Pawternity Leave

What to keep in mind when bringing home a new puppy. (Hint: the puppys emotional needs.)


“I’ll be out of the office until Monday, March 28, on pawternity leave. I will be checking my email only occasionally.”

So went the automatic reply that came to us from a business associate. He had taken several weeks off from work to stay home with his new puppy, which he adopted when the dog was eight weeks old.

Over the top? We don’t think so. “To bring a puppy into your house after it has been with its littermates, and then the next day go off to work — you’re rupturing that delicate bond at the beginning of life,” says Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic Director Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVB. “And that can lead to insecurity. They do need regular attention. Not to be there to give it to a young pup is like taking a two-year-old child and strapping her into a high chair while you go out for several hours.”

The biggest problem, Dr. Dodman says, is two people in the home who both work long hours and bring in a puppy younger than 12 to 14 weeks of age. “The sensitive period of learning for a dog is the first three and a half months,” he explains — “through week 14.” What that means is that it’s the period during which puppies soak up information — and your positive feelings for them — like sponges. It’s when they come to trust that you’ll take loving care of them. It’s also when you should have gentle puppy parties in your home where people of different genders and ages come and coo over the new dog and hold and caress her tenderly, letting her know that being around humans is a good thing. How can you work toward an effective bond if you’re not there much of the time?

Of course, you’re introducing her to your lifestyle during that time as well, further helping her feel good and relaxed about being with you — even when you turn on the vacuum cleaner, get her into the car for a ride, respond to the doorbell, or anything else that without your love could serve to startle her or otherwise make her uncomfortable. If you’re not home most of the time to teach her that she’s in a good place with you, and unavailable to show her the ropes without a lot of other distractions, she’s going to pay the price. And so will you, in raising a dog who’s not as well adjusted as she could be.

“I’ve had clients who, by the time both people in the couple drive to work and then drive back home at the end of the day, it’s more like 10 or 11 hours away from the dog,” Dr. Dodman says. “That’s too many for an adult dog, let alone a baby.”

On the other hand, follow through on warmth, patience, and time with your pup during the sensitive period of learning, and your dog will be able to reach her best, most companionable potential. Even negative genetic bias — aloofness, aggression, fearfulness — can be offset to some degree with loving, consistent care during the first three months of a dog’s life.

Just as important in its own way, those first several weeks are when you “toilet train” your puppy. The rule of thumb for pups is that they can hold in their urine for their age in months plus one. Thus, if you have a three-month-old puppy and no one is home all day, you should definitely expect accidents.

For that reason and all the benefits of positive emotional attachment, Dr. Dodman says that “however you arrange it, you need to make sure the very young puppy has the right attention and is not left on her own for long periods. Any investment you make early on will be paid off in spades later. Maybe you and your spouse can tag-team vacation time. You take two weeks, then your significant other takes two weeks, and between the two of you, you pretty much have it covered.

“Most people don’t bring home their new puppy until the dog is at least eight weeks of age, and sometimes 10 weeks, or even 12. Since it’s most critical that the puppy not be alone all day through week 14, it’s not all that many weeks that you have to account for,” Dr. Dodman adds. Of course, the more your young dog doesn’t have to be alone, the better. But if you can get her through the first three and a half months without ever being alone more than a couple of hours, you’ve done what needs to be done to insure that your dog feels loved and calm and can love back without undue anxiety or insecurity.


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