16th April 2017
As many of you may have now realised, raising the perfect puppy is not so easy and we can often get a good deal more challenge than we first bargained for. Living with a dog brings about a new responsibility, and parenting a dog involves a good deal of understanding around the animal we have chosen to bring into our homes and our lives. All the information that is available to us through books and social media can be daunting if not confusing.
We can learn a lot from canine parents by studying how stray, feral, and wild dogs raise their pups to cope with the daily stresses of life, what they should avoid, how to interact socially, and how to rear a pup along at the proper rate of development according to their own individual capabilities. Dogs are the perfect parents for puppies to have as the understanding is intrinsically deep and instinctive. When humans attempt to raise puppies they can run into all sorts of problematic situations and behaviours, of which many stem from a basic understanding of how dogs view and perceive their world. Yes, there is a lot to be learned indeed from studying canine parents.
First of all we need to understand that dogs, whether they are domestic, stray, wild or feral, exist as family groups rather than the pack concept that has held weight for many years. For validation of this you need search no further than L D Mech’s admonition that this observation and conclusion came about after a lifetime of studying wolves living in the wild. Mech observed meaningful relationships where each member of the family played a vital and crucial part to the survival and safety of the group. Family groups suggest a very close-knit relationship rather than a wild and unstable hierarchy where members of a pack struggle relentlessly to be the alpha or top dog.
Canines are masters at avoiding situations of conflict, they simply must be otherwise their very survival would be in jeopardy and their lives likely to be short-lived. The very early days in a pup’s life should be peaceful and relaxing. We often think of immediate training for the pup a priority, but in reality rearing a puppy consists organization and having a carefully structured plan as your puppy transitions through the various and sometimes rapid phases of development.
One of the points we should understand is how a young pup’s senses develop and also how sensitive they are. Noise levels can affect a puppy a great deal in the early days of moving to a new home environment. Any parent will know how important sleep is to a baby but also how sensitive they are to noise and any similar changes in the home environment. We go to great lengths as parents to make sure a baby is undisturbed during sleep time and that noise levels are kept to an absolute minimum. Pups also need adequate rest periods and the opportunity to sleep peacefully throughout the day. A relaxed and relatively quiet environment promotes feelings of safety and security. Feeling safe is an environment is the most important association any dog can form and it is extremely important that pups feel safe and they are not frequently disturbed and awakened needlessly. It’s perfectly normal for them to sleep in multiple phases and an important physiological need to have appropriate sleep and rest throughout the day.
When pups do awaken they can become very active and are drawn to exploring their new home and everything in it. Dogs are inherently curious creatures and they need to build confidence and have that natural curiosity stimulated through having the freedom to explore. Limiting a dog to a room, pen, or crate for prolonged periods does not help with their development and can in itself produce problematic behaviours. As parents we must understand that deep rooted need and provide an outlet for it, and lots of it. Being away from home for long periods or isolating a pup from the family group can create feelings of insecurity and vulnerability in a very young dog. Puppies are seldom left alone by their canine parents for long periods and never stray far from the den in the early days. They are under acute supervision from the mother.
As humans we place a lot of emphasis around feeding procedures with our dogs and pups. We teach them that hands are there to give rather than take but in other instances we place our hands in the dog bowl, sometimes taking the bowl away or by asking for obedience at feeding times. Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying it’s not good to teach good manners but once you have put a bowl of food down for a dog it should be left in peace to eat. Dogs can learn to resource guard if they feel there is competition around food or if there is a risk of losing it or having their food bowl taken away from them. Adult dogs feed their pups and leave them alone to eat, a practise that we would do well to adhere to and a good way to reduce the possibility of any future conflict around food. We are familiar with the saying that in the canine world possession is nine tenths of the law. I would go so far as feeding the dogs they should have total freedom to eat in peace.
As we know dogs generalise well through association and this natural guarding behaviour can be transferred in association to other items such as toys and objects within the home. This can also happen outdoors when on walks if we are constantly taking things out of our developing dog’s mouths and constantly prizing things away from them. This is how they explore the world and all the textures in it, by investigating with their mouths. Of course there are some things that are dangerous but I like to observe what it is they are investigating before I make a choice to make any attempts to remove the item. There are also very good ways of teaching a dog to leave something rather than going directly to the source and competing for the item or even worse turning it into a chase game where the dog learns to avoid you every time it has something.
Dogs that rely on hunting to feed their pups will leave them alone for short periods as the activity of the hunt itself is too stressful for young developing pups. At that stage of their lives too much physical activity with us in terms of long walks, running, chasing, and high arousal play activity can needlessly stress a pup. This can contribute greatly to irritation and owner directed problem behaviours such as ankle biting and hand biting.
As young dogs puppies are highly social group members and they need to be included in family activity as often as possible Family togetherness also includes resting together, a social bonding behaviour in dogs. Of course we need to teach our dogs to be independent to a degree but we also need to understand that it is natural behaviour for a puppy to follow and form attachments to us. Before teaching a puppy to be independent it is useful to teach that all parts of the home they have access to are a safe and comfortable place for them. It is unnatural for a puppy to be left alone too early and it can produce glue-like attachments and separation distress if they are left alone too early without the proper planning.
As their senses develop they provide the dog with a plethora of information about the world. Puppies are extremely impressionable and can learn to be fearful quite easily. They also learn by how we respond to some of their behaviours in the form of physical corrections in association with behaviours that we misunderstand or are confused about. We often think that dogs see and view the world in a very similar way to us humans but that is quite far off the mark. They are functional animals who perform behaviours that work for them but at the same time nothing is right or wrong. They have no moral concept of what is bad or good. They are dogs and they react like dogs. What they are not sure about they usually show caution towards.
When we have a baby addition to our family we quickly set about baby proofing the home once they develop and start to crawl, walk, and explore more freely. We put items that are dangerous or things we don’t want them to have out of the way while taking measures to make the home a safer place. It is natural for pups to explore novel items with the mouth just as babies do. It can also cause nervousness in a pup if we are constantly taking items off them or reprimanding them for taking items we don’t wish them to have. In many ways this can destroy a good retrieve in a dog which is a handy training tool to have at a later date in their development. The puppy can learn to be afraid to pick items up and retrieve them for fear of being punished.
If a dog is fearful of things in the outdoor environment there is a need to take an alternative approach to help with the fear. Teaching the dog to look at us and ignore stuff in the environment does not always help with building individual confidence. It can teach over-reliability on the owner which does little in helping it to cope with the daily challenges of life. The pup’s natural curiosity is crucial in dealing with something novel and unknown or unpredictable. Fear is often at the root of unpredictability from the environment and help should be geared towards helping them develop the ability to cope.
When bringing a new puppy into your lives there are many options for helping the steady progress of their social development. Safe visits to other puppy owner’s homes where puppies can investigate and play in the garden are a great way to introduce them to other pups and older dogs. If you take your pup to classes try to build on that by getting to know other owners and by arranging play dates outside of class times at each other’s homes and other locations. Outings in small groups are good for insecure pups as long as you choose a good environment where they feel safe. By using a variety of areas such as beach, woodland, meadow, homes and gardens you can enrich areas and watch as your puppy develops confidence and coping ability. It is also good to have good role models with older dogs present among them too. Home visits can be very beneficial as small groups can experience such things as postmen arriving, new people, workmen present (dress up if you have to), kids arriving home from school and the like.
When socialising and introducing your puppy to the world careful planning can go a long way in helping the pup reach its full potential. I always ask owners to ask themselves, ‘Does the environment support me and my dog?’ Doing everything carefully and by the book will not guarantee you that perfect pup, that is too much to ask of any dog, but by trying to understand how your individual puppy responds to and views the world around it, it will make great leaps towards raising that puppy that you have always wanted.