One puppy behavior that cannot be taught without help is how to meet new people. Each of us needs interactions with novel people so that our puppies can practice appropriate greetings and learn that people are fun and not frightening. I have wrestled quite a bit with whether or not to blog about this: I do not want to seem condescending or strident, and this is information most readers of this blog will likely be very certain they already know! However, for the past few months I have been taking a puppy around to socialize and meet lots of people, and I have been reminded over and over again how many people out there—even people with extensive dog experience and great intentions—interact with puppies in ways that are problematic.
So please do not take this as scolding, but as an opportunity for us all to pause and think about how we can help one another… And do not interpret any of this to mean you should not interact with puppies—it is very much appreciated when you take a few minutes to help us socialize! But puppies learn very quickly, and it does not take many bad encounters to have a significantly negative impact. So give a little thought to how you can be a positive influence.
Here are a few thoughts:
Things to do:
- Have a conversation—the single best step you can take to making your interaction beneficial for the puppy is to have a conversation with the owner before you do anything with the puppy. Ask them about how they want the interaction to go, what things to avoid, what to encourage. No two puppies are identical, and what would be super helpful with one puppy might be quite harmful with another. You do not know their goals, their issues, you must ask!
- Listen to the owner—no matter how knowledgeable you may be, you do not know what this owner and dog want. You must carefully listen to what they tell you.
- Listen to the dog—observe the dog closely while interacting. If it is intimidated by what you are doing, back off. If it is pulling back or trying to avoid you, stop. If it is getting too excited and frenetic, slow your actions and reduce your energy. This is not a contest to get the dog to love you the most, it is a long process to get the dog to react to new people the way the owner wants.
- Start easy, get harder—you can always increase the intensity and difficulty, but if you come on too strong it is very difficult to undo.
- Be calm but friendly—almost nobody wants a dog that goes crazy and gets frantic when it meets new people.
- When in doubt, ignore—if you are not sure; if a puppy seems nervous or hyper or whatever, and you are not sure what the owner would like, the safest path is to ignore the puppy while you ask the owner.
- You are not entitled—this is not your puppy. Sometimes the owner way not want the puppy to meet you at all. Or may want you to ignore the puppy. You do not know what that they may be working on at any given moment, so do not take it personally if it does not involve you…
Things to avoid:
- Too much energy—many dog lovers coming rushing in and start frenetically playing. This is overwhelming to some puppies, but to many it simply creates an expectation that greetings are supposed to be super-high-energy, which is almost never what an owner wants. Calm, friendly, thoughtful greetings are far more desired by most owners. After the initial greeting is over, many owners will appreciate your having a good play session with their puppies, but initially calm is much better than too energetic.
- Telling them to sit, sit, sit—this is a very well-intended recent trend. Lots of pet owners and Petco trainers, learned the idea that a great way to avoid jumping up is to reinforce an incompatible behavior, and so they ask every puppy to sit. And in truth, this might be a fine trend, except that most people do it poorly. Their timing is awful.
- Approaching too directly—when you see a puppy and immediately rush straight towards it, think about how this looks to the puppy.
- Petting them on the top of the head—some dogs love this, some owners want to work on this, but in general, most dogs would prefer if you do not start out petting them on their heads.
- Grabbing them or pulling them towards you—most dogs have a natural opposition reflex, especially to being pulled towards a stranger.
- Petting them roughly—many puppies do not want to be whacked, tousled, slapped, etc.
- Correcting them—unless we have discussed it, you do not know the rules I have taught my puppy. So if he paws at you that may be exactly what I trained him to do. If he jumps up on you, or mouths your hand, or lies down, or stands, whatever he does, you should not correct unless you know it is something he is not supposed to do…
- Pushing them too far—I was at a seminar recently with my puppy, and he was having a great time meeting new people in a new place with lots of dogs and commotion. And a lady came over, sat down, and started harassing him. Grabbing his feet, lifting him up, grasping his testicles… And she kept it up until he was trying to get away from her and she would not let him get away. All the while she was explaining to me how much people appreciate her playing with their puppies, how she desensitizes them to lots of strange things, how she is beloved as a molester of puppies. It is not your job to torment my puppy. If I want or need my puppy to have that experience, I will ask someone I know and trust. I might even ask you, but it is not your place to decide to push my puppy.
- Your adult dog correcting them—unless we have discussed it in advance, I do not want my puppy to have negative experiences with other dogs. If you are not 100% sure that your dog is great with puppies, please stay away. Many people bring their dogs over to meet my puppy and when I ask if their dog is good with puppies, they tell me they do not know. @#$^$%&#&!! Do not experiment with my puppy. A bad experience can cause issues that will take years to resolve or may never be undone. Oh, and noise counts. I have had several people tell me their dogs are good with puppies, then their dog reacts negatively and growls, barks or otherwise tells off my puppy, and they say, “See, she doesn’t ever make contact…” Contact is not the issue—I am far more concerned about psychological trauma then physical trauma, so if your dog is not welcoming and benevolent tell me so I can keep my puppy away!
- Your dog being too forward—If your dog loves puppies and people and comes rushing up into my puppy’s space, there is a good likelihood that my puppy will be frightened. MAny puppies are sensitive to pressure, particularly from adult dogs. Keep your dog under control and a bit away, and let me bring the puppy over. This way the puppy can approach at his pace and not get overwhelmed.
- Your dog being too interested in me—many puppies are a little insecure and even jealous about their owner. If your dog comes running in and greets me super enthusiastically, it may be negative for my puppy.
- Your dog making things negative—I was practicing tunnels with my puppy when someone else came in and let their puppy say hello. Which was great. But every time my puppy tried to go into a tunnel, theirs would blast in after him, sometimes same direction, sometimes opposing, and would either knock my puppy over or just startle him. Later I was working my puppy on a table, and she encouraged her dog to jump up and essentially knock him off the table. These actions made my puppy far less confident about tunnels and tables—he is not sure another dog will not come knock him down…
- Playing keep away—I am a little flabbergasted when people come up and take my puppy’s toy and don’t give it back. What is this game supposed to be? It is just obnoxious. Sure, you can tease the puppy, move the toy quickly, but the goal is to get the puppy to try harder and when they do try hard, they should win! If you want a toy, go get one, but that toy is my puppies, so if you are going to play with it make sure you do it in a way that is pleasing to my puppy.
- Pretending to throw something—much like keep away, I am not really sure what people think they are doing. Yes, if you try you can fool the puppy. Bravo for you. But you are diminishing the puppy’s desire to fetch and decreasing his inclination to trust humans.
- Tugging on their toy too hard—although it may not always feel like it, puppies have small teeth and weak jaws, and we do not want tug to be unpleasant.
- Intruding on training—if I am not looking at you, and am clearly working on something with my puppy, do not talk to me. Do not talk to my puppy. Do not call my puppy. Leave us alone, or wait until we are done and approach you.
- Following—if you are approaching and I head the other way, don’t chase me down. It likely means that my puppy is not in the mood to meet you, or that your dog is frightening my puppy, or that for some other reason I do not want to interact with you right now.
- Picking them up—I cannot believe how many people think it is ok to run in and pick up a puppy that they hardly know. How would you like it if someone did this to you? Being held is an act of trust. Do not pick up a puppy until you have cleared it with both the owner and the puppy.
- Making lots of baby noises—a surprising number of people squeal and grunt and goo-goo and screech when they see a puppy. This is probably not a huge deal to the puppy either way, but it is really annoying to me, so please stop it.
You have a puppy that is going to the bathroom in the house. This is a relatively straightforward issue to fix; yet a huge number of dogs end up in the shelter because this was never really trained.
There are many books and articles on housebreaking, and while most of them are potentially effective and a few of them are genuinely excellent, the vast majority of them suffer from the same flaw: they start from the assumption that you should get this done as quickly as possible. Superficially that undoubtedly seems like a pretty good assumption; after all, we are all in a hurry to get past this stage. But here is the rub—housebreaking is one of the first shared experiences your puppy will have with you. During this phase he is getting to know you and learning how you communicate and how you lead. Housebreaking will set the tone and create habits that will remain with you and your dog for many years.
I think it can be risky for people to think that faster is better and then put more pressure on themselves and their puppies because they feel they are failing if they have not housebroken their puppy at a certain age. Many dog owners, particularly somewhat novice pet owners, place WAY too much emphasis on quick housebreaking. On many occasions I have had people tell me how “smart” their dog was, and their evidence has been that the individual dog was housebroken in 12 minutes or less. Absolutely, some dogs naturally get the concept very easily, others have a much harder time, but this is hardly a measure of anything.
Obviously I share a desire not to have my house covered in excrement; however, I feel that establishing the tone of a lifelong relationship is so much more important, and since this is the first “training” that is going to occur for most dogs, I hate to think how many people are in such a hurry that they do not apply the same care and compassion they do with every other behavior. I have watched many otherwise competent trainers forget everything they know about communicating with animals when their innocent puppy happens to squat on their precious carpet! It is easy to housebreak quickly, but is it ideal? I would rather take longer than rush this key time in my puppy’s life. This is exacerbated by the fact that people tend to think animals should naturally be tidy and are somewhat revolted by their puppies willingness to soil everywhere. So for several weeks, puppy gets to know its new person as a frustrated, unhappy, lunatic who has a fit every now and then for no obvious reason!
Put another way, most of us would not correct a dog for failure to complete a behavior UNTIL we were certain that the dog understood the desired behavior. Yet how many people start correcting this behavior from day 1 without first ensuring the dog understands what is being asked?
So, assuming you are with me so far, how do you housebreak in a manner that will nurture your animal’s psyche and establish good habits?
1. Management—step one is to figure out how to keep your puppy from going in the house. If he is constantly able to go on the floor, nothing else you do is going to matter. So, whenever you are not able to watch your puppy, you need a plan. He can go outside in the yard, he can be in a crate, whatever, but he cannot be unsupervised in the house until he is reliably housetrained.
2. Frequency and consistency—take your puppy outside LOTS. It can sometimes feel like all you do is go outside—after he naps, after he eats, after he drinks, after he plays, etc.
3. Vigilance—my brother used to call me several times each day and tell me that he had found a puddle on his carpet. Every time he would swear up and down that he had never taken his eyes off the puppy. But when I went to visit, he would go and make dinner while the puppy played in the living room. It will only take a few weeks, but you need to be TRULY vigilant.
4. Praise—you need to go outside with your puppy so that you can praise him when he goes outside. People stick their puppies outside for ten minutes and assume they went potty. If you are not there you cannot know, and you cannot praise.
5. Disappointment—I find acting disappointed when a puppy does have an accident is surprisingly effective. I do not yell or scream, I am just sad and very disappointed.
6. Patience—if you are doing the above, this problem will get better and better and will go away in a few weeks. So do not stress about it. Believe me, I have had more animals of more species than most people have ever met pee and poop on my floor, and it all cleans up and the world does not end!
7. Correction—once you are fairly sure that your puppy understands what is being asked, you will get a few perfect opportunities to correct. I am not a big believer in correction, but this is one of those places where one well timed correction can be profoundly effective. Again, you want to be certain they understand your preference, and then you wait for a moment and just as they start you loudly exclaim, “NO” and pick them up and run them outside where you wait for them to go (it may take a while since you just startled them) and praise the heck out of them.
Here is the simple truth of housetraining—if you string together 100 times of your puppy going outside and you praising him, he will be trained. But each time you fail to praise him outside, or fail to prevent him inside, that counter resets… So, challenge yourself to be perfect 100 times in a row, and know that if you fail it is you who failed, not your puppy…
One of the first lessons any young animal needs to learn is how and when to use—and not use—his teeth. While various terms and training techniques are utilized, there are essentially two techniques for resolving the issue of biting:
· Bite prohibition—teeth are never used on humans. This school argues that no tooth should ever touch flesh or clothing. The principal advantage is that this is a very clear and simple rule for both the trainer and the animal to understand.
· Bite inhibition—teeth may be used on humans, but only when humans initiate such action, and must be used gently. The principal advantage of this method is that the animal learns that human flesh is weak and that biting should not be hard.
Either of these techniques can be successfully trained with reasonable effort; however, I strongly recommend inhibition unless you do not feel that you can master the timing and training required.
Let me briefly explain why inhibition is the better option: if you observe carnivores in the wild, or in captivity interacting with each other, you will quickly note that they have virtually perfect bite inhibition: they can carry babies, wrestle with friends, cavort with mates, all using their teeth without causing injury. This is one of the deepest and earliest lessons learned by any wild animal—bite your siblings too hard and the fun stops, bite your mom to hard and the food stops. Every wild animal is a master at using his mouth carefully, and this is powerfully instinctive. Conversely, you will virtually never see any animal practice bite prohibition. It simply does not make any sense for an animal to not use his mouth since the mouth represents the primary tool for interacting.
In addition to being more natural, teaching inhibition nurtures a stronger bond. Again, look at wild animals—they routinely mouth and groom the animals with whom they are closest. The only animals they do not touch with their mouths are their enemies.
A strongly inhibited animal is much less likely to bite, and if a bite does occur, it is far less likely to be serious because you have essentially conditioned their brains and bodies to bite gently. Conversely, bite prohibition is a trained rule, and when a strong enough stimulus arises, most animals will disobey a trained rule and the consequences can be dire.
Regardless of which technique you train, do not utilize punishment during the early stages. Punishment is virtually never an ideal tool for teaching—animals learn far faster when encouraged to try the right behavior, but particularly for teaching this lesson, punishment is contraindicated. You start teaching this lesson to animals that are very young, and you work on it so often, that it plays a huge role in setting the tone of your animal’s interaction skills, and if you are using violence your animal will learn that the way to resolve disagreements is through violence. In my experience, most animals that are trained using bite prohibition and repeated corrections eventually become unreliable and potentially dangerous when they are powerful adults.
Teaching Bite Inhibition
Before you begin, remind yourself of a few central notions:
· Patience—this is going to take weeks, and you cannot expect a baby to magically know not to bite. They do not have great behavioral self control nor do they have fine motor skills, so it is a process, not an overnight fix. As they get more mature and you teach them more and more, they will get better and better and hard biting will extinguish.
· Willingness to be mouthed—you may have developed an aversion to ever having teeth touch your skin if you have taught bite prohibition in the past, and you need to reset this expectation. In fact you need to reverse it to the point that you actively seek to have your body used as a gentle toy. If not, you will not successfully reinforce inhibition.
Also before you begin, familiarize yourself with the following adjunct methodologies that will be used in parallel with the training to reinforce the core lessons and to avoid being bitten until the animal has mastered inhibition:
· Displacement—when the animal is mouthy and you are not in the mood to train, have high value toys that you can lure him to play with instead of your hand.
· Feeding—animals often get more mouthy when hungry, so for a long time avoid playing any games when they have not eaten for a while, so you do not set them up to fail.
· Hand feeding—feed as much as you can from your hands, but only feed a calm animal that is listening and doing what is asked, and never let biting get them the food.
· Hand licking—feed peanut butter or squeeze cheese from your hands that he has to gently take from your flesh without biting. If he nips at all, leave (again tie him to something solid so you can just step back).
· Play with teeth and gums and mouth lots—brush teeth, open up mouth and stick in a treat, generally get him used to having your hands in there.
· Restraint game—lie somewhat on top of your animal, not squishing him but bear hugging him, and restrain him until he relaxes. Talk to him calmly and soothingly, but do not let him loose until he relaxes and settle. This may take a while at first, but will get easier each time. Do not release him if he only holds still—wait for him to genuinely relax.
· Calming games—when your animal is already tired in the evening, sit and stroke, him, and if he mouths very gently put a word to it and teach him it is okay to hold your hand in his mouth affectionately while you massage or stroke. You can use this same time to teach him to play dead since you are reinforcing lying still and quiet anyway.
· Never let biting get him anything he wants—if he uses his mouth to correct you, even gently, that never works. Of course, safety first—if you are at risk, end the behavior and get yourself safe and then think about how you are going to address the problem.
Now that you have internalized the secondary techniques, it is time to focus on actually conditioning inhibition:
Step 1. Let your baby play with lots of other juveniles and reasonable adults—animals that will effectively correct any excessive nips. Intentionally pair him with animals that will play, but that will not put up with being bitten hard—some older dogs will correct for this, others will just leave and not play for a while. Both effectively teach the pup limits. Other animals can teach this in a few days where it would take most humans longer, and once your baby has the idea, it will be much easier for humans to impose our limits. Regardless of the species of animal I am training, I will usually let them play with some gentle dogs who are very good models of playing without biting hard.
Step 2. Teach “do not bite humans hard, we are REALLY wimpy.” First make sure he is a little tired and has played with other animals or a toy for a while. You want to set him up to succeed, and not to rehearse the bad behavior. Sit down in a boring area and play with your hand in his mouth as a toy. Immediately start pairing a word to this so he knows there is a cue for this game (try to use a command that sounds better in public then “bite.”) Any time he is too rough, say “ouch” and stop playing. You can have him on leash with the leash attached to something solid so he cannot follow, or just go a few feet away and pout for several minutes. Your goal is to be completely and palpably unstimulating—exude boringness and stillness. Return and make up so he knows that you are not mad and do not love him less– it is merely a consequence of his biting too hard that all play and fun stop. In general, do not correct, it is generally not very effective, and often backfires or at least erodes the pup’s confidence. Timing and awareness are key here—you want to praise and reward gentleness whenever they occur and gradually raise the criteria—react to softer and softer bites until he can play with your hand lots and never bite hard at all. And remember that as you are playing you may praise, but it is really the play that is the reward, so it is soft mouth and energy that perpetuate the play.
Step 3. Concurrent with step two, but in separate training sessions, teach an “off,” “leave it,” or “drop” command. Do this starting with food or a toy in your hand. Say “leave it,” wait till he is not trying to get the reward, then reward him. Sometimes reward with the item he was waiting for, other times with a different reward. Do this several times a day and increase the duration of how long he must “leave it” before getting the reward. Once he understands the static version of this game, start playing with him having a toy and saying leave it and then giving them a reward after the drop the toy. Do this every day, and incorporate tug games, so he really values the toy, but learns to leave it when asked because a better reward is coming. Once he can do this reliably with toys, combine this with step two– play gently with your hand, until you say leave it, then let go and get a treat. Be sure to give a command for playing with your hand, and never let him initiate the game–beat him to it. Often reward the “leave it” by starting up the bite game again. If he does not leave it, say “ouch,” and leave and do not play again for a while. And go back and reinforce “off” in other situations. Also, start breaking this game up by giving other incompatible commands while playing– bite, bite, bite, down! Bite, bite, bite, sit, bite, bite, bite, come, etc. Lots of praise and rewards. During these games, initially keep the pup somewhat calm, but as you progress, get him more and more excited so he learns to bite softly even when excited and “leave it” even when in the middle of an awesome game.
Step 4. Be consistent in never letting the animal initiate this game—“bite” can only happen when you ask. But, this means you need to be smart and not set him up to fail—if he is wired and likely to be bitey, play other games and do not let him rehearse hard biting.
Step 5. Near the beginning of this document we explained that punishment was not an appropriate tool for teaching; however, over time as he begins to understand the rule, he is going to occasionally bite too hard because he gests too excited or wants to test limits, and a correction may well be appropriate. Any effective correction can be utilized, but my favorite is to quickly pin the animal down and hold him there until he settles and then release and go on with playing. This is an effective correction and has the ancillary benefit of creating an emotional time-out each time the animal gets to excited so they learn to cap their energy level. If you decide to correct, you need to be physically and emotionally forceful enough that it is effective. If your animal hops right back up and bites hard again, and you do the same correction again, you are just nagging and teaching him a fun game of biting harder.
“Mother animals correct their babies” is often cited as proof that we should correct babies who bite. This is excellent logic, but requires careful examination. First of all, no carnivorous mother corrects biting per se. On the contrary, if you watch, just as in the process above, the mother will spend much of the day happily being bitten, chewed, tugged, gnawed, etc. So long as they do not bite too hard, mom is extremely tolerant and plays with them or allows this behavior. When they start to get too hard, mom holds them down. If they get harder, mom often trots away. On occasion, mom has had enough and snarls and snaps at them. She does correct them, and can do so very effectively, but it is in a very low ratio to the amount of time she spends reinforcing proper gentle biting.
People often expect animals to be innately sweet and are hurt and angry any time they bite. It is important to remember that biting and mouthing are vital and normal parts of any animal’s existence and expression. We cannot expect them to know better until we help them learn limits, teach them other ways to communicate, and earn their trust that they do not need to bite. Do not be angry with them for behaving naturally, and do not smack, shake, flick, scare, or correct them for doing something you have not yet taught them not to do. At the same time, do not allow them to rehearse an unacceptable behavior—set clear boundaries and use the techniques above to avoid biting while you utilize creative and imaginative non-confrontational techniques to train your young animal to understand those boundaries. This training takes time, but if done with consistency and fairness it is extremely effective, and you will have a wonderful animal who will never bite hard…