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who’s training whom?

Warning: this web page, in addition to pictures of cute and adorable puppies, contains some discussion of potty training. If this is More Than You Want To Know, tough :-)

We brought Hank and Maggie home on the afternoon of Friday, June 30th, the day before they were 6 weeks old. We’d set up a small 2’x2′ cage for them to sleep in. We weren’t sure how scared they’d be of their new home, or whether we could expect to get any sleep, or whether we’d wake up to messes from them every morning. Mostly we were very pleasantly surprised — they seemed pretty happy, and slept through the night without whining, and (so long as we were very prompt about taking them out first thing in the morning) without making messes in their cage.

We put in a couple toys for them to play with, including a stuffed toy wolf that Rhiannon gave me for my birthday some years ago. They loved it and treated it like it was another sibling. They slept lying over it, and bit its ears and tail, and rolled it over, just like they did with each other. :-)

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Their first vet appointment was the next morning. He pronounced them very healthy, and started their vaccination program. Maggie weighed about 6 pounds, and Hank was just over 6 and a half pounds. By fortunate coincidence, that weekend was the long 4-day holiday weekend, so we got to spend almost all of our time with them to help them get used to their new home.

Over the next week, they started to explore the house and yard, and we started their potty training. We learned that Hank liked to chew just about everything, and that we had to watch Maggie like a hawk every second she was out of the pen or she might squat down and relieve herself. We were pretty sure she understood the idea of waiting to go outside, but she just couldn’t help herself. We learned to keep plenty of white hand towels and a container of borax handy at all times.

They loved going outside and romping in the side yard beside out house. Maybe too much so, because it was very easy for them to be distracted from potty training to run around and play.

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We also started training them to walk with us on their leashes, with short walks around the block in the cool of the morning or evening. They were always excited to meet new people, and they liked to chew on the thick leaves and petals of the magnolia trees in our yard. In fact, Nancy decided that Maggie’s full name should be “Magnolia Mitzy May”, instead of Margaret :-)

Here, Hank gets to indulge both pleasures with Pete, who biked all the way from Santa Clara down to our house as part of his RAGBRAI training.

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Mark and Deb have been training for RAGBRAI too, and biked down one day on their new tandem bicycle to see the puppies. (RAGBRAI is the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, which takes place during the last week of July.)

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Hank is a bit bigger than Maggie, and often ends up on top during their wrestling matches. But Maggie makes up for it with cleverness and energy, and many times she sneaks up on Hank then leaps on him by surprise. Here, at 8 weeks old, I caught Maggie in mid-pounce. :-) Most of the time they were both delightful, affectionate, and playful.

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Unfortunately, Maggie was still having problems making messes in the house, and it was very hard to try watching both of them at the same time, especially since we both worked during the day — I’d come home from work about 11am to let them out to play for a bit, give them lunch, play long enough for them to go out again, clean up the mess or two that Maggie would have made before I could catch her, then put them back in their pen and get back to work after 1pm, often without me getting any lunch myself! Over their 7th week she started having problems holding it overnight, and then Hank had a few accidents in the pen overnight late in the week too. It was very frustrating for us (and them too, I’m sure) and we weren’t getting enough sleep. By the weekend, we were out of ideas and ready to call for professional help.

Our vet recommended Denise, a local trainer, and we got an appointment with her for Monday evening. She came to our house, and we described what we’d been doing and what had and hadn’t been working. She was very nice, and gave very constructively-phrased criticism, but essentially said we’d been doing a lot of stuff all wrong! (I wasn’t at all surprised — I’d read three different books on puppy raising and been confused by some of the contradictions between them, and how they still left me with a lot of unanswered questions, especially because they were all written assuming you only have one puppy.)

Denise said it was important that Hank and Maggie each have their own sleeping space, very small and enclosed to feel more like a den, so they definitely wouldn’t want to make a mess since they couldn’t get away from it — plus, if there were a mess, we’d definitely know who did it. Also, sleeping apart at an early age would prevent co-dependency (in which they would bond more strongly to each other than to us). She also said that potty training is largely a matter of confidence (for both them and us), so we should try to anticipate when they might need to go out. Better a false alarm than an accident, and they’d naturally learn to hold it longer, just as we’d learn to read their signs of needing to go.

So that evening we went to the pet store and bought the recommended pet carriers. We also folded out our futon couch and started sleeping downstairs, so we could hear them if they woke up to get them outside.

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Also, she said it was important that they not have the run of the house, but instead have a confined play area. We’d just come to the same conclusion ourselves and tried to set something like that up by leaning pillows against the couch’s ottoman. She praised us :-) for the idea, but suggested that a better way would be to use the wire fence for that instead of for the sleeping pen, which is what we had been using it for. We stretched it across the living room from the futon couch to the stereo cabinet, and moved the papasan chair upstairs, so that half of the living room would be their play area.

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Denise also strongly recommended not taking them outside into the public yard, but rather setting up what amounts to a big litter box on the back deck. It would be much quicker to get them to, makes very clear the difference between the “potty place” and the “play places”, and would greatly reduce their exposure to all kinds of health risks until they’ve gotten further into their vaccination program. So we picked up a bag of pine shavings and spread them over a plastic tarp on the back deck.

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Talking with Denise was very confidence building for us, since she had raised pairs of puppies herself and so could share her experiences, and because we could ask questions and get clarifications in a way you can’t from books, and she could make recommendations based on seeing our particular circumstances. It was also good to hear that puppies are very resilient, quick to learn (and forgiving :-), so our mistakes from the first few weeks shouldn’t have any lasting consequences.

What a difference a week makes! After making the recommended changes, we didn’t have any more nighttime accidents, and within just a few days Maggie and Hank learned that the wood shavings were the potty place, and they’ve learned to give (and we’ve learned to read) clearer “I’ve got to go” signals.

The first night or two we had to get up several times to take them out (and make up for it with naps the next day :-) but they’re getting better, sleeping almost all night. We start our days by about 5:30am, and they’ve finished breakfast and are down for their first nap by 6, so Nancy and I can take our morning walk around the neighborhood, have a leisurely breakfast and I can get to work before 8. Everything’s going much more smoothly, as you can tell just from the fact that we’re rested enough and had the time to take more pictures this last week than in the previous two combined! :-) If this week goes just as smoothly and they consistently can sleep through the night, then maybe next weekend we’ll try going back to sleeping in our own bed.

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When we first brought the puppies home, we were a little concerned how Willow would take to them. Now that she’s had a couple weeks to get to know them, she seems to like (tolerate?) Maggie better, since Maggie is more mellow and less likely to try to chase her, but if Hank starts to annoy her she can just baff him in the face. Sometimes she even jumps into their area to play with them. A couple of times we’ve seen her come up and start to lick them.

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Hank and Maggie are up to about 11 or 12 pounds, almost twice what they weighed just three weeks ago. Hank’s still a little bigger, but Maggie’s getting really long legs. In another month, they’ll probably double in weight again. They definitely know their own names, though I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they thought their names were really “Maggie-Leave-It!” and “Hank-Leave-It!” :-)

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