Raising a Puppy
Who can fathom the mind of a puppy? Squirrels drive them crazy, garbage is their favorite snack, and immediately after chewing your one-of-a-kind, handmade leather jacket into confetti, they can give you a look of such innocent love and adoration that you forget all about it. This kind of behavior can baffle and frustrate even the most conscientious of dog owners, and rightfully so. When you bring a puppy home, she becomes part of your family; you need to be able to trust her with your home, your belongings, and even your children. That’s why controlling your puppy’s behavior is the key to having a peaceful relationship with her.
To have a dog that makes a good, dependable companion, you’re going to have to spend some time training. There’s no other way for your puppy to know that chewing on an old knotted sweat sock is acceptable, for example, while chewing on the Irish lace tablecloth is not. She needs to be taught appropriate behavior calmly, gently, and–most important–consistently. As soon as you get your pup, you can start teaching her how to obey you, how to act around people and other dogs, and generally to be the best-behaved dog ever.
The alpha owner
Though we’ll never know exactly what your pooch is thinking when she chases her tail until she gets dizzy, we do have some insight into how dogs think about relationships. Wild dogs live and hunt in packs, and to your dog, you and the other members of your family are fellow pack members. This is an important model, because in every pack there are structured power relationships between members. If dogs have no dominant–or “alpha”–leader in their human “pack,” if they learn that they can jump up on the couch when they want, drag you down the street on the leash, and get treats when they beg for them, some of them may decide they are running the show. Puppies who are never disciplined may begin aggressively testing their boundaries when they reach doggy adolescence. They may start ignoring commands, jumping up where they’re not supposed to jump, and protecting their food or their “territory” with growls. In extreme cases, they can begin biting.
In order to have a peaceful, manageable relationship with your dog, it’s important that you establish your position as the leader from the beginning. You do not have to use physical intimidation to do so, however. Some trainers have recommended that owners establish their dominance through a show of physical force ranging from an alpha roll–flipping a dog over so her belly is exposed–to actually biting a dog on the muzzle. This can leave a dog feeling threatened and defensive, and may even provoke an attack. You don’t need to raise your voice either; shouting can also make dogs nervous and provoke aggression.
The fact is, these aggressive displays of dominance aren’t necessary. Most dogs are perfectly happy submitting to a leader; they actually gain confidence and a sense of security from having someone to follow. The job of a good pack leader is to project a sense of strength by using a deep, steady voice, reacting calmly to situations that make the dog nervous, and giving rewards only for good behavior. Training your dog to sit and lie down is helpful as well. Having her repeatedly take a lower, submissive position at your command reinforces your dominant position. If you’re still having a hard time, ask your veterinarian about special exercises designed to establish your dominance without aggression.
The social life
Socializing is one of the most important things you can do to train your young dog. Puppies, like babies, are like sponges–ready to absorb all kinds of information about their world. In the first months of their lives, they learn the right places to sleep to catch the late afternoon sun and that the sound of the can opener means dinner time. In this same period, it’s your job as a pet owner to teach them to bond with people and with other dogs and to be comfortable in unfamiliar situations. This is one of the most important things you can do for your fuzzy family member. The less afraid your puppy is of strange people and animals, the less likely she is to act defensively and attack another dog or even a child.
The socialization of puppies begins between three and four weeks of age, before most people bring their new pets home. This means that some of the work is out of your control. If your puppy has been raised by a careless owner or breeder, you may have an uphill battle to fight when you get her home. The good news is, she will continue the socialization process until she is about 12 weeks old, so you have plenty of time to give her good experiences. First of all, make sure she bonds with you and your family. Pet her, groom her, play with her, talk to her, and just generally give her lots of love. Show her that she can depend on you for affection, food, and gentle leadership.
Once your pup feels safe with you and she’s had all her vaccinations, you can introduce her to the big, wide world. Take her to lots of new and exciting places–the park, a friend’s house, or dog-friendly stores. Make sure she has plenty of chances to meet kind people and play with well-socialized dogs. Try to make trips to the veterinarian fun, with plenty of petting from you and the friendly veterinarian and technicians. Introduce her to children, too, in a well-supervised environment. Show the kids how to speak calmly to her and pet her gently.
If you notice your puppy acting nervous in a new situation or starting to bristle at a strange dog, try not to scold her. Raising your voice will only make her more tense. Trying to comfort her will backfire too. If she gets a lot of petting, cooing, and attention every time she’s scared or aggressive, she’ll learn that reacting this way is a good thing. Instead, distract her as best you can. Toss a ball or a chew toy to her, or start playing her favorite game. When she gets absorbed in the game and starts ignoring the people or the dog that scared her, give her lots of praise. Soon she’ll associate the scary situation with fun and playtime, and she’ll become a canine socialite.
When most dog owners think about training their dog, they think in negatives. They want their puppy not to chew the furniture, not to piddle on the carpet, and not to jump up on guests. This can get a little confusing from the puppy’s point of view, however. Imagine you were a puppy home alone, and you spent most of your day chewing on some loafers and spreading garbage around the kitchen. Then you nap for an hour and meet your family at the door when they come home. Suddenly they greet you with lots of yelling and shouts of “No!” What did you do wrong? Was it the chewing or meeting the family at the door? What were you supposed to do instead?
The key to keeping your puppy from doing what you don’t want her to do is giving her a positive alternative–teaching her what you do want her to do. For example, if you see your puppy dancing anxiously around the living room like she needs to go out, get her outside in a flash. Stay near her the whole time she’s out, and reward her with praise and a treat as soon as she relieves herself. This teaches her that going outside is a good thing. If you catch your puppy chewing on something you don’t want her to chew on, distract her with one of her “good” chew toys. Whenever you catch her chewing on one of her toys, reward her. That’s the key to effective training–try to catch your puppy doing something good, like sitting still instead of jumping up or sleeping on the floor instead of the bed. Make a point of noticing these behaviors and rewarding them with attention, praise, or treats.
Training is a gradual process, and it can be a difficult road to walk alone. It’s important that your entire family commits to a training plan, that you all agree to respond the same way when your dog misbehaves as well as when she behaves perfectly. Remember, when you train, you need to be persistent, and above all, patient. Your puppy’s going to make a lot of mistakes, and she may just destroy a few of your belongings, but she’s mostly just eager to please you. She needs your love, attention, and guidance to be the good dog you know she can be.