Behavior or “What the heck?”
This is the lament I often hear from new clients whose dog “refuses” to sit or lie down in class. I do not think they are lying to me. I’m sure that their dog’s behavior is close to perfection at home. But, we are not at home in their kitchen, we are in a new building, with new scents, sights, sounds, flooring, dogs, treats, etc. It’s novel, it’s different, it might just be wonderful, but it is, without a doubt, stressful. And, behavior deteriorates under stress.
For example, imagine that you love singing and have practiced your favorite song throughout the day as you move through your routine. You might have hummed it in the grocery store, sang it loud during your morning commute, or cooed it while you made dinner. As many times as you have “rehearsed” it, you have not sung it out loud, in a new place in front of several people you do not know.
Now, imagine you walk into the gym for step class and your teacher asks you to sing in front of everyone, right now! She might even give you a free class if you sing immediately. Can you do it? If you can, is it as smooth and flawless as it is in your car? Probably not. You may be able to sing it, but I would bet you feel a certain amount of pressure or stress. So does your dog when you demand he Sit! Down! Come! in class, or anywhere that is foreign to him or he is uncomfortable, uncertain, or even excited.
Does this mean that you can never ask (and therefore expect) your dog to sit/down/stay etc., anywhere but in front of you by the refrigerator? No, it does not. But it does mean that you need to:
Recognize when it might be stressful or difficult for Rex to perform. New places, new dogs, new people, a walk, a new or crowded sidewalk, a fire truck, rain, high winds, spilled ice cream, all kinds of things can be exciting, distracting, or stressful for your dog. If you ask him to sit and he doesn’t, it might not be “stubbornness.” It could be that he really, truly can’t do it because it is just too hard right now. You can get him to be more responsive under a wider variety of circumstances by doing the following:
Practice desired behaviors in a variety of places, with various distractions so that, for instance, Rex learns that “Sit!” means he puts his bottom on the ground. I encourage my students to practice new behaviors (such as sit or down) in places with few distractions (such as the kitchen) and then practice in all the rooms in the house where your dog is allowed. When Rex is reliably sitting in low distraction areas, add some challenges. Go outside to the least distracting place near your house (e.g. the driveway, back patio, front porch) and practice sitting there. Don’t expect Rex to plunk down his bottom as quickly as he does inside. Ask him to sit and then wait (count to 5) and let him process the request. Do not repeat the command! Give him a chance to figure out what is expected of him. When he does sit, say “Good dog!” and give him a treat. Repeat this 5-10 times (moving a bit if needed to get his bottom back off the ground).
Lower your expectations of Rex in new environments. If he doesn’t sit the first time you ask him to do so in a new environment, even after a count of 5, then make it easier for him. Put a treat right at his nose and slowly move your hand over his head to lure him into a sit. When his bottom hits the ground, give him the treat. Do this 1-3 more times, then try asking him to sit without putting the treat at his nose. Have him sit 5-10 more times in this spot before moving to a more distracting place such as the yard or sidewalk. Ask him to sit in this new spot, and once again, wait for him to respond. Do not expect him to sit as quickly as he just did on the driveway. This is a new spot and that makes it harder to perform on cue. Be patient and reward him when he does respond correctly. Once again, if he cannot comply with your request, then make it easier for him to respond, so that he builds confidence in difficult situations.
Understanding that behavior deteriorates under stress, lowering your expectations in a new or distracting situation, and being patient as he tries to comply, will help your dog succeed, boost his confidence and, perform this behavior in the future. It’s also what friends do for each other.
Once again Reisner VeterinaryBehavior and Consulting Services has a great post that explains what is actually going on with a common canine behavior. I am referring to when a dog covers something (in this case a child) with a blanket (or other object) in what appears to be putting the baby to bed.*
As Reisner so aptly points out:
Just for the sake of clarification and, more important, for the sake of *safety*, dogs do not exhibit this behavior with newborn puppies. They exhibit it when they are burying, caching or hoarding FOOD. In our companion dogs, this might be observed especially by worried individuals. Far from maternal behavior, the “cute” behavior of covering a baby implies that the dog is associating the newborn with food. As awful as that is, it’s important to remember that newborn babies can be at risk of predatory behavior or fear-based aggression and confusion by dogs.
I have posted before, for many dogs the addition of a tiny human to the house is not necessarily a joyous event for them and, it can make them very nervous if they have not had regular exposure to children. I have some suggestions that will help:
- Do not ever leave your baby or toddler alone with your dog, no matter how much you trust your canine best friend. When my grandkids started arriving, I had three lovely dogs who I trusted completely, yet I never left them alone with the children. Accidents and injuries can happen in an instant! To reiterate Reisner: “it’s important to remember that newborn babies can be at risk of predatory behavior or fear-based aggression and confusion by dogs.” Therefore, don’t put your dog in a situation where he may make a serious mistake. Take the baby (or the dog) with you if you have to leave the room for any reason.
- Give your dog a break! Have a place to which your dog can retreat to give himself a break from the chaos of children. Make sure older children understand that when Fido is in his crate, on his bed, in Mom’s room, wherever this safe haven is, they are not allowed to bother him. This means that they cannot get on the bed with the dog, pull him off, run around him, throw things to him, etc. If they (or you) want to move the dog, call him to you and reward him for coming. If he chooses to stay in his safe haven, respect the fact that he is telling you that he has had enough for now and will rejoin the family when he’s ready.
- In my blog Make your holidays merrier! I give this tip (which is directly related to #2) about managing the chaos of Christmas, but which is appropriate for managing dogs around babies as well:
*Reisner has also put together a series of videos of other canines showing the same behavior as they cache food. Here are a couple of them (to see more, go to Reisner):
Fox (at about 50 seconds):
Dogs are many things, but spiteful is not one of them. They do not plan ahead to get back at you for leaving to go to work, nor do they artfully wait until you are out the door to exact revenge upon your carpet or door molding. Dogs, as Jean Donaldson puts it in Culture Clash, think in terms of safe vs dangerous rather than good vs evil or moral vs immoral. Since they are motivated to keep themselves safe and out of danger, it is very important to help them understand what safe is and to feel as comfortable as possible, especially when first introducing them to your family.*
With this in mind, I try to help clients understand what their dog needs to be successful in their home, by helping them see the world from their dog’s point of view. Not only is the canine perspective on the world a lot lower to the ground, it is from a different species with a less convoluted brain and no language skills (think in terms of Frat boys and you get the picture…).
I found a wonderful article** by Irith Bloom, the Director of Training at The Sophisticated Dog in Los Angeles about understanding the canine perspective. In one section, she does a superb job of describing what it must be like for a newly adopted dog who is anxious and worried about being left, and how we humans mis-interpret the actions of the dog. What we perceive of as acting guilty for wrongdoing, the dog sees as appeasement gestures to try and get his people to stop being angry. Sadly, this cycle of misunderstanding behavior inevitably sets up both humans and canines for failure:
One classic example of how canine instincts and poor communication can have devastating results is the all too common story of the rescue dog who has been placed in a new home and has a touch of separation anxiety due to several recent transitions. When the dog finds himself left alone in the house, he panics, urinates, and scratches at the door. While it’s dangerous to anthropomorphize, it’s reasonable to assume the dog is stressed at being isolated from his new-found family, and he may even “think”—in some canine way—that the family will never return now that they have left.
The family comes back at the end of the day to find their home a mess. They yell at the dog, who throws all his best calming signals at the family in an effort to placate them, and becomes even more anxious about the situation in his new home. At some point, the family leaves again, and the anxious dog engages in more destructive behavior. Day after day, this pattern continues. The family is sure that the dog knows he’s being bad while they are out, since he “acts so guilty” when they come home. This makes them yell at him even more.
Unfortunately, they don’t understand that the dog does not associate the family’s current anger with actions he took hours earlier, and that his behavior has nothing to do with guilt. The dog has learned that when the family comes home, scolding ensues, so he throws calming signals at the family in an effort to avert it. He doesn’t understand why his calming signals aren’t working, or what exactly is causing his family to be so angry. This makes him more and more anxious, so he becomes increasingly destructive. In the end, the dog’s fear of permanent separation from his family is realized, when the family, at their wits’ end, drops the dog off at the local shelter.
So what’s an owner to do? If your dog is having behavioral issues*** such as: destructiveness, barking, whining, house training problems, lunging or snarling at other dogs or people, or trembles at the sight of anything new then, first, understand that your dog is not doing this to hurt or spite you. He is likely fearful and needs some help to overcome his difficulties. Please contact a positive reinforcement trainer**** who can help you to better understand what your dog is trying to communicate and how you can better communicate to him that life is good and safe.
*This is why it is so important to properly socialize your puppy, so that he understands that kids, bikes, lawn mowers, vacuums, sidewalks, men with beards, wagons, snow blowers, teenage boys with iPods, golden retrievers, scooters, steps, etc are all safe things! See my blog: Why your puppy should be a social butterfly and Bringing home your new best friend.
**This essay was a contribution to the Dogwise John Fisher Essay Scholarship (sponsored by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers).
*** I have written several blogs on behavioral issues. See Behavior or “What the heck?” for a variety of blogs on behavior. For specific puppy issues see: This is not the dog I wanted, and Fearful puppies, biting adults, an unhappy alliance.
**** The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) offers a trainer search by zipcode, and I do behavior consults as well as training. Please call if you have any concerns about your dog’s behavior, 740-587-0429
Nota been: 4/28/16. The Granville Farmer’s market opens for the 2016 season on May 7, so I thought it appropriate to resurrect this blog for the opening bell to help your dog enjoy the market as much as you do.
Granville’s Saturday farmer’s market is in full swing and will continue through October. It is a great place to get anything from peaches to perennials, wax beans to beeswax soap, and bacon to bread. It’s also common to see people strolling with their favorite canine down the middle of the market, paying no attention to what is happening at knee level or below.
First of all, it’s hot. The pavement radiates the summer heat and the temperature 18-24 inches above the ground is going to be the hottest. Test the pavement by placing the back of your hand on it for 5 seconds. If you can’t keep your hand there, it’s too hot for canine paws as well. But, moreover, think about how you feel when you’re hot. Are you always tolerant, kind, desiring of another chance to sit on the hot ground and wait for someone while they stop, yet again, to talk? Thinking about it in this way, our dogs are remarkably tolerant of our dithering about.
Distractions also abound, visually, orally, audibly, and especially aromatically. Walking down the center of the market is like running a gauntlet. Simmering beef entices us to the right; a beautiful bouquet strikes our fancy so we veer left; then back again for salsa, soap, or cinnamon buns. Meanwhile, Rover has just gotten a whiff of dog bones (at the front of a booth, RIGHT AT NOSE LEVEL!!!), seen a cute spaniel 15 feet away, or snarfed up a dropped piece of cheese, and would really like to further investigate any/all of these enticing diversions. And what do we do when he balks? We scold him for not listening, and pull him along to our next encounter where he will continue to be challenged and we will continue to demand that he be perfectly behaved.
Another significant challenge for Fifi is space.* Dogs, like people, have clear personal space. Think about the person you have just met who is a “space invader” and gets so close to you that you can smell the coffee on his breath. Are you comfortable? Do you try to put some distance between you and Mr. Mocha? What do you do if there is no room to move away, do you get a bit forward? Tell the person to back off? Try to get around him somehow?
Now, imagine if you are an affable Golden retriever who, in general, likes people and other dogs. You are at the market with your favorite person, and have been there for a half hour or so. It has been very exciting: lots of smells, a bit loud, it’s starting to get hot, you really would like to get a bone and go home, people have been petting and touching you from all sides, (without properly introducing themselves), and now there is a child in a stroller RIGHT next to you with icing all over his hands and face. Your beloved person is busy choosing beans, and holding your leash tight so that you don’t clean-up the sugar-frosted toddler. So you are in a bit of an excited or aroused state. Nothing bad per se, but you’re definitely more sensitive to the surroundings. Now, into this mix comes a dog who is socially awkward and comes right up to your face, head on, and immediately tries to put his head or paws over your shoulders. You have never met this pup, he’s kinda rude, and he’s starting to get awfully familiar! You try to back away, to give yourself a bit of distance from this space invader, but there is no place for you to go. What’s a dog to do?
If the Golden, who really wants to resolve this peacefully, has no other option, he may snarl or snap at the offending dog. This will cause his owner to scold him, jerk him away, and/or swat his behind, and say, “Bad Rover! I’m so sorry! He generally really likes other dogs!” And, I would bet $1000 that the owner of the dog who was inappropriate in his greeting will say (in a hurt or put out tone of voice), “He was just trying to say ‘Hi!'” Yes, perhaps he was. But, unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding his awkward greeting did not lend themselves to a bonhomie outcome.
All this seems to me to be incredibly unfair to Fido, primarily because we are not telling him clearly what is expected of him, only that what he is currently doing, once we actually pay attention to him, is wrong. So, what do I expect an owner to do? Here are some simple rules to make the farmer’s market a happy experience for all involved:
1) Check the temperature, especially if you are headed out later in the morning. If you find it sweltering, so does your pup. Leave Fido home with a tasty Kong to keep him occupied while you wander around the market. Or, if you need to bring him, pack some water for him, and keep him in the shade as much as possible.
2) Be aware of what is going on around the dog at his level. For example, if someone (or some dog) is lurching towards your pooch and he backs up to give himself some more room, step in-between the approaching person/beast and your dog so that he is protected from being overwhelmed. Body blocking is a great way to protect your dog’s personal space.
3) Know your dog’s body language** so that you can intervene before something happens. Remember that your dog is probably in an excited state and therefore, will be more likely to overreact. If you can recognize when your dog is on edge, you can make sure that he has plenty of space, especially around his head, and room to move away from any agitation.
4) If your dog is nervous or uncertain about crowds of people or other dogs, walk him around the market rather than through the gauntlet. I have made this suggestion to a variety of my clients whose dogs have social or spacial issues. The goal here is to get your dog use to being in public, around other dogs, and/or an abundance of distractions without overwhelming him and setting him up for an unsociable encounter, aggressive display, or full-blown panic attack.
5) Keep it short and reward often. Reduce your dog’s stress by keeping your visit to the market short and sweet, and include a lot of rewards for being a good dog. Take some biscuits in your pocket and distribute them liberally as you walk through the market. This will keep Fido focused on you and much happier about the constant busyness around him.
I want both you and your dog to have fun outings together. By paying attention to what’s going on at knee level or below you are setting both of you up for a happy and successful morning at one of Granville’s summer institutions*Further information on canine personal space:
Dog Bit Prevention 2013 by Patricia McConnell
Helping an Anxious Dog by Jessica Miller
**I have written several blogs on canine body language here are a few:
Jean Donalson’s book The Culture Clash is one that I recommend to people who want to know more about the nature of the human-canine bond and how dogs struggle to understand a world so very different from their own. Ms. Donaldson is quite adept at presenting the canine point of view as well as bringing humans up short for their inept behavior concerning their dogs. The Whole Dog Journal sends me regular emails with tidbits about dogs, oftentimes referencing experts and their books. Here is a recent one about changing behavior in dogs from The Culture Clash:
People are terribly mystified by any change in their dog’s behavior and go on a lot with the “why? WHY?” as though there should never be any variability whatsoever in this living organism’s behavior. Training regressions are a frequent occurrence and no big deal. It is so important to remember that behavior is always in flux, constantly subjected to whatever contingencies there are in the environment as well as being influenced by unknown internal events. In the case of behavior problems, there are three main reasons for behavior that had seemed to be “fixed” to break down again:
- Undertraining: the behavior was never that strong in the first place
- Contingency change: the behavior extinguished or another one was trained by the owner or environment
- Failure to generalize: the behavior falls apart in a new location or context
A “contingency change” example: Inadvertent New Rules
A contingency change might look like the following. The dog has learned that it’s safe and often reinforcing to urinate in the yard and dangerous in most places he has tried in the house and so a fairly solid yard habit is in place. The owner has become upset about the yellowing of grass from dog urine and has decided to limit the dog to eliminating in one corner of the yard. The owner takes the dog on leash at elimination times for a couple of weeks, always going to one corner and praising the dog for urinating. The first couple of times the dog goes out off leash, she urinates in the wrong area. The owner punishes the dog. On the third day, the dog will no[t] urinate in the yard. The owners sees this and takes the dog for a walk. The dog has a very full bladder and finally urinates and is praised by the owner. The owner likes the idea of the dog urinating on the walk rather than in the yard and starts taking the dog around the block to eliminate, which is successful and keeps the yard urine-free.
A few months later, the owner is in a rush to prepare for guests arriving so lets the dog into the yard to pee while finishing the cooking. The dog does not urinate in the yard and comes back in full. When the guests arrive, the owner puts the dog on leash to calm one of the visitors who is afraid of dogs. The dog urinates on the Persian rug. The owner thinks the dog sensed that one of the guests didn’t like her and urinated to demonstrate her resentment. In fact, the dog has learned to urinate when on leash only, based on the new contingencies inadvertently set up by the owner. Dogs aren’t into big agendas. They just need to know where and when it’s safe to pee.
I like this example because it shows: 1) how easily we can misinterpret our dogs’ motivations, making them much more complex than they really are; and 2) if our dogs are now making mistakes, perhaps we need to consider what we have changed in their routine or if we have inadvertently taught them to do exactly what we don’t want them to do!
Another book which speaks to the bond between people and dogs, and the importance of understanding that what we do on our end of the leash directly impacts the behavior of the creature on the other end of the leash, is Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book The Other End of the Leash. Dr. McConnell is an Applied Animal Behaviorist who deals with serious canine behavior problems on a daily basis. She is also, however, a dog trainer, breeder, competitor in dog herding trials, and a dog owner who understands just “how easy it is for us humans to miscommunicate to our dogs.” Her clear and approachable writing style makes this compendium of personal and professional experience translate into terms that help people to better appreciate and communicate with their particular canines and, moreover, to love the dog they actually have. As she so eloquently states:
Perhaps one of the kindest things that you can do for your dog is to understand that, just like us humans, every dog has both a unique nature and a bevy of characteristics that he shares with others and that this bedrock foundation of “personality” is influenced each second by internal and external factors that impinge upon him throughout the day. Every dog is indeed special, and he deserves a human who gives him permission to be who he is, whether it’s sweet and shy or bold and cocky.” (The Other End of the Leash, pg. 207)
By understanding that our dogs don’t have ulterior motives, that they have distinct personalities and preferences, and that they are watching us for clues to how this world works, The Culture Clash and The Other End of the Leash help us not only to enjoy our dogs more, but to be the best possible advocates for the goofy, wonderful canines that populate our lives.
“Dogs don’t bite when a growl will do.” (4Paws University)
When it comes to dealing with canine aggression, truer words have never been spoken. I came across this poster and it’s associated article when it was shared by Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services on Facebook. I loved the graphic and the message and after I read the article, well, I now love 4Paws University too!
I tell people with dogs that growl, “I love that your dog does that.” Think of it as an early warning system, a way for your dog to tell you that the situation is becoming very uncomfortable, and could you please help! Immediate aid often takes the form of increasing the dog’s distance from whatever is causing him discomfort. This will help him to calm down and reduce the chance he will escalate his behavior to make his point. If you punish your dog for growling, he may decide that grumbling is not an effective means of communicating with you and he should move up the ladder of aggression to nipping or biting. Nor does punishment address the underlying cause of your dogs distress. As 4Paws puts it,
“Punishment will stop a dog from growling and other aggressive displays. But it won’t address the reason the dog is growling to begin with. It doesn’t change the dog’s discomfort when being pet, groomed, or handled by the vet. The dog still feels threatened.”
The American Veterinary Society of Veterinary Animal Behavior says this about punishment as a means to correct undesirable behavior:
“Punishment also fails to tell the animal what it should be performing instead. Without an alternative appropriate behavior the animal may have no option but to perform the undesired behavior.”
So what do you do when your dog growls? You don’t want to punish it, but you don’t want to ignore it either.
This is the advice that 4Paws gives if your dog growls:
STOP. If your dog growled at you, stop what you’re doing. If your dog growled at someone else, remove him or her from that situation immediately.
EVALUATE. What was happening right before your dog growled? What indications of avoidance did your dog show before growling?
CALL a qualified professional to teach you how to change your dog’s behavior using reward-based methods.
In general, long term help involves working with a trainer or behaviorist who is experienced with aggressive dogs to:
- recognize what makes your dog upset,
- learn to spot other early warning signals that may precede growling,
- address the underlying problem, and
- teach him do something else instead.
Don’t punish, don’t ignore, but don’t despair! Helping your dog to overcome his fear or discomfort may take some time, patience, and professional help, but you can help your dog to become more comfortable and happy in his world. And remember:
A dog who growls is a good communicator. Punishment takes away their ability to communicate. A dog who can’t communicate is a dangerous dog. (4Paws University).
7/24/15: Nota bena: A really great article on developing bite inhibition in both your puppy and your adult dog is Teaching Bite Inhibition, by Pat Miller and can be found here: http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/13_6/features/Bite-Inhibition_16232-1.html. In this article there is a link to another Pat Miller article, The “Gift” of Growling, featured in the October 2005 Whole Dog Journal. If you want to access this article, you will need a paid subscription to WDJ.
As I was preparing for this week’s blog, I found several articles that I thought were interesting and insightful. This first one is about the emotional states of older dogs and how they may not show it, but they need the comfort and support of their caregivers as much as young dogs, and perhaps even more. Their signals may be subtle, (lip-licking, panting, avoiding eye contact), but strange situations or people may give them pause and they depend on their people to help them in stressful situations.
The next article contained a terrific chart of “30 Positive Reinforcement Training Tips for Your Pet.” Like the above article, Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services posted the link to this chart on its Facebook page. This chart has a straight forward explanation of how positive reinforcement works, and how you can easily incorporate it into your training. For example, something often advocate is summed up nicely in tips #4, 5, and 6:
4. Keep any commands short and uncomplicated.
5. Don’t say the command word more than once. They will learn the sooner they obey, the sooner they’ll get the treat.
6. Always use the same word for the same action.
Reisner made this comment with which I also agree: “Two thoughts I would add: For #25 – no need to completely phase out food; it continues to be the best (intermittent) reinforcer for many dogs. And #30 – don’t massage paws unless you’re quite sure your dog enjoys it.”
The third thing I wanted to share was a puppy socialization chart that I found at doggiedrawings.net. This poster is a great summary of what you should (and shouldn’t) do when exposing your pup to new things. As I mentioned in previous posts, properly socializing your puppy is your best insurance policy for a well adjusted adult dog. I especially love the paragraph at the bottom of the poster, and it bears repeating (a lot…):
Remember: EXPOSURE alone isn’t socialization!
If your dog isn’t having a great time you could do more harm than good. Dogs don’t just “get over” issues by themselves, so if your dog is shy, worried, or overly excited, leave the situation and work with a professional who can help both of you. If your dog is having a blast and is happy and comfortable, you’re doing a great job of socializing him!
I have referenced Reisner Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services in past posts as they have a terrific way of succinctly stating canine problems, their causes, and their solutions. On Facebook they have a “Tuesday’s Pearl” that is always worth checking out and this last week was no exception. The topic at hand is fearful puppies who graduate to become fear biters, an all too common story:
Tuesday’s Pearl: Nervous, fearful puppies often grow into adults who bite.
It is notoriously difficult to predict a puppy’s future temperament. This is the case even when the temperament of both parents is known – though, then, the odds are much better that predictions will come true. There is one pattern that emerges again and again, however. When a puppy exhibits fear (even without aggression), she is more likely to show fear-related biting as an adult.*
Unfortunately, owners often guess that the opposite is true. Puppies, they assume, just have to learn to navigate the world through socialization. The sensitive period for socialization is approximately from the time puppies can see and hear (about 2-3 weeks) until the age of 3 months, and exposure to both social (mother, littermates, human hands, children) and environmental (temperatures, surfaces, noises, crates) stimuli is necessary. But, like humans, puppies come into the world with inherited predispositions as well. It’s the combination of genes (traits) and environment (learning) that create the sum of adult behavior. Ignoring the fear will not help.*
Fearfulness and worry have a common trajectory in dogs. A nervous puppy may show reluctance or active avoidance when she’s exposed to new stimuli. This may appear ‘cute’ as the puppy hides behind her owner’s legs in Petsmart, but should very quickly change to curiosity and engagement with friendly dogs and people. If it does not, by four to six months, fear can be manifested through arousal – the puppy’s hackles may be up, her body language defensive, and she might start to show mild aggression through growling. By nine months her fear may become more preemptive as she stands her ground. Barking, pulling towards the stimulus and even lunging are common; in fact, the sensation of being held back (and trapped) by a leash can contribute to classically conditioned reactivity. Young dogs who act this way with unfamiliar people or dogs are at high risk of biting when they become behaviorally mature at 1-3 years of age.
Behavior is plastic and responds well to gentle handling, encouragement and training (learning), but it’s important to recognize that biting as young adults is a very common outcome for nervous puppies. Common does not mean inevitable – however, recognizing the course of behavioral development can make a big difference in helping an anxious puppy to feel safe and to navigate the world.
Should you have concerns about your puppy’s shyness or other behavioral issue please do not wait for the problem to resolve on its own. If you are uncertain as to whether or not there is an issue, check out my blog “This is not the dog I wanted…” for The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Indoor Pet Initiative list of red flags in puppies. Or, call me (740-587-0429) and together we can decide on the next best step for your pup.
*Text emphasis mine.
When my daughter got her Golden Retriever, Hudson, in January of 2005, she was determined that he would be well socialized. Her previous dog, Molly, was adopted when she was about 1 year of age and was most likely grossly under-socialized to people, places, pets, and the rhythms of life in general. She was quite leary of people and aggressive towards dogs. Try as we might, we were never able to get her past her behavior issues.
Emma kept a detailed log of everyone that Hudson met by 4 months of age. At that time we lived in Spotsylvania county Virginia, a fairly rural area surrounded by the Chancellorsville battlefield. Getting him out to meet people required some planning and creativity on our part. Nonetheless, by 16 weeks of age he’d met 750 people. As a result of this intense effort to socialize him, Huddy adored people and could work a room better than most seasoned politicians.
In general, you should aim to have your puppy meet at least 100 people by four months of age. Consider keeping a log of the type of people your dog meets: babies, boys, girls, tall and short people, men with beards, people with hats, sunglasses, and/or both, etc. All these people look different to your pup and the greater the variety of people he meets the more comfortable he will be as an adult dog. Colleen Pelar has a wonderful Scavenger Hunt for Puppy Socialization on her website Living with Kids and Dogs that gives you a checklist of people, places, and things your puppy should encounter.
Any behaviorist or trainer worth their weight in dog biscuits will tell you: the very best way to have a socially sound, well mannered, and stable adult dog is to socialize him, in a positive way, during this critical period. Once the socialization window closes at 16 weeks, it does not reopen, and you are no longer socializing, but counter conditioning. So, when you get your new puppy, commit to introducing him to a variety of people, places, substrates, and objects, when he’s open to it, so you won’t have to hire someone to try and fix him later.
Some veterinarians will tell you that you should not get your dog out until his puppy shots are complete. I understand their desire to reduce your baby’s exposure to diseases such as parvovirus, I do not want your dog to get sick either. However, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on Puppy Socialization, “[b]ehavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” (Emphasis mine.)
While puppies’ immune systems are still developing during these early months, the combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination, and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem. Enrolling in puppy classes prior to three months of age can be an excellent means of improving training, strengthening the human-animal bond, and socializing puppies in an environment where risk of illness can be minimized…In general, puppies can start puppy socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up-to-date on vaccines throughout the class.
In addition to a good puppy class, your dog can be introduced safely to a variety of things, if some guidelines are followed:
A common problem with puppies is general mouthiness, but when an owner is trying to clip the puppy’s leash onto its collar it can go beyond annoying to infuriating . The typical response seems to be to tell the puppy “NO!” and try to get it to settle by sheer force of will and a stern voice. I have not found that this is the most successful method and it generally results in a frustrated owner and a non-compliant dog.
So, what’s an owner to do? The answer is surprisingly simple actually! Use treats to get the the dog to look at you, then lure him into a down and place the treats between his paws as you clip the leash either on or off. If the dog will not do a down, then simply put the treats between his front paws and as he leans down to eat them, snap on the leash. You can use a small handful of kibble as the treats, but I find that adding in a few really yummy treats helps to motivate the pup to be still. Here is a wonderful little video illustrating this technique:
One last hint for leash mouthiness, if your dog is toy motivated, give him a stuffed toy or ball to hold while you snap on the leash. It is really, really hard to hang onto Mr. Bear and bite your leash at the same time.
Puppies bite — and thank goodness they do. Puppy biting is a normal, natural, and necessary puppy behavior. Puppy play-biting is the means by which dogs develop bite inhibition and a soft mouth. The more your puppy bites and receives appropriate feedback, the safer his jaws will be in adulthood. It is the puppy that does not mouth and bite as a youngster whose adult bites are more likely to cause serious damage. (Ian Dunbar, DogStarDaily.com)
Here’s Dr. Dunbar talking about the importance of bite inhibition and allowing your puppy to use his mouth:
I do understand that excessive biting can be frustrating, so if you cannot get your puppy to inhibit his biting or if your puppy seems to be biting out of fear, seek out the help of a positive reinforcement trainer or a certified animal behaviorist so that you can nip that problem in the bud.