Originally posted June 28, 2013



Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning and you had no way to communicate with the people you lived with.  You had no idea where you were or what was going on.  Imagine for a minute what your day might be like if some really kind, well intentioned people tried to take care of you, but they couldn’t really tell you what to do or how to do it or why it was happening.  What might that look like?



A colleague and I were talking about her recent trip to the vet with her dog.  The vet needed to do a procedure on the dog’s mouth to make sure that his teeth were in good order.  She wanted to closely examine the dog’s teeth and put a light in his mouth to make sure that he had healthy teeth.  While not painful this was unfamiliar to the dog, and he was somewhat concerned.  By taking a bit of time, and handling him carefully, and being gentle and using cues and treats, my colleague and the vet were able to look deep in the dog’s mouth and get a good look right into the back teeth that needed checking.  “Wouldn’t it be nice if all my patients allowed me to do this!” exclaimed the vet.  With a trained dog, we can do these things, because we start explaining the process to the dog in early puppyhood by making handling exercises rewarding to the dog.  We make things progressively more difficult without making them painful or frightening.  We work with the puppy to help him to understand that sometimes we are going to do things that are mildly uncomfortable or painful but that he won’t get badly hurt.

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We want this puppy to grow up to learn to trust his vet.  This is his first time, on his way home from the breeder’s and we can see that he isn’t completely comfortable.  Lots of gentle handling and careful teaching and training will help him to learn to accept new things.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander



Coming back to what it might be like to live in a world without information, come back to waking up in the morning just like I described.  The nice people you are with put down food for you on the kitchen table.  It is unusual food though.  It is a spicy soup, a piece of hard bread and a small piece of cheese.  There is a bright green fruit drink that tastes unfamiliar, but isn’t terribly unpleasant.  You eat, get dressed and then you are led to a waiting vehicle.  The nice people take you for a drive to the local sewage treatment facility and tour you around.  Lots of people are speaking a language you don’t understand and they keep pointing out “important” things for you to look at.  They encourage you to touch things that look dirty or dangerous to you.  While standing next to an open pit of composting sewage, someone comes along and hands you a bowl of ice cream.  They make motions indicating that you should eat it.  When you wrinkle up your nose, they take away the ice cream and bring you a piece of chocolate cake.  When you turn that down too, they become ever more insistent that you eat.  They insist.  Disgusted, you don’t want to eat in an environment that you would consider to be unclean or germy.  You finally take a bite and vow never to eat chocolate cake again.



Have you ever taken a nervous dog somewhere and had them refuse food?  Have you ever had a dog who was reluctant to get into a vehicle?  Who wouldn’t go with a particular person?  The world from the dog’s point of view must be pretty frightening sometimes.  Consider what it must be like if you are a young puppy who has just come home from the breeder.  Everything you learned to expect is different.  Everything.  Your litter mates and mother are gone.  The breeder is not there.  The food is often different.  When you get your puppy up in the morning, he has no way to know what you are going to do and where you are going to go.  Peeing on the floor is not merely a sign that he is not toilet trained; it is a sign that he doesn’t know what is happening.

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On the first day home, keeping things simple and predictable helps the pup to be successful.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander



When bringing a puppy home, the ultimate goal is that you will be able to take your adult dog everywhere and be able to rely on him being able to mind his manners everywhere.  How do you get from a strange puppy in a very strange land, to a confident adult dog who copes with every crazy thing that we throw at them?  Puppy class is a good starting point for sure.


This dog copes with everything he has ever been exposed to; this is the New York City Subway system, the first time he ever went there.  He is calm and relaxed because he had a good foundation as a puppy.  Photo Credit:  John Alexander



There is a funny disconnect between dog trainers and puppy owners.  Dog trainers offer puppy classes because we know that the simplest way for us to keep dogs in their first homes is to socialize them properly to begin with.  We want puppies to learn bite inhibition, handling, trading and solid acceptance of people and dogs.  Puppy owners are concerned about coming when called, sit, down, stay and walking on leash.  As dog trainers, we know that the puppy can develop skills at almost any time in his life, but the BEST time for him to learn about his world is before he is 16 weeks old.


When getting ready for your pup, being aware that he may find your life to be chaotic and confusing, and that you may ask him to do things that don’t make any sense to him informs how you bring him home.  Sending a blanket and a suitable toy to the breeder ahead of time for your puppy to have in the litter box allows your pup to bring home things that are familiar and comforting to him.  Arranging to have familiar food on hand when he arrives home allows your puppy to come home and have a meal without upsetting his tummy.  Timing your pick up and travel time with your pup so that he isn’t really hungry or just fed can make the trip easier on him.  Asking yourself what it might be like to be a helpless animal who cannot advocate for himself can go a long way to helping you to understand what you can do to help your new addition to understand his world.


Keeping things low key the first day home is very helpful.  The idea of the birthday or Christmas puppy means that an animal who really doesn’t understand his world very well is going to be faced with a very difficult first few days amidst the commotion of a holiday.  Likewise, getting a puppy when you are going to go away on vacation is also a bad idea.  Asking your puppy to come home, go travelling and then come back home again sets him up to think that his world is as unpredictable as the world I described you waking up within earlier.


Making your pup’s life initially predictable with some side trips helps you to develop a solid relationship.  Avoiding making your puppy’s life unpredictable teaches him that he can rely upon you.  Protecting your puppy from being overwhelmed helps him to develop confidence, resilience and a solid relationship with the family.  Protection is the flipside of exposure and exposure is part of what we need to do in order to help dogs to develop the facility with our human society and environment.  Exposure is something that should be started from a point of confidence and security.


Coming back to what it might be like to wake up one morning without the ability to communicate with the people you live with, imagine what it might have been like if the people you were with had slowed down a bit.  Imagine if they had brought you down to the kitchen and showed you where the food was and what you could choose to eat.  Imagine if the people had taken the time to show you what they wanted to do, instead of taking you on a crazy field trip that culminated in the opportunity to eat in a situation that you might otherwise find disgusting to eat within.  By taking time, and slowly sharing their world with you, the result would be a much higher quality of relationship between you and your caregivers.

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Going to the vet in the company of a family member can make things easier for your puppy.  Also, don’t add going to a friend’s house on the same day that you go to the vet; that is too much!  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander



Going slowly, sharing information carefully and providing a secure, safe environment for your puppy builds a foundation that he can rely upon to build from.  I use a rule I call the 10% rule.  I want to change things 10% at a time.  If I have a young puppy, I give them a very structured environment to live within, with lots of enrichment and opportunities to engage in learning and exploration.  Each day, I change 10% of the dog’s life.  If I got to the vet one day, then I don’t go to puppy class too if I can avoid it.  If I take the puppy to my friend’s house, then that is a day that I won’t choose to visit a pet food store.  When my puppy has integrated a daily schedule into his life, and has visited a number of places, then the puppy learns that he is always coming back to a safe and secure home environment.


By going to puppy class with my pups, I develop two things at once.  A systematic program of careful exposure to animals and people and places, and a common language of training to help the puppy understand cued behaviours so that I can communicate with him what I want him to do in new places and situations.  I build a careful relationship with my pup and then I teach him behaviours and then I help him to understand new places through the use of the behaviours I have taught.  When I have finished puppy class with my pup, then I have skills to help my pup to move forward into the wider world if I continue to help my puppy to understand the world that he lives within.


From my perspective, continuing classes allows me to have a greater common language with my dog, which allows me to take my dog to more places and do more things.  I take my dogs to classes for the majority of their lives.  Once we have the first steps, we can start doing things that are meaningful to both of us.  We can participate in activities both recreationally and for work that become meaningful for us both.  And that is why I continue to work with my dogs in training classes; because it provides us with the platform that allows us to communicate and share information.


Dogs are really savvy about our behaviour.  They learn by watching us what activities are coming up.  We only wear certain shoes for instance when we go to work; when we put those shoes on, our dogs go lie down because our activity never involves them when those shoes are involved.  They know when we are going to training classes, or walks or to visit friends.  The challenge is to reach the point with my dogs, where not only can I tell my dog what I want him to do, but I can hear when he has needs or wants.  Over time, I can learn about when my dog is uncertain or uncomfortable.  I can learn about what he prefers and what he would like to avoid.  I can learn to listen, and in a fashion, I can talk to my dog, because I don’t need to make my dog live in a world without information.




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