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How to treat and train that four-pawed, fluffy bundle of joy Santa brought


So you bought the family a Christmas puppy. Or worse, someone surprised you with a beribboned bundle of fur.

There's not much you can do with a Christmas puppy today except fall in love. But Monday, veterinary offices will be full of people all wanting an answer to the same question: "Doesn't he need shots or something?"

Here's a cheat sheet:

* Health. Routine care for most puppies involves a thorough examination followed by vaccinations and wormings.

Vaccines are actually weakened doses of the diseases they protect against, and they're placed in an animal to teach its immune system to recognize and destroy a stronger attack of the disease. The system works because of antibodies, the body's warrior particles that surround and destroy viral and bacterial intruders.

A healthy immune system gives grown dogs a fighting chance against disease, but even seemingly strong puppies lack that ability. That's because puppies are born without the ability to produce antibodies, and don't develop that ability for the first few months of their lives.

They are not completely without protection, however, since canine mothers share some of their antibodies in their milk that puppies drink in the first few days of life.

This protection is short-term, and it starts to decline even as the puppy's own immune system begins to produce antibodies. The problems arise when the mother's protection dwindles before the puppy's immune system is operating at full capacity.

It is at this point -- 8 weeks -- that puppies get their first shot of protection against the five (in some cases, six) most common diseases. For maximum protection, puppies should be vaccinated again at 12 and 16 weeks of age.

When the puppy receives the last of its booster shots, it's time for its rabies shot. State law requires that dogs be vaccinated at 4 months and given another shot at 16 months. The protection will then last for up to three years, depending on the vaccine used. Five-in-one vaccines need to be boosted annually.

Puppies aren't born with worms, but they pick them up so soon after birth that they might as well be. The mother's milk that gives puppies the immunity they need to survive their first few weeks of life also carries the roundworm larvae that will plague almost every puppy.

Fortunately, the cure is easy, if a bit repetitious. Puppies should be wormed every two weeks from birth on, until a fecal examination reveals no sign of worms.

In most areas, heartworm prevention should start within the first month of life. Prevention is the key to keeping heartworms at bay.

The treatment for tapeworms is also best handled with an eye to prevention, and that means keeping on top of the transmitter of tapeworms -- fleas. Read the label of flea-control products carefully, or ask your veterinarian about pest-control products.

Talk to vet about putting your pup on heartworm preventive medications. If tapeworms are a problem, the vet will prescribe a medication to eradicate the parasites.

* Training. House-training begins immediately, and is most easily accomplished with the aid of a crate that limits the puppy's wanderings and helps to correctly channel behavior. (It also helps to keep destruction to a minimum.)

For an excellent discussion of crate-training (and general puppy-raising), try Carol Lea Benjamin's book, "Mother Knows Best: The Natural Way To Train Your Dog" (Howell Book House).

The emphasis now is on shaping behavior and exposing puppies to new people and environments. Informal classes start for puppies as young as 16 weeks and are highly recommended.

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