Puppy Plan: Phase 1 Before the Puppy

We are getting a puppy.  After much research we have decided on a Labrador Retriever, black, female, as our new and additional dog.  We have deep experience with Labradors, having had one in our lives since 1994.  In adding a second dog to our lives, we considered several breeds but kept coming back to the Lab.  The resident canine is an eleven year old Yellow Labrador Retriever, female; we had since she was 8 weeks.  Her name is Grace.  We considered many breeds, their physical traits, temperament, and intelligence then matched this list up with our lifestyle.  No one in our house runs 10k per day; no one is a couch potato.  We are however an active family.  Together we like to frequent parks, host and attend social and family events, Farmer’s Markets, playgrounds, beaches, urban adventures and day trips.  It is also important to us that we give back to our community.  Our Grace is a St. John Ambulance Therapy dog.  We visit a health care facility in our area.  Grace is also a certified Special Needs dog in the SJA program and has attended several public events like the Etobicoke Santa Claus Parade, the Police Games, Kids With Cancer and SJA fund raisers.  The new pup will have big paws to fill.  Therapy dog work is a lot of fun and rewarding for the canine team and the people we visit.  We love taking our dog with us wherever we go because she is so well behaved.  Anywhere we go Grace remains calm regardless of the location, weather, proximate activities, loud or odd sounds or any other variable beyond our control that might upset many other dogs.  Grace is the epitome of a calm dog in stressful situations.  To include our four-legged furry family member in as many activities and outings as possible she needed be well educated and well managed. She needed to be ‘proofed” against the world.  Proofing starts the day we get our new pup.  To “proof” your dog means to help your dog become impervious to distractions and temptations in the world your dog lives in.  What I mean by that is we need our dogs to remain calm and confident in the face of a potentially dangerous situation.  To accomplish this we need to gradually expose our dogs to as many day to day situations that could cause a dog to be fearful and exposed to harm.         Examples:

  • running after a distraction (ball, cat, dog across the street, squirrel) into traffic or out of the front door
  • running away in the name of fun or fear and getting lost ( fireworks, thunder)
  • chasing cars, bicycles, rollerblades, skateboards, scooter
  • getting “attacked” by another dog

A well-educated and well managed dog can be taken anywhere dogs are allowed. A well-educated dog may break rules intended for all dogs by demonstrating good behaviour.  For example, there is a store in our neighborhood that does not allow dogs in, except mine.  Why?  She gets taken inside the store and is told to sit and stay.  No matter who goes by, no matter what they smell like, no matter what distraction or temptation she is offered, she does not move.  She has been “proofed” against moving when told “sit and stay”.

Trainability is a key consideration when getting a new pup, or any dog new to the house for that matter.  The importance of the level of trainability of a dog varies from human to human.  Trainability varies from breed to breed and varies from dog to dog within the breed.  Some humans want a highly trainable and energetic dog only to train to the minimum, if at all.  If that works, then that’s great.  To what level do you want your dog trained?  Do you want your dog to be able to execute all commands with proficiency plus a number of tricks?  Are you happy with a dog not pulling on the leash and that comes when called?  Are you going to engage your dog in schutzhund, field trial, tracking, agility or dock-diving sports?  If you want to participate in any of the above, avoid selecting breeds like Bulldog, Terrier, Mastiff, Great Dane, Chihuahua, Pekinese or Newfoundland.  Those breeds are perfectly capable of these activities, to what level of enjoyment for them is in question.  It is likely a Labrador Retriever will have a much nicer day at the beach than a Bulldog.  It is possible a French Bulldog could participate in fly-ball or agility and have a level of success and fun.  It is probable a Border Collie would excel at sports like fly-ball or agility.  If you are active and want an energetic dog that is a good fit with you and your family’s lifestyle, dogs like Labrador or Golden Retriever, Vizsla, Weimaraner, German Shepherd, Jack Russel, Australian Shepard, Border Collie could be a possible fit.  If you go to the high end of “energy dogs” and get say a Malinois, the dog of choice for police and military around the world, know this: there is no off switch.  This is a dog that requires six to eight hours a day of work assignments – per day.  If you live in an urban area and want a small dog, maybe reconsider a high drive hunting dog, like a Beagle. A beagle is genetically programmed through DNA via selective breeding to chase an animal through the woods for miles and sustain multiple abrasions and contusions in the process – and love it.  A Beagle is programmed chase game.  It only appears they are running from humans. 

Train Time

It is important to consider how much time you want, and have, to put into training your dog.  It is a formidable challenge to train a Beagle to stay close when they are DNA-hardwired to hunt.  If such a dog gets a whiff of an animal that is prey, many times that dog will try to find that animal.  A Mastiff requires far less time in training than a high-energy-high-drive dog like a Beagle or Jack Russel.  There are always acceptions.  Somewhere there is a Labrador afraid of the water or a police dog that doesn’t bite or a Mastiff in agility or a French Bulldog in schutzhund.  When assessing dogs for trainability, my thought process is to look at dogs in general, then the breed then the dog within that breed.  Exceptions to breed characteristics and traits are easy to find.  In Australia a dog born into police and protection lines went through police training successfully, to a point.  When it came to chasing the bad guy and putting a bite on, this dog wanted to play and romp.  There was zero aggression in this dog, at least the kind needed to do the job of a police K9.  This dog was repurposed as a community ambassador and the job was to visit schools, public events, be in parades etc. 

Too often humans will take their dog somewhere like a park, playground, or the house of friend and when asked: where is your dog? , the answer invariably is some form of: we had to leave him home because he doesn’t like “this”, whatever “this” is.  The “this” a dog reacts to may cause the dog to become hysterical or panic or otherwise unmanageable in certain situations.  We want our dog to be calm in the face of any situation for the safety of all involved, including the dog.

The “this” could be anything:

  • other dogs
  • animals that are not dogs: cat, squirrel, raccoon, bird
  • people on roller blades/bicycles/strollers
  • small kids: squeals and screams indoors & out, fur and ear pulls, eye pokes
  • shiny surfaces
  • elevators/escalators
  • street traffic cars/subways/trains/buses/dump-trucks /horns
  • construction sights/city noise  
  • loud noises: fireworks, loud mufflers, thunder and lightning, door slam
  • going through a car wash

With our current dog, we did not “proof” her for all of the above, which was an unintentional error.  Because of that Grace is fearful of shiny surfaces, elevators and escalators.  I did not make them normal for her.  The first dog I owned as an adult was a female Yellow Lab, Kelly.  I lived on the thirty-second floor of a building in downtown Toronto.  To her, shiny surfaces, elevators and escalators and city noises were normal.  The current Yellow Lab, Grace, was not exposed to any of that, an error on my part.  We brought Grace home to a house with a fenced in back yard, no elevators, no escalators, no shiny surfaces, no kids. One day we went to visit friends who lived in a tall building.  They lived on the 10th floor.  Grace was an adult dog at the time.  When we got to the building and opened the first door, entered, she went into panic mode when she saw the shiny floor.  She did the body freeze with all four paws locked.  We got through that with calming and soothing words.  I reassured her t’s OK, giving lots of smiles.  You cannot get mad at someone for being afraid of something, right?  It is often the case where the dog seemingly out of the blue has a fearful reaction and the human reacts negatively.  Stay calm human.  Our next step was to get on the elevator.  Her reaction to the elevator was much worse.  She was shaking and whimpering.  What state of mind would a human be in to have the equivalent reaction?  If your child was so scared of a circus ride they cried at the thought of going on it, would you put your child on that ride?  When things go sideways with your pup – when not if – stay calm, give no negative reaction.  Instead, figure out why this happened.  Why is my dog doing this all of a sudden? What is different in the dog’s environment at this moment that could have caused this reaction?  We did not prepare Grace for such an experience.  Shiny floors and elevators were not on our “proof” list.  Other dogs might and often are OK with shiny surfaces and elevators on their first encounter at any age.  Other dogs, like Grace, who is high-strung by nature, may react negatively.  Unfortunately a dog can’t speak (I know that you know that) and as such is unable to tell us what they are fine with and what they fear, and why.  Thus we “proof” our dogs for life’s many predictable and unpredictable situations.  Our “proof” list for this new pup includes the list above and we will make additions as required or as we think of them.  Grace is eleven.  After a certain point in time, it is difficult to curb fears that have been identified and not addressed.  Windows close.  It is common to see a dog react fearfully to an unfamiliar situation if they have not been proofed.  A common human response to a fearful dog reaction is to avoid that situation for the rest of the dog’s life, or admonish the dog.  This is what I call “moving the problem, not fixing the problem” strategy.  Here is an example of moving the problem.  Often we see a person walking north with their dog and on the same sidewalk another human and dog are walking south.  All of a sudden and for whatever reason, one decides to cross the street because their dog is “leash reactive” and would make a scene with the dog coming toward them.  This is moving a problem, not fixing a problem.  Often though, as humans, we would rather avoid fixing the problem and go into “work-around” mode, this is the easy way and is not fair to the dog.  The dog needs to know that their human protects them and everything will be OK and they do not need to live their lives in fear or confusion.  It is also difficult, in my experience; to quell a new fear developed over the course of a dog’s life.  Windows of opportunity for certain behaviours and learning with dogs, and many other animals, shut at a point in time and are often difficult to open.  Therefore, I have decided to not mitigate or curb the current fears of my senior dog, I have accepted them.  This is why It is important to thoroughly proof your dog.  I met a dog that was very afraid of balloons and there was no convincing her otherwise.  She did not have a key word or calming phrase.  This dog was not proofed, she was not confident in her day to day life.  This dog lives in fear.  This came directly from the owner’s lack of self-confidence and high level of personal insecurity.  Knowing the above, we will be putting our new pup in these situations, and any others we can think of, early and often.  This will create for her a sense of normalcy in as many different situations as possible.  We do not control what our dog will encounter in life so we need to prepare them for the outside world.  We need to proof them.  We want to prepare our dogs manage unexpected events and situations that are beyond our control.  When other dogs panic at a loud noise, our dog will think: why are you upset? That’s normal to me, seen it before, heard it before, been there done that, nothing to worry about, I won’t die.  Without any stress and from an educational and confidence building perspective, the pup will think that a particular noise or event ,experienced in the proofing process, is not a big deal, its normal, it’s natural.  Other dogs close by might panic because of the lack of familiarity with the situation they are in presently and they have little to no reassurance or leadership from their human.  To them, this noise or situation is not normal and therefore, a dog may express fear or apprehension.  The responsibility is on the human to prepare their puppy for the real world and all the events that happen in our bubble and that are beyond our control.  A key objective with any new pup is to expose them to as many life experiences as possible in as short a time as possible, within reason.  We do not want to overwhelm our pup.

If we are able to build our relationship, identify fears early and master basic obedience in puppy’s’ first 6-12 months, we will have established a solid foundation to have the well behaved and well balanced dog we want for years to come.  The dog you want might be different from the dog another person wants.  Different expectations of how the dog is to be managed and raised may exist within your house.  Human A lets the dog on the bed, human B does not.  Human C says “sit” human D says sit down.  This is a potential challenge for some in terms to getting the dog they want.  It is important for all residence of the home be on the same page as soon as possible if the goal of a well behaved and well educated dog is to be achieved.  Inconsistency causes confusion for the dog and could delay the process of getting the dog you want.  It is also important for all residents of the home to maintain consistency and agree with conviction to the rules, boundaries, limitations and direction of your dog’s “life program”.  If the command is “sit” it is “sit”.  Keep it “sit”.  Refrain from deviating or changing.  It is common to hear “sit-down” as alternate command that achieves the same thing.  Also say the command once, if the dog does not comply, put on big smile and finish the command with a reward.  Saying a command repeatedly and maybe with increasing volume and frustration levels will not help the dog understand what you want.  It’s like speaking louder and slower to someone who does not speak your language.  Help the dog understand that when I ask you to do something, you need to do it.  Many dogs will ask you (if they could speak) pick one word for one command and stick with it please.  I was at dog show a while back and spoke to the handler of a German Shepherd.  During our conversation the handler told me: if you tell her to “sit” she will sit.  If you tell her “down” she will down.  If you tell her “sit-down’ she will bark at you.  This is her way of telling you there is no such command.  Sit or down, please pick one.  This dog demands accountability from humans.

Relationship

The above is an articulation on the importance of consistency in basic training, education and management of your new pup or any dog for that matter.  What underpins a successful life program for your dog is the relationship between the new pup and her new environment.  What is the pup’s new home like?  How many humans are in pup’s new residence? Is my new home a house, condo, basement apartment, in the city, a suburb or a rural area.  My new humans, what is there depth of knowledge with dogs? Are there other pets in the new residence? All of these are factors in developing a relationship with your dog.

While experiencing and learning about their new home, dogs learn about and experience the world in a much differently than we do.   There are substantial differences between how we perceive our world compared to how a new pup perceives their world.  We have had our entire lives to experience our world.  A new pup experiences the same world much differently than her new humans do.  She is likely considerably younger than most of the humans in her new home.  We must be cognizant of this.  There are many examples of how pup and human perceive the world differently.  Let us examine the seemingly routine event of getting in the car and going for a ride.  It is common for me to hear “Puppy is protesting getting in the car with her humans”.  Why? I ask.  Dogs are highly social and love to be with their humans, it is likely this is not a protest.  Most times this is fear.  Why does this happen?  Many car interiors are a dark color.  Because of that your pup may be afraid to get in the car.  This is common.  You pup is being asked to jump into a dark car interior and puppy says: look…human…my eyesight is not great to begin with, my visual acuity is not close to human or even a fully developed dog.  As well, I see colors differently than you do.  Even as a baby dog I can smell things way better than you.  Pup might say: it looks like a giant black hole and it is scary as heck to me.  I am not getting in.  I am not “being bad”, I am not protesting, I’m not being difficult, I am being scared.  Please help me.  What is normal to your in day to day life for you human is often perceived and interpreted differently by me, says the pup.  

To the pup everything in the world is new, exciting, curious, scary, smells good, smells bad,  tastes good, tastes bad, is fun to chew on or not, it is fun to chase or not.  If you are seeing a recurring theme here, it is no accident.  Fun is every dog’s middle name.  To a dog life is a game.  The world around them is to be explored.    We need to make their lives fun for them.  Having fun is an integral part of the lives and well-being of humans and dogs.  You know what is fun for a dog? Waking up and knowing the day is taken care of for them.  Waking up and knowing they do not have to be the leader and they do not have to make any decisions.  They do not have to decide where to go, what to eat, when to eat, should we swim, run, walk, chase a ball?  They are not afraid of anything in day to day life and are well adjusted, confident dog because they know their human protects them.  In a dogs head, that’s a perfect day and perfect life.  They have rules to follow, they have boundaries and limitations.  They have structure and they have routine, no surprises, this is what dogs want.  To clarify, by routine I do not mean taking the same walking route multiple times per day every day for the next 10 years.  Think of the dogs’ perspective.  How would you like it if everytime you are taken for an outing, you have the same route, see the same houses, cars, dogs, squirrels, humans and smell the same smells over and over and over, day after day.  Unfortunately for many humans this is their life and inadvertently they make it their dog’s life.  The humans day: wake up, commute to work, do the job, the water cooler chat, the lunch chat, work is done, commute back home, big giant meet and greet at the door with the dog, the highlight of the day for many, eat, watch TV, bed, repeat.  How would you like that? How completely bored would you be? Imagine if your job is putting the nut on the bolt eight hours a day five days a week for twenty years?  Imagine that!  Some people like that and that’s cool.  After your daily morning routine walk is complete, you arrive home and your pup is left for most of the day.  Other house-humans are at work, smaller house-humans are gone to school.  Maybe dog gets out with a dog walker, this is awesome.  It’s great for the dog to have a midday break with a bunch of dog-mates to a park for a stretch and a pee.  Our senior Grace was a little short-changed in life, I feel.   What I mean by short-changed is that although she has been very well trained and is a fantastically well behaved dog.  Grace has had no extra-curricular activities other than fetch, swimming and being a therapy dog.  The new pup will be engaged in therapy work as well as scent detection, field trials and tracking.  It gives her jobs and builds our relationship.  When Grace arrived, I knew nothing about any of these doggy-sport activities.  Scent work is excellent for a dog.  Remember that a dog’s brain takes up 40 percent of a dogs brain function. 

Activities

Scent is critical to a dog and their ability to interpret the world around them.  Scent detection training physically exhausting for the dog.  When a dog sniffs luggage at an airport, the dog is able to work for about 25-30 minutes and then goes for a 2-3 hour rest.  When a dog is in scent they breathe in and out approximately six-hundred times a minute.  It is exhausting.  Try breathing in and out as hard as you are able for ten seconds or maybe just five seconds.  As you recover, feeling light headed, think about how a dog, any dog, breathes when in scent mode, amazing.  When it is 35C+ or 35C- outside, time for scent indoor detection game!  Place the “hide” (target scent) in a pillow, a pocket, in or around furniture, then tell your dog to “find it” and let her go!  In terms of a training tool, scent will help give your dog a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of hunt and work.  This is also a great energy outlet.  When dog finds the “hide”, it’s time for a big reward and a celebration. Imagine how cool it would be to get rewarded and praised for doing something you love to do and something you are genetically programmed to do: work.  Tracking and field trial offer similar benefits, both must be done outdoors.  In tracking and scent detection there are never corrections, no leash pulls by the human and no scolding.  I took a Drug and Explosives Handling course at a local college.  I also took a K9 Handling course at the same institute.  There were three scent dogs in the classroom for intermittent demonstrations.  When there was a demo I noticed the sniffer dog, a Malinois, would not drop the Kong he was chewing frantically.  I asked the course conductor; when I took the K9 Handling course, dogs were given a command once.  If they did not comply they received a leash-pop (a police dog correction), but not the scent dog.  The answer: we want these dogs happy and in a good mood, a good frame of mind.  If we correct a sniffer dog for not dropping the Kong, it might put the dog in a bad mood and maybe refuses to sniff because he is sad.  How do you make a dog sniff? You don’t.  Scent detection dogs do what they do because they love to do it.  In scent detection it’s all encouragement and help and love in coordination with the dog’s natural drive to sniff, to hunt.  There are no corrections of any sort.  Scent is an awesome gateway activity.  It could lead to an obedient and very tired and happy dog.

A key in the way your pup perceives the world compared to a human is the color spectrum.  A dog’s color spectrum is slightly different from that of a human.  We see red, orange, yellow, blue, green, indigo and violet.  Dog sees muted shades of blue, yellow and green, no bright or vibrant colors.  Shades of red and orange appear in shades of black and grey. Did you ever see a dog run right by a bright orange hockey ball on green grass? To a dog, the ball is the same color as the grass.  They don’t see it. The biological reason for this is the composition of the eye.  Humans have three sets of rods and cones, dogs have two sets.  This reduces the colors dogs are able to see in the spectrum.  As well, dog’s vision is slightly blurry; their visual acuity is below that of human. Your dog will never be able to describe your face to a police sketch artist with great accuracy.

Perception Differences

Think of how this applies to everyday life for the pup. They do not see or smell or hear the same as humans.  When you bring them home, everything routine to you is new and possibly overwhelming to them. .

How well does a growing pup see and hear and smell in a world where almost everything they encounter is new?  Michael T. Nappier, DVM, DABVP, of the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine states. “[Dogs] have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, versus only about 6 million for us.  And the part of their brain dedicated to interpreting these is about 40 times larger than humans.”  The scent organ in dogs is known as Jacob’s organ.  According to David C. Dorman, professor of toxicology at North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine, dogs have used their noses to assist with major life events since the beginning of time. “Evolutionarily, a dog’s sense of smell helps them find a mate, locate their puppies, food, and avoid predators.”  This underscores the power and importance of the nose of the dog.  

Relationship and Obedience

Relationship and obedience are separate subjects yet they go hand in hand..

Obedience is the ability of your pup to follow commands like a new recruit in boot camp.  No one in boot camp needs to have a positive relationship with the Drill Sergeant, but, disobey a command and you are in for a world of hurt. 

A relationship, from my perspective, is when the dog looks to their human for leadership, reassurance, permission and guidance.  Let’s assume you find yourselves in an unfamiliar situation and your dog shows signs of agitation.  Being able to recognize a shift in your dog’s state of mind or current mood is excellent.  In recognizing a shift in the dog’s behaviour, you will able to address the issue and reassure your dog that nothing bad is going to happen.  That assurance, like it has from the day you met, will keep your dog calm.  If your dog gets upset and you start using language and phrases the dog is hearing for the first time, your efforts will likely be futile.  This could lead to an increased level of human frustration.  Your dog could become more agitated and maybe confused. 

Key Phrases

Hysteria and panic is never a good state of mind for dog or human.  A key phrase is repeated often, calmly, softly.  “It’s OK” is a common key phrase.  Through repetition and positive reinforcement, puppy will know that things will be fine when he hears “it’s OK”.    Key phrases are also verbal rewards for your pup.  Here are some examples:

  • Good dog/pup/boy/girl
  • Well done
  • You’re so smart
  • YES!!
  • NICE!!
  • I love you
  • Amazing
  • Well done!
  • You’re the best!
  • You rock!
  • AWESOME POSSUM!
  • BRILLIANT!!
  • SMART

A key phrase becomes embedded in the dog’s brain as a positive trigger. The phrase becomes positively habitual.  Ideally you will get your dog relationship to the point that when you are in an unfamiliar situation, your dog gets agitated then dog hears you say “it’s OK’, he knows it’s OK and calms down, or better, remains calm.  You want your dog to think: If my human says I’m good, then I’m good.  Just like everytime previous when I got nervous or when I got agitated, my human said I would be OK and I am.  Dog thinks: remember the time that thing happened and I was starting to panic? My human stepped in and said it was OK, and it was.  I didn’t die.  Your “key phrase” may be used as reassurance to your dog that he will not die due to the situation he finds himself in, is important.

Keep Calm and Train on

It is a reasonable goal to have your dog relax and calm in a stressful situation.  There is no downside to this.  To keep your dog calm while out of the house we need to help dog understand what is to be calm while in the house.  Life in the house for your pup should be calm, serene, no stress, like a yoga studio.  By no means does this mean vows of silence, no kids having fun, no entertainment or friends over.  It means teach the dog to be calm at home and have manners.  This can be done by not making the pup the center of attention and having big celebrations for no reason other than human gratification.  This can be addictive for the dog and humans, especially younger humans. Helping your dog be calm at home is helped greatly by the resident humans being calm and by setting an example for the dog and other humans in the residence.  Not having celebrations for everyday events is a good thing for your dog.  Some examples of “celebration time” or “arousal time” created for the dog by humans:

  • someone comes in the front door or leaves the house
  • pizza gets delivered
  • the phone rings
  • friends of your kids come over  
  • being up on the sofa barking at almost everything that goes by the house
  • in an apartment or condo, pup barks like crazy at noises in the hallway. 

Be quiet, relax.

For many people it is normal to have a tail wagging, squealing, whining, jumping, barking celebration when anything fun happens like a resident human coming in the door from work, or going to the park for a romp or food time.  This is not optimal for the dog.  It teaches the dog to be the opposite of calm.  Excitement combined with anticipation leading to an event and the event itself creates even more excitement that produces more dopamine and adrenaline in a dog’s brain.  The feeling dopamine and adrenaline gives a dog can be addictive; this is true for humans as well.  They come to love the feeling of being exciting, they love the sustained anticipation and of course the event itself.  It becomes an addiction, like smoking.  “Excitement” chemicals can also be produced when a dog is at rest.  If a human is in the room and barks out the name of the sleeping dog or the sleeping dog hears a stirring noise, the dog will wake in an instant ready to choose fight or flight.  Let sleeping dogs lie.  The human version:  you are very tired after a long day and you just want to go to sleep after some good food and a hot shower.   Just as you fading into sleep and you are completely relaxed, someone runs in your room, yells FIRE and turns the lights on and off rapidly.  How would you feel after you calmed down from the initial arousal – shock – only to find out there was no fire? How do you react when you discover the hubbub was another human just wanting your attention and affection for their fleeting amusement and pleasure?  Trish King, a best-selling author on raising dogs, calls arousal a “red cloud of energy”.  It is this arousal combined with a dog’s natural predatory drive and adrenaline induced excitement that may interfere with good judgement and may cause poor behavioural choices, for the dog.  The excited dog may act without thinking.  Such arousal can lead to an attack on another dog or human or even an object (e.g. bicycle, skateboard, backpack).  Teach your puppy to be calm, set the example for all living in the residence.

Being a calm, confident leader and coach for your new pup is how to set a solid foundation for the future and building toward the dog you want.  Accomplishing this will take patience, time, consistency and a plan.  There are no quick or simple fixes.  There are no little tricks or easy solutions to expedite the journey to a well-trained dog despite what may be advertised.  A task more daunting than raising a dog with success is dealing with people in the dog’s life.  Perhaps people at home bend a rule here and there like dog on the furniture, getting people food or excessive treats or big celebrations when a human comes home.  People outside the home can be un-intentional-inadvertent-un-doers of a successful training program too.  They might endorse unwanted behaviours like jumping, nipping or snatching food by saying it’s OK, smile, laugh, say it’s cute or he’s just a puppy and then give the dog rewards of pets and scratches for breaking the rules ardently being worked on at home.  We all know who pays the price for human error or when training goes sideways, hint: they have four paws.

Un-earned Affection

A topic we rarely discuss but can have profound adverse effects on an education and management program for a dog is affection, particularly unearned affection.  We often confuse dogs with human communication.  One of the biggest communication, training and reward errors we commit is giving unearned affection to our dogs.  It could be our dog, a stranger’s dog, the dog of a friend or neighbor, any dog.  Sometimes affection is unwanted by the dog.  In the wild the group or pack leader does not give affection to pack subordinates.  It is the reverse and only with permission from the senior ranking dog.  When a pack member wants to show affection to the leader they approach slowly, not face on, with head and tail down, body lower to the ground and when close enough will lick the chin and mouth from a lower physical position.  It is not uncommon for this request to give affection be declined by the senior ranking pack member.

Let us bring this scenario to the domestic dog, descendant of the wild dog.

It has been approximately one-hundred-fifty years since man started creating specific breeds of dogs to complete specific jobs.  Given the relationship between humans and dogs dates back approximately thirty-five thousand years, this one-hundred-fifty span is comparatively a short time. The DNA in today’s dog, descendant of the wild dog, comes from millennia of living in the wild and developing all necessary skills and tools to be successful, that is to say survive, thrive and reproduce in the wild, where there are no vets.  The wild dog DNA in today’s domestic dog is easily identifiable.  In terms of giving and receiving affection, the domestic pet displays characteristics remarkably similar to canines in the wild.

It is normal for many humans to want to give affection to their dog or any dog for that matter.  The converse is true.  To many dogs receiving of unearned affection could easily be confusing to the dog in terms of who is the leader.  Such a dog might wonder why it feels awkward that the human, who is supposed to be my calm leader, is wantonly giving me affection I did not ask for.   The dog might think: If I am being given affection, I must be the leader? But how can I be the leader if my human gives me commands that I follow? Doesn’t the leader give the commands? Dogs are not as analytical as this, they act more on instinct.  The end result of giving unearned affection: puppy confusion.  The typical scenario for a human giving unearned affection to a dog could unfold while watching television.  There is a break in the program.  The human zones in on the resting or sleeping dog then slides off the sofa and makes their way to the dog’s location.  When they reach the dog the human goes into baby-talk mode: and covers the dog physically with arms, hands and face.  I can assure the reader most dogs could do with your that exchange, some dogs accept it.  My Grace will get up and leave the room should a human try to give her affection or even make contact with her.  A client called me in a panic one day and told me the dog bit her mother’s face.  I asked: how did this happen? She said it was late evening.  The dog was asleep in her bed in the corner of the living room.  The Mom went over to the dog and hovering over the dogs head kissed the top of the dogs head.  The dog being a dog was startled and responded accordingly.  This dog did not want affection and communicated this to the humans in the house several times.  Previous to the bite there were multiple discussions regarding multiple events involving people in the house leaving the dog alone and showing the dog respect.  The idea of refraining from giving unearned affection is a difficult concept to master for many humans. 

I am not saying do not give your dog affection.  In keeping with the Canine Ecosystem, your dog must earn every resource they get.  When there is a break in the program, let your dog rest.  If you are simply unable to overcome the compunction to harass your dog, get them to do something (work) to get something (affection).  Call them over, as long as they are not sleeping, and get them to sit or down, then give them their reward of affection, as much as you want.  Sometimes a dog will approach their human to get affection.  This behaviour can become an addiction to the dog possibly leading to separation anxiety issues.  These advances for affection by the dog on human almost always end successfully for the dog in terms of getting what they want: human affection.  This is also a case where the dog trains the human.  Dog says: I want you to give me affection.  As expected, human does it, perfect for the dog.  Without thinking about it some humans might be worried that if the dog doesn’t get what he wants he won’t love me.  He won’t want to come to me for me to give him affection or for him to give me affection.  That cannot happen, thinks the human – I NEED MY DOG TO LOVE ME!!!!  This is human insecurity; it is not good for the dog.  In fact the opposite is true.  Your dog wants to know what the rules are, wants to know what you want him to do and where you want him to go.  A dog that does not have any decisions to make, because they look to their leader for direction, is a happy dog. That dog has a leader who has set the rules and expectations around those rules.

There is a lot to think about in getting a new pup from breed selection to deciding on a training and management program.  Then there are the toys, what food  to provide, when to spay or neuter, puppy and dog social skill development, is there a leash-free near-by, what rules, limitations, boundaries are to be implemented, is the pup a city pup or a country pup, what sort of collar, leash, bed, toys and of course picking a name.

Getting a dog from a rescue is a slightly different discussion and a topic for another paper.

We are are waiting for a call from the breeder to go get out pup.  I am getting eager.

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