Like most people that grew up with dogs in their home, I was not the one who trained them. My parents did it, and it did not prepare me for training my first. The first puppy that I raised on my own (WELL before I became a dog trainer) was a Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Sasha. Looking back on my early days with Sasha I realize now that if it could be done wrong, I did it! Sasha was one of the reasons that I pursued dog training. I needed to repair the damage that I unintentionally caused with my... ignorant puppy raising.
As a preview of some of my mistakes, I bought Sasha from a newspaper ad when she was five weeks old. I now understand that good breeders rarely advertise in the paper. I also understand that a five-week-old puppy is not ready to leave her mother and litter mates. In my ignorance, I was happy to get her at five weeks because that meant I didn’t have to wait until she was seven-weeks-old! The great thing is that Sasha lived to the ripe old age of sixteen-years-old. But, due to my mistakes I think I was the only person that she did not bite. I was able to manage her behavior as I learned about how dogs think and learn. Thank you, Sasha, for all of the lessons that you taught me! In this article, I will show you how my ignorance caused an issue and how knowledge will prevent you from making the same mistakes!
01 of 07
The first thing that I wish I had known when I brought Sasha home is to priotize fun. I wanted Sasha to be the perfect dog. I had read some books and I was I convinced that I knew how to raise a puppy. I was very strict with Sasha. I limited her time with my two young sons because I didn’t want them to accidentally hurt her in any way by playing too rough.
I kept her in a crate that we built because the fancy crates that we use today had not been invented yet! I had heard that the most important thing to do was for me to be the only one to spend time with my puppy. In this way, she would listen to me and no one else. So because of this poor information I had learned, the first two months of Sasha’s life she lived in a crate with limited, highly supervised time out of it.
Basically, she had no chance to be a puppy. This lack of play and mental stimulation affected Sasha for the rest of her life, and put me in a situation where I had to learn how to manage these behaviors and issues.
From all of this, I have learned that each puppy needs the chance to be a puppy! They need to run around, experience new things, make mistakes, have accidents, learn the boundaries of their world, and safely investigate the world around them. I also now know that the more that you and your whole family play with your puppy, the stronger the bond to the family will be. For some more ideas on how to involve the whole family in training, please listen to my podcast on good games to play with your puppy. And make sure to spend good quality time each day allowing your puppy to just be a puppy!
02 of 07
The second thing that I wish I had known when I brought Sasha home as a new puppy, was that: punishment backfires. At the time when I got Sasha (the early 1980s), physical punishment was considered normal with puppies. Using a rolled up newspaper for corrections was the accepted form of punishment in a puppies life.
Sasha was a very spirited and feisty puppy, and since we got her at 5-weeks-old, she did not have the benefit of her mother's corrections for being too rowdy. This means that each time that I used some type of physical punishment, such as swat her with a rolled up paper or grab her nose, she would escalate her aggressive responses, and turn that response back at me. This, unfortunately, set her on a path of her thinking it is okay to bite people.
These physical corrections, combined with her natural breed tendencies to push back, Sasha felt the need to defend herself when hands came towards her. While I was able in later years to desensitize this to some degree, Sasha never really regained her trust in people.
Since that time, I have learned over and over again that punishment of puppies is not just ineffective, it is counter-productive. Puppies should learn their boundaries with redirection, not reprimand or punishment.
03 of 07
Cures vs Management
As a dog trainer, this topic is one that I have seen time and again, and I have to admit was a situation that I lived with Sasha’s entire life. People always ask us, can old dogs learn new tricks? And our answer is always, “Of course they can!” Older dogs can learn anything that you are willing to put the time and patience into teaching them. However, that does not mean that every problem your dog has can be cured.
As I said before, my use of physical corrections with a dog that has natural tendencies to retaliate, put her in a position to not trust people. Her mistrust was apparent anytime someone reached for her or tried to restrain her - she would get defensive and bite. This behavior was actually one of my main catalysts for learning dog behavior and how to change it. And more importantly, this is where I learned the difficult realization that not all negative behaviors can be cured, some can only be managed.
For Sasha, we worked very hard on desensitizing her to hands coming down at her and as well as being gently restrained. This took me years to get her to a point where she would accept handling, but I can assure you that as much as I worked on it there was never a day that she happily accepted it. My mistake when she was a puppy put her in a place that I couldn’t fix her issue, I could only manage it. I do feel strongly that if I would have known better when she was younger, I could have cured this issue with minimal work.
04 of 07
Preserve the Relationship
Oh boy, this is a big one. Although I am sure there were lots of times during Sasha’s formative years that I could tell you about, there is a particular incident with one of my other dogs that really exemplifies this situation.
One of my Golden Retrievers, Oatmeal, was the perfect example of raising a puppy the right way. She was socialized, allowed to make mistakes, I took her to all of my own classes I was teaching, she came to work with me, met hundreds of people, and we had a perfect working bond.
Now I am not saying she was a perfect dog, or trying to gloat about how great she was. One day, I left her at home while I ran errands, like I had done numerous times. On this day, she apparently got bored and decided to chew on one of my prized possessions - a cherrywood storage trunk, from my mother. She didn’t destroy it, but she customized the edges of the top, as well as decided that the legs were a little too thick. Needless to say, I was not happy with her choices in wood-working, and was MAD. How could my perfect dog have done such a thing?? And of all the things in the house, this one item!
It took all the dog trainer power I had in me to not get mad AT her. I didn’t see her do it, so I couldn’t correct the behavior I didn’t want. It was my fault for giving her too much freedom, too young. But the real thing I had to remember was that if I got mad at her, if I took my anger out on her, it could destroy all of the work we had done building our perfect working bond. I chose to preserve the relationship, and I can assure you that that choice repaid itself thousands of times over. And honestly, I still have that customized trunk in my spare bedroom. Every time I see it, it reminds me of her and all the great things we accomplished. All because I was able to preserve the relationship.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
I said earlier that Sasha wasn’t given a chance to be a puppy. She wasn’t allowed to explore and interact with her world and learn from it. Over the years I have named this the “Puppy License."
I first notice this concept in dogs. With each of my puppies as each of my puppies got older, my full grown dogs would put up with a LOT of annoyance from them. But eventually, it seemed like a switch flipped and they were no longer tolerant of the ear-biting and the pouncing, nor any of the other adorable puppy things that got annoying over time. Basically, why would an older dog put up with a puppy running amok and messing with them and everything else? Because they have granted the puppy a Puppy License.
Once those puppies reached an age where they have been able to experience and investigate, the Puppy License is slowly taken away and the pup is taught to be a good dog citizen.
What a revelation!! From that day forward, I followed the same plan with every puppy I have worked with. Let them be adorable and have fun, let them occasionally mess things up (as long as they aren’t hurting themselves or something important), and let them see how the world works. But, once they start getting a bit older (usually around 12-15 weeks) we starting taking that license away a little at time, until they reach about 6 months old. At that point, puppy biting is no longer “puppy” biting, chewing on things is no longer treated as something to redirect, etc. The ages aren’t a hard and fast rule, they are just guidelines I have seen, and all puppies are different, but it is a place to start.
06 of 07
Puppy Classes are Key
I know, as a dog trainer it seems a little self-important to say, “All dogs need puppy class!” But, it is true. If Sasha would have gone to a puppy class she would have gotten more dog socialization, she would have been able to meet new people and interact with them in a positive way during her formative years, and I would have had an opportunity to lighten up in training! Plus, it never hurts to have another set of eyes (especially experienced eyes) on your young dog.
Finding a good puppy class that fits your needs will help kick off your dog's training, and give you a good base to start with. Make sure you check out some information on choosing a trainer in your area so that you can find what you need.
07 of 07
Socialize! Socialize! Socialize!
Sadly in my life at the time, Sasha never had a chance at socializing with other dogs. When I got her, I lived on a farm in a rural area and worked as a groomer at a vet clinic that had no opportunity for letting puppies play. She didn’t get to play with any other puppies; and since I got her at such a young age, she didn’t really get a chance to learn good play with her siblings.
Honestly, socialization is the key to fixing most problems people have. It will tire them out, they will learn how to interact and not use their mouth, they will learn that jumping and using feet will not be tolerated, and again, they will be tired!!
I hope that these tips help you get off to the right start with your puppy, and not make the same mistakes that I once did!