The other day at a puppy assessment, I mentioned to the owner that I thought the puppy was great and “didn’t see any red flags,” and he asked “What would you consider to be red flags in a puppy?” I thought it was a great question! Here are some things that I would be very concerned about, to see in a young (12 or so weeks or younger) puppy.
Red Flag #1: A puppy who is not curious and eager to meet me. Puppies are supposed to jump up on, mouth, and be overexcited about people. Because they’re puppies! Of course you’ll strive to train them out of the overexcited and obnoxious behavior later, because Manners, but at this age they’re supposed to approach even strangers enthusiastically and wiggle, jump, try to lick faces. I’m concerned if I show up and the puppy immediately starts alarm barking and won’t stop. (Breed tendencies can be involved in this, and that’s taken into account, but at this age even a guardian breed or “watchdog” type should at least be very quick to warm up after some initial barking or spookiness.) I’m also concerned if I show up and the puppy just sits there, looking at me but not investigating, or rushes to the owner and sits closely or leans on or hides behind him/her as it looks. A lot of people get tripped up by this – they specifically choose the one puppy that’s just sitting there because he’s “calm.” Often it turns out that he’s not actually calm, but afraid.
Red Flag #2: A puppy who seems very scared of other dogs and puppies. It’s common and normal for a puppy to greet an adult dog very appeasingly or submissively – rolling over, cowering, etc. But the puppy should warm up quickly if the adult dog is calm. If a puppy never warms up to a calm adult dog, or if it’s lunging, barking and reactive, that is a red flag. And yes, it is possible to see reactivity and aggression directed at other dogs in very, very young puppies – this is an enormous red flag.
Red Flag #3: A puppy who seems older than its age – a puppy who is already exhibiting full-fledged behavior problems that I’d expect to see more in adult dog. Tiny male puppies lifting their leg/marking and showing clear dominance over other dogs. Tiny puppies of either gender growling if the owner approaches their dog bed or food bowl. It’s common and normal for puppies to “experiment” with various behaviors to see how they’ll work out. It’s less common and more concerning for puppies to already be so confident with what already looks like a full-fledged behavioral issue. Many puppies who are “prodigies” will still turn out just fine – they just need a more assertive handling style.
Red Flag #4: Extreme sensitivity to body handling. A young puppy, ideally, is completely free with its body and doesn’t mind if it’s handled. But a very young puppy who tenses or freezes, panics, or bites when its ears, mouth, tail, paws, etc are handled will become a difficult dog to handle and groom and take to the vet if training and desensitization are not immediately begun, the earlier the better.
Red Flag #5: Young kids in the household are already kind of scared of the puppy. This isn’t a red flag about the puppy’s temperament (lots of puppies will chase and bite at kids, and the smaller, dartier and screamier the kids are, the more the puppy will chase and bite) but it can demonstrate a pattern that needs to be turned around quickly. Lots of puppies love to chase and bite at kids, the smaller and dartier and screamier the better. But if the kids are showing fear of the puppy (for example, if the puppy’s let out of its pen and the kids immediately climb on top of the sofa to avoid getting bitten), something’s off in the dynamic of how the puppy is managed and controlled around the kids.
Most behaviors that a puppy does, however, aren’t red flags at all, though they may at first glance seem concerning to a novice owner. Most puppy behavior is totally normal! Here are some things that are not red flags:
NOT a Red Flag: Puppy is lethargic on walks. A common issue with very young puppies is that they “won’t go on walks.” You leash up to go for a walk, and...the puppy just sits there in the middle of the sidewalk. Don’t worry about this. Within a month or so, you’ll probably be working really hard on getting the puppy to not drag you around! Puppies are small and get tired easily. What seems like a short walk to you could be a monumental task for their short legs. They’re also new and can be a little disoriented in the big world; the constant new stimulation can be exhausting.
NOT a Red Flag: Puppy is biting hands, clothes, etc. Puppies bite. They interact with the world like a toddler would, putting everything into their mouths. Over time you’ll teach the puppy not to bite, and to leave items other than their chew toys alone. Puppy-proofing the house so they don’t pick up truly dangerous items, and not stressing too much if they eat some leaves and grass outside, will also help.
NOT a Red Flag: Puppy is playing roughly with other dogs (growling, etc) A lot of very normal play can look a little scary, especially if you haven’t spent much time with dogs before. Dog play can get pretty intense, with lots of high arousal and ferocious sounds. There are some key ways to tell the difference between playing and fighting, and to catch when play is working up to a level that might culminate in a fight. One good test is to catch and briefly hang on to the dog you perceive as the aggressor, then look at the other dog’s behavior. If it runs away and hides, then you’ll know the play was too rough. But 9 times out of 10, that dog will come running up to start the play all over.
NOT a Red Flag: Puppy is stealing things and running around. Puppies do this!!! Normal puppies want to investigate their environment, mainly with their mouth. If they pick up something random and realize that it causes you to become animated and chase them around, they’ve just discovered the wildly exciting game of Keep-Away. Good solid Puppy-Proofing is your best friend here. A puppy-proofed house has things picked up and placed up high where the puppy can’t get them. Areas a puppy might get into (your huge potted ficus, for example) are gated off or behind closed doors. Enticing toys are all the puppy can access. I know this is hard with young kids, who want to leave their stuffed toys and other appealing items all over the place. Do your best!
NOT a Red Flag: A very young puppy (under 12 weeks) is panicking and screaming when left alone. Puppies do a “puppy distress cry” that’s meant to alert the mother dog if it finds itself alone – it’s fallen into a hole or accidentally crept out of the den or something. This is natural and normal and is not the same thing as separation anxiety.
NOT a Red Flag: The other (adult) dog in the home is growling at or snapping at the puppy, when the puppy “just wants to play.” Your adult dog is not being mean to the puppy if it doesn’t want to play. It’s not being mean if the puppy is being pushy and rude and the adult gives a correction, like growling or even escalating. This is usually normal dog communication.
As many trainers say, “It’s a puppy, not a problem!” Most puppies are perfectly normal, but if you see something that worries you about your own puppy, then let me know; I’m glad to be your second set of eyes!