Pets, Places, & Things, Points on Pets

Bringing Up Baby

So… let’s say you got a puppy or kitten over the holidays. Now what?? Positive, consistent training from the get-go is the key to having a pet everyone will want to be around. And training’s not just for dogs, either – cats can learn a lot of good behaviors, too. The basic training rule for both cats and dogs is “Never take good behavior for granted.” What does this mean? It means focus on positive reinforcement. Know in your head the kinds of behaviors you want to see in your pet and then praise and reward him when you see those behaviors. He’ll do more of the good stuff that way! Being educated about proper training will make a world of difference, and are far more important than finding that perfect sparkly collar or toy.

As far as when to start training, obviously, with the potty-training you’ll have to begin immediately. For dogs, it’s around 2 to 4 months that they really start to get the joke. But it’s from Day One that you need to be teaching and rewarding the behavior you want and correcting the behavior you don’t want. Never rub your pet’s face in it if your pet has an accident. He won’t understand what you mean and will only begin to have negative feelings about going potty. You want to catch him in the act if at all possible (which is why you need to keep an eye on your puppy at all times if he’s not in his crate), so you can use your correction word (for our dog, we used a loud “Unh-uh” when we caught her in the act) and then immediately move her to where you want her to be going potty.

Kittens will start to get the joke about using a litter box at around 4 weeks old (it’s a myth that their mothers teach them from birth). Kittens start to dig in and use dry, loose material at about a month old, which is when you can begin training your kitty to use the litter box. If you catch her having an accident, don’t discipline her; instead, move her immediately to the box. Put her in the litter box often (after eating, after a nap, after playing, or whenever she seems like she needs to go). She’ll catch on fast! The Pets section of WebMD has a great guide to litterbox training; other good resources include Kitten Care and Training: an Owner’s Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet by Amy Shojai and Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-adjusted Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett.

In terms of play, kittens can begin learning early on – so don’t tease or play games that encourage play-biting unless you’re okay with your adult cat doing the same! Make sure to keep hazards out of her reach because kittens are curious. And if you want your kitty to be sociable, don’t keep her isolated while she’s a kitten; rather, allow her to meet and be handled by a variety of people (ages, appearances, personalities) and reward her with toys and treats. Generally, the more you gently and consistently handle every part of your kitten, the more comfortable she’ll be with it as she grows up.

For puppies, a couple of great resources (that, ideally, you’d have and have read before you get your puppy) are two by the Monks of New Skete: The Art of Raising a Puppy and How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend: A Training Manual for Dog Owners. Cesar Millan, the famous Dog Whisperer, also has a lot of great resources, both online and in print. Here are a few key points you’ll take away from these trainers:

Your dog needs – and will look to you to be – a pack leader. While your puppy may be adorable, he needs you to be strong, stable, and consistent. Even when you want to go easy on your puppy because “she’s just an itty-bitty sweet wittle baby!” – you need to be the pack leader, or you’ll end up with a dog whose behavior you hate. As Cesar Millan puts it, “Puppies sense our confidence levels and will take control if they perceive us as weak. When this happens, bad behaviors, such as excessive barking, chewing, leash-pulling, or anxiety, will develop.” You’ll need to establish yourself as the dominant pack leader from Day One. This simply means to remember that you are the one in control and that you’re in charge. Correct bad behaviors firmly but gently and reward positive behaviors with affection, treats, and praise.

We also recommend getting into a Puppy Training Class so that you can practice doing all these things together with a training expert. And make sure your puppy gets plenty of exercise, love, attention, and stays current on all his vaccinations and check-ups! Same goes for your kitty, too.

Please do the responsible thing by getting your pet fixed when he or she is old enough (8 weeks for kittens; talk to your vet about what she recommends for your dog, as opinions vary on the best time to spay and neuter dogs).

And have fun! Remember that you’ve committed to caring for this precious baby for life. Establish good habits now so your pet will always be a joy to have around!

Written by: Ashley Denham Busse
Ashley Denham Busse has worked part-time for since 2006. is a professional pet-sitting company located in Old Town Alexandria, celebrating more than 13 years of providing daily walks and customized in-home pet care. Visit or email 

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