Choosing a Puppy
Although a lot can be accomplished with training, it is very advantageous to choose a puppy carefully in a couple of areas where genetics matter the most. These are:
1) Outgoingness/sociability with strangers. If this isn’t present in the basic personality make-up of the puppy, it can be very hard to compensate even with heroic socialisation. So evaluate puppies with this in mind. Puppies who are clearly shy or who don’t immediately approach to greet you wagging and wiggling are suspect. A puppy who isn’t friendly and outgoing is at greatly increased risk to be fearful or aggressive to unfamiliar people once an adult. Information about sociability can also be gleaned by the behaviour of the parents of the puppy. If the litter is still with its mother, check whether she
approaches readily to make contact when you enter the area where the litter is.
2) Enjoyment of body handling. Dogs have to undergo all manner of procedures, including grooming, veterinary exams, vaccinations, being picked up in the case of small dogs, and, of course, patted and handled by the family. This can be greatly improved with training (especially early training!) but one can get a head-start by selecting a puppy who likes it from the start. To gauge this, pick up the puppy and handle him all over. Do his muscles seem slack and relaxed (we call them “wet noodle dogs”) or is he stiff and struggling to get away? The more relaxed and loose the puppy the better.
Other things to be mindful of when choosing a puppy are:
· Are the premises clean? Are the puppies clean? Is fresh water always available? Sometimes in an attempt to have less of a cleaning chore (and so less urine), unscrupulous sellers of puppies restrict water. This is extremely bad for the health of the puppies.
· If the puppies are really young (six weeks or less), are they together in their litter and with their mother, or separate? It is much, much better for young puppies to be with their siblings and mother until at least seven weeks. It can not only be traumatic to be taken out of their litter too soon, but valuable socialisation to other dogs can be compromised.
· Have the puppies been vaccinated? Are they free of fleas? Are their eyes and noses clear of discharge?
Behavioural Wellness: Socialisation and Soft Mouth Training
There are many areas of disagreement in the field of dog training but there is one in stark contrast: socialisation and soft mouth training.
The puppy should meet as many people as possible on a daily basis from the moment he is brought home.
Because the immune system of the puppy, it takes multiple rounds of vaccinations to fully protect him from disease, and these vaccinations are typically spaced weeks apart, so it’s important that visitors to the home remove shoes and wash hands before meeting the puppy.
The puppy can be taken places but should not be put anywhere on the ground where he might encounter dog faeces (even dried dog faeces may harbour disease). The best solution is usually to keep the puppy in
a carrier (there are cute ones that attach to one’s body, very much like baby carriers), or held in the owner’s arms. Owners can carry hand sanitizer for people to use who would like to pat or hold the puppy.
Why is Socialisation Such a Big Deal Anyway?
All animals are inclined toward what’s called “neophobia,” the tendency to react fearfully to things that are new. And animals that are afraid engage in fight or flight responses, which is where fear and aggression problems originate. The process of domestication dulls neophobia – this is its primary aim in fact – but puppies that are not socialised to a wide volume and variety of strangers are at colossal risk to end up fearful and aggressive to unfamiliar people.
The training techniques to successfully treat adult dogs who are uncomfortable around strangers does not approach what we have to help dogs with other problems (like disobedience, house-soiling, resource guarding or other naughtiness). This makes prevention, in the form of careful breeding for gregariousness (choose an outgoing puppy...), and strong socialisation programs, absolutely critical
The earlier you start socializing the puppy the better. Nobody knows for certain when it is too late to socialise but all behaviour experts agree the earlier the better. Dogs are sensitive to differences among people and so socialisation also needs to be wide-ranging. The puppy should encounter and get tasty food treats in the presence of:
· Men, including those with all manner of facial hair; women, children of all ages
· Babies, strollers, carriages, baby bags, baby smells, baby sounds
· People wearing hats, sunglasses, backpacks, iPods
· Kid behaviour: running, skipping, playing, laughing, screaming, children in large unruly
groups, wielding implements and on playground equipment
· People with unusual gaits, using wheelchairs and canes, on bicycles
· People appearing at windows, emerging from elevator doors and cars, “decapitated”
people looking over four-foot fences etc.
Soft Mouth Training
In the 1980’s, Dr. Ian Dunbar popularized the idea of “bite inhibition training.” This is not
training the puppy not to bite (although that’s another important mission). It is training the puppy to bite softly, so that if, as an adult, the dog ever does bite, he does minimal damage. If this is successfully accomplished along with socialisation, there are now two lines of defence: 1) the dog likes people and so is much less likely to ever bite, and 2) if he ever did, he will not bite hard.
The best way to train a soft mouth is to allow the puppy to play-bite (most puppies do this naturally – if a puppy doesn’t, he can sometimes be encouraged to do so with some rough- housing), and allow all bites that are soft or medium in intensity but immediately react to bites that are noticeably harder. As soon as the puppy bites hard, give him some feedback: react loudly (“OUCH!!!!”), even if it didn’t hurt that much, and give the puppy a time-out. Leave the puppy’s confinement area for a couple of minutes. Then go back in with the puppy and play with him some more, ready to repeat the “ouch” and time-out if he re-offends. Most puppies will make the mistake many times so it’s important to persevere. It’s also important for all family members to abide by the same rules, so the puppy experiences a “common front.”
If the puppy cries, barks or otherwise carries on while he’s being timed out, wait for him to be quite before going back into his area, to avoid rewarding him for the noise-making.
When several days have gone by with no hard bites, it’s time to re-direct the puppy’s biting to his toys. Mission accomplished!
Practice all patting and procedures that his future life will entail. This will vary depending on his coat needs, but be the same for all dogs in these areas:
· Restraint – being held in position for grooming, veterinary exams, blood draws etc.
· Being hugged – by adults and children
· Brushing and bathing
· Feet and nails – restraint, handling and conservative nail-trimming with sharp
· Teeth checking, eye and ear checking, and pilling (giving the puppies pills) – “pill” him
daily with a piece of cheese for two weeks, then for another two weeks pill him with a vitamin or supplement followed by a cheese chaser and you will have a “pillable” dog for life
· Patting – there needs to be a National Dog Massage Movement to teach all dogs to love having their bodies touched
· Facial proximity – include eyeball to eyeball contact
followed by something tasty to proof against spooking and snapping when, inevitably, some person does one of these to your adult dog.
Resource Guarding Prevention
Dogs are the direct descendants of wolves – in fact, they are the same species – and many inherited a piece of behavioural “software” that all wolves have: the tendency to guard scarce resources, such as food. Some dogs extend this to other prized possessions, such as toys, sleeping locations, the owner’s lap and so on.
The best prevention exercise for food guarding is to approach the puppy while he’s eating and drop a bonus into the dish, something much tastier than his regular food. This way he learns to associate, via Pavlovian Conditioning, the approach of the owner with an improvement in the meal. Owners should also be advised to do variations such as touching the bowl or lifting it up before delivering the bonus.
The same principle applies to toys. While the puppy is working on a chew-toy or bone, the owner should approach, take the toy away, give the puppy a fabulous-tasting treat, and then give the toy back. If repeated, once again through the magic of Pavlov, the puppy will learn to not only tolerate, but enjoy having his things taken away.
Housetraining, Paper-Training and Chew-Training
All puppies should be confined to a small area for “damage control.” If the puppy is allowed to run loose all over the house, not only might he acquire all kinds of undesired habits, he could hurt himself as well as damage rugs, furniture and other possessions. The confinement area should be big enough to have a clear bathroom area at one end, covered in paper, and a sleeping/eating/drinking area at the other end with a bed and bowls. This will help preserve the dog’s natural inclination to keep his bed and eating area clean, and in turn help the housetraining cause.
If the eventual goal is for the puppy to be housetrained (as opposed to paper-trained), i.e. to eliminate outside, it’s a great idea to have a box with turf (grass) in it rather than paper as the potty surface in the confinement area. Dogs are very tuned to what the surface is under their feet and you can build a potty-on-grass habit early on, which will help transfer the dog to outside once he’s old enough to hang on. Once he’s cleared by the veterinarian to be put on the ground outside (remember the disease risk we talked about earlier), take him to the same place to potty every time. If the owner has used a turf box, take him to grass. If the owner has been using paper, it can be helpful the first few times to bring a bit of the same paper to the outdoor area to help the puppy transition.
In any case, the puppy should be praised and rewarded with a tasty food treat every time he bathrooms in the right area. It is not at all obvious to dogs which areas are “right” and “wrong” toilets. It is never a good idea to punish the puppy for mistakes. First of all, we’re not present when most mistakes happen and so it is too late (rewards and punishments must come within a half second or so of behaviour to be associated). And, it can create fearfulness, which is the very worst problem to have. It’s also inhumane.
Crate-training is a good idea, provided the puppy is not left in the crate for long periods. This is cruel, and also may force the puppy to eliminate (most puppies can’t hang on very long), which ruins his cleanliness instinct. A good rule of thumb is to not leave the puppy in the crate longer than his age in months. So a two month old puppy can be crated probably for around two hours, and so on.
Whenever the puppy is taken out of the crate, he should be taken (carried in fact) to the desired bathroom area, because he will be “full” and likely to eliminate in short order. Consistently doing this develops the desired location as a habit.
If the objective with the adult dog is for him to always use paper indoors as bathroom area, the confinement area can be gradually expanded once the puppy has demonstrated a clear preference for the paper.
All puppies (and all dogs for that matter) should have access to a wide variety of toys and chew objects at all times.
While socialisation far and away eclipses other concerns because of its extreme time sensitivity, it can be advantageous to emphasize manners or particular obedience behaviours for some dogs. For instance, very active and impulsive dogs such as Labradors can be taught as young puppies to be polite. Puppy class curricula should include “impulse control” exercises such as stay, wait, loose leash walking and leave-it. These all teach the impulsive breeds that “direct access” strategies (re: helping themselves to things they find or barrelling out of doors) simply don’t work. Arrange some “weird physics,” i.e. that the way to get access to what’s over there
is to sit quietly over here,
or that the way to reach a destination on leash is to walk slower, not faster. Get yourself any one of the fabulous training books or videos on the market and emphasise, “wait,” “stay,” “leave-it” and loose-leash walking. Most
Dogs left to everyday living learn, in spite of our greatest intentions that in fact rude, naughty behaviour does often work, which is disastrous!
Even small breeds or non-impulsive individuals benefit from well-executed reward training, however. It teaches them that humans are highly relevant, and is the best bonding activity I know. There is not much that is more marvellous than watching a puppy learn that if he does certain actions, he can make a food treat happen. Aside from all the practical applications, it’s good for their mental health.
The most efficient training sessions are short, packed with treats, and clearly at the puppy’s level. Lure-reward (Dunbar-style) training and shaping (Karen Pryor-style) are both excellent for teaching sit, down, come when called or any tricks. The best choice is usually the one that is intuitive for the particular owner. Some people are fascinated by the theory behind clicker training, while others prefer to use prompts such as food lures.
© Jean Donaldson