Puppy Owner Blues
chasing, leaping, tireless energy ... a new puppy can be a challenge!
The following is a very typical conversation with a very conscientious new puppy owner. It is so classic of the frustrations many new puppy owners face, especially given the fact that she has really done her homework and is doing so many things right, that I felt it should be shared:
Thanks for returning my call so quickly. I left another message this morning (before I checked my answering machine) asking about private sessions. Abby (the pup) had her first vet visit this morning. I discussed her behavior with the vet this morning (he agrees that she is a VERY dominant puppy) and he recommended that we have some private sessions in our home. I will tell you what is going on with Abby and if you think that a private session would be more beneficial than advising us via email, we would like to set up a session with you or someone you recommend.
Abby is an Australian Shepherd (not registered but pure as far as we know). She is 9 weeks+ old (born on 10/31/2001). We have had her since Christmas. (yes...we did the terrible Christmas puppy thing...) We bought her from a private party who breeds his two Shepherds every couple years. We met both the mom and dad and they had good temperaments (dad energetic and playful, mom very affectionate). We did a lot a research prior to purchasing her and in many ways she is exactly what we expected and wanted... very energetic, very smart and trainable, wants to be with people, etc. We ride bikes in the summer and love to hike and camp and we look forward to taking her with us. When we picked her from the litter, she was the pup who came up to us, whined to be picked up, and was very affectionate. At the time we didn't recognize that this was a puppy with no fear who was ready to ask for/demand what she wanted.
Our typical day... Dad takes Abby out in early a.m. for potty and puts her back in crate. I wake up later and take her out for potty and play in the yard (exploring or soccer). She plays with chew toys while we eat then she eats. She plays with chew toys or plays fetch for 10 min. more than I put her in her crate. 15 minutes later she goes out for potty. Then she gets to play in the yard with me or the kids or we play fetch with her in the house. When we can't watch her she goes in her crate with a chew toy and mellows out or naps for a while. We repeat this basic cycle through the day.
The problem is that she is very bossy with our children. We have a 2.5 year old, a 5 year old and an 8 year old. She jumps up and nips at them and grabs their clothing. We can't let the 2.5 year old be around her at all even in our presence because she will chase him and grab his clothes or a mittened hand and will not let go unless my husband or I tell her to stop. Often, we have to remove her from the situation because she does not stop. If my 8 year old takes her out to go potty, she growls and will try to bite him when he carries her back in. This worries us A LOT! She is getting better with my husband and I.
When we first got her, she was jumping and nipping at us also. We have been using "No bites" and "Ouch" to teach her to stop biting. If her behavior escalates, we put her in her crate. Although she no longer jumps and nips us, she still tries to mouth and bite when we hold her. It is a tremendous achievement to get a couple licks on the hand without a bite. Before we learned about "ouch", I tried a scruff and shake technique (it was supposed to mimic what her mom would do) but it only made her behavior escalate. I am also not sure that we are doing the "ouch" thing correctly. What do you do after you say "ouch"? I don't think we are very consistent. Tonight, my husband tried holding her mouth shut. It seemed to work but I don't feel good about it.
When we first got her, she would not allow us to rub her tummy. Now, she will allow it sometimes but still wants to mouth us while we are doing it. Today, the vet told me to hold her in my arms on her back and keep her there until she stops trying to get away. I tried it... I couldn't get her to stop struggling and so now I've taught her something worse than if I had never tried it. He also told me to hold her by the scruff of the neck and lift her front paws off the ground until she relaxes. It worked great for him. It didn't work well for me... another bad thing I have taught her.
We have taught her "sit" and "take it". She sits for her food, before coming in the house, and before getting a potty treat. She is learning "off". We have started keeping her toys in a box. We give them to her and take them from her. We go through doorways first. We don't feed her any people food. She eats after we have eaten. She will "come" to my husband and I most of the time. We try to constantly tell her "good girl" whenever she is doing the right thing. We use treats and praise to reward "go potty" and "sit".
To help her understand that she is not top dog, we have started having the kids feed her and give/take away her toys. They also have her sit at the door and before getting her food. When she gets out of control with my 8 year old, he puts her in her crate. We supervise the 5 year old when she is with Abby. Our 8 year old will take her out to potty twice a day and plays soccer with her in the yard once a day.
We really want to be able to enjoy this dog and have her be a part of our family. We are working hard and are willing to continue the effort but right now our progress seems painfully slow. Maybe I am expecting too much too soon. I am worried that she will never be a good family dog and I feel very negative and discouraged. Yesterday, I lost my cool and whacked her when she growled at the kids so now I also feel guilty. HELP! What do you think we should do?
Thank you for emailing and thank you for giving such complete information - it really helps get a picture of your family and your puppy.
First off, let me compliment you. You have excellent dog trainer instincts and are setting the stage for a very well-socialized, well-adjusted pup. You are giving her an excellent leadership model, good schedule and clear parameters to live by. Excellent job!
And I'm going to let you off the Christmas hook - *hangs head* I gave my mom a dog for Christmas, big red bow and all!
Let me temper the label of "VERY dominant puppy" with a reminder of what she was bred to do. Herd cows. Not chase soft little sheep or catch bunnies, but dart in and move big stubborn animals who kick. A proper Australian Shepherd is bold and full of confidence. And confidence is different than "dominance". She may be a pushy little princess, but she's too young dominate much of anything yet, so let's save that negative label til she's a little older. ;-) If you continue on your present path, chances are her crown and throne will stay safely out of reach - those are YOURS!
Let's also abandon any scruff shaking, elevating and physical punishment techniques. As you've so wisely noted (and many many 'professional' trainers still haven't yet become aware) it only escalates or scares the puppy, neither of which are good choices. Good for you for paying attention to what your dog is telling you.
At nine weeks old she doesn't know that people are not dogs, that kids are not puppies and that all those moving legs in the backyard aren't pseudo-cow legs. It's normal for her to treat kids like other puppies (chasing, knocking down, pouncing on, grabbing hair and clothing, biting and growling.) It's easy for her to get over-stimulated. This is where guidance, redirection, and consequences (time-outs) come in. Don't feel bad for reprimanding her for biting. The children are your puppies - you can step between her and them in a dramatic body block, cold stare and mother dog growl to warn her away if necessary. If you need to "have words" with her, take her cheeks in both hands and while holding absolutely still, say icey cold things to her while you loom and stare at her and then drop her and walk away like she's dirt. Very effective. Don't over-use it, this is for serious infractions.
Be aware of her point of over-stimulation and caution children to keep the activity level below that point. Set an acceptable level of play and a consequence for exceeding it. Fast moving, animated children with excited voices can push even the most calm dog over the limit. Teach the children "red light-green light" When she gets hyped, holler "red light!" All movement freezes while you put her in time-out (tie her to the fence or stand on her leash) and redirect the children to a quieter game until she settles down.
Set her up to succeed. Leave a trailing leash on her so you can step on it and control her swiftly if need be. Praise for all appropriate behavior. Include the 2 year old in quiet indoor interactions when the puppy is exhausted and calm so she can learn to "be gentle" when she isn't overstimulated and her brain is engaged. She has to master her self control with you before you can practice with the 2 year old.
Play quiet games as well as high-activity games. If the only time she plays with the kids is when she's ripping around chasing a soccer ball, we are pairing high adrenalin behavior with kids and making an association that is going to give us trouble later. She needs to learn to settle and have self control around the kids as much as she needs exercise and she needs to learn how to turn it on and turn it off. Plan controlled settle times where naps happen at your feet and not just in a crate. Put a rug by the couch and stand on her leash and watch TV or read a book to the kids while she occupies herself with a chewtoy.
It's a very good idea to have your kids take part in the feeding and constructive game playing. Presenting toys and having her sit before they give them to her is a great idea. I'd avoid having them "steal" the toys back, this could turn into a game of possession. Trading up is good. "Bring me your ball and I'll give you this rawhide - bring me your rawhide and I'll trade you for an even better rawhide with peanut butter on it." You want to create a willing exchange with no reluctance.
I would be wary of having the kids be in charge of discipline - the 8 year old may be able to do some matter of fact time outs ... but if there is resentment on the part of the puppy, I think I'd make it mom's responsibility. You do the parenting of both the kids and the dog. If there are situations (like growling at the 8 year old when he brings her in from pottying) let's avoid setting her up to practice that and instead teach her an alternative positive behavior: run to the house for a special after-potty treat or toy. Have your son say "go to the house!" as you present something fabulous in the doorway and call her. In the mean time you could let her drag a leash so your son can just pick it up and say "let's go" and walk to the house without the full-body physical restraint. (Make it a lead you don't care about, she'll be dragging it through the snow and mud and will probably pee on it!)
We know she has issues with restraint and handling, so this is another reason to by-pass this issue with your son altogether and desensitize this behavior separately.
The growling is also frequently a symptom of being carted around too much by too many children. In order for it to go away, it must not "work" to get her what she wants (left alone) so I would make the rule that no children pick her up, only adults. This will control the human reaction to her growling and limit any excessive "carting around" that she may be experiencing. Adults can pick her up briefly in a no-nonsense fashion for a quick "hi how are ya" and give her a treat. When she is relaxed about this, you can start holding her for slightly longer moments. You want to make it so brief and so pleasant that there is no stiffening, struggling OR growling. Avoid making this an "I dare ya" confrontational game.
Mouthing and handling ... pick a time when she is tired and sleepy and let her snuggle in your lap. As she relaxes, quietly and slowly give her an all-over gentle massage. Concentrate on body parts that get no resistance at first and then gradually move into "problem" areas. You are desensitizing. Keep it mellow and calm. Day by day your goal is to get to the point where she relaxes more quickly and there are no parts of her anatomy that you can't manipulate or massage - shoulders and sides will be easier than ears, face (especially cheeks)- legs and feet may take longer to accomplish. When she is comfortable at this level, start rolling her over and repositioning her. Rub her tummy often. If you meet the slightest tension or resistance back up a step til she relaxes. Her legs should go limp and she should be smiling. This should be the best part of her whole day.
You can set her up for a positive "awake" handling session by holding a chunk of cheese or a rawhide smeared with peanut butter or cream cheese for her to lick while you gently stroke her all over, head to tail and down each leg. You might eventually add a brush to this exercise. When she's relaxed and you can touch her anywhere, alternate touch/feed, touch/feed, til each touch predicts another treat.
As for her *normal* puppy mouthing and biting. Put a little peanut butter or cream cheese on your fingers and encourage her to lick it off. Praise for licking. Yelp "OUCH!" when teeth touch skin and if necessary walk away for the count of five and then come back and try again. When she's good at this, put a small soft treat loosely in your closed hand and leave an "O" opening so she can extract the treat with her tongue. Praise her for being "gentle" and yelp "OW!" and withdraw abruptly if she bites. Then try again. The activity and the treats continue if she is gentle. They end abruptly if she isn't. Black and white.
I know Abby isn't old enough for puppy class yet, but if you would like to sit in on a puppy class as an observer, you are more than welcome to. Let me know how things are going and if you think a private session is needed, let me know. Cost for in-home consults is $60 per hour. Good luck and keep in touch! - Carol
Thank you so much! Abby is making great strides and I am no longer questioning Santa Claus's judgement. She is learning to control herself around the kids and cats and is becoming much more handleable. We are really pleased to have her with us now (most of the time anyway!)
Of course, just as certain behaviors are improving she has added a new one we need to work on. She is chewing her leash during controlled settle times. We tell her no and redirect her to a chew toy but we don't seem to be making progress. Part of the problem is that she is SO persistent and during these times it is difficult to stay on top of what she is doing every minute. Should we put yucky tasting stuff on the leash, get a chain leash...??? I could try to make her chew toys more enticing but we try to save the peanut butter smeared bones for when she is in her crate, etc.
A: Plastic coated metal cable works well, as does Bitter Apple spray applied to the leash and special "settle down" toys.
Also, would it be beneficial to arrange for social times with other vaccinated dogs prior to puppy-K? Abby will be 4.5 months before she is done with her shots and can attend a class. She currently plays occasionally with my sister's 8 month old Border Collie (they herd each other). We have two Dalmatians next door. They have met at the chain link fence and seem very eager to play.
Again, thank you so much for your help. We really appreciate it!
A: As far as puppy play dates, the biggest health risks are public parks or walks around the neighborhood where unvaccinated dogs have been. (You can even bring parvo home on your shoes, for that matter.) Most veterinarians want puppies to have at least 3 vaccinations before attending a group class or playing with other dogs. Some recommend waiting longer and some let them come sooner.
Choose her playmates carefully. Young puppies who play with submissive older dogs who let them boss them around may learn to be bullies and lack respect for their elders. Dogs who are bullied may try out what they learned on less confident dogs. Playtime should never be allowed to get over-stimulated or angry. The best playmates are well-socialized calm adult dogs who will teach the puppy limits gently but firmly.
is a perfect example of problems with *normal* puppy behavior.
Often bright, confident puppies are mistaken for "dominant" - a label which triggers alarm and a need to 'take them down a peg' via confrontational and physical means.
It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the 'treatment' itself creates aggressive self-defense responses. Many puppies are put to sleep for being aggressive and, while there are certainly justifiable cases where this is the humane and correct choice, just as often the aggression was created through mismanagement and mishandling.
This family carefully researched the breed and their carefully chosen puppy has a strong and confident personality, one that will make her a fabulous adult dog someday if they continue to train and socialize her with patience and understanding, taking a pro-active route and not a reactive one.
Cheers to owners like these who take on puppy raising as the important and serious task that it is. Being a puppy parent is as big a job as being a human parent, with many of the same frustrations -and joys.