Much of the work I do is with remedial dogs, animals with behavior problems ranging from pulling on the lead to destroying the home. Invariably the root of these dogs' problems lie in the past. Their owners, through no fault of their own, have spent years giving them signals that have in turn given the dog a misplaced sense of its own importance. My task is to redress this balance, to offer signals that establish a new order and a kinder, calmer future for both the dog and its owner.
It does not take a genius to work out that the ideal way to avoid such problems is to deal with a dog at the very beginning of its life. A puppy offers the perfect opportunity to start as we mean to go on. Some people are surprised to learn I am often called out to help owners with their new puppies. The truth is, I really welcome these cases. By definition they are coming from the ideal dog owners, people who care, who respect and want to understand their pet from the beginning of its life with them. To live with animals, people should learn about them beforehand. Far too few people take the time and trouble to do so.
I must say that I have strong views on who should and should not be given puppies. Quite simply, many people are unfit to look after dogs of any kind let alone vulnerable young animals. Puppies should certainly never be given to young children as a present. I make no apologies for saying this. If a child wants a plaything, then I suggest their parents give them a doll or a train set. A dog is not a toy.
My opinions on this have upset people in the past, I have to admit. It is very rare indeed that I agree to give people a puppy when they first visit me. I prefer to be certain that a dog is going to the right sort of home, and I have to be firm about that. I recall refusing to give a puppy to a family who had driven 200 miles to see me once. On another occasion, I refused to part with a puppy that a family wanted for Christmas. They wanted it for their children and, when I refused, their initial reaction was that they'd go elsewhere. Of course, they would have found someone who would have sold them a puppy. There are people who will breed or sell dogs without any concern for the animal's welfare. In this case, however, they understood my motives. My argument against giving dogs at Christmas is simple: calmness and consistency are central to everything I do. Christmas is the least calm, least consistent time of the year.
The family talked about it. I am glad to say they understood what I was saying and agreed. Rather than having a present on Christmas Day, the family came to my house on Christmas Eve instead. The children got the excitement of seeing their new friend but understood they would have to wait until after the holidays, when everything returned to normality, before they could return to take it home with them. Apart from anything else, this would ensure that they were genuine in their desire to take the dog and that they would train the puppy in the right environment. I handed over the puppy in the New Year, happy it was going to a good home.
There are one or two golden rules about taking in a puppy. The first is that the dog should be no younger than eight weeks when it leaves its original home. My reasoning here is again connected to the dog's nature. All puppies are born into a natural family environment, the litter. It is here that it must learn the fundamental facts of life. It has to develop social skills within the litter and it has to learn the language of its peer group. To take it away from the litter environment before these first intense eight weeks are over is, I believe, hugely damaging to a dog.
Once the puppy has left the litter, it is the first forty-eight hours in the new home that become the most crucial. It is a harsh but important truth to remember, but the fact is a puppy is a pack animal that has been removed from its pack. The litter should be a happy, lively, and loving environment where it is interacting with its siblings. The dog is being transported into a completely alien environment, a new home it has had no choice in selecting. Treating the puppy as you would any normal dog is potentially traumatic. It is going to be a nerve-racking experience for the puppy, no matter how loving a home it goes to. For this reason, I believe in establishing the closest possible bond with the puppy during these two days.
I believe in doing all I can to ensure they like their home environment and to make life within it seem as natural as possible. To this end, I actually advocate sleeping with the puppy on the first night. I am not saying it should come into its owner's bed. A far more practical method is for him or her to lie alongside the puppy on a covered sofa for the night. It is a small sacrifice to make as, in my experience, it reassures the puppy at a particularly vulnerable time. The bond this establishes will also help the next day as you help it in investigating and exploring its new environment. It is vitally important that the dog feels comfortable here. This is where it is going to get its food, this is where it gets its affection, this is where it is going to bed down.
At the same time, however, it is important to establish good habits immediately. For reasons I will come to, I do not find gesture eating is necessary with puppies. The remaining three elements of Amichien Bonding should be introduced as early as possible, however.
The most important element of all is undoubtedly establishing order at times of separation. Tempting though it is when owners come in from shopping and this lovely bundle of fluff comes bounding up to them, it is imperative that owners ignore the puppy in these early days. The signal being sent out must be clear and unequivocal: "I will play with you but not now. I will let you know when." It must be sent out from the very beginning, from the first separation even if it has gone into another room and has been out of an owner's sight for a few seconds.
The two processes may seem contradictory. How can an owner be authoritative and loving at the same time as he or she is enforcing such strict rules, people often ask. I point out that the joy that comes when the puppy learns to play on the right terms is, if anything, even greater than that one would get in a less regimented household. There is no question of the fun being eliminated; quite the opposite. It is simply that the affection must be given in the right direction.
The good news with puppies is that the five-minute rule I suggest owners use after separation is almost always enough time in this case. In grown-up dogs with behavioral problems, the repertoire of tricks they will use in trying to get attention can last any length of time. I have seen it last from ten seconds to an hour and a half. An adult dog can leap around, bark, and whine for a seeming eternity. A puppy doesn't get to that stage.
Once the puppy has settled down, the normal process of getting it to come to its new leader can begin. And, as I say, it is here that the true enjoyment can come in. Part of the fun of getting a dog is choosing a name. It is vital that this name is used from the very beginning. At this stage, the more familiar owners are with their dogs the better. I ask owners to call their puppies to them as often as they can, always remembering to reward them with tidbits and praise when they do the right thing. As far as I am concerned, there is no limit to the number of times a puppy can hear the words "good dog."
One of the great joys of training a puppy is the speed with which young dogs learn new tricks. I have found that if you repeat any procedure three times, a puppy will pick up the message, whatever it may be. As with older dogs, it will be clear to see when the Amichien Bonding is working. When it begins standing wagging its tail or sitting in a relaxed position while it waits for your attention, the puppy has confirmed the leadership election process is working. As this develops, owners can also begin working on the other areas of bonding. I do not recommend taking puppies out for walks until two weeks after their first sets of vaccinations, that is until they are about fourteen weeks old. Puppies are simply unprepared for the big wide world at this point. It is far better in my experience to put them into a well-run puppy playgroup, where they can run around in a situation similar to the natural playfulness of the litter environment.
At the same time, however, it is important that the principles of heel work are established early on, and I recommend training the puppy in the home or the garden. The important thing is to teach the puppy that the best place to be is by its owner's side. Again, it must be done through food and reward. If the dog wants to walk ahead, the lead must be relaxed and the dog must be returned to where it should be. Tugging matches should be avoided at all costs. There is nothing a young pup loves more than a game. There will be more than enough time for games later. For now, it must learn the rules of a different game. If you don't lay down those rules at this point, believe me, it will make up its own.
To my mind, the tone of voice an owner adopts with a new dog is of paramount importance. I ask people not to shout or shriek but to make what I call a bonny sound. I remind them that the dog is supposed to be man's best friend. How do they talk to their best friend, do they shout and bawl or do they talk kindly and calmly to them? Once the dog is responding to gentle commands, the voice can be reduced to a near whisper. This will really bear fruit later on. A dog that is tuned in to soft commands will really pay attention when the owners raise their voice.
In the case of decision making at the door, the puppy should be disregarded when people come in. It can work two ways in this situation: in some ways, it is easier to ignore a small dog, and on the other hand, there is nothing more certain to arouse visitors' sentimental streaks than the sight of a cute puppy. It is imperative that the principles are adhered to at all times, however. How often have we all heard that saying that a puppy is not for Christmas, it is for life? Well the same applies to my method. It is not something to be picked up and discarded. Owners must start as they mean to go on, then stick to it.
I have talked about the power of food already. It is nowhere more useful than in puppy training. In this case, however, feeding methods have to be subtly amended to take account of the unique circumstances at work in puppies. The central message of feeding remains, as ever, leadership. An eight-week-old puppy is generally on four feeds a day. In bringing its food to it this frequently, owners are also delivering a powerful and consistent message. They are the providers, the authority within this pack lies with them. Given this, I see little need to carry out the normal gesture-eating technique as well. Why use a sledgehammer to crack a nut?
At the same time, however, food plays a really useful role in teaching other behavior. One of the simplest is teaching the dog to sit. As I have said before, teaching a dog to adopt a sitting position is a priceless tool to have available. By using the method outlined earlier, and bringing food up to and then over a puppy's head, the dog will quickly learn to do this. Once more we are playing on the "What's in it for me?" principle, the self-interest that is already ingrained in the puppy. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly puppies cotton on to this.
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