Kim Campbell Thornton
Who knows what secrets lurk deep inside the brain of a Chihuahua puppy? Only a puppy knows for sure. It’s a mysterious thing, that puppy brain. Fortunately, with the help of veterinary behaviorists, there are certain traits and clues you can pick up on that will help you understand your Chi pup a little better.
The brain, of course, is the control room that dictates a puppy’s behaviors. Some of the behaviors are hardwired, and others develop individually over time. “It’s impossible to separate the influence of genetics and environment,” says Lore Haug, D.V.M., a veterinary behaviorist at South Texas Veterinary Behavior Services in Sugar Land, Texas.
“Genetics set the template for behavior,” she says. “But, the experiences you have in utero, post whelping, during the post-natal stage, growing up — all of those things are going to influence how behaviors are expressed.”
The most influential period in a Chihuahua puppy’s life occurs during those first few months of puppyhood — from the moment he is born to when he reaches 4 or 5 months of age. But there are certain behaviors you can expect during the developmental stage. Anticipating the processes and behaviors that are developing in a young pup will enable you to be a better-prepared, more nurturing pet parent.
Puppies, from birth to about 10 days of age, are known as neonates — the canine equivalent of “newborns.” At this stage, they can only smell, taste and feel. Yet, even though they can’t see or hear, human handling is important.
The week following the 10th day is known as the transition period. The eyes open and hearing begins. The awakening of those senses, which will allow the puppy to begin making predictive associations, sets the stage for further learning.
“The development of awareness and mobility in this week sets the stage for the socialization period, the next important developmental leap,” says Margaret Duxbury, D.V.M., a veterinary behaviorist at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center in St. Paul, Minn. “This period takes place between the third and 14th week of age. To a large extent, this is where a puppy’s future is cast.”
This is a crucial time in a puppy’s life, when his experiences start to determine what he thinks is normal. Household sounds such as vacuum cleaners and blenders, outdoor noises such as sirens or slamming doors, and handling by many different people should become second nature to a puppy of this age.
During the transition period, exposing a young Chi to many different people, sounds and experiences is known as socialization. Amazingly, puppies are more resilient to traumatic or frightening experiences during this time, which is why it’s the best time for them to be exposed to new people, experiences and other stimuli. Ideally, socialization begins in the breeder’s home and is continued and expanded by new owners.
“It is critical that those experiences reflect the world the pup will live in as an adult,” says Duxbury, who explains that the brain connections that enable a puppy to solve and handle stress are rapidly developing during these few weeks. These connections are enriched by positive experiences and frequent interactions with people a puppy doesn’t know.
“Puppies should have frequent, safe social opportunities with other dogs, and they should experience the sights, sounds, smells and activities that resemble their future environment,” Duxbury says. “These same experiences provided when a Chihuahua puppy is older may not have the same impact.”
Even though puppies are able to overcome minor traumas, it is important to avoid negative experiences during the socialization period. Everything your puppy encounters at this time will make a lasting impression.
When to Bring Your Pup HomeBut there are pros and cons to spending more time at the breeder’s home, according to Haug. Puppies who are weaned and sent away from their mother and littermates too early often have more behavioral issues and difficulty adapting to new homes, in comparison to puppies who are removed from their litter a few weeks later.
Traditionally, puppies arrive in their new homes between 6 and 8 weeks of age; however, many Chihuahua breeders prefer to keep them until they are at least 10 to 12 weeks old. Not only are they bigger and better-equipped to be handled, but they also have spent more time with their mother and littermates, learning the rules of dog behavior, which a puppy must know before he enters the big world.
“Sending a 6-week-old puppy to a home is sort of like kicking your 10-year-old child out of the house,” Haug says. “He can feed himself, but there’s more to weaning and being raised with your parents than the question of whether he can eat on his own. There are psychological lessons and behavioral lessons that still have to be imparted.”
That being said, breeders who keep puppies longer should devote more time to socializing pups and preparing them for their new homes. A puppy who is kept in the breeder’s laundry room or backyard for four months, without contact from new people, misses out on gaining necessary experiences.
“Breeders who keep puppies longer must be prepared to provide individualized early socialization for each puppy,” Duxbury says. “Puppies who are kept isolated with Mom or littermates until 10 to 12 weeks of age may not develop sufficient social skills to handle unfamiliar humans or novel environments.”
Homeschooling Your Pup
Puppies, especially Chihuahua puppies, are like little sponges. From the time their eyes and ears become operational, they soak up everything around them. As early as 7 to 8 weeks of age, they can follow targets and pick up simple training commands, such as “sit.” You can, and should, start teaching your Chi commands and tricks the first day you bring him home.
“Behavior is really a simple equation,” Duxbury says. “At any given time, a dog’s behavior is simply the sum of all the learning that has occurred to date. The challenge and opportunity for owners is to understand that sums are being added every minute of every day, and to make sure desired behavior is learned and rewarded right from the very beginning.”
Providing positive reinforcement is essential to training your puppy. Simple responses to commands using food lures can be taught as early as 6 to 8 weeks of age. First impressions are strong at this age, so consistent, positive reinforcement is valuable. A technique many people use for tiny dogs is clicker training, which is an easy way to help them understand what you want them to do.
“A dog always should be set up to do something right so you can reward him with praise and a tiny treat,” says little-dog expert Darlene Arden of Framingham, Mass., author of Small Dogs, Big Hearts: A Guide to Caring for Your Little Dogs (Howell Book House). “Dogs who aren’t motivated by food often are motivated by a toy or affection.”
Keep things fun, short and sweet, and you will set the stage for your puppy to learn to follow your lead in all things.
This is also the time for you to begin socializing your puppy. Plan ahead so you have time for intentional, planned socialization during the pup’s first week in your home. This can include a “getting to know you” visit to the veterinarian, with no painful shots scheduled, a trip to an outdoor mall, or a visit at a friend’s house. Supervised playgroups for vaccinated pint-size or small dogs can give puppies additional opportunities to learn canine social skills.
“I like puppies to interact with well-socialized, mature dogs, not just other puppies,” Duxbury says. “Mature dogs do a wonderful job of teaching limits to young pups.”
Nobody Likes a Pee-body
Chihuahuas have a reputation for being difficult to housetrain, mostly because they leave behind tiny puddles of pee that most owners are willing to clean up, rather than make a concerted effort to teach their Chihuahua potty manners. This is a mistake. If you are consistent in taking them out and praising them when they potty outside (or in a designated pee area), Chi pups are just as easy to housetrain as any other breed.
If given the opportunity by the breeder, Duxbury says, puppies at 5 to 7 weeks of age will seek out a particular surface for urination. That’s important preparation for housetraining. By the eighth week, they are developmentally poised for housetraining.
Some breeders paper train Chi puppies, while others use a dog-specific litter box. Either way, you have a good start as long as you place the box or papers where the puppy will have easy access to them. Praise your puppy every time you see him potty in the appropriate place.
Puppy A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s
Training begins at home, but it shouldn’t end there. Early puppyhood training — known as puppy kindergarten — is an essential part of your Chihuahua’s development into a well-behaved adult. With the right trainer, it’s a fun and safe place for you and your puppy to learn together in an informal environment. A good puppy kindergarten class is also an adjunct to socialization — a place where your puppy can encounter other pups his own size and bigger, as well as other people.
Depending on how old your puppy is when you bring him home, as well as the requirements of the trainer, a puppy is ready for kindergarten at 8 to 12 weeks of age.
“It depends a little bit on how long a puppy has been in the home,” Haug says. “I wouldn’t want somebody to adopt a puppy at 7 weeks of age, and then put him in puppy class that week or the very next week. Puppies need time to adjust to their new environment, but they should get started in puppy class before that socialization window is over, and that means before 14 weeks of age, if possible.”
What if your Chihuahua puppy hasn’t had all his vaccinations? As long as the first series of shots has been given, that shouldn’t be a concern. “In puppies younger than 3 years of age, the risk of death due to behavioral problems is greater than the risk of death due to infectious disease,” Duxbury says. “As long as common sense is employed — clean environment, no sick puppies in class, vaccine series started and maintained — a puppy is far more likely to have a good and functional life if he is well-socialized than if the owner keeps him home and isolated.”
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