Ah, puppies and kittens. Does it get any better? Bringing home a new companion who is still growing and developing is fraught with excitement and fun, but it’s also a crucial period for helping to develop skills and behaviors that will shape the kind of adult your pet becomes. Animals of all ages can learn new things, but puppies and kittens are especially malleable. Being mindful of consciously shaping the kind of manners you’d like your pet to have is a gift to both of you, and makes for a relationship built on trust, respect, and love.
We’ve been there, and we’ve made some mistakes along the way. To help you out, we’ve gathered insights as to how to best help your puppy or kitten become the outstanding pet you know they can be.
DO adopt. Most pet store puppies and kittens are commercially bred in cruel conditions. Physical, mental, and emotional problems run rampant as a result of inbreeding and insufficient care. With the millions of homeless puppies and kittens looking for homes, there’s really no excuse not to head to the shelter when you’re ready to add a new animal member to your family. If you do want to buy, do so only from a responsible breeder who encourages you to visit in person.
DON’T bring home a puppy or kitten before they are ready. There’s a reason that most shelters and responsible breeders don’t send their animals to their new homes until they are at least eight weeks old. Puppies and kittens have unique needs in their infancy that require specialized care. Animals who are weaned too early can develop physical or behavioral issues as a result.
DO spay or neuter. It is safe for puppies and kittens to be spayed or neutered as young as eight weeks old. If you’re adopting, it’s likely the procedure will be done before you take home your new pet. Animals who are spayed or neutered live longer, healthier lives, and doing the procedure early can mitigate negative behaviors such as aggression and spraying.
DO pick a name and stick to it. It’s not the worst thing in the world if you decide “Harold” fits your pup better than “Gerald” after a few weeks, but to avoid confusing him, try to select and finalize his name early, and hold off on the millions of nicknames until he has demonstrated that he knows his name and comes reliably when called.
DO be consistent with your potty training. If a puppy has spent the beginning of her days in the shelter, she might not know that the proper place to do her business is outside in the grass. Be patient with her as she learns the rules, and give her plenty of opportunities to go outside. Take her outside at least once every two hours, preferably at the same times each day, and try to stay outside until she goes to the bathroom. If she does have an accident inside, then keep in mind the next rule….
DO practice positive reinforcement ONLY. This means praising your pup when he’s done something right and ignoring—not admonishing—him when he’s done something wrong. Puppies love attention, and they’re going to figure out how to get it from you. Respond to bad behavior and you’re just telling your pup that things like leaving poop piles in the laundry room and tearing up your favorite shoes is one more way to get your focus. It’s an outdated idea that you need to establish a hierarchy with your dog where you’re at the top. Treat your puppy with respect and love and you’ll get it right back.
DON’T give them the run of the house. Freedom should be earned, and a well-behaved dog will have plenty of years to roam at their leisure. For your sanity and their safety, however, puppies should be crated or left in enclosed areas when you’re not home.
DON’T allow behaviors now that you’re later going to regret. A Great Dane puppy makes a wonderful cuddle buddy on the couch. A full-grown Great Dane though? Well, we guess that depends on how big your couch is. It’s a whole lot easier to teach desired long-term behaviors once, and early on. If you don’t want your adult dog on the furniture, don’t let her do it when she’s a puppy.
DO provide lots of toys. Puppies need to chew, and if they don’t have approved chew toys they’re going to chew on other things (you know, like your shoes, table legs, and pillows). If you do notice your puppy chewing on something they’re not supposed to, immediately replace it with a chew toy. He’ll quickly learn what’s approved for noshing and what’s not.
DO give your pup plenty of exercise. A tired puppy is a happy puppy is a calm puppy! No puppy should be spending her whole day in a crate. If you’re going to be away for the day have a friend or dog walker come over to give your puppy a break and ample time to walk or run around. Most dog walking services offer puppy-specific options to help with exercise and potty training throughout the day.
DO practice meeting new dogs and people. Puppies who are exposed to people and other dogs at a young age are more likely to become social adults. Use positive reinforcement to teach your puppy how to behave in these situations (i.e. no jumping, biting, or barking).
DON’T declaw. Declawing is painful, unnecessary, and inhumane. And despite the common myth, it’s definitely not equivalent to just giving your cat a “lifetime nail trim.” Clawing and scratching are healthy behaviors and help kittens feel comfortable and stretch their muscles. A declawed cat can feel less secure, since they rely on their claws to navigate their environment, and may develop aggression or other behavioral problems. If you’re nervous about trimming your kitten’s claws, have your vet do it with you the first few times.
DO keep the litter box in one place, and one place only. Decide where you’re going to keep the litter box before your kitten comes home, and then stick to it. It makes your kitten’s life—and your life—a whole lot easier. If you already have a cat, buy a new litter box for your kitten. Everyone should have their own private spot for doing business.
DO provide plenty of scratching opportunities. Cats scratch. Whether they scratch approved surfaces or the back of your favorite chair is ultimately up to you. Make sure you have plenty of scratching posts and pads scattered around your home, especially near couches and other areas that may be tempting to your kitty. You can use clear packing tape to cover the places you want your cat to stay away from while he is learning.
DO socialize your kitten. Some cats are naturally reclusive, while others are open to socializing but just need some practice. Have friends and family come over often when your kitten is young. Even if they aren’t actively touching or interacting with her, your kitten will soon learn that humans— even strange ones—are okay.
DON’T assume training is impossible. It’s a misconception that cats and kittens are untrainable. Clicker training, with food as a reward, is a great way to teach your kitty to grow into a well-behaved cat.
DON’T yell at your kitten. On top of being frightening for a little kitten, yelling is pointless—after all, they don’t understand English. If your kitty has done something that makes you angry, take some deep breaths, calm down, and just say nothing.
DO keep your kitten inside. The world is big and scary, especially for a domesticated kitten. If you want to let your kitten explore the outdoors, get them a harness and a leash. If they don’t like it, drop it and let it be. Cats feel safest in their own territories, and given the dangers and risks lurking outside, it’s best to keep your cat’s “kingdom” indoors-only.