When watching puppy training classes, it is so easy to be seduced by the sight of individual pups happily and obediently responding to off-leash, verbal requests and hand signals to come, sit, heel and down-stay, that one tends to forget the major reasons for holding puppy classes:
A comprehensive puppy program comprises both behavior training and temperament training in addition to the trainer's choice of obedience work. The most vital ingredient is temperament training - providing an educational forum for pups to learn social skills and to develop the confidence and social savvy for friendly interaction with other dogs and especially, people. Pups must be allowed to play with other puppies and dogs, and to enjoy numerous positive interactions with a wide variety of people, especially children and men. Socialization should always be the prime directive of any puppy program, whether the class comprises a group of owners forming a circle on the floor with pups having a right old time playing in the center, or fancy obedience skills performed off-leash in the middle of an ongoing play session.
Obedience training is necessary for owners to control their dogs' body position, location and activity. Some form of functional obedience training is necessary for all dogs, no matter what their station in life. Certainly, all aspects of obedience training may be effectively accomplished at any time in the dog's life, but it just happens to be easier, quicker and more enjoyable to train the dog as a pup. However, despite the ease of early training, we should never forget that obedience is only the tertiary reason for puppy classes. Even so, the prospect of early, off-leash, verbal control is ideal owner-bait to encourage enrollment of pups in classes that additionally offer far more urgent behavior modification and all important temperament training. It is unlikely many owners would rush to enroll their pup in a canine anti-aggressiveness and bite-inhibition training class!
A dog's behavior may be modified at any time in the dog's life, although the older the dog, the harder the prospect. Generally, it is better to nip behavior problems in the bud; to modify the dog's behavior before potential problems raise their ugly heads, or before incipient problems become full-blown. Without sufficient guidance (behavior modification), the dog will be left to improvise in its quest for occupational therapy to wile away the long hours it is invariably left at home alone. And no doubt owners will deem the dog's improvisations as quite unacceptable. Yet in no time at all, the dog's inappropriate expression of its normal behavior will become an integral part of its daily routine, i.e., the behaviors will become habits. - bad habits.
This is unfair to both dog and owner, because for the rest of the dog's life, no doubt the owner will frequently be irritated by the dog's behavior and hence, the dog will frequently be punished by the owner. Moreover, to reeducate a dog with existing and well-entrenched bad habits, it is necessary to first break the bad habit, before retraining the dog. For example, getting a dog to relinquish a ten-year barking habit is equivalent to convincing a person to quit a forty-year smoking habit.
It makes so much more sense to educate the dog as a pup so that it does not habitually reinforce itself for barking excessively. A vital ingredient of any puppy class involves educating owners how to prevent common and predictable behavior problems - how to teach their dogs appropriate and acceptable alternatives for their normal doggy behaviors, i.e., what to chew, where to eliminate, where to dig, when to bark, when to jump-up and when to be active etc. In particular, it is essential to immediately address any incipient behavior problems which crop up in class, even at the expense of delaying to teach how to heel and sit.
Indeed, mastery of obedience skills can wait, whereas for behavior problems, the sands of time are already quickly running out. For example, rather than allowing a barking pup to deafen everybody in class for six weeks, (i.e., setting a precedent for the dog to chronically irritate its owners and engender the wrath of neighbors for the rest of its life), during the first week of class, teach the barking pup to "Shush" for progressively longer time-periods. Teach the owner how to teach the dog to shush for its supper.
Similarly, house soiling problems in class should be dealt with immediately; Do not even waste time clearing up the mess, the owner must learn to hustle - mistake... instructive reprimand! "Outside!" - all in less than a second. A single word conveys to the dog, you're making a booboo and you could rectify things by doing that outside. "Good dog!" Now clear up the mess. House soiling problems especially present such a frightening prospect. Not because of the small puppy puddle on the floor, but because one small puppy mess in training class is usually the harbinger of a myriad of messes of adult proportions in the home. If the dog soils the home, it stands a good chance of being relegated outside, where of course it will begin chewing, digging, barking and escaping to relieve the boredom of solitary confinement, whereupon the owner finds the dog a bore and tries to find it another home.
It is helpful to bear in mind that behavior problems, even simple behavior problems such as house soiling, effectively kill more dogs than any virus or bacteria. If the dog's presenting problems are not resolved pronto, in all probability the dog may not be around to teach it to heel and sit.
Unlike obedience training and behavior modification, temperament training must be viewed in a developmental context and MUST be accomplished during puppyhood. Preventive intervention is the key; to delay is utter folly. Preventative measures are easy, efficient, effective, virtually effortless, and even enjoyable, whereas in most cases, treating temperament problems in adult dogs is so time-consuming, so difficult and often, so dangerous.
Just as it is impossible to breed a dog that always scores a perfect 300 in the ring and never breaks sit-stays, it is impossible to breed a dog with a perfect temperament - a dog which never fights and never bites. Certainly good breeding is essential but by itself, selective breeding is not sufficient. Perfect scores and reliable stays are largely the product of good training. Similarly, dogs have to be trained not to fight and TRAINED never to bite people.
The temperament of every dog needs to be modified to some degree - molded to suit the owners' lifestyle. All dogs are different: some dogs lack confidence, whereas others are too pushy, some are sluggish and others are too active, some are shy and reserved, standoffish, asocial, or antisocial, whereas others are overly friendly, or rambunctious. People tend to forget that a domestic dog is not domesticated until it has been adequately trained and socialized. If the dog is not socialized and has not learned to inhibit biting, then the so-called domestic dog (of any breed) is much worse than a wild animal.
Puppy programs that promote early socialization, an enriched social environment and temperament training, with the liberal use of training games plus food, toy and social lures and rewards in training, are the only workable solution for temperament problems. If owners allow their pups sufficient opportunities to play with other puppies and dogs, most potential dog-dog problems take care of themselves. The pups virtually train themselves to be friendly and outgoing.
A socialized dog would much rather play with other dogs, than hide or fight. Indeed, the generalized fearfulness prevalent in far too many adult dogs is virtually nonexistent following off-leash, puppy training and socialization classes. Certainly, even well-socialized adult dogs will have occasional scraps. In this respect they are not much different from people. There are very few people who can honestly say that they have never lost their temper, never had an argument, and never physically grabbed another person (usually a child, or spouse) in anger. On the other hand, very few people have seriously harmed or killed anyone. Whereas it is absolutely unrealistic to expect dogs (especially males) never to squabble, it is absolutely realistic to expect dogs to know how to resolve their differences without ripping adversaries limb from limb, in fact, without even making tooth contact or drawing blood.
Furthermore, these social skills MUST be acquired early in puppyhood. The primary reason for puppy-play is for pups to learn to inhibit the force of their bite and develop soft mouths, before their jaws develop the power to inflict serious damage. Puppy play also enables the youngsters to learn the appropriate context of individual elements of their entire behavioral repertoire. An inadequately socialized dog lacks confidence both in social interactions as evidenced by hiding and snapping, or by mucho 'macho' snarling and growling and in sexual encounters as evidence by mating problems, small litter size, maternal problems etc.
Puppies do, however, require considerable human guidance to prevent the development of fearfulness and aggressiveness towards people. Owners are simply dying to learn how to desensitize the dog to potentially threatening and provocative situations such as, around valued objects, (e.g., food bowl and bones), with strangers, children, or during friendly (but unwanted) petting and hugging, or aversive (painful) handling and restraint.
In addition, puppy classes are essential to teach owners how to teach their pups to inhibit biting behavior - to systematically inhibit firstly, the force of its biting (until all pressure is eliminated) and then secondly, the incidence of biting (which by now is only mouthing). When dealing with a potential problem as serious as dog-human aggression, it is prudent to have several lines of defense at the very least, a dual intervention program:
Thus, should situations arise, for which we have not adequate proofed the dog, (e.g., should a child Batman jump on the dog's ribcage, or shut its tail in the car door), the dog has at least been socialized with children, it has been exposed to a variety of weird happenings, it has been desensitized to painful handling and by and large it knows it should not bite, but if it does... a dog with good bite inhibition will barely break the skin, that is if it makes skin contact at all.
There are so many different desensitization and confidence building exercises - a number are described in my Preventing Aggression booklet and some are demonstrated in the SIRIUS Puppy Training video. Most of the exercises rely heavily on the use of food lure-reward training, being the method of choice when working with fearful or aggressive dogs. Often unfortunately, during initial temperament training it is counterproductive to praise and/or pet the dog, since the puppy/dog is frequently afraid or irritated by a stranger's voice and hand contact. Ironically, these were often the cause of the problem in the first place.
To describe just a single exercise: hand-feeding. By hand-feeding the initial portion of the dog's supper, the dog learns to enjoy human company around its food bowl. It learns to take food "Gently" (bite inhibition) and it learns "Off!" or "Wait!" (also useful in teaching bite inhibition) and "Take it!". "Off!" means don't touch the food unless told to "Take it! Initially, the dog is trained that if it doesn't touch the food for progressively increasing time intervals, it will always be allowed to take it. Once learned, the owner has the option not to veto the "Off!" command, which now means don't touch at all.
There are numerous applications for these commands: "Take it!" encourages a fearful dog to take a food treat or toy from a stranger. (And it makes a doddle out of teaching Malamutes and Akitas how to retrieve.) "Gently!" instructs the dog how to take food from an unfamiliar child, and how to play with the cat, or a shy dog. "Off!" is useful to instruct the puppy to stop mouthing as well as not to touch a variety of items such as, the baby's diapers, the baby, the Sunday joint, the neighbor's Easter bunny, a dead crow, fecal deposits of unknown denomination, a rattlesnake, a fearful dog, or a large aggressive dog.
Ian Dunbar PhD,
List and Site Owner: Melissa Alexander, mca @ clickersolutions.com