still in a correct position for the behavior. The more squeaks the subject receives, the more frantic her motions become, until she finally touches the chair. This gets even more squeaks and results in her patting nearly the entire chair, even picking it up, before she finally collapses into it. The instructor comments tha the trainer "gave abou a package and a half of hot dogs for that one behavior," and points out that the subject was being rewarded too easily and not getting focused. Fewer rewards would have forced her to slow down and be more methodical. The class laughs, because the trainer's dog exhibits the same behavior as his human subject.

Getting the Dog's Perspective

Now people are more willing to volunteer, and the next pair is quickly selected. This time the group decides that the subject will have to touch one particular bumper hanging on a display rack.

The subject returns and, after some wandering, gets squeaked as she approaches the display. She starts touching things, but misses the target bumper, and does not get a reward. She wanders off, but there are no rewards elsewhere, so she comes back again. Again, she is squeaked as she approaches, but again she misses the bumper and the squeaks stop. This time when she wanders off, it is obvious that she is confused and does not know what to do. She comes back to the same spot, gets squeaked and quits, not wanting to repeat a performance that fails to bring a reward.

The instructor steps in and points out that the trainer rewarded the subject at the same spot, about 2 feet from the display, each time, actually backing her away from the target. She relates this to how you can train a dog to "come" only within arm's length if each time you lean over and reward the dog at that distance. Finally, she explains that the subject was not getting enough reward and after several tries blew the whole thing off as frustrating. The class is now obviously hooked on what it is learning and eager to go on.

Book makes the final comment: "The feedback from people is always that this is really helpful. We've had a number of clients suggest that we do it earlier in the session. It gives them experience in reality, how important timing is, and how easy it is to be bad at it."

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(Originally appeared on

Puppies are a lot of fun, but they required a tremendous amount of time, attention, and patience, at least for the first couple of months. Prepare to spend plenty of time teaching your new puppy how to fit into your household. The energy you invest in your puppy now will ensure that you'll enjoy many years to come with a fine canine companion. Life's much easier if you get everything ready for your dog in advance. Before your puppy arrives, take the time to make your home safe for her.

Puppy-Proof Everything

Puppies explore with their mouths, so get down on the floor and examine each room from a small dog's perspective. A dangling electrical cord could be the last thing a puppy bites into. Store breakables out of your dog's reach. Move unstable furniture out of the puppy's area.

Decide where your pup's potty area will be and where you'll keep his crate, if you use one. Choose a "safe room" where your dog will go when you can't supervise. Kitchens and bathrooms are popular choices: They don't have carpets, and you can put away and dnagling cords, cleans, chemicals, and medicines. Installing child locks on cabinets helps make your safe room even more puppy-friendly.

Spend time puppy-proofing outdoors, as well. Snail poison, lawn chemicals, toxic garden plants, even mushrooms growing in the lawn can threaten your dog's life. Don't leave your puppy out there alone even if you think you've eliminated every hazard. You need to supervise your dog so that you can reward good behavior and prevent misbehavior.

A Few Basic Rules

When you first bring her home, everyone will be eager to pet and play with your new puppy. But think how overwhelming that could be for a young dog! All these strange new sights, sounds, and people - it can just be too much. Difficult as it is for you, hold off on the introductions when you first arrive home. Just take your puppy to his potty area, and if he goes, be sure to praise him. Then, settle your pup down for a nap, either in his crate or in another place where you can observe. The day my puppy, Nestle, came home, I put a carpet remnant next to my chair and tethered Nestle to me with a leash. After chewing on a plush squeaky toy for a minute, he fell asleep on the carpet.

Your puppy will likely do the same thing. Once he awakens, it's back out to the potty area. (You'll be doing this a lot.) With that taken care of, it's time to introduce your puppy to the family, with just a few basic rules.

First, your puppy is not allowed to bite people. Biting might seem cute now, but it won't when your dog is full-grown. Whenever your pup mouths any part of the human anatomy, the person should let out a high-pitched yelp and immediately stop interactin with your dog. When the puppy decides that humans are tender playmates who must be treated gently, you've taught him a major life lesson.

Second, make sure everyone in the household knows the house rles. If you don't want your puppy jumping on the furniture or begging at the table as an adult, that behavior should be gently corrected now. Nestle initially saw furniture as nothing more than hills in the room to run over, but a sharp "ah" was all it took to get his paws back on the floor.

Settling In

Puppy play sessions should be lively but short-lived. When a young pup starts to poop out, playtime is over, naptime begins, and the cycle starts over. You must allow your puppy to sleep whenever the urge arises.

Remember, also, that the first few nights at home may be frightening for a puppy - after all, her littermates are gone! In the beginning, it may be easier if she sleeps near your bed, in her crate with a soft blanket. Don't punish your puppy for crying, but don't take her out of the crate - you'll teach her that fussing gets results. She'll adjust to her surroundings, and nights will be easier, within a day or two.

Other animals in the house should meet your puppy under careful supervision. Older dogs are generally tolerant of puppies and usually won't inflict any harm. Just make sure to give your resident dog plenty of attention, because problems can arise if he is shunted aside in all the fuss over the pup. Also, make sure your older pet has a place where he can escape in case he needs to take a break from an exuberant puppy.

Cats can get along with puppies as well, though the choice usually belongs to the feline. Let your cat roam free while you confine the puppy, and they'll meet sooner or later. The cats will often settle matters with a hiss or a quick swipe at the puppy's nose that sets the rules for the rest of their lives. They may ignore each other from that point on, or they may curl up together to sleep - it's up to them. Supervise them until they're used to each other.


Obviously, housetraining is a huge part of raising a puppy. Your vigilance is the key to success. Every time your puppy awakens, eats a meal, drinks, plays, or starts to sniff or walk in a circle, you should be on your way out for a potty break. You might make 30 trips a day while your puppy is young, but this will only last for a few weeks, and your effor will pay off big-time. Do NOT send a puppy out alone. You need to be there to offer praise and a reward. Make a fuss. Act like your puppy's housetrained behavior is the best thing that ever happened, because in a way, it is.

When you can't supervise, use a crate or your safe room. Expect accidents, and don't get emotional about them. If you live in a high-rise building or just can't get outside often enough, paper train the pup. But realize that you'll have to go through another round of training when your pup is older and you want his business done outside.

Small dogs often are labeled as "untrainable," but they're not. They feel weather more acutely than large dogs and may find the outdoors unpleasant, so stick to your guns if they have accidents. You need to be hypervigilant, because little pups make little puddles that might be easy to miss, and every missed misadventure sets back training.

If you see an accident as it's happening, clap your hands. Often, the sound will startle your pup enough to interrupt the body function. Hurry outside and hope your dog will finish what he started. Remember to praise him. Once you're back indoors, clean up thoroughly, and use an odor neutralizer so that your pup isn't attracted to the same place.

Puppy Professionals

It's best to choose a veterinarian before you bring your puppy home for the first time. Ask friends for recommndations. Tour facilities that you're considering - everything should be clean and well ordered.

Also, ask your pup's former owner about his vaccination history, then talk to your vet about what still needs to be done. Schedule an all-around physical exam to check for parasites and any other problems. Now's a good time to discuss spaying or neutering, too. The other professional in your puppy's life is a trainer. Ask you friends and vet for recommendations. You can also call the Association of Pet Dog trainers - at (800) PETDOGS - for a member trainer in you area. There's no need to wait until the pup is 6 months old, as used to be the norm. Puppies as young as 12 weeks routinely take part in puppy classes, learning basic commands and how to socialize nicely with other dogs and people.

Sure, it all seems pretty overwhelming, but stick with it. Nestle already has his Canine Good Citizen certificate, is almost ready to compete in agility competitions, and does therapy visits to a local convalescent center.

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(Originally appeared in American Kennel Club puppies)

Within an hour or two of bringing a new puppy home, most owners will want to serve up its first meal. It seems simple - and it is, once you understand the basics of pup's nutritional needs.

Building Blocks

To fuel growth, your dog needs energy. Blake Hawley, DVM, explains that "Energy comes from three nutrients - protein, fats, and carbohydrates." He also notes that amounts of these energy providers have to be controlled. An oversupply of energy or imbalance of these nutrients during puppyhood leads to obesity as an adult and possibly orthopedic problems. We'll talk about how much to feed your puppy later in this article.

Hawley offers the guidelines that, on a dry-matter basis, a puppy food should be more than 29 percent protein, 17 percent fat, with a low amount of fiber and calcium, in the range of 1-1.8 percent. A dry-matter analysis is not required on the package label, but is usually included in the manufacture's literature. (Author's note: Many veterinarians are now recommending feeding an adult dog food even to puppies, as there is less risk of over-nourishment, obesity, and bone problems.)

The other often-discussed building block is calcium. "It's sort of an old wives' tale that big dogs are going to have big bones, so you need extra calcium," says Dan Christian, DVM. Calcium actually works in concert with phosphorus to build bones, and supplementing with calcium upsets the balance between the two. Excess calcium leads to large but weak bones, lacking the density needed for strength. The result could be bone and joint disorders and susceptibility to fractures.

Stay away from unknown brands of dog food or on-sale "specials." Choose a brand with a good reputation, look for proof of feeding trials, avoid supplements, and you will be providing good nutrition for your pup.

Finally, the advice is "do not feed your puppy or adult dog table scraps." I don't follow it myself, but I do make sure that "table food" is no more than about 10 percent of the calories going into the puppy or dog. While these scraps are not nutritionally balanced, in my house, a lot of them are vegetables and fruits, and who knows what desirable trace elements they may be providing. In moderation, I've never found table scraps to be a problem.

Putting the Food in the Puppy

After choosing your food, the next questions are, how much and how often to feed? There are feeding guidelines on the label, but the key word here is guidelines. Tony Buffington, DVM, says, "I try to have people think about what the real variable condition is, and that's body condition. We feed to maintain a body condition."

The dog's ribs should be easy to feel when you run your hands down the dog's sides. Standing directly over your dog and looking down, you can see a clear waist behind the ribs, creating an hourglass shape.

If your pup looks more like a sausage than an hourglass, you have to decrease the amount of food you are offering. Using portion feeding - actually measuring the food you put into the bowl - it's a simple matter. If pup is pudgy, reduce the amount by 10 percent and reassess the situation in a week or two. Feed the reduced amount until your pup reaches that ideal body condition. Then you can slightly increase the amount of food in order to maintain the correct body condition.

Overfeeding may make for a cute, roly-poly puppy, but it can have serious health consequences later in life. At the least, it disposes the dog to obesity. At the worst, it can greatly intensify problems such as hip dysplasia and osteochondrosis. In other words, a lean puppy is far more likely to be a healthy puppy.

How many meals you provide your pup is a subject of some debate. Anything from two to six meals is recommended. How often you feed will depend at least partly on your lifestyle. Many households in our society have two adults away at work every day. So, Buffington says, "My preference is that people feed when they get up so they can walk the dog before going to work, and then when they get home so they can walk the dog again." If you are at work from dawn to dusk, you should probably hire a puppy caretaker to come in during the day, or prepare to deal with an undersocialized dog that will be slow to housetrain because accidents will inevitably occur.

Christian points out that feeding frequency is a particular issue with toy breeds. "With the smaller breeds," he says, "their stomachs just can't hold a lot, and when they're young (up to four months), you may need four to six meals a day just to get enough nutrition in them." For these dogs, caloric needs may be as much as 50 percent more, pound for pound, than for larger breeds.

Potential Problems

The three most oft-heard problems with puppies and food are vomiting, diarrhea, and gas. Any other unusual circumstances, such as a refusal to eat, should be reported to your veterinarian immediately.

"Vomiting and diarrhea in puppies is usually the result of a gastronomic misadventure and is usually self-limiting," says Buffington. If puppy got hold of a stick of butter that fell off the refrigerator door, a plate of sugar cookies left on a coffee table, or some delicacy from the garbage (not bones or chocolate or some other truly harmful substances), the result is likely to be a temporary digestive upset. It should clear up on its own within a day or so. If the problem persists, consult your veterinarian.

Gas can sometimes be a result of a bad match between a puppy and a food. As Christian says, "There's not one food for every dog out there. Some dogs do better with certain ingredients." You may have to try several before you find one that works well for your puppy.

Or the fault may lie in the puppy's eating habits. Buffington tells owners to add an equal amount of hot water to the food - a cup of hot water to a cup of food, for instance - and let it stand for about 20 minutes, until it's congealed. The consistency will slow the puppy a little and should lessen the gas problem.

One very serious, even life-threatening problem is known as bloat. Large, deep-chested dogs are most often affected. Before it begins to bloat, a dog will typically have had a big meal, consumed a great deal of water, and exercised within a couple of hours after eating. Its stomach then fills with gas and/or fluids, it swells and becomes twisted. Death can occur quickly if the dog is not treated by a veterinarian. A possible preventive for bloat is to feed the dog more frequent, smaller meals. Also, restrict water intake and exercise after eating.

All Grown Up

The final question is when to stop feeding puppy food. And once again, answers range from three months up to two years. Consult your own vet for his/her advice.

Hawley shares the opinion that you use puppy food for the first full year of a dog's life. The "puppy food for a year" regimen springs from the fact that most all dogs, whether large or small, have reached skeletal maturity at one year. Though large breeds may continue to grow for as much as another year, it will be at a greatly decreased rate.

Buffington advocates changing to a recommended adult food at six months of age or following removal of sutures for any neutering procedures that occur after three months of age. Energy requirements do generally lessen following a spay or neuter, and owners must be particularly vigilant to maintain a suitable body condition. If the puppy food portion size seems too small, you may be happier changing to a less energy-dense adult food.

While Christian's general recommendation is to feed a puppy food for at least the first 10 months, he promotes changing to an adult food earlier to help prevent obesity.

The End Result

It's pretty easy to tell if your puppy is happy and healthy. He or she will eat with gusto. The coat will shine and skin will not be flaky. Stools will be formed. Eyes will be bright; pup will be constantly curious and energetic. By the time your puppy is four months of age, you will be hard pressed to keep up. Enjoy

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