From choosing a breed, to feeding and sleeping, Suffolk dog trainer Zoe Willingham shares her tips.

Getting a pet can be one of the most exciting things you do – but it’s important to do your research beforehand, to ensure you’re fully prepared for your new companion.

Zoe Willingham is a Suffolk-based dog trainer and behaviourist who runs Best Behaviour Dog Training - an independent training school and behaviour practice. With years of experience in the dog rearing world, she answers some of the most commonly-asked questions that potential puppy owners may have.

How do I know if I’m ready for a puppy?

“Firstly, make sure you’ve got enough time. Dogs are social, and shouldn’t be left on their own for long. Research says it’s crucial to be there for the puppy’s first 16 weeks, as that’s when they form that secure attachment with their new human. Secondly, puppies aren’t cheap, so you need to make sure you can afford to raise it. It’s not just about the initial price, but also the ongoing cost of feeding, training, and vet bills. Dogs cost money, but they’re so worth the investment.”

What sort of puppy should I get?

“Every breed is different - some are active, whereas others suit a more sedentary lifestyle, so you really have to look at the individual breed and do research. Even within the same litter, every puppy is different in character and what they need. I would say look into your situation and research what breeds are out there. For instance, a 60kg Great Dane might not be suitable for some families, so a smaller dog may be better suited. Ideally, you should try to meet adult dogs of your chosen breed, so you can get an idea of what they’re like when they’re fully grown.”

How do I know the breeder I’m getting my puppy from is safe and reputable?

“The first place I get people to look is the Kennel Club Board of Breeders - a scheme that sets out to ensure all of its breeders are checked and accredited by the Kennel Club. There’s a few things you should always look out for though, regardless of who you buy from. Is the breeder going to microchip and vaccinate the puppy before it goes to its new home? That’s one of the things they should be doing.

“When you get to the breeder, both of the parents should be present. They should let you take your time and if they can, they’ll match the puppy to you. Another question to ask is ‘will the breeder offer some form of backup?’ If you took the puppy home and needed help, what sort of additional assistance will the breeder give?

“The other thing to look at is rescues. Puppies are more common than you think, they just get adopted quickly. They might not be tiny, but they’ll be under a year old.”

When can I bring the puppy home?

“The law states it must be at least eight weeks old, and most breeders allow puppies to leave them between eight and 12 weeks, but as always it depends on the breeder and its breed.”

What is the best way to get my new puppy home?

“Firstly, make sure the puppy is feeling secure on that journey home. They’ve just come away from their mum, so it’s important the puppy is supported by their new humans. The law states dogs need to be secure when in a car, so my recommendation is to use a crate or a carrier. Pop a blanket in there with their mum’s scent on it - you can also use a dog calming spray, too. I usually recommend two people pick up the puppy – one to drive, and one to sit either next to the carrier, or with it on their lap. Car sickness can be common, but a good breeder will feed the puppy well in advance so they won’t have a full tummy and risk being sick. I’d check with whoever you’re picking up from that the feeding is done well in advance.”

What vaccinations will my puppy need before they can go outside?

“Vaccinations usually come in two or three parts, and they’re done to protect against diseases such as parvo and distemper. The breeder will always get the first one done, and this will be just before they leave at eight weeks. Your puppy can go in the garden after their first vaccination for toilet training, just be sure to avoid where it’s muddy or wet.

“There’s a number of vaccine brands out there with different guidelines - but the second vaccination can take place anywhere between 10 and 12 weeks, or sometimes later. Once they’ve had that, they can go on walks and explore more of the outside.”

What is the best way to toilet train my puppy?

“My top tip is to actually avoid puppy pads. If you take your new dog home and introduce puppy pads, it basically undoes all of the hard work the puppy’s mum has taught it in those eight weeks. What owners should do is take their puppy into the garden often, so they quickly make that connection to go toilet outside. Once they’ve been, give them a reward.

“If you need to nip out for a couple of hours, what I do is take a garden tray and fill it with something from the outside, such as dirt, grass or grass nuts. The puppy will use it and get used to the smell and texture of the outside, instilling really good habits from when we bring them home.”

How much sleep should a puppy get?

“Quite often, we see biting in puppies who don’t get enough sleep. They should be sleeping between 18 and 20 hours a day, and slightly less when they’re older. One of the key things to do is to make sure your puppy has a comfortable place to sleep, so they’re not overtired or getting bitey. If you can, create what I call a ‘puppy palace’. It’s like a child’s pen, where you put their water, food and bed, and is a place for them to get away from any hustle and bustle.”

What can a puppy eat, and what should they avoid?

“There’s so many brands out there, and everyone will have their own recommendations, so do some research to find which food would be the best fit. It’s all about seeing what suits your puppy and your budget. If you can, find a good pet shop that can give you nutritional advice. How often you feed them depends on the breed and the type of food, but puppies are generally fed three to four times a day, and less as they get older. It’s also important to make sure your puppy always has access to fresh, clean water.

“Chocolate, grapes, and dried fruit such as raisins and sultanas are all toxic to dogs, so make sure any mince pies, cakes and selection boxes are out of the puppy’s reach over Christmas. If they do happen to eat any, call the vet right away as even the smallest amount can be toxic – all vets have an out of hours service and will always be accessible.”

Should I crate train my puppy?

“Not everyone likes the idea of a crate, but I recommend it because at some point in a dog’s life, they’ll need to go inside of one - whether that’s going to the groomers or to the vets. But it needs to be done gradually, with lots of care and positive training, to ensure the puppy isn’t stressed when they do go in them.”

What insurance do I need?

“Most breeders or rescues will send you home with certain insurance as it’s part of the package. But if they haven’t, I would advise sorting it before you pick up the puppy, so it’s ready for when they come home. Find the company that’s right for you and your finances. If you’re not sure, get in touch with your vet, as different dogs will need different coverage.”

Should I get a lead or a harness?

“Everybody has their preference, but I recommend a harness. A harness won’t restrict movement, and the problem with a collar and lead is that young puppies especially can move erratically, and if they get scared, they might pull away and damage their neck. Collars also pose an escape risk.”

When does a puppy start teething?

“Normally, teething happens between six and nine months, but it depends on the breed. Every now and then, you’ll find the odd puppy tooth on the floor. It’s perfectly natural, and sometimes you won’t even notice their teeth have come through. What you will see is the puppy chewing more as they’re teething - so make sure you have good teething toys and chews to help them through it.”

I want to train my puppy – how would I do that during lockdown?

“Once puppies have had their second vaccine and we’re no longer in lockdown, they can come to physical classes. These are done outside, socially-distanced and three metres apart. The dogs can see other dogs, and all get used to each other. However, in the meantime you can train them online via interactive live sessions.

“But also, it helps if you take them out yourself in order to socialise them. People worry about lockdown and not being able to meet with other dog owners, but I always tell people not to panic as socialisation takes times and isn’t just about other dogs or people - it’s about good behaviour. One way to socialise your puppy is to expose them to different situations. Take them in the car, or on a walk where they’ll see a lorry or a bike - they’ll soon get used to stimuli they otherwise might be frightened of.”

To find out more about Zoe and her dog expertise, visit