Prior to getting your puppy, some of you will have done your homework – researched the breed, found one that ticks all the right boxes and others will have based their decision on a variety of factors such as looks, perceived trainability or maybe even a rose tinted view of some previous dog.
The thing is, whatever the reason you chose your puppy, it’s now your puppy and the clock is ticking. By the time your puppy is about 16 weeks old, it will have passed through what is probably the most critical period of development in its life. However, you have probably had no influence over a significant amount of this key period and this is why the role your puppy’s breeder plays, is so critical. If your breeder has been responsible and diligent your puppy will have had a great start in life, if on the other hand they were not then I’m afraid it’s a bit of an emergency and some serious work needs to be done. The good news is no matter what start your puppy had to life an all-out and well-structured socialisation plan in the remaining weeks will be time well invested.
For all the dog breeders out there my plea to you is; please have a systematic plan to socialise your puppies before they leave your care.
Thankfully, and on the whole, people understand how important socialisation is for their puppies, if, however, you ask them to describe what they think it is and how do you do it, you will get a wide and varied selection of answers.
In a nutshell, socialisation and habituation of puppies should not be haphazard – it should be systematic and controlled. You will need to expose your puppy to as many different people, animals, sounds and objects as you possibly can, in a controlled and safe way. It can help to keep a record sheet of your puppy’s experiences and list as many things as you can – you can then tick them off when your puppy has seen them. This will help identify any gaps in your socialisation plan and when following the plan we must do all that we can to make sure these early experiences are good ones.
There is a book I really like called Life Skills for Puppies: Laying the Foundation for a Loving, Lasting Relationship by Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills, and it is definitely worth reading.
After this critical period passes anything unfamiliar will be treated with caution, which ultimately could lead to a number of temperament problems.
Another key skill puppies need to learn is how to inhibit the force of their bite. Now, some trainers I have spoken with think this is pre-installed and dogs just know how to control their mouths when they need to, but others (like me) think it is a mixture of both – pre-installed and refined with practice. What I do know is that one of the determining factors of a dog’s future and even its survival, should it bite somebody or another dog, will be the pressure with which it bits, so I am of the mind that until proven otherwise I am going to give my puppies the opportunity to learn and not just rely on genetics.
I have heard all the arguments, including it’s the slippery slope to aggression, however in my experience this has certainly not been the case and I have certainly not seen any good evidence to support the argument.
So, my advice is to enrol your puppy onto a good puppy class where ideally they will get the opportunity to interact with other puppies in a supervised and structured way. This will not only give you and your puppy a good foundation of skills, but will also provide you with the support you may need when living with your new puppy – puppies are hard work! A trainer will be able to help you with all the common puppy problems that you are likely to experience and for many first time owners, attending class may be the first time that they realise they have a perfectly normal puppy.
I have also lost count of the number of times I have heard in puppy classes “my last dog was not as… (then add ‘chewy’, ‘nippy’, ‘naughty’ etc) …as this one”. The reality though, is that it probably was, and you have just forgotten.
We also need to remember, when training, that our puppies are in essence babies, they do not know what English, or for that matter, any other human language is. They need to be taught the meaning of a sound or a signal and this is going to take lots of patient repetition. If you have ever learnt a new skill; maybe playing a musical instrument, dance moves or lines from a play, did you master it in five goes or did it take numerous attempts? Now add to this that your teacher, who is trying to teach you, is not even the same species, in fact not even closely related, this is what it’s like for our dogs. It’s amazing how well they do!
My aim, as trainer first and foremost, is for dogs to like people and all that comes with us, then there is everything else. I’m not going to say that having a friendly gregarious dog is not without its problems, but these, in my opinion, are not in the same league when compared to a dog who is fearful. I love it when a client tells me “the only problem I have is she/he is just too friendly and loves everybody” – what a lovely problem to have!
Choose carefully who and how you are going to train your puppy – there is a wide variety of methods out there and some are questionable, to say the least.
I do need to finish on a note of caution, you can do everything right with your puppy, but it sometimes does not work out how you hoped. I know people who were sent to the best schools, had the best education, the best start in life and things did not turn out how their parents planned and sometimes it is the same with our dogs. Behaviour is complex, there are no guarantees – we just aim to stack the deck in our favour.
Have fun, be kind, patient and be willing to pay your puppy generously for the behaviour you want and then you will get more of it.
Reproduced with kind permission of Dog World