Ask the Vet: Starting off Right With Your New Puppy

Q: My husband and I just got a puppy. Neither of us grew up having dogs. Can you give us some tips on caring for him?

Lindsay, Boone, NC

A: Hi Lindsay, 

Congratulations on the new addition to your family! I’m sure you’ll have many wonderful years together, filled with lots of love and just the right amount of mischief. 

Raising a puppy is tough—but rewarding—work. It would be easy to get overwhelmed with information, so I’d actually like to break your answer up into two sections and deal with each section independently. Today we’ll focus on caring for your puppy at home, and next we’ll talk about what to expect on your puppy’s first visit to the vet. 

A puppy’s primary needs are the same as a person’s: shelter, food, water, and… toys! 


Make sure your new puppy has adequate access to a warm or—depending on your climate—cool place to sleep. Though not recommended, some people keep puppies outside, and this is ok as long as there is adequate shelter from sun, rain, and cold or hot temperatures. It really is best to keep your puppy inside while he is developing. Not only can you keep your eye on him to make sure he stays out of trouble, but this also provides more bonding time with your new pet. Spending more time around you will help your puppy learn his place in the family. Dogs are pack animals, after all. 

The main reason some families choose to keep their new puppy outdoors is because of behavioral issues and bad bathroom habits—both of which can be corrected. Your puppy has a small bladder at this age, and the muscles that help them “hold it in” are not well developed. Some accidents are bound to happen, but how you handle it can make or break the situation for the life of your puppy. It’s best to raise him indoors. 

I can’t stress enough the importance of buying a kennel to place your pet in when you are not around. Kenneling your puppy is not a bad thing. I recommend feeding your puppy his meals in the kennel. This associates it with “good things” and can help reduce anxiety if you need to leave him inside for a few hours or longer. Place a chew toy in the kennel and close him in while you stay at home and do chores. The goal is to teach him that the kennel doesn’t mean you’re leaving him or he’s being punished—both of which can lead to bad habits later on. 

Food and Water

I’m assuming your puppy is old enough to eat and drink on his own. Typically, puppies are weaned when they are 6-8 weeks old. This is also the age when most breeders consider them ready to be adopted. 

Make sure your pet has easy access to as much fresh water as he desires; don’t put the bowl up and out of reach. 

When you’re looking for the perfect food, make sure you find a product suitable for growing puppies. There are many high quality brands available. Often pet foods sold in grocery stores are manufactured by the store itself, and do not carry the same high standards found in brands such as Blue Buffalo, Royal Canin, or Hills. When you’re looking at the labels, pay careful attention to the one from the AAFCO. The AAFCO label will tell you if a food has simply been formulated for a certain life stage or if it has been through feeding trials/dietary testing. A formulated food may have the proper amount of calories/protein/fat, etc. needed per meal, but does not take into account the bioavailability of the meal, meaning the body may not break it down into the essential elements it needs. A better indicator of quality pet food is an AAFCO label mentioning the food has been through feeding trials, meaning it was fed to animals, tested, and met nutritional requirements. 

It’s also important to know what life stage you’re feeding for. For a puppy like yours, you want something labeled either “for growing puppies” or “all life stages”. The term “all life stages” is slightly misleading. Foods like this are great for puppies, pregnant or lactating animals, or very active adults. They typically have too many calories for couch potatoes. 

If your puppy is a very small or large breed, consider a special diet for his breed. Large and giant breeds can be predisposed to certain orthopedic issues at a young age. Large breed formulas curtail the calorie intake a bit, smoothing their growth rate and reducing the risk of these issues. Small breed-specific foods often have more to do with the size of the kibble, reducing the risk of choking and making it easier for their small mouths to handle. 

When it comes to portion size, most foods have helpful guidelines on the bag describing how much to feed based on the weight of your puppy. Make sure you adjust as his weight increases. Your veterinarian can help you change your pet’s diet and adjust it to meet his needs during his regular checkups. 

Environmental Enrichment

Let’s get to the good stuff: toys! You don’t need to go all out and spoil the little fur ball right away. Remember, everything is new to him. Just make sure there are a couple of different options to choose from. This will help eliminate the headache of coming home to find your slippers shredded on the living room floor. Try a few different toys and see which one your puppy enjoys most: fetch toys, chew toys, or tug-of-war. One note of caution: be careful that tug-of-war type games don’t turn into an ego struggle between you and your pet. You both need to win at times, but when things get out of hand, put the brakes on. With chew toys, be mindful that chewing doesn’t spill over to non-approved items like doorframes and shoes. 

Above everything else, give him lots of love. It’s a special time for your family. Enjoy every minute of it… even the smelly ones. We’ll cover the basics of your first vet visit next.