Puppy training techniques

Teaching your puppy his proper place in his human family


For thousands of years dogs have lived in social groups called packs and each pack member has his own position or rank in the pack. Once puppies are able to walk and interact, they try to determine their position in the litter. A puppy soon learns if he is submissive, the other puppies will push him away from the food. If he is larger and stronger than the other puppies he will most likely be the one doing the pushing. As puppies get older they will have to figure out their position in the pack.

After a puppy is adopted into his new human pack, he has to re-establish his position. If he was the bully of the litter, he may try to bully his new pack members. If he was submissive with his littermates, he will probably start out being submissive. As he grows older and larger he will try to determine where he fits into this new human pack. His ultimate rank will depend on how his human pack members respond to his actions in various situations.

When first introduced to his new family, a puppy will usually act somewhat submissive. When greeted, your new puppy may roll over on his back and urinate or he may squat and urinate. He is sending you a message in dog language which says, “don’t hurt me, I am not a threat to you.” If he submits in this manner, do not scold him or you will make the problem worse.

As a puppy grows older he will take his cues on how he should respond to his new owners by the way they react to his actions. For example, a puppy is chewing on his favorite chew toy or rawhide and a child approaches the puppy. The puppy uses the body language he learned from his littermates to warn the child not to come any closer. These warning signs may be a low, soft growl, a curled lip, raised hackles or a nip directed at the child. If the child heeds the warning and backs away, this puppy has just learned that a threatening growl is a good way to keep his prized possessions away from this particular child. The puppy also learns that his rank or position in his new family is higher than this child’s.

Sometimes children are not able to interpret a puppy’s body language and they do not back off when warned. After several such incidents, the puppy feels he has given enough prior warning and he bites the child. Other members of the family may not witness the earlier incidents when the puppy growled and did not bite the child. When the child finally gets bitten, the mom or dad will often say the puppy bit the child for no reason, with no previous warning and they may want to get rid of the puppy.

If a puppy gets away with threatening a child or younger member of the family, he will usually try the same thing when other family members come near one of his favorite possessions. If the family member gives the puppy a stern correction and lets him know he should never growl at humans, the puppy has just learned that his position in the new family is lower than the family member who corrected him but still higher than the child he threatened. Over time, similar incidents will likely occur with every member of his new human pack. The response of each family member to the puppy’s actions will help determine his ultimate ranking.

Social maturity

Once he determines his family ranking and he submits to higher-ranking family members, there may not be any more problems until he reaches his social maturity. The best way to describe social maturity is when the puppy becomes a teenager. Social maturity usually occurs between 12-36 months of age, with 18-24 months of age being the norm. He is now older, stronger, more confident and his attitude toward family members may change. This mild-mannered, young, adult dog may now begin to challenge higher-ranking members of his human pack that he had previously submitted to.

The best to way assure your puppy knows his proper position in his human pack is to begin making him earn everything he receives, as soon as he joins your family. Prior to receiving anything such as food, petting, or play, you must make him sit to earn these privileges or rewards. By making your puppy sit, you will teach him that he must submit to you before you will give him anything. Nothing in life is free. Everything must be earned.

Teaching “sit”

I prefer to use the method described by Ian Dunbar DVM in his “Sirius Puppy Training” video to teach puppies how to sit. Use small pieces of dog biscuits, Cheerios or other tasty treats for this training. To teach the sit command, hold a small piece of treat at the level of the puppy’s nose. Your puppy will smell the treat and move his head toward it. When he sniffs the food, slowly move the hand holding the food back and slightly over the top of his head. As he stretches his neck to reach for the food, continue moving the treat over the top of his back toward his rump and repeat the command “sit” several times. Most puppies will drop into a sit position in order to reach the food. If you raise the treat too high over the puppy’s head, he will likely raise up on his back legs to reach the treat and not sit. As soon as the puppy sits, give him the treat, act very excited and lavish him with praise saying “good puppy”. Continue short training sessions until your puppy sits automatically when given the “sit” command. You will be surprised how quickly most puppies will learn this technique, often in just a few minutes.

Once your puppy has mastered this exercise, every member of the family, including all children, must be taught how to make him sit. You will have to portion out the dog treats to be sure your puppy does not receive too many. The puppy must now sit before he receives anything. If he wants to play, he must sit. If he is being fed, he must sit before receiving his food. If he wants you to pet him, make him sit first. If he runs to the door to be let out to eliminate, praise him for going to the door, but make him sit before opening the door. You are rewarding him for signaling you to let him go out, but he must earn the privilege of having the door opened for him. When you open the door, make your puppy remain sitting until you and other family members go out the door first. This will show him that higher-ranking members of the pack go out the door first and hopefully this will keep him from bolting out the door whenever it is opened.

Feeding time

Mealtime is a very special time for most puppies. The individual feeding him is a special member of his family and is often considered a higher-ranking member. If you have children, help them measure out the puppy’s food and have them place a few pieces of food into the dish. After the puppy eats them, have the children add a few more pieces until all the food is gone. This lesson teaches the puppy that a child’s hand reaching toward the food bowl means the child is giving him something and not taking anything away. This exercise will help desensitize your puppy to children around his food bowl while he is eating. Allowing the children to do the feeding, will elevate their rank because the puppy must depend on them for his food.

Another good idea is to have all family members do things to distract the puppy while he is eating. Pet him, rub him and gently pull on his tail and legs. This will serve to desensitize him to human contact while eating and make him less likely to be protective during these times.

Do the same thing when he is chewing on his favorite chew objects or playing with his favorite toys. Take these objects away from your puppy, praise him and then give him a food treat as a reward for giving up his prized possession. Eventually, you will not have to use food as a reward. Praise him and give back his chew object as a reward. Once your puppy will allow you to do this without any incidents, supervise and allow your children to do the same thing. Eventually every family member should be able to take things away from your puppy and reward him for giving them up.

Dominant-aggressive dogs

Some training methods utilize training techniques such as “neck scruffs” and the “alpha rollover.” If a dog is “dominant aggressive” and forceful training methods are used, he may submit to the individual training him. If other family members challenge him and force him to do something against his will, he may not submit to them and they could be at risk of being bitten. If he growls or snaps at an individual and makes them back down, he has elevated his status over that particular individual or family member. He may then use threats in an attempt to be in control. If this aggressive behavior escalates, he may eventually become an unacceptable pet. Euthanasia or the animal shelters is often the fate for a dog with this type of behavioral problem.

A puppy that is trained using humane, fun training methods, where he has to submit to you for everything he receives, has a better chance of becoming a well adjusted adult dogs that knows that all family members are higher ranking than he is. His life will be made easier for him because he will not have to continually figure out his rank. If someone feeds him, plays with him and is kind to him, life is pretty easy. If an adult dog has to continually try to figure out where he fits into the family, life is a lot more stressful and he is more likely to develop behavioral problems.

Retraining bad habits

If you own a dog that is threatening family members you may be able to use some of these same techniques to retrain him. Making this dog understand that he has to earn everything he receives is the key to retraining. If this is an adult dog that has already reached his social maturity, you will have to proceed cautiously to avoid the risk of someone being injured. If children are involved, extreme care must be taken. You do not want to risk having children approach a dog’s food dish or favorite treat if he is protective of these items.

Professional training help is necessary with “dominant aggressive” dogs. If you seek professional help, ask the trainer about his methods. Seek out trainers who use humane, reward-based methods, not force or pain, because your dog will likely become worse with forceful training. Your dog may submit to a trainer that uses force, but he may become more of a threat to family members.

Dr. Clemons can be reached on the Pet Talk Radio Show on WKRC-AM, (550; Cincinnati, OH) on Saturday evenings, 7-8 p. m.

By Gary L. Clemons DVM; Milford (OH) Animal Hospital

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