DON’T LET HIM DO THAT!

Lately we have had a pile of puppy owners asking us how to prevent their pups from misbehaving. In exasperation, one day John replied “Don’t let him do that!” and the client looked at him completely baffled. One important part of our way of puppy raising is to let the puppies learn through experience what happens if they do certain things. In our house that means that puppies who pick up shoes get put in their crates. Puppies who jump up on me get put in their crates. Puppies who sit nicely get let out of their crates. Puppies who sit and stay get their dinner. Puppies who bark in their crates get to stay right where they are. Puppies who cry in the night get taken outside to pee. The list goes on and on and on as our puppies learn what happens when they do various things. There are some things however that our puppies don’t get the chance to do.

 

When clients ask us how to stop their pups from toileting in the house, we tell them, don’t let him do that! We don’t allow our puppies out of our sight in the house until they have shown us that they won’t toilet indoors over a long period of time. To start with, our puppies don’t get to explore the house unattended. We don’t let them toilet indoors by making sure that they have lots of chances to toilet outdoors, and we control when they eat so that we know when they will need to go. When they are outside of their crates, they are supervised, 100% of the time and if it looks like they need to go, we gently pick them up and take them out to toilet where we want them to go. We just don’t let them toilet indoors.

 

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This puppy is doing a few things I would prefer he didn’t. If this was my puppy, and he was meeting this lady for the first time, I would not let him hold his leash or climb the lady and the lady wouldn’t be allowed to get this close until my pup was calmer and ready to behave the way I want him to when meeting a new person. In short I wouldn’t let him grab his leash or climb the lady! Copyright: dusanzidar / 123RF Stock Photo

When we are asked how to stop puppies from jumping up on guests, we don’t let them do that either; when guests come to the house, we prepare by having our pups in their crates as the guests arrive, and then we bring them to the guests on leash. We know that pups need to learn what to do when meeting a guest, so we don’t just let our pups meet guests and hope for the best; we don’t let them do that. For clarity, what we usually do is to allow the guest in, and then get them seated. Then we bring the puppy in on leash and we work with the puppy, clicking and treating behaviours that he already knows. When he is calm and engaged with someone he knows then we introduce him to the guest, again using the clicker to mark behaviours we like, such as sitting for attention. And we don’t let the guest do our training for us either! We don’t ask our guests to treat the puppy for good behaviour; we know what we want the pup to learn and we don’t leave that to chance.

 

Often people will ask what to do about pulling on leash and again, we point out that we don’t let puppies pull on leash. Sometimes in training we have to do what is called a work around. In the case of pulling on leash, the work around we use is called the magic collar system; we have one collar that is magic; we only use it for training loose leash behaviour. The rest of the time we use a different collar, harness or head halter to differentiate what we are working on and we teach the pup that the rules are looser in that situation. We work around puppies pulling by teaching that one collar is magic and allows pulling and the other collar is a different kind of magic and doesn’t allow pulling!

 

How about getting into the garbage? Again, we just don’t let puppies do that! We keep garbage behind gates and doors so that pups cannot get into things. The same is true for almost everything that we do. Getting in the front seat of a moving vehicle? Don’t let your puppy do that by putting him in a crate in the vehicle when travelling. Harassing the older dog in the home? Keep them separate except for training time. Chewing up personal items? Put things away pre-emptively. The key is to think ahead about what behaviours you want your puppy to engage in and what behaviours you don’t want your puppy to engage in, and then preventing your pup from having the chance to do things you don’t want him to do.

 

The thing to remember about young dogs is that they come without experience. If you are going to expect a young dog to interact with something new in his life, and you don’t structure that interaction to begin with, you are training him to guess and often, being a young animal with an exuberant temperament, he is going to make the wrong choice. When your pup makes the wrong choice, you can do one of any number of things. You can be harsh and punitive and unpleasant and hope he doesn’t repeat the error. Not a good idea but something to think about. You can be gentle but interrupt the puppy; a better alternative, but still not ideal. You can remove the pup and allow him to try again; still better than the last alternative, but still not the best kind of training you can do for a puppy. The gold standard in training is to set your pup up to succeed in the first place by preventing the undesired behaviour from happening.

 

Perhaps the most confusing to students but common situation is what to do on the street when the puppy meets new people. Our clients usually don’t want their young puppies to learn to jump up to greet, but they also don’t want to not introduce their new addition to the neighbourhood. In this case, we can prevent our dogs from doing things we don’t want by controlling distance. When you are approaching a friend, regardless of if they have another dog or not, there is going to be a point at which your dog begins to get excited. That point, or threshold, is where you need to stop approaching and take a break. Doing this teaches young dogs that they cannot bounce around and be silly when they are meeting and greeting people. By only moving forward when your pup is calm, he learns that self control gets him what he wants.

 

The biggest error we see at puppy school is the puppy owner who gets a young dog and then allows her to roam free through the house from the first day on. Often things go well at first; for the first few days, while the puppy is novel, family members attend to the puppy and notice when he is getting into things and they intervene. Over time however, the puppy begins to become familiar with the home, and wanders away from supervision. When this happens, you cannot prevent problems and then you have to solve them; not an ideal situation. Next, the family wants to take the puppy out in the neighbourhood, and they start to run into even bigger problems because they don’t have any plans to avoid problems. The puppy learns to pull on leash, jump on people and grab trash and dropped items to play with or eat. In medicine, it is common to say that prevention is the best cure, and this is true of training as well. We need to prevent these problems from starting and start by teaching our pups what we want them to do. The best way to do that involves planning and supervision. It really isn’t difficult but it does mean being aware of what you are doing.

 

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When you teach your dog what to do and how to behave when he is a youngster, then when he grows up he will be the kind of dog you can trust to be kind to a child. This is what a mannerly dog looks like! Copyright: yuliang11 / 123RF Stock Photo

Good planning and supervision means that you know what you want your pup to learn and you set up situations where he can learn what we want him to learn, and then you supervise what is happening to make that happen. One of the best things you can do to make planning and supervision work for you is to join a good puppy class. In class you will likely get a list of behaviours to work on and that can serve as a good guideline to help you to determine what your pup should be doing and at what age. It also provides you with a support group to help you to make your plan work. We even take our own pups to puppy class!

 

DON’T LET HIM DO THAT!

PLAN B

Originally posted July 2013

When we get a puppy, we are happy and looking forward.  We look forward to the times we will spend in the company of our adult dog, and all things we will do and all the fun we will do together.  We realize that there will be work along the way, including taking the dog to the vet, training and cleaning up after him, not to mention the dust bunnies and other household reminders he will leave in his wake.  What we often don’t think about is Plan B.

Plan B is what we intend to do in the event of an unexpected tragedy.  How will we deal with an unexpected surgery?  How about when the gate gets left open, and the dog gets out?  What about your own health; who is going to feed, walk and water your dog when you are ill?  What if you die?  When we get a puppy, it is a good idea to have a Plan B for all the things we can think about that the dog might encounter through his life that we wish he didn’t.

I encourage everyone to spend some time planning for medical emergencies, and who will care for your dog in the event that you are incapacitated or if you pass away.  Everyone should think about who will take care of your animals in the event that you cannot.  Our animals cannot care for themselves without our help and if they are presented with a situation where they cannot get the care they need, they could end up in a rescue or at the humane society.  Beyond your animals’ basic care though, there are a lot of things that we can do to help our pets to be successful and not get into trouble.

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Teaching your dog to sit when the door opens could save his life.  Just keep in mind that if you are depending on prompting your dog, then it will only work when you are there to prompt him.  I would encourage this person to use putting his hand on the door as the cue to sit instead of his pointed finger!  Image credit: alexeys / 123RF Stock Photo

Let’s start with sitting at the door.  If your dog is accustomed to sitting before going out of your house then if the door is accidentally thrown open, your dog isn’t going to bolt out and into the street.  Making sitting at the door a priority also prevents your dog from bolting out in the event that you have to bring things into the house or a guest inadvertently opens the door for you.  On the flip side, don’t make your dog sit to come in.  Make coming in the house a really rewarding and valuable experience.  I had a dog who used to enjoy jumping our back fence.  To keep that dog safe, I taught him to come to the front door if he escaped the back yard.  He thought this was a great game.  Once he understood to come to the front door if he escaped the fence, then I dog proofed the fence and made it very difficult for him to jump the fence.  Why did I not just fix the fence to begin with?  Simply because that might fail and I wanted a set of behavioural suspenders to go with the belt that fixing the fence was.  I wanted my dog to have a Plan B should he ever get out again.

Another very important behaviour is for your dog to really enjoy having his collar grabbed, by anyone, anytime.  There is a dog who has been missing in Guelph for over a month now, and I regularly get emails and Facebook notes that a dog is missing and has been sighted.  Often these posters come with a note about not grabbing the dog because he is timid.  The best favour you can do for your dog if he is lost is to teach him that being caught and grabbed is a great and exciting thing to do.  It is really easy to do this.  Walk up to your dog with a treat, grab his collar and give him a treat.  Let go and repeat.  Get everyone in the house to do this.  If your dog is timid, work slowly and gently until you can grab any part of his body without warning and make it fun for your dog.  The fact is that if your dog is timid and gets loose, then someone is going to try and grab him, and probably by whatever is the closest body part.

Teach your dog to automatically leave things that they find.  Having a leave it on cue is not as important a behaviour as being able to walk past something that your dog wants and having him just automatically leave it alone.  Consider what might happen for instance if your dog is alone at home and you have left a grocery bag on the floor with a box of baker’s chocolate inside.  Would your dog automatically leave it, or would he only leave it if you had identified that the bag was off limits?  At Dogs in the Park, we teach the dogs that nothing is theirs unless we identify it to them.  The broader implication of this is that if my dog walks down the street and there is something that he should not have on the ground, I don’t have to be on alert to notice it first.  This has so many applications.  One of my colleagues’ mother came to visit once.  Her mom takes a very heavy duty medication and dropped a pill in the house.  Her older dog didn’t eat the pill, but her young puppy did and was very sick because of that.  I cannot count how often I have dropped my own medications, and my dogs all look up not down when that happens.

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Here a dog learns to come over a pile of toys and treats.  This prepares him to be able to cope with things that don’t belong to him falling in front of him, and he won’t touch them even if he wants them.  Asking first is a great tool for teaching dogs to leave things that don’t belong to them.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Teach your dog that it is safe to come when called to whomever calls.  Playing lots of recall games helps a lot with keeping dogs safe in the event that they ever get away from you.  Playing games with your dog in fact builds trust and bonds and helps dogs to understand that they are able to come when called no matter who calls them.  Periodically, I have a client who wants to teach their dog cues in a different language.  I do this for Schutzhund, where we do most of our cues in German.  My dogs also know the common English equivalent.  I want to make sure that if something happened and someone else needed to help my dog, he could come when called.

All my dogs learn to wear muzzles when they are puppies and we practice periodically throughout their lives.  My dogs don’t live in boxes; they do stuff.  They will likely get hurt.  They will need veterinary attention, and using a muzzle keeps them and the vet safe while the vet does things that hurt.  Muzzles are perhaps the best tool invented to keep people safe and we need to keep in mind that if your dog needs to wear one, that is not a slight against your dog.  That is the veterinarian taking reasonable steps to keep everyone safe.  When your dog is in pain, he is not likely going to behave the way that he might when he is not in pain.  There is no glory in having a dog who doesn’t need a muzzle and there is a lot of glory in keeping your vet safe.

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D’fer had a very serious cut pad that needed medical attention including some surgery to clean it out and stitch it up.  You can see that he is relaxed and concerned when the vet is looking at his foot.  Why should we muzzle a dog who is tolerating this?  Because we want to keep the veterinarian safe and even though D’fer is a real gentleman of a dog who has never ever tried to bite anyone, we don’t feel the need to take any risks with our veterinarian.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Perhaps the most important thing I can do to help my dog have a good Plan B is to make sure that he is well socialized to begin with.  If I am working with an adult dog who is timid it is a very high priority to teach him that he can trust people not to harm him.  This is sometimes difficult when you are working with a dog who was not properly socialized or who has been traumatized, but if something goes wrong, I want my dog to know that he is not going to come to harm if someone tries to help him.  If I am ever in a car accident with my dogs on board, or if I am injured on the trail and a search party is trying to find me, I want my dog to accept that help, no matter what the person looks like or what they are wearing or doing.

Plan B is something we don’t talk enough about.  Years ago, we didn’t talk about fire drills either, but we know they save lives.  The best thing we can do to help our dogs live long healthy and safe lives is to think about Plan B long before we need it.

PLAN B

YOU HAVE EIGHT WEEKS AND THEN YOU DON’T!

Originally published May 2013

I just got an email from a lady who described her 4 year old dog as a puppy, and she wondered if he was old enough to start coming to school because he was driving her crazy.  The problem is that her dog is not a puppy.  The term puppy is roughly equivalent to the human term infant or baby.  Puppyhood is one of the most interesting periods of development of a dog.  A puppy, technically speaking is a dog under about 16 to 20 weeks.  After that he is a young adolescent.

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This is NOT a puppy.  This is an adult dog and it is too late to do puppy classes or puppy socialization.

The neonatal stage is when puppies are just born and lasts until they are about 13 days of age.  From 1 to 3 days, you can start dramatically improve a puppy’s chance to be a stable, resilient adult dog with a great immune system, but it must start in the earliest days.  The process for doing this takes the first couple of weeks and is called Early Neurological Stimulation.  If you are going to invest in a puppy, make sure whomever whelped the litter you are interested in is doing this because we know that this will improve the likelihood of your puppy having a successful adult life.  If your breeder has no idea what you are talking about, you can direct them to http://tinyurl.com/a8clbhwI am willing to pay more for a puppy who has had the benefit of this procedure because the science on this is very clear; it develops brains that are as much as ten percent larger and immune systems that are significantly healthier, as well as better resilience.  Better resilience means that your pup will tolerate handling better, will tolerate frightening situations better and will come back to baseline faster when frightened.  They also learn more effectively in my experience.

At about thirteen days to twenty days, the puppies are in a stage called the transitional stage.  At this stage, they start opening their eyes and ears and they start to be able to learn about their world.  Pups at this age need lots of different footing, and objects to investigate but they really aren’t doing things yet.  They don’t walk, although they do begin to creep and crawl in a more organized way.  At this stage the breeder should be handling them a lot; several times a day, the breeder can get into the litter box and cuddle and tickle the pups and restrain them.  Doing this prepares them to be handled when they are older.  Quiet visitors can come in provided they are wearing clean clothes.  If you are buying a puppy, you should be able to begin meeting the litter towards the end of this stage.  You won’t be choosing a puppy though; you are helping to raise a confident happy adult dog by helping the breeder to gently handle those pups.

Around about 21 to 23 days is a really interesting “blip” in development where the pups have a sudden sensory development period.  This stage is called the awareness period and it is during this period that the puppies start to waddle around a lot more and begin forming social relationships with the other pups and their dam.  Puppies in pairs can start to be introduced to different rooms in the house, and a variety of different surfaces.

The canine socialization period occurs between three and seven weeks of age; this is the age where pups learn the most about being a dog.  They learn that if they bite too hard, their littermates will squeal and mom may interrupt them and make them stop playing.  Mom has a very important role to play in this stage and if she is removed from the puppies at this age, they may always have a little bit of trouble with dog to dog interactions.  This is perhaps the most important time for bite inhibition and lays the foundations for pups to learn about how to use their mouths appropriately.  When pups are separated from their littermates and mom during this stage, big problems can evolve.  We have recently been seeing rescues that remove pups from litters of feral dogs in this window and we often see these dogs develop significant problems later on.  If you are considering a puppy from a rescue, ensure that the rescue has kept the litter together until at least seven weeks.

The next big stage that comes along is the human socialization period from seven to twelve weeks.  In my experience the advantage of the breeder keeping the puppies for a week into this stage is that the puppies have a solid start with a knowledgeable handler and you can use that week between seven and 8 weeks to visit the litter and get to know the pups.  At seven weeks, your puppy can come home, and there is going to be little harm in doing so, but in my opinion and experience that extra week with the breeder can really help.

From 8 to 12 weeks more or less is the time when puppies learn about people and how to live with them.  Everything you do during that time frame will impact how your pup sees and meets people in adulthood.  If you overwhelm and frighten your puppy while meeting someone during this time, he will store that information for future reference, so you need to make certain that puppies have a lot of really positive, happy experiences with a wide variety of people.  Concurrent with this phase, puppies may go through a period where they are suddenly afraid of things they may have encountered in the past.  Often called a fear period, this developmental phase is about learning about things that are dangerous.  It might be better to call this a sensitive period, when the puppy is sensitive to new experiences.  This works really well for things like understanding that jumping off a cliff or throwing yourself into a raging river might be dangerous, but it works less well for a puppy living in a relatively safe environment in our homes.  Puppies can develop weird fears such as the fear of their water bowl, or fear of the blender in the kitchen.  If you notice your puppy suddenly afraid of normal things in his world, don’t worry; this is very normal; you just need to expose your puppy to these things slowly and carefully to ensure that they learn what is actually safe, and what is actually dangerous.

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These puppies are learning about being handled by strangers in puppy class.  When they are 24 weeks, the socialization window will be completely closed and you will never again be able to access the flexibility of acceptance that they have at this stage in their lives.

At about twelve weeks, your socialization window starts to close, and by the time your puppy is 16 weeks, it is mostly shut.  Occasionally that window will remain open as late at 20 weeks, but the lions share of the work of exposing your puppy to people, places and things must be completed by the time that your pup is 16 weeks of age.  If you got your puppy at 8 weeks, that means that you have 8 more weeks to do great socialization.  Once that socialization period is over, it is over.  At 16 weeks, when the window closes, you are finished.  You have 8 weeks, and then, you are done.

More and more often we are seeing puppies coming home later than 8 weeks; some dogs are being advertized by breeders and rescues as puppies as late as 24 weeks, well into early adolescence.  These young dogs can no longer be easily socialized to things that are new, and if the puppy’s breeder or rescue hasn’t done the things they should have done to help the dog to learn about the world around him, then you are behind the eight ball and the longer you delay addressing the problem, the more difficult your job will be.

The socialization window doesn’t slam shut at 16 weeks, so you CAN insert some experiences in and still have an effect, but the longer you delay, the more difficult it will be to help your dog to integrate the experiences in a positive effective way, and sadly your dog is well past the time when you can benefit from going to puppy class.  This is why most puppy classes ensure that dogs must register in time for puppies to complete puppy class by the time they have reached 24 weeks, when that window is really closed tight.

Another issue we are seeing more and more of in puppy classes is families who come to puppy class for the first few weeks, and then skip a few weeks and then return when the puppy is smack dab in the middle of their sensitive or fear period.  Then the puppy owner wonders why their pup is not succeeding in puppy class.  That eight week period that immediately follows coming home is the most important time in your relationship with your dog.

Families are busy people and often they have other things they need to do.  Kids play hockey and soccer, and parents are involved with choirs and volunteer as youth leaders and coaches.  Families want to add dogs to their lives in the hopes of improving their lives.  Motivations for getting a family pet vary from family to family, but very few people get a dog in the hope of having an animal who lunges and barks at strangers and who is afraid of the garbage truck and the mailman.  If your goal is to have a great pet, then you have to take that eight week period seriously.  During the eight weeks after your dog arrives home, putting the time into his training should be a big priority.

Some families try and shoehorn in their puppy’s needs and skip puppy classes when other commitments get in the way.  On the other hand, we have had families develop very sophisticated schedules in order to meet their puppy’s needs for class and for out of class socialization.  We have seen families arrange for the kids to get car pool rides to lessons and then join the class part way through.  We have seen families who have put commitments to choirs and volunteer work on hold for the eight weeks that they are involved in puppy class.  We don’t want families to completely shut down their lives during their puppy’s socialization period, but we do hope they will understand that this eight week period is special, and if you miss it, it is gone.

The take home message here is that puppyhood is important and it only happens once.  If you don’t have time to socialize and do the early training that you want your pup to have as an adult, if you cannot carve out the opportunities to carefully and thoughtfully expose your puppy to the things that you want him to cope with as an adult, you may want to hold out on getting your pup until you have the time.

YOU HAVE EIGHT WEEKS AND THEN YOU DON’T!

SIX WEEKS OLD AND READY TO GO…BACK TO THE BREEDER

Originally published May 2013

With our new puppy program we have been hearing from more and more puppy owners and a surprising number of them are bring home their pups at six weeks of age, often without their first set of shots.  Puppies from pet stores may be older when you meet them, but may have been taken from mom as early as four weeks of age.  Many of the people who are getting these puppies have been told by the people producing them that six weeks is the age at which they have always sent their puppies home.  While this may be true, we have had studies since the 1960’s that show us over and over again that puppies need to stay in their litter just a little longer.

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This bulldog puppy is shown at one day, one week, two weeks, three weeks, and four weeks of age.  Image credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_Cole123RF’>Cole123RF / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Before the studies done by Fuller and Scott in the 60’s at Bar Harbour, almost everyone brought their pups home at six weeks.  Then we started to look at the best time for puppies to come home based on how their behaviours develop.  Puppy development is a fascinating topic that we know a lot more about now than we ever have before.  One of the things we know is that puppies who stay in the litter until they are 7 weeks do better than those who leave before then.  8 weeks is often the standard and is really a better time for most puppies.  What do I mean by “do better”?

Let’s start with bite inhibition.  Puppies who stay with the litter until 8 weeks of age have better bite inhibition.  They are more careful with their mouths, possibly because they have had the chance to learn from their littermates and mom that when they bite hard, they lose the chance to do things they want to do like play.  Bite inhibition training must continue once the puppy gets home, but if you have a puppy who hasn’t learnt from mom to bite gently, your job is going to be much tougher.

Puppies who leave the litter too early are also much more easily frustrated.  When faced with things they want and cannot get they are more prone to temper tantrums, barking, and throwing themselves around.  This in turn is frustrating for the people who have to live with the puppy.  Impulse control, or the ability to disengage from one stimulus and re-engage with another is often difficult for these dogs and that may manifest as frustration too.

Leaving the litter early may also impact your dog’s ability to interact with other dogs.  These pups often did not have the chance to learn about being a dog from their siblings and mom.  We see this in play sessions where the pup who left the litter early may not read the metasignals that the other dogs offer.  When a puppy yelps and asks the other puppy to stop biting, the pup who left the litter early may not recognize this signal and may continue to bite or harass the other puppy.  The result is that the normally developed puppy may behave defensively.  These puppies are often described as the underdog by their families; always being the victim of the other dogs in the dog park.  Often this underdog role is the result of not listening to the more subtle signals that are offered.

Reactivity is an issue for these puppies too; they tend to be more reactive and harder to settle down.  This means that when sudden things happen, they don’t cope as well and they may even be anxious.  Signs of anxiety include things like over grooming, licking things like people and floors, and circling or staring at shadows or reflections.  Anxious puppies can grow up to be anxious dogs.

The biggest issue we see in our puppy classes with these dogs is handling issues.  When pups leave the litter too early, they often have more difficulty with things like veterinary examinations, nail clipping and grooming.  When restrained they are more prone to wiggling and struggling and may bite when you insist on handling them.

These problems are even worse in pups who are brought home even earlier than six weeks.  Possibly the most behaviourally damaged dog I ever met had been pulled off a dump at 2 weeks of age and raised alone.  They could not introduce him to other dogs due to disease risk-they did not know if he was healthy enough to expose.  They did not know if he was carrying something that other dogs could get.  His eyes and ears were not open at all.  He was a very reactive, needy dog, with serious separation anxiety and was dangerously aggressive even to his family.  More and more we are seeing puppies pulled off beaches in the Caribbean, off garbage dumps in the far north in an effort to control local populations, and placed in homes local to us.  The resulting dogs that grow up are not completely normal.

So what should you do if you brought home a puppy before you should have? If the puppy is under six weeks, take it back as soon as you can to mom.  If you cannot do that and you know that the puppy is healthy, try and cross foster it with a litter the same age.  There is nothing we can do that will equal the experience that mom and the rest of a litter can provide.  We can try, but we will never be as good as what nature intended.

If your puppy came home from the breeder at six weeks, and you cannot return him there to stay until he is seven or even better slightly older than seven weeks, then there is a lot you can do, but it isn’t going to be easy.  First, your pup is going to need a tonne of sleep.  Don’t worry if your pup seems to wake up, be really active and then after twenty minutes, crashes into sleep where ever he lands.  He may do this for 20 or more hours a day and that is just fine.

Your puppy is going to need to be fed four times a day.  He should be getting a moist puppy diet because his digestive system cannot handle kibble well.  Consult your veterinarian for information on what the best alternative might be, and make sure his food is soaked so that it is mushy.  At about seven weeks you can start letting it get a little harder, and he should be able to handle kibble by about 9 weeks of age.  You need to feed frequently for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, he has a very short and under developed digestive system, so transport time isn’t very long for him.  This means that he will need to have food more often in order to be able to get the most nutrition out of his diet.  Do not free feed however; mushy food goes bad quickly and if you make up a bunch of mushy food and leave it out once a day you could make your pup sick.

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Very young puppies need to eat soft food more often.  If you have a six week old puppy you will need to feed him soft mushy food, four times a day.  Image credit: laures / 123RF Stock Photo

Next you are going to have to provide the kind of play, feedback and support that mom and his littermates would have supplied, at least four times a day.  This means getting down on the floor with your puppy when he wakes up, and playing with him with your hands.  You can play fairly roughly but any time that your pup grabs you hard with his mouth, you will need to squeak and then stand up, walk away and pretend to do something without him for between 15 and 90 seconds.  Then you have to go right back to playing again.  This feedback is going to help your puppy to learn bite inhibition which is his best bet for growing up to have a safe mouth that won’t hurt people.  Do NOT pin him, grab his mouth or do any other behaviour you think a mother dog might do if he is naughty.  You are not a dog and you will not be able to do it nearly as well as another dog would do it.  If you have an older, proven to be safe with puppies dog who can help you to amuse the puppy, so much the better, but remember that the older dog is not mom and will not have the hormones she would have to help her to modulate her behaviour towards the pups, so always supervise.

Twice a day, you should practice gentle but firm restraint and handling and you should groom your puppy with a soft brush all over his body.  You should look in his ears and open his mouth and check his teeth.  Handle his genital area and look under his tail at his anus every day; you want to teach your young puppy that handling is a normal part of his day and that he has nothing to fear when you do so.  Don’t be surprised if he resists at first; be firm and gentle and teach him that wriggling and squealing won’t end the activity.  If you let go when he is tiny, he will learn that when he is frustrated and squealing, he can get away from you.  Also teach him to wear a muzzle so that if he needs one, it isn’t an unpleasant surprise when he is sick or injured.  You can do this simply by taking a small cup or plastic container and teaching him to take treats out of the bottom of it.

And then there is toilet training.  A six week old puppy will go to the toilet pretty much where ever he is.  He doesn’t have muscular control over his bladder and bowels yet and if he were in the litter mom would be teaching him to take it outside.  The drill of take the puppy out on waking and when he has toileted, play with him works well with eight week olds, but not as well with six week olds because they just don’t have the control over their bodies that older puppies do.  Ideally, you would provide an absorbent organic surface such as a boot tray with wood chips, or a piece of sod for the puppy to use.  They will often choose absorbent surfaces when they can get to them, which means that if you turn a six week old puppy loose in your home, the living room carpet is often a first choice for toileting.  Substrate preference or the understanding of what to pee and poop upon develops before 20 weeks, and really develops even earlier, so you want to avoid providing that Persian Rug as the puppy’s first experience lest he develop a preference to use that over outdoor surfaces.  Chastising a young puppy for toileting on the rug is an exercise in frustration and futility, so just don’t do it.  The only result you will have is a puppy who either pees in fear when you approach or who hides to toilet and then toilet training becomes nearly impossible.

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If a very young puppy toilets in front of you, name the behaviour, and then clean it up.  6 week old puppies don’t have much control over their bladders.  Image credit: alexeys / 123RF Stock Photo

There are many recipes for providing an environment for a six week old puppy to live in and explore but all the good ones have a few things in common.  First, they must be safe for the puppy.  A three metre by three metre area is more than large enough, and can contain everything the puppy needs.  He should have a shallow pan of water available at all times.  Don’t give him a giant water bowl because if a tiny puppy got into it, he might drown.  I like ceramic ramekins such as you might use to bake custard in; they are not deep and if a puppy gets all the way into one, he can get all the way out.  He should as mentioned before have an organic toileting surface available to him.  He should have dozens of toys to play with, and they can be rotated every day.  Ideally he should have two or three mirrors in there so he can see another dog moving around and so that he isn’t surprised the first time he sees a dog he doesn’t know.  These mirrors have to be secured in such a way that they won’t tip and break or break if he crashes into them.  The flooring should be easy to clean and disinfect, but should also incorporate different surfaces in them.  PVC lattice work laid down over a towel can provide an easy to clean obstacle, as can a towel rolled up and covered over with a rubber yoga mat.  Ideally you should have a low platform for the puppy to get onto, and a small dog crate or cat carrier for him to get into.

As a final note, if you have a puppy who is eight weeks old, but who had the misfortune to be very ill shortly after coming home, all of the above advice will help you to help him to be as well socialized as possible.  If you have any specific questions about supporting a young puppy or an older puppy who is ill please post questions to the blog and I will respond to them.  We can make life better for these pups even when they are at a developmental disadvantage.

Raising a younger puppy can be rewarding, but it is a ton of work.  This is part of what you are paying for when you purchase a puppy at eight weeks.  When people sell pups at 6 weeks, a big part of why they sell them at that age is to save themselves the time and the money related to the final two weeks of properly raising a puppy.  If you thought that you were going to save money by buying a younger puppy, you have to understand that the saving is going to cost you somewhere else.  If you want to do it right, keep your puppy with his litter and his dam till he is eight whole weeks old, and either way start puppy class at eight weeks for the maximum benefit as an adult.

SIX WEEKS OLD AND READY TO GO…BACK TO THE BREEDER

OFF LEASH

Originally published November 2013

The pinnacle of my relationship with my dogs is being able to take them off leash and walk with them anytime, anywhere.  Being ABLE to do so is different from choosing to do so when it would not be in their best interest, but being able to do so is magic.  Taking my dogs to a natural area and letting them run free has been one of the greatest relationship building activities I have ever had the pleasure of engaging in.  We are doing different things in the same environment together.  We each explore in our own way, and do different things within the environment that are meaningful for us.

When I was a child, I was fortunate enough to live in an area where I had access to wilderness trails anytime I had time to explore them.  I was also fortunate enough to have a dog to share those adventures with.  I never went for a hike; I always described it as going exploring.  We had fields and woods and swamps to explore and rarely did I encounter other people there.  It was a peaceful oasis for me in an otherwise chaotic life.  Thurber, my dog, would come with me and help me to break trail in the winter snow and find new places in the spring, summer and fall.  Watching Thurber is part of what led me into the field of dog behaviour.  She told me all sorts of things, just by her body language.

I could always tell when people were around, by what she did.  If she knew them, she would orient on them and wag her tail, low and slow and then run towards them when they got close.  If she didn’t know them, she would orient on them but stand really still.  By observing my dog, I got to see many more things out in the wild land that surrounded my home.  She would tell me when other dogs were close by, when wildlife was near and when there was fire, all through her behaviour.

When I grew up, I moved to Guelph and got a dog.  We spent countless hours walking through the bush, often at night.  A whole new world opened up to me.  The woods in the dark is a beautiful and mysterious place and because I was accustomed to using my dog to signal what was around me, I could easily avoid things I didn’t want to engage with, such as teens out drinking or wild life.

Over the years, I have shared hours and days and weeks of time out in the natural world with my dogs.  By observing my dogs closely and preparing for the activities, I have been rewarded with breath taking events, great laughs and some sadness too.  All of these activities have been enhanced by sharing my time and experiences with my dogs.

When puppies are really young, the key to success is to get them off leash as early as possible.  The first day home, I take my puppies out onto our farm and let them off leash.  Young pups don’t tend to go far.  If I have a breed of puppy who I think might be a problem, such as a terrier or a hound, I will put a light leash on the puppy to drag along for the first few times, but getting the puppies out of doors and off leash as soon as possible is a very high priority for me.  I keep treats with me so that when the puppy comes bolting BACK to me, I have something to give him that he wants.  Most pups want to keep the familiar person in sight at 8 weeks of age.

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At eight weeks of age, puppies aren’t able to get away from you; they don’t want to be alone, and they aren’t very fast.  This is the right age to start off leash activities.

I try and mix up the places I take my pups so that they are not always familiar with the terrain.  This teaches them to look to me for information.  The more new places I can go, the better in my opinion, but I have to keep a bunch of things in mind.  I don’t want to run into other dogs, especially dogs I don’t know.  That could expose my puppy to diseases I don’t want him to catch, or to behaviours I don’t want him to experience.  I also don’t want to run into the stools of unknown dogs because I want to protect my young pup from worms.

I don’t want to run into predators either.  Hawks and owls can easily take a young small puppy.  Coyotes, wolves and bears are also a concern in some parts of Canada.  Even foxes can be a problem and will take a small dog if they stumble across it.  Water can be another natural hazard to be aware of.  About four years ago in Guelph, a young pup was playing on the ice and fell in and drowned.  Fast water, deep water, ice and hidden water are all things I keep in mind when I am taking my puppies out for their first excursions into the natural world.

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Introducing puppies to water should be done in shallow safe areas where you can get in and help if they run into trouble.  Ideally, pups should start to learn about water before they are 16 weeks old.

As puppies get older, they start to get a little more independent, and we start seeing pups bolting at about 12 to 16 weeks.  When this starts to happen, I quietly follow the puppies and step out of sight when they realize they cannot see me.  Most puppies start looking for me right away, and that starts them on the road to a million dollar recall; they learn that their job is to keep an eye on me lest I disappear on them.  I don’t want to frighten a pup, but I do want to make sure they know that if they are not paying attention to me, they may lose me.  When they find me, I make a big deal about how clever they are and how much I value them finding me.  I always bring treats with me so that I have something to give the puppy when he finds me.

At about 16 weeks of age, I start bringing multiple dogs on walks with me.  I use my older dogs to teach my youngsters that the aim of the game is to walk as a group and that although they are welcome to go and explore things or find surface water to cool off in or drink, they need to stick with the group.  The older dogs are usually faster at coming back when called and the puppies learn to come quickly by following their older peers.  I also start to leash up during the walks at this age.  Half way through the walk, I will call, catch and treat the puppy, perhaps do a bit of training and then let him go back to exploring and playing.  Whenever I am on the trail, even if I don’t intend to use my leash, I always have one with me and I always have collars on my dogs.  If we are traveling through particularly dense bush, I also put a bear bell on my dog so that I can find him should he stray.

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I like to take adolescent dogs out in the company of older trained dogs to help them to learn important lessons such as coming when called.

Around about 20 weeks, I can start to see something I call the recall sweet spot.  This is the point at which the dog is still willing to come when called.  If he gets out beyond the sweet spot, he is much harder to get to come back.  The problem I see most often in my client sis that they allow the dog to range much too far away before they call them back and the dog is out of the sweet spot and into the danger zone.  At this point, I will often stop going out in the bush and go to safe, enclosed sports fields instead, and work mostly on coming when called and lying down at a distance.  The down at the distance is the brakes on my dog; if I don’t have a good set of brakes I don’t trust that my dog will stop if I need him to do so.  If he bolts across a road, and a car is coming, I don’t want to trust that he will just stay on his side of the road; I train him to lie down and stay at a distance for his own safety.

Working with my puppies off leash early and often allows me to do much more advanced work than I could do if I never let them off leash.  There is an idea I keep coming across that says that the dog must earn the right to get off leash by proving himself to be trustworthy in his recall.  This turns into a chicken and egg scenario; you cannot trust the dog off leash because he hasn’t earned it and he hasn’t earned it because you don’t trust him off leash.  By taking advantage of the early time in his life when he is reliable about staying close by due to his developmental stage, then we can teach him what we want to do.  I think also that this attitude of earning off leash privileges conveys an interesting attitude of distrust about our dogs; we are assuming that the dog wants to leave us.  Very few dogs actually want to leave us.  Some of them want to have more time to do their own thing or to explore but few dogs are actually invested in escaping.  Most dogs like their people and like their life, and don’t want to be left behind.

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This is the goal.  Adult dogs who are willing to stay with me, and explore the world around us.  Off leash work is all about doing the similar things together and sharing the wonder of the natural world.

As a closing note, I want to point out that when I take a dog out to enjoy the natural world, I do this with planning and intent.  I don’t just go out and take off the leash and hope for the best.  Even when I am hiking with friends, if I have a dog with me, there is always a small part of my attention devoted to where the dog is, at all times.  I am always aware of my dog’s sweet spot, and what might happen if I allowed him to roam beyond the safe distance that I know he will readily come within.  I always make it worth my dog’s while if I call him back to me; calling just to prove that I can is grandstanding and disrespectful.  If my dog is engaged with something, I try and be aware of it and go and have a look for myself.  This pays big dividends in many ways.  As a child, I learned to use my dog’s behaviour as information, and honing that skill as an adult has allowed me to see turtles and snakes hatching, nests of ground dwelling birds and the droppings of a great horned owl.  By following my dog’s lead in some of these exploration activities, I am able to connect with my dog on a deep and meaningful level.  When I call, he assumes I will have something equally interesting to share with him, be that a treat, a chance to work, or the opportunity to see something that I notice and find interesting.

OFF LEASH

GENETICS, MISS MANNERS AND THE WAR ZONE

Originally posted April 2013

Probably the toughest question you get as a dog behaviour consultant is “why does my dog have this problem”.  Regardless of the problem, aggression, anxiety, fears and phobias, separation anxiety, everyone wants to know why THEIR dog has a behaviour problem.  This is important to people for a variety of reasons including but not limited to the genetics of the dog, how he was raised and where he lives now.

When I saw Dr. Ian Dunbar speaking in Guelph several years ago, he made the point that the only time we can prevent a genetic problem from coming up is before the puppy is bred.  Once mom and dad have done their thing, whatever they pass along is expressed in the puppies.  This implies a very big responsibility on the part of the breeder, but also on the part of the puppy buyer.  In every class we take a moment to ask people about their choice of puppy and the responses are interesting.  They range from the serious dog enthusiast, like us who spends years meeting dogs they like, and visiting shows and breeders to select the best possible parents for the puppy and then selecting the offspring of those puppies, through the asinine.  Our most unusual rational behind getting a puppy involved a lady who went into a store looking for a potted plant for her sun room and came out with a Belgian Tervuren.  Not a terrifically easy Terv either.

If you are going to take the time to add a dog to your home, consider meeting at least mom first.  Meeting mom and dad should happen when mom is not being bred and there is an important and poorly kept secret about best practices in breeding.  If mom AND dad are on sight, it is unlikely they are a great match as breeding partners.  Sometimes, but not usually.  Usually, if you own a breeding bitch, you select a male or dog from someone else’s kennel to augment your breeding program.  If you are breeding dogs on purpose, you should have a goal in mind and once you have bred your brood bitch once, if she whelped or “threw” what you were looking for, you would keep one of the pups back to breed in a couple of years.  Often a reputable breeder will have a mom and a daughter on site, or even a granddaughter.  Normally the breeder might be breeding one of these dog in a year, but it is not common that a breeder would be breeding these dogs repeatedly.  There are exceptions; service dog organizations might be producing multiple litters, or kennels that provide dogs to the police and military might produce many litters, but in general, people who are serious about their breeding keep mom on site and take her to dad for breeding.

You don’t want to meet mom when she is in heat because she will be hormonally all over the map.  For the first while she will be very cuddly.  Then she will be somewhat stand offish.  Then she will be flirty, but not receptive to attention.  And finally she will only be interested in breeding the closest male.  When you do meet the bitch, you should be looking at her in terms of how she behaves.  Is she polite?  Is she nervous?  If she is behaving aggressively will she call off when the owner asks her to mind her manners?  Is she timid?  Is she a dog you could live with?  If she isn’t a dog you could live with, tomorrow, without any other training, then do you really want to live with the puppy she produces and teaches for the first eight weeks?

You don’t want to meet the sire of your litter on site either.  You should be visiting him separately from the bitch and you should be able to approach him and handle him.  If the stud is not a gentleman, do you really want one of his pups?  Probably not.  Once you have met the bitch and the sire, recognize that breeding is not like mixing paint; if you breed a tall dog to a short dog, you will not necessarily get a medium sized dog.  You probably won’t get any dogs who are as tall as their tallest parent and you also probably won’t get any dogs who are as small as their smallest parent, but you also are unlikely to get a litter of dogs all exactly the same size and all exactly mid way between the parents’ heights.

When you are meeting the parents of the litter you are interested in, the best thing you can do is to ask the breeder and the owner of the stud what they are aiming to produce in their litter.  They should be able to give you some really good information about what they are aiming for and why they think that these dogs will produce that.  if you don’t think you could live with either of the parents, most likely you are not going to be able to live with the offspring and the only time you get to make a genetic decision about a puppy is before he is bred.  Once mom and dad have bred, the genetic potential is set.  As a consumer, you get to make another choice though and that is to not purchase any puppy whose parents temperaments you don’t like.  For more information about choosing a good set of parents you can visit my blog called “Good Breeders Few and Far Between?” at http://tinyurl.com/bzulzj

Once you have chosen great parents and a fantastic breeder, the next place you can directly influence behaviour problems is when the puppies are born.  This is what I call the “Miss Manners” stage.  It is everything that happens from the time the puppies are born until they are about 6 months of age when all the major social milestones have passed.

Ideally, puppies should have the opportunity for Early Neurological Stimulation in the litter before their eyes and ears open.  You can find out more about ENS at http://tinyurl.com/d8a25dsEarly Neurological Stimulation gives your puppy the best chance at having great bounce back at avoiding anxiety issues and at overall better health.  If you are visiting breeders, take a copy of Dr. Battaglia’s work with you and ask them if they know about it and if they are doing it.  If they are doing “our own version” and are not willing to talk about concrete data and results, then they are not doing ENS; they may be giving the pups a lot of advantages, but then again they may not.

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Here is a great puppy den.  Look at all the surfaces and textures and toys, and everything is very clean.  This is what your puppy’s nest should look like when he is creeping and crawling from about four weeks till about 6 weeks when the litter can move onto bigger and better things.

When the pups begin to creep and crawl, they should have wonderful opportunities to climb, carry things around with them, explore and find things and generally develop the best brains possible.  If a breeder is sending out litter pictures and there are no images of toys and the pups are housed on flat newspaper, then they are going to have much more trouble as they develop learning about things like carrying items and climbing.  The person who does this the best in North America in my opinion is Suzanne Clothier.  Duckhill Kennels in the US does a fantastic job getting their little guys ready to go home and they do incredible stuff with their older dogs too; their Youtube video is well worth the watch if you want to know how to really do it in style;  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuE1iGc-IZ0   Developing confident out going pups who are happy and eager to work is a lot of fun and is the least that a puppy deserves.

Then the puppy goes home and it is up to whomever had your pup between 8 and 16 weeks to introduce him safely to everything and everyone he will meet in the world.  If every puppy were carefully socialized during this period of time, there would be far fewer problem dogs in the world.  You can fix a lot of problems from the genetics department if you know what you are doing at this stage.  Not every genetic problem is fixable, but many of them are.  This means a great puppy school, and a great family who will help that pup to get where he needs to go and feel safe about doing it.

Before your pup hits 6 months, he also needs to learn things like not to jump up when greeting and not to drag you down the street to meet people, and not to snarf food off the table.  In short he needs to learn to be mannerly and to ask politely for the things he wants.  If you do your homework diligently at this age, before he gets huge, before he is able to knock you over, and before he is an adolescent, then adulthood is much easier.  If you have put everything into place before this stage, and he has good genetics, then you are ready for what might happen in the event that your puppy encounters a War Zone.

War Zones are what I call the horrific situations that dogs end up in that we wish they would not.  A car crash can set a nice dog seriously back if he is not resilient enough to incorporate that into his experience and look at it as something that happened just once.  Living in complete chaos is another kind of war zone that many dogs experience, and those resilient dogs are those who do just fine, even though they don’t live in an optimal situation.  It is also important to understand that what might be normal for one dog, may be unreasonable for another to cope with.  Labrador retrievers should not worry when guns go off suddenly and unexpectedly.  A working herding dog such as an Australian Shepherd should not be frightened by gunfire, but also should be concerned for the flock if he is hearing a lot of it.  When a dog goes through a War Zone, his ability to cope is going to depend on his genetics, which cannot be changed once he is conceived, and what happened between birth and six months, the “Miss Manners” stage.

There are four conditions here to consider.  There is the dog who as great genetics and who had a wonderful puppyhood.  This pup may be frightened but is likely going to bounce back and cope once the crisis is over.  These are the dogs who experience bad things and take the experience in stride.  These are also the dogs who sometimes seem not to worry about anything, no matter how crazy the situation is that you put them in.  These dogs also cope with unpleasant experiences by changing their behaviour, not by having a meltdown.

Then there are the dogs who have really, really sound genetics, and but didn’t get a great start in life.  Often these dogs cope just fine with war zones, but they may not always respond as predictably as we would like for them to respond.  They may behave quite outrageously or with a lack of inhibition.  They may be explosive in their responses.  Their bounce back from crises is not as fine tuned as their cohorts who got what they needed from birth onward.

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D’fer as a puppy.  He has terrific genetics and had as perfect a puppyhood as I have ever seen.

Then there are dogs who got rolled the crummy genetic dice, but who had great puppy hoods.  These dogs may learn to cope with war zones, but they are never as good at it as those pups who got great genes.  These pups really ought to be in the hands of people who recognize problems early and who know what to do about it.  The sad fact is that these pups often end up in the hands of beginners and without a lot of support and luck, they end up in difficulty.

Next we have the dogs with decent genetics, but a really crummy puppyhood.  This was probably the situation that best describes how I ended up as a behaviour consultant; I had a dog who was genetically okay, but not fabulous, but she had a very difficult puppyhood.  We didn’t know as much as we do now, and I flooded her with all the things that frightened her believing that I was socializing her.  I was told to take her to the market, and the park and to let children give her treats.  I tried really, really hard, and looking back I can see that I frightened her.  Puppy classes were not available at that time and I did what I thought best.  I introduced my pup to people and when she showed that she was afraid by hiding behind me, I would put her in front of me and when she wouldn’t take treats, I would get frustrated and sometimes angry.  She was moderately fragile in her ability to cope to begin with and when I overwhelmed her as much as I did, she finally figured out that biting would make the scary thing go away.  The way that I over socialized this pup left her without good coping strategies as an adult.  This is the most difficult situation of all for the people, because when we look back, we feel overwhelming responsibility.  Looking back, I can see all the errors I made and when she became aggressive towards strangers, I eventually had to euthanize her.  Rest in peace Newtie; never again.  Now I help people to understand why this strategy is a bad idea.

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D’fer has great genetics, and we were aware of the potential for overwhelming him.  Here he is in the bathtub for the first time.  You can tell he is not confident or happy because his brow is furrowed, his ears are dropped back and his eyes are quite large.  Realizing he was uncomfortable, I got in with him!

Finally we have the dog with both crummy genetics and a crummy puppy hood.  These dogs are fragile and don’t have any coping skills.  These dogs are the ones who present as frightened and withdrawn and overwhelmed or as over confident and defensively aggressive.  A lot of these dogs have a great deal of bravado but when faced with someone who comes back at them will back down and sometimes flee.  In an acute war zone, such as a home invasion or a car crash these dogs are extremely frightened and cannot escape their fears.  These dogs will often exhibit all sorts of behaviours that demonstrate their anxiety.  When they live with people who recognize the signs of their anxiety and can protect them from frightening stimuli, they can sometimes cope, but when they live with people who don’t recognize their anxiety, they really struggle.  When these dogs live in chaotic situations where stress is a part of day to day life, these dogs are often very overwhelmed and their people even if they are well meaning may not recognize that they are over threshold because these dogs don’t act out.

If you are looking for a stable pet, you need to start with good genetics.  Once you have found the genetic picture you want to live with, then make sure that your pup is raised to the standards of Miss Manners. He will need a great puppy class where the instructors are able to help you to recognize when your pup might be approaching threshold and help you to address that, while gently expanding your pup’s horizons.  Finally, avoid war zones with your pups.  If you have a herding dog, recognize that traffic may be over stimulating for them.  On the other hand, if you share your life with a retriever, getting upset that he is picking up everything that is within reach is just frustrating for both of you.  Choose carefully, expose to society with care, and avoid placing your dog in crises.

If you have a dog with serious behaviour issues, there are really three major sources of problems.  The genetics may be a problem.  He may not have had all the advantages of Miss Manner’s upbringing.  Or he may live in his equivalent of a war zone. Most likely though, there are elements of all three issues.

GENETICS, MISS MANNERS AND THE WAR ZONE

HOW DO I LOVE THEE? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS!

Reinforcers and rewards can be powerful tools, but get them wrong and you can get very tangled up. I see a lot of newer trainers want to use only one type of treat, or only bring a tiny amount of good stuff and expect their dog to work for the lowest value items. This is what I think of as the cardboard fallacy. Suppose for a minute that you could get paid for your job in one of two ways. Either we will give you your pay this week in gold, or in cardboard. As of this writing, baled cardboard goes for between $10 USD and $162 USD per ton. Gold on the other hand is about $40 USD per gram. Now, one gram of gold is going to occupy 0.05 cubic cm and one ton of cardboard is going to occupy 9 cubic yards. Setting aside that these items are sold in units that are on completely different measuring systems, I could pay you $700/week in gold that would sit nicely in the palm of your hand. Or I could fill your front yard several times over in cardboard to give you the same value payment. The biggest thing here is that if both a handful of gold and your entire front lawn full of cardboard are worth the same thing, why is it that you want one thing more than another? Especially if it is raining. There is a huge disadvantage to $700 worth of wet cardboard sitting on your lawn.

Would you be willing to have this delivered to your front lawn in return for the work you do each week?  Or would a handful of gold be a better choice?  Offering a dog cardboard will decrease his performance and it is up to us as trainers to figure out what is cardboard and what is gold for each of our dogs.  Copyright : Huguette Roe
Would you be willing to have this delivered to your front lawn in return for the work you do each week? Or would a handful of gold be a better choice? Offering a dog cardboard will decrease his performance and it is up to us as trainers to figure out what is cardboard and what is gold for each of our dogs. Copyright : Huguette Roe

If you are going to give a gift, if you want it to be well received, you need to know your recipient well enough to figure out if they are going to appreciate $700 worth of cardboard, or if they need to get paid in gold. I look at rewards for dogs like gifts; if it is going to be a good reward, I need to know my recipient at least a little bit. To begin with, I need to know my recipient on the species level. This means that I need to know a little bit about what dogs like to do.

Off the top of my head I can honestly say that most dogs like food. There are a few rare exceptions, but for the most part, dogs like food, unless they are extremely distressed. As a group, they have preferences for meat, fish and other high protein sources, and for fats. This means that beef liver is likely going to be a high value item for them, and dried toast will still be valuable, but less valued than is beef liver. Orange slices MIGHT be of interest, but they are likely going to be less valued than is meat. There may be a few dogs who are exceptions to this, but most dogs are going to like beef liver better than dried bread and dried bread better than orange slices. Orange slices are the cardboard of the dog currency world. Yes, some folks would be delighted to have up to 630cubic yards of cardboard as a gift, but these folks are the exception not the rule. Most people are going to prefer a small amount of gold over the same amount of cardboard, and most dogs will prefer a tiny piece of liver over a large slice of orange.

Most dogs will beg for food.  Knowing what your dog prefers will help you to be more effective if you know exactly what food your dog will like.  Copyright: quasarphoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Most dogs will beg for food. Knowing what your dog prefers will help you to be more effective if you know exactly what food your dog will like. Copyright: quasarphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

The next level I need to know a little bit about is the breed level. Within the species “dog” there are many different types of dogs and they are generally grouped into 7 different groups; the sporting dogs, the hounds, the terriers, the herding dogs, the toy breeds, the working dogs and the miscellaneous group. Each of these groups have some commonalities. The sporting dogs are those dogs used for hunting, usually birds. Most of them really like to fetch, so offering them a game that involves bringing back a toy is a natural reward for them. Hounds on the other hand are used for hunting by sight or scent and most of those dogs don’t want to fetch but they DO like to search. Terriers love to dig and tear things up, and they like searching but many of them aren’t as interested in fetching. Herding dogs like chasing and gathering things up, but they are generally less interested in digging. The working breeds include the guarding dogs and the livestock guardians and they have some interesting traits. Guarding dogs love games like tug where they can pretend to take down the bad guy, but livestock guardians don’t like tug at all; they are often hard to motivate because they descended from dogs bred to follow the flocks and get between the flock and a predator. Toy breeds and dogs in the miscellaneous group like things related to the groups that the dogs originated in.

What do the groups have to do with what rewards your dog will like? Ask the next Basset Hound you meet how he would feel about herding sheep as a reward and you can see quickly that knowing something about the general preferences of the groups of dogs can really help to inform you about what to try first as a reward. If instead I offered my Chesapeake Bay Retriever the chance to swim if he did something I liked, I would be more on track than if I offered a Basset Hound the chance to herd sheep. Now you may be thinking to yourself that you have met oodles of Border Collies and German Shepherds who love to play frisbee or swim, and you would be right, but that brings us to two points; herding dogs tend to be pretty flexible in what they like to do, and the individual can give us a better picture of what they actually like to do as an individual.

When you get a puppy, you will find that he is fairly flexible in what he likes and doesn’t like to do. I have seen young retrievers who will spend a whole day fascinated by a herd of sheep that would not attract an adult retriever in the least. Herding dog puppies will often learn to chase and grab things easily and that is easy enough to translate into a number of interesting and rewarding behaviours such as tug, fetch or search. You can often teach a young terrier or guarding dog to fetch in a similar way. Doing this at a young age is quite straight forward, but trying to get it started with an older dog is much more difficult. This is where knowing your individual is important.

Young animals are very flexible in their learning and this gives us an opportunity to teach them to enjoy games that they might not learn to like if they first tried them as adults.  This beagle will play fetch with his ball and doing so often will help him to learn that it is a fun game.  Later you can use fetch as a reinforcer for him.  Copyright: lunja / 123RF Stock Photo
Young animals are very flexible in their learning and this gives us an opportunity to teach them to enjoy games that they might not learn to like if they first tried them as adults. This beagle will play fetch with his ball and doing so often will help him to learn that it is a fun game. Later you can use fetch as a reinforcer for him. Copyright: lunja / 123RF Stock Photo

My dog Eco really, really likes biting bad guys. We did protection work when he was younger and he is really good at it. Eco’s pinnacle reward is biting bad guys. Bad guys are gold to Eco. It is not practical to carry around a guy in an agitator’s suit to reward him on a regular basis, but that is his top reward. We started when he was about 9 weeks old, teaching him to “worry” a rag and then to tug and then to tug big and then to get a good bite on a bad guy. The most valuable behaviour to me is self control. This means that I had a perfect situation to use in order to reward Eco for self control. As a youngster, the best way for him to get a chance to bite a bad guy was to show self control and follow my cues. If he didn’t show self control in training, he didn’t get his turn to bite the bad guy. In this situation, knowing my dog and knowing what I had taught him to do this worked brilliantly.

Friday could care less about biting bad guys. If I offered her the chance to do so, she would just stand back, looking confused because that isn’t what we taught her as a youngster. What she does love though is frisbee. John took the time to teach Friday to chase and fetch back a frisbee and when they are working on obedience behaviours, this is her gold reward. Heeling and coming when called are always faster and sharper if she thinks she is getting a frisbee at the end. Again, this is not a reward John can use all the time, but in a training set up, it works really, really well.

John made a mistake when Friday was a puppy. He used only her kibble for rewards for many months. At first, she liked her kibble well enough, but later, she got tired of it and eventually, it became a cardboard reinforcer. I remember one memorable class where she gently took the kibble out of John’s hand, and then panted with it stuck to her tongue! While this was funny, it did nicely to illustrate what happens when you use cardboard to reward a dog; she humoured him for a bit, but she really, really did not want kibble as a reward.

Our first Chesapeake Bay Retriever was named Bear and Bear had a few things he loved to do. One thing he really enjoyed was swimming. He loved to swim so much that we had to teach him to get out of the water when we told him to do so. What might have enticed him enough to come out of the water? The opportunity to swim again! Bear would get out of the water in order to get the chance to go back in again. Getting into the water was Bear’s gold reward. While it was really difficult to carry a river in our pocket, we did an awful lot of training around open water to take advantage of this great reward.

In class we can use some play and some life rewards (the rewards that your dog just loves to have and that just happen to happen along the way) but for the most part we are going to use food. There are a lot of reasons to use food. To begin with it is fast. I don’t have to take it away from the dog after he is done with it. I can use it in gradations to pay really great behaviours with really favourite foods, and really easy behaviours with so-so foods. This means though that you have to know a little bit about what your dog likes and doesn’t like.

This dog wants to go through the door and this makes for a great life reward!  You can ask your dog to do something he knows how to do in order to get you to open the door.  This is not a cardboard reward, nor is it a gold reward, but it is a highly available reward and it would be a shame to waste that.  Copyright: whitetag / 123RF Stock Photo
This dog wants to go through the door and this makes for a great life reward! You can ask your dog to do something he knows how to do in order to get you to open the door. This is not a cardboard reward, nor is it a gold reward, but it is a highly available reward and it would be a shame to waste that. Copyright: whitetag / 123RF Stock Photo

There is an easy game to play to help dogs to tell us which foods are gold rewards and which foods are cardboard rewards. Take two different foods; say kibble and sausage. Give the dog a piece of kibble. Give the dog a piece of sausage. Now, offer kibble in one hand, sausage in the other. Which does he choose? Kibble? You would be surprised the number of dogs who choose kibble over sausage. Now take your kibble and cheese and repeat. Let’s say that the dog chose kibble over sausage, but cheese over kibble. Now you have a hierarchy of treats. You know more now about what your individual dog likes; this particular dog likes sausage, prefers kibble, but really gets excited about cheese.

Observe your dog carefully and be aware of what drives their behaviour. I have seen dogs who will do nearly anything to get to roll in mud. One of my dogs particularly likes to go out to the barn and smell the horses (they are less enthusiastic about the activity). I had one dog in class who would do nearly anything for the chance to heel on leash; he loved heeling! There are many dogs who love to scavenge and will do a lot in order to get the chance to sniff around for treats. Don’t dismiss these reinforcers just because they are infrequent or unusual or because you don’t like them; you don’t have to like the gift you are giving; what matters is if the recipient likes it.

Unless you are a recycled cardboard dealer, you would probably prefer to be paid in gold than cardboard.  This is about how much gold would be needed to purchase all of the cardboard in the first image of this blog.  Copyright: gillespaire / 123RF Stock Photo
Unless you are a recycled cardboard dealer, you would probably prefer to be paid in gold than cardboard. This is about how much gold would be needed to purchase all of the cardboard in the first image of this blog. Copyright: gillespaire / 123RF Stock Photo

Once you have a good long list of things your dog likes, you can pair them with what your dog is doing. If your dog is learning something really difficult, choose something he likes a lot but doesn’t lose his mind over. It is no good using a bad guy to teach Eco to fetch for instance because he would be so very excited that he would throw the item at me in his enthusiasm to bite bad guys. I might choose a lesser and more convenient reward for bringing a toy back to me such as the opportunity to chase and get another toy! If I am working on quiet work, such as holding an item while sitting, I might use a medium value food treat so that Eco wouldn’t get too excited, AND so that he would still know that he was on the right track. Once the behaviour is well established for a medium value reward, then I might set up a situation where he could have his gold reward, but he would need to be very well trained on a behaviour before I would reward it with the chance to bite a bad guy.

The end of this story is simply that good training often requires that you have a variety of reinforcers available to use under differing circumstances. There are thousands of great things your dog can have as reinforcement; food, toys, the chance to greet a friend, time off leash, time to himself, time with you. I even let one of my dogs fetch a lawn chair as a reinforcement once! Be creative. Don’t pay only in cardboard and know what is gold to your dog. And remember to bring at least three different types of reinforcers to class each time so that you have a good chance of reinforcing your dog if he changes his mind about what he likes today.

HOW DO I LOVE THEE? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS!