In the hunt for puppy habits

Understanding dogs' predatory instincts helps explain behavior

Posted: Sunday, May 08, 2005


  Although cute and cuddly in appearance, puppies can display some wild behaviors when first brought to a new home. Photo by Joseph Robertia

Although cute and cuddly in appearance, puppies can display some wild behaviors when first brought to a new home.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Although puppies are cute, cuddly balls of fur, it is important to recognize that they hail from wild carnivores, as do all dogs, despite being domesticated.

As such, understanding some of their behaviors in terms of their wild, predatory counterparts, can sometimes make it easier to understand why puppies do the things they do.

One of the first experiences many pet owners have with their new pup is being up all night with a creature that howls, whines and cries incessantly.

This is only natural and a good first lesson in understanding the wild behavior of the new pup. By bringing a puppy into the home, you are taking it away from everything it knows, which, in the dog's understanding of the world, would be its pack.

Owners are in essence attempting to replace the puppy's pack with their own — the human family. They enter the new pack with the same rules they applied to their old one, and being alone is not typical of their old pack.

Being alone at such a young age would be unnatural and unsafe. As the puppy understands it, there is nothing more important than the cohesion of the pack. That is why the new pet owner must understand they are taking over the role of being the "mother" to the puppy.

When the pup cries, mom would usually be there in a heartbeat to see what is wrong. So, bringing home a puppy and just stuffing it in a crate alone or banishing it to the garage on the first night is one of the worst things a new pet owner can do. The pup is going to assume he's been lost or abandoned.

To make the first few nights easier on the new addition, the puppy should be near to its new owner where it can feel safe and start the bonding process.

This is in contrast to what may become routine within the next few days or weeks when crate training starts, or the rest of the puppy's life if it's going to live outdoors. But for the first night, keeping the pup close is critical to bonding with it and making its transition less traumatic.

There are a few choices for allowing the puppy to be very near. Steer clear of allowing the puppy into the bed where it could get hurt by falling out or make a mess by soiling the sheets, and by no means should it be given free reign of the house.

A better option is to put the puppy in a crate or pen with an open lid right next to the bed, where an arm can comfortably be dangled down into the crate. This makes it easy for the puppy to see, hear and feel its new owner and for them to be comforted until they fall asleep.

In the days that follow, the puppy will spend a great deal of time in the crate, until it's potty trained and old enough to be allowed full, unsupervised access to the house. This is again easy to understand in natural terms.

Wild puppies are naturally clean and are typically "potty-trained" by 4 weeks of age. While still with the litter, the pups learn to hold it until they are able to get out away from the nest or denning area.

They instinctively try to relieve themselves in an area away from their sleeping, playing and eating quarters. Taking this into account, it becomes easier to understand how to teach the new pup to go in a desired area with a minimal amount of effort.

Confining a puppy to a crate or small area replicates the den. It also limits the pup's choices for urinating and defecating and they will usually choose to hold it as long as they can, rather than soiling their living space.

However, remember that puppies have tiny bladders. They can't hold it for very long and so must be taken outside many times each day to relieve themselves.

If it's not possible to be there to take the pup outside at regular intervals, it's important to provide an absorbent medium, like the puppy litter made from recycled newspapers or the housebreaking training pads that can be purchased commercially. Regular newspapers will also work, but pups have a tendency to shred the paper, which can be messy after it's soiled.

Puppies also start teething soon after arriving in a new home and will typically be compelled to chew on everything within reach. This is again natural since, as a little predator, pups use their jaws, like our hands, for grabbing and inspecting things.

It is impossible and would be unhealthy to try and stop a puppy from chewing. Puppies are practicing the mechanics of predation — such as hunting, shaking, shredding and consuming — and it is healthy to exercising their jaws and teeth.

Part of understanding that puppies want to explore their world with their mouths also means being certain they only have access to appropriate items. Make sure the pup has plenty of appropriate choices for chew toys. Nylabones, rawhides, hooves, pig ears, hard rubber toys and stuffed Kong toys should be available for your puppy.

A safe, soft rope toy also is a favorite with puppies. They like to shake and kill it, and it's better than giving them socks and other personal items.

Manage the home environment wisely. Pick up clothes, put away magazines, keep electrical cords out of reach and don't let children make themselves targets by running and shrieking.

The act of chasing is what predators are programmed to do and as cute as it is when the pup is young, it wouldn't be safe to have an adult dog programmed to pursue kids in this manner.

Understanding these and other wild and wily ways of puppies can help make their transition to a new home less traumatic on them and less problematic for their new owner.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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