The decorations are coming down, the kids are back in school and the holiday bills are hitting the mailbox. And suddenly that adorable little puppy seems like a lot more work than you figured he would be when you put that bright ribbon around his neck a couple of weeks ago.
You're not the only one who's feeling that way.
In the months to come, the shelters will see a steady flow of young dogs, as the formerly adorables grow into their leggy adolescence, untrained, unsocialized and seemingly unredeemable. Too many will never get another chance at a happy home. The difference between the cherished and the throwaways? In your puppy's case, it's mostly you.
Yes, your puppy needs a trip to the veterinarian for vaccinations, parasite control and neutering. Yes, your puppy needs a warm place to sleep, good food, fresh water, and a collar with ID and a license. But year in and year out, the thing that dooms more promising young pups is not getting sick, not getting lost -- it's not being raised properly.
If you have a new puppy now, there's no time to waste.
Forget everything you ever heard about training starting at six months. If you let this go until summer, you may never recover the ground you lose now. Your puppy starts learning the moment he's born, and by the time you bring him into your life he's as absorbent as a sponge, trying to figure out the sights, sounds and smells of his new world and find his place in it. You need to help him find the answers, because you might not like the one he comes up with on his own.
It's not that complicated, really. Your puppy wants to be a part of your family, and he craves gentle, loving leadership. To raise him into the dog of your dreams, you must take time for the following:
-- Bond with your puppy. Bring him into your home, into your family, into your life. A puppy can't learn how to behave around people if he's never allowed in from the back yard.
-- Socialize your puppy. You cannot expose a puppy to too many things -- people, places and other animals. An unsocialized puppy too often becomes a shy or aggressive dog. Talk to your veterinarian about when and where it's safe to take you pup out, and then get him visiting. Puppy classes are especially good for this purpose; ask your veterinarian for a referral.
-- Never let your puppy do anything you wouldn't want a grown dog to do. Puppies are cute chewing on a slipper or jumping up for a slurpy kiss. Dogs are not. Remember always that preventing bad habits is easier than fixing them.
-- Teach your puppy using positive methods: Make training fun! No matter how bratty he is, no matter how tired you are, always reward your puppy for doing it right. If you find you're not getting through in training him, find a trainer and get help before it's too late.
-- Pay attention to both formal and informal training. "Sit," "stay" and "come" are all important, but your puppy must also learn things like tolerating grooming and nail trims, sitting for his leash and dish, and letting his veterinarian examine him. Make good manners a part of his regimen from the beginning.
-- Realize your puppy makes mistakes, and don't get angry when he does. He's a baby, and he's counting on you to help him learn. Anger never accomplishes anything. Take a break, call it a day, whatever -- but don't ever let your anger get the best of you.
Puppyhood is a special time, and it's over all too fast. Every minute you spend with your puppy is worthwhile -- not only now, when he's so cute, but later, when he's the wonderful dog you always dreamed of having. Investing time now pays off in a lifetime of love, and that's the best holiday gift of all.
Pets on the Web: The library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has pulled together a good resource for anyone considering traveling by air with a pet. Their Pet Care Home Page (http://www.library.uiuc.edu/vex/cpl/faq/travel.htm) lists books and magazine articles on the subject, as well as links to pet-travel regulations for American, United, Northwest, Delta and TWA. A link to a Web site with an overview of the U.S. Department of Transportation's regulations for transporting animals by air can also be found on this well-organized site.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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