How Your Puppy Is Just Like an Alligator (And I Don’t Mean Because of All the Biting)

alligatorPuppies and dogs drive us bonkers, what with all their leaping, biting, pulling and indoor peeing. It can be challenging to live with a dog, no doubt about it. Why is it sometimes so difficult?

Imagine that you and your family have decided to adopt a pet alligator. First you would find out a little about alligators, then you’d visit ReptileFinder online to look at photos and pick the cutest one, and finally you’d bring the little dickens home.

Soon the alligator would start exhibiting her normal behaviors. She would slip into the goldfish pond in your garden and wreak havoc (pretend you have a goldfish pond). She would hide under the couch to take a nap, ripping the underside of the upholstery with her pointy back. She would open her huge mouth, holding it wide in a toothy threat display because you approached her too fast. The sight of her gaping, massive jaws would probably scare the you-know-what out of you.

Obviously you would not say to yourself, “This is a naughty alligator! I need to learn how to discipline her!” You would think, “Well, duh. Alligators need to do alligator things. I had better get a kiddie pool, a raised platform underneath which she can nap, and, to put her at ease, I need to learn to move differently around her.”

But it is not so obvious with a dog who appears to be naughty. Why not? It is because, unlike with an alligator, or for that matter literally any other animal on earth, the natural histories of dogs and humans are specially intertwined. Some scientists would even say humans and dogs have co-evolved. We “get” each other in ways that no other human/non-human pair understands each other. We have emotions in common and enjoy many of the same things. Dogs can read our body language and facial expressions, and even anticipate and fulfill our needs. It’s not your imagination.

However, we tend not to return the favor by trying to understand what our dogs are feeling and what they’re trying to tell us. Why? Because we are in charge, so we don’t trouble ourselves with it. We generally consider dogs’ needs and opinions less valuable than ours. When you think about it, that is a pretty arrogant attitude (some would call it “speciesist”). That’s not the kind of person most of us want to be. Golden Rule and all, if you see what I mean.

Honestly, there is no harm in giving your puppy the same consideration you would an alligator. It might even teach you and your kids something about yourselves, and about how we treat those who are similar yet different from us.

Granted, it is not always easy to live with another species. I don’t blame you one bit if at times you get emotional with your puppy, or try to explain to her the rules in the way that makes sense only to a human, or feel like she should know better. We all get sucked into that, partly because of how much we have in common with dogs. The connection we have with dogs is downright amazing, but it is no wonder the lines get blurry about what we expect they should automatically know. We have given them the role of family member, fashion accessory, disposable project, worker, best friend, menu item, hero, and hat trim, just to name a few. It’s confusing, to be sure. They are so like us, and at the same time we could do a lot better job of understanding and respecting our differences.

Perhaps we could meet our dogs halfway. If we make even a tiny effort to see things from their point of view, to learn to read their body language and meet their needs, I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much more harmonious life can be. We may even learn a thing or two from them.

Oh and the alligator thing was just a made-up analogy. I really doubt it is a good idea (or, you know, legal) to live with one.

Puppy Savvy Video Lesson: The Animal Game

This game teaches impressive self-control for both dogs and kids, conditions the dog to calmly enjoy the erratic movements and surprise sounds that kids make, and it’s just plain fun!

The goal of the Animal Game is to have the dog feel confident and nonchalant about sounds and behaviors generated by kids. The kids learn that in general they should behave quietly around the dog, unless it’s time for the Animal Game. The coach can even teach the kids to respond to the cue, “Animals, stop!” if the children are starting to get wild (during the game or otherwise).

To play this game, the child acts out an animal and the kid-canine coach rewards the dog for maintaining a sit. The coach should also reward ear flicks and head turns toward the child. Those mean the dog is noticing the child’s activity; when kid activity becomes a tip-off for treat delivery, you have created a positive emotional association between noticing the kids and feeling calm and happy. (You’ll notice the dog in the video automatically turns back to the adult when he notices the kids doing something, that is how automatic the association has become for him.) Start indoors and on-leash to stack things in everyone’s favor.

The kids should choose from low-key animals at first, like a beetle or a turtle. They can work up to more movement or sounds by choosing from animals like butterflies or monkeys. At first the coach should cue the animal helper to act sleepy or purr softly, but they can work up to cuing the child to roar and leap. Start with kids standing virtually still, then moving nearby, then moving around the dog. By increasing the challenge gradually, you help the dog stay calm and help the kids focus on their task and not be too obsessed with the dog.

Should the dog get up from the sit position without being released by you, it just means he needs more practice with a slightly easier challenge. So ask the “animals” to stop. Then ask the dog to sit again (no treat). Cue the kid(s) to act out an easier version (further away, less movement, and/or quieter voices) of what they had just been doing and reward the dog heartily for staying still and relaxed. Keep sessions under 5 minutes and take little breaks throughout.

Work up to playing in locations where jumping up has been a challenge for the dog, such as where kids enter the house or yard. In the Advanced version shown in the video, you will see a couple of ideas for helping the dog feel at ease with kids running up from behind or running all around him. Notice the kid-canine coach sets them all up for success by setting boundaries for the kids, such as using a stick as a  landmark to run to, or creating a circle to stay outside of.

What do you see in the video would be challenging for your dog or child? What kinds of movements or sounds would bother your dog enough for him or her to pop up out of the sit position? How else might your dog let you know something was too difficult or stressful for him?

Many thanks to beautiful Xander, whose heart is as ginormous as he is, and to his wonderful people and their friends for taking his feelings into account when training. This was a field test for the instructions they read for the Animal Game in Puppy Savvy; they had no instruction from me before we filmed and I think they all did a fantastic job!

How to Catch a Dog With the Gotcha Game

LogoanRecallThe Gotcha Game is for you if you want your dog to come all the way to you when you call. If you’ve ever been frustrated that your dog heads towards you, but then stays just out of reach, playing this game correctly should solve that. And if you’d like to make sure your dog is comfortable having anyone grab him or her by the collar, start playing the Gotcha Game. Here it is in three quick steps to accompany the detailed instructions in Puppy Savvy. You’ll also find tips for Bold and Bashful puppies there. (Works for grown dogs, too!)

Notice how I touch the puppy underhand instead of reaching over hand or over his head. Most dogs do not enjoy patting on top of the head and may back away or avoid coming all the way to you. Notice also in Step III how I lavish praise on the pup for quite a long time for coming to me. Be generous and your puppy will want to come close and stick with you.

Many thanks to Sandi and the delightful Logan. (Don’t miss his adorable prairie dog impersonation in this clip.)

Puppy Savvy Video Lesson: Body Handling Step III

Today I offer you the third of three videos on how to teach your pup to feel comfortable with being touched. Notice how much more at ease the puppy is with me grabbing his tail, ears and reaching over his head after simply completing Steps I and II

You’ll be ready to move on to Step III once your puppy is feeling relaxed about you touching her anywhere for 7-10 seconds. Step III is the bee’s knees, the cat’s meow, the step that puts the whole enchilada together. It helps your puppy feel great about being touched and restrained away from home, by your veterinarian or groomer, up high, and on a slippery surface. Those are some serious puppy skills that will serve your puppy his or her entire life.

Why go to this bit of trouble? If you were a little puppy, I bet you would prefer to feel great about touch, heights, surfaces and strangers reaching for you before you were required to experience those things in a strange place filled with unfamiliar people and other dogs. It could make a big difference in how you feel about your vet and grooming care, and even how trusting you feel toward your person.

If your puppy is Bold or Bashful, see Puppy Savvy for additional instructions, tips and troubleshooting ideas. (By the way, any of these tips are also ideal for dogs who are no longer puppies.)

Special thanks to Sandi and Logan the Adorable.

Don’t Throw the Puppy Out With the Bathwater: Body Handling in the Age of Hands-Off Dog Training

Dog training has become more sophisticated and much kinder. Now we can take into account the science behind how dogs learn, what they are capable of, their individual personalities, and how their learning experience can and should be one free of coercion, pain or fear of consequences.

This is wonderful, no doubt about it. It is the right thing to do to extend the same respect and empathy to others, including dogs, which we would want shown to us if we were learning something new.

In fact, it is possible to teach virtually any skill or trick without ever laying a hand on your dog. Dogs are great at puzzling things out and, generally speaking, stronger and more reliable training comes from letting the dog put the pieces together without us pushing, pulling, or punishing, but rather rewarding incremental progress toward a finished behavior. (Just like being pushed on a swing does not teach a little kid how to “pump,” however if left to experiment with shifting their weight and kicking, they figure out what to do with their body to make the swing go. Click here for more on this type of training.)

But…we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because we don’t use our hands for physical coercion in training any longer does not mean dogs are never faced with human hands coming at them. Puppies and dogs cope with human hands petting, holding, restraining, grooming, lifting, grabbing and touching in all kinds of ways. We should take care to prepare them for lots of different types of body handling, especially now that our training has become so hands-off.

Can you imagine how strange it would seem to have someone brush your teeth, take blood from your arm, or put ointment on your head if you were never shown how benign, even pleasant, touch can be? You might become afraid, strongly object, or develop stronger and stronger defensive reactions over time. Some of us might just judo chop the other person right off the bat.

Let’s not put our dog in this position, feeling like they have to flee or fight when faced with everyday touch, handling and restraint. It is so simple to accustom dogs to body handling, and our dogs are counting on us for help with this. I imagine not only your dog, but your dog’s veterinarian, his groomer and his class instructor will appreciate it as well.

Get started with this short video lesson that shows Parts I and II (of III). For full instructions and how to adapt the process for Bold or Bashful puppies, see Puppy Savvy.

Many thanks to Sandi and Logan the Dreamboat for their help with this video lesson.

Puppy Savvy Video Lesson: How to Introduce Your Puppy to Wearing a Collar

Time for your next video lesson, are you ready? This is short and sweet, but using this approach can prevent biting of your hands and help the puppy feel good about his collar.

For detailed instructions, troubleshooting hints, and tips for Bold and Bashful puppies, see Puppy Savvy.

There is something funny about this video I can’t quite put my finger on…somehow Logan the Puppy seems less goofy than the person doing the talking. Many thanks to Sandi and very mature Logan.


How to Let Your Dog Teach You Something

These dogs are (ahem) really digging this activity. What a great way for them to use their senses, their muscles, their minds, and just have a good ol’ time being themselves.

I often see people who are enjoying their dogs. All too often, though, as much as I hate to say it, the person is doing what they want and the dog is mostly just tolerating it. Whether it is a certain kind of touch, body language, training, or play, it often looks to me like people are doing things the way they’ve always done them, how they were once taught, or what their other dog used to enjoy.

Do you take your dog’s preferences and feelings into account during your interactions?

It is important to do so if you involve him in activities like therapy work, doggie sports, or outings your dog may be going along with, but not necessarily enjoying (dog park visits and day care are a very common examples).

It is just as important to learn what your dog likes in terms of normal, everyday routines. Have you ever checked in with your dog to see what he or she would really like? How would you ask?

Maybe you are wondering why we should get our dog’s opinion in the first place. It is my feeling that just because I pay for the dog food and am the big, powerful human doesn’t mean I can disregard my dog’s feelings. If anything, my position gives me the extra responsibility and opportunity to show respect and kindness to my dog. Besides, when I know more about what makes my dog tick, I am much less likely to get frustrated (hence our interactions are more fun). And last but not least, I find that flexing my empathy muscles at home with my dog makes them ready for action when I need them with others in the world.

Today let’s take play as an example. Play can be a wonderful way to bond with and get to know your puppy or dog. You can get the ball rolling, so to speak, with what I call Goodall Games. Jane Goodall made famous the idea of observing quietly and letting other animals show her what they do without trying to influence them. You can do this with your dog. Instead of always dictating the game, watch your dog and see what she or he shows you. Does he enjoy digging, finding hidden objects or smelly things, playing keep-away, rummaging in the bushes, chasing and tearing around, stalking prey? Just be silent and watch. (And obviously use common sense and keep safety in mind.) 

After just a few sessions of observing you may find you have not only greater appreciation of your dog as an individual, but also new ways to provide:

  • play and relaxation
  • exercise
  • mental stimulation
  • a chance to express normal doggie behaviors
  • rewards for training things like come when called
  • new games by combining a game you like with a game your dog shows you he likes (for example, maybe your dog will find toys more interesting if you wiggle them in the bushes or in the dirt, reminding him of the critters he likes to chase)

It can be very eye opening, respectful, and fun to let your dog teach you what he or she likes best. There are all sorts of ways to incorporate versions of your dog’s favorite activities into play with you. For example, sometimes when I call my dogs (you can see them digging in the video above) I reward them for dropping what they were doing and coming to me by letting them dig to their heart’s content. Give the Goodall Games approach a try and let me know what you discover! If you are intrigued but aren’t sure what to do with what you observe, let me know that, too, and we will brainstorm some ideas. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of learning from dogs, and your dog could teach me something, too.

Puppy Savvy Video Lesson: How to Pick Up Your Puppy

Time to shake things up! I am hereby launching a new feature that I hope will enhance life and learning for you and your dog. I am offering video lessons to correspond with the instructions in Puppy Savvy. These will be the short-and-sweet versions of the exercises from the book, so that at a glance you’ll be able to see what to do. (You’ll find troubleshooting tips and how to adjust the instructions for Bold or Bashful puppies in the book.) Some things will be very basic and some more involved, all are important for clear communication, fun and/or safety.

You’ll be able to view these videos on your computer screen or smart phone, so I am hoping they might come in handy if you’re in the yard or on the road with your little whippersnapper. Questions? Comments? Let me know what you think!

With heartfelt thanks to Sandi and the (omigosh, so adorable) Logan.


Comin’ Atcha on Freaky Friday

Today is the day we take a moment to see things from the dog’s perspective. How is this dog feeling? How can you tell? If you’re not sure, start by listing some of the things you see in her individual body features. Which direction is she moving in relation to the person? What’s her overall body shape? Let’s discuss in the Comments section. Happy Friday!