Many people treat their dogs just like they do their children. Dogs can seem so human-like; they look at us with those velvet eyes, full of appreciation and love, and after all they are man’s best friend. Dogs will forgive us for nearly everything and more than anything, they want to please us. We integrate them into our world; usually forgetting that deep down inside each dog there is still a bit of wolf – a pack member, instinctively trying to find his place in our human “pack.”
Adopting a puppy into your home is so much more than hugging that soft, wiggling body to your chest, getting nuzzled behind your ear with a wet nose, and feeling tiny needle teeth on your fingers. Puppies are born expecting to be part of a pack, unconsciously knowing that they have a role to play. Depending on the breed, they might be part of a pack of hunters or protectors; they might be racers or investigators. Depending on their temperament, they might wish to dominate or guard; they might need to herd or search. Either way, dogs are social creatures that want to know their place. It is our job as the human family – the pack leader and more dominant members of the pack – to gently but firmly teach the new puppy where and how he belongs. He will be grateful and will rise to fulfill his role if it is clear to him. If our signals are mixed, he will be confused and we will be dissatisfied.
Dog Psychology 101 tells us that dogs understand dog language. The fact that they react to our words with understanding looks and correct responses doesn’t mean they speak our language. Much like going to a foreign country for a few days, we might understand a few of the words by the time we leave, but we won’t understand the entire language in such a short time. For dogs, it works that way their entire lives. Cute little old ladies who chatter on and on to their darling little pooches may charm us, but the dog doesn’t understand more than a word here and there; he is simply enjoying the sound of his mistress’ voice with his name sprinkled in every so often.
Dogs speak body language more than anything else. Rent a nature video and watch a pack of wolves as it relates to each other. The dominant leader stands erect, aloof and firm. Other pack members cower to the leader, heads and tails lowered, crouching in submission. There is a camaraderie, a playfulness among the pack, but the leader is always acknowledged and respected. If there is dissension among the ranks, the leader might grab the offender by the scruff of his neck and pin him to the ground until he begs for mercy. A leader will also ignore other pack members to get their attention. The more he ignores them, the more they want to please him and get in his good graces.
A mother dog, wild or domesticated, naturally speaks to her puppies in the same dog language. If one puppy wanders off from the rest or gets too rambunctious, she doesn’t smack him or lecture him about self-restraint. Mother dogs are gentle with their babies, but firm: the soft scruff of the puppy’s neck is perfect for restraint or discipline. The mother shakes the puppy by his scruff if he misbehaves.
When we begin to train a puppy, the first thing to do is to establish dominance in the pack. When your precious puppy arrives at your home, each family member, including very small children, should take turns dominating the puppy: this means taking the puppy gently by the scruff and pinning him to the floor until he raises his back leg or whines. This may sound cruel, but don’t be fooled. Even an 8-week old puppy has very strong instincts and understands these commands. Of course puppies need time to remember everything they’re taught. They aren’t housebroken or taught where they can and can’t go or what they can or can’t chew in just a few days. Daily, consistent training is necessary. Do the same thing at the same time every day. Feed your puppy at the same time, take him out to the bathroom at the same time, and keep playtime and bedtime consistent. And every day, have each person in the family do the domination ritual a few times.
Just as important as language and domination, is your puppy’s bed. A kennel or crate with a door that latches shut is the best place for your puppy to sleep and rest during the first several months. Ignore his protests, just as you would ignore the protests of a child who wants to be free of a car seat or safety stroller. A crate is a safe place for the puppy to stay when unsupervised, it will ensure fewer accidents, as dogs instinctively don’t want to soil their own beds, and it will provide a den, in which dogs naturally feel secure. Until he is housebroken, keep your puppy in his kennel unless he is eating, drinking, being taken outside to the bathroom, or being given supervised playtime in the house. During housetraining, never let him out of your site, and if you catch him in the act of an accident, immediately shake him by his scruff, as his mother would do, firmly say “no” and then take him outside to the place where he should be going. Do not use his name. Your puppy will very quickly associate his name with praise and admiration. Using his name while administering discipline will only confuse him.
To get and keep your puppy’s attention, again, few human words will be necessary. Attach a long leash to your puppy’s collar and walk him around the house or yard. Say nothing to him, but go your own way so he will have to follow. When he takes his eyes off you, which any curious puppy will most certainly do, make a sudden turn in another direction, consequently tugging the puppy’s collar and forcing him to pay attention and follow you. Do this over and over, many times each day, and the puppy will quickly learn that the best way to avoid being surprised by a quick collar tug, is to keep his eyes fixed on his master. And remember, when your puppy misbehaves, barks at strangers, tries to run away or any other unacceptable behavior, do not use many words and by all means, do not use his name. Firmly say “no” and either give him a sharp tug on his collar or shake him by his scruff.
If you set out to learn a new language, play an instrument, develop a new skill, or make a tedious craft, much time would be spent on lessons, practice, and study. Having a canine companion is a privilege that requires the same amount of time and energy that would go into any important project. Spend the time with your puppy when he is young and you will reap the benefits of an obedient, enjoyable, well-trained dog.