It's a Puppy, Not a Problem

Left to their own devices, what do puppies like to do?

They like to bark, play, run through the house (sometimes with muddy feet), jump on people, put things in their mouths and chew on them, eat tasty foods, explore, sniff things, dig holes in mud and sand and dirt, and a host of other things that I don't have time to mention. They do these things because they are baby dogs. Fortunately we can train our dogs to show more appropriate behaviors, but it takes time and the natural outcome of maturity. Puppies are a challenge.

Left to their own devices, what do small children like to do?

They like to yell, play, run through the house (sometimes with muddy feet), jump on people, put things in their mouths and chew on them, eat tasty foods, explore, look at things, dig holes in mud and sand and dirt, and a host of other things that I don't have time to mention. They do these things because they are baby humans. Fortunately we can raise our children to show more appropriate behaviors, but it takes time and the natural outcome of maturity. Children are a challenge.

In the past, I trained pet dogs. The first session would almost always go something like this:

Student would pull a list of problem behaviors out of their pocket. Meanwhile, their four month old puppy chewed on the leash and pulled various directions, causing the student to express obvious irritation. The student would then lay out all of the problems that they wanted to fix.

"We're having problems with barking, wanting to play all the time, running through the house with dirty feet, jumping on people, chewing stuff up, excessive interest in human food, constant pulling on the leash to get to things, and digging holes in the garden. Oh yeah – could you teach a reliable recall, off leash, so that when I'm ready to leave the park we can go without me having to chase my dog?"

In short, could I make their young puppy behave like a grown up dog?

I'm curious about something. Since many of my clients also had human children (that the dog may have been nipping when the kids ran and screamed and behaved like children), did they take a similar list of problems behaviors to the pediatrician?

"Doctor, my toddler has a lot of problems that I want to stop. He talks really loud, wants me to play all the time, runs through the house with dirty feet, jumps on people, puts stuff in his mouth that he finds on the ground, shows an excessive interest in sweets, and is constantly pulling on my hand to get to things when we go places. And also, can you make him listen to me when it's time to leave the park, so I don't have to go and get him when I want to go?"

In short, could the doctor make the young child behave like an adult?

Don't Worry, that's Normal... 

My guess is that the first thing the pediatrician would tell the person is that these are NORMAL behaviors for children and that they will go away with a combination of time, maturity, and appropriate direction and training from the parents. It's not a problem for a child to act like a child.

How about that puppy? Are those problem behaviors or normal ones? And if we don't like them, can we just get rid of them to save ourselves the inconvenience, whether they are normal or not?

Well, sort of. 

If you use punishment, you can suppress behavior, whether or not you've actually taught anything at all. "Suppressed" behavior doesn't mean the dog or child is trained, simply that by virtue of not moving too much its hard to be annoying to others. This is true for both children and puppies. For example, I recently sat in a restaurant where I watched a father with his three young children, ranging in ages from about five to twelve. They were all eating their meals in silence (which one clearly didn't like) while dad looked at his phone. The kids were told to shut up and sit down if they tried to do anything to entertain themselves or expressed an opinion. Even the smallest one was behaving. Dad didn't even have to raise a hand – they listened and did what they were told. Which was….nothing. Do nothing.

Wow! Amazing. He had obedience, and at a very young age! Good, obedient children who made no trouble for anyone, anywhere. They did nothing, a truly abnormal state of existence for anyone, least of all for small children. On the other hand, those children never looked at their dad. They stared at their plates, or looked around vacantly. He had effectively taken the child out of the children, leaving behind a well behaved shell. I doubt he knew or even really cared that the oldest children clearly disliked him. He had what he wanted – a peaceful evening with his dinner and his smartphone.

Punishment works for dogs too. If you keep on top of your puppy non-stop, physically or verbally correcting him for all of the things he does wrong while instilling a solid foundation of obedience, you can eventually end up with a puppy who exists quietly, staring vacantly at nothing. A good, obedient puppy who makes no trouble for anyone, anywhere! You can effectively take the puppy out of the dog and leave behind a well behaved shell. On the other hand, that puppy will make no effort to spend time with you, which brings up the question – why did you get a dog in the first place, if not to enjoy each other?

Most of the Time, You'll Get What You Give

 The vast majority of parents simply accept the fact that they'll have to hold their children's hands when they walk on busy streets. They accept that their meals won't be too peaceful for awhile because they'll have to chase their children down just as they try to sit down and eat. They accept that children need to use the bathroom at inconvenient times and that they'll get sick and disrupt their lives. There will be messes, noise, and disruption. And while parents often experience frustration and look forward to the coming stages when life is a little easier, they won't refer to this phase as the "toddler problem," and they won't ask the pediatrician to fix these annoyances. It's just the nature of small children. They aren't adults yet.

When you bring home a puppy, get used to the fact that you'll have to keep them on leash to keep them safe for awhile. You won't be able to have peaceful conversations because they'll want your attention too. They'll need to use the bathroom at inconvenient times. They'll get sick and disrupt your life. There will be messes, noise, and disruption. There is no "problem," there's simply a puppy who still has to grow into an adult dog. These behaviors will not resolve in days or weeks; it takes many months before you'll see glimmers of the adult dog that your puppy will mature into.

With time, consistency, maturity and well thought out raising, both your dogs and your children will make it to adulthood, and life will be a lot easier and smoother. How you choose to get there – whether you use structure and positive interaction for good choices or focus on punishment to suppress all behavior – will have both short term and long term effects on your relationship.

Your decisions early on will influence how much time your charges choose to voluntarily spend with you. How much time they try to engage you for interaction. How much they use you as a resource when they aren't sure what to do. In short, how much they like you – if at all.

Of course, there are very forgiving puppies and children. In some cases, no matter what you do, you'll be rewarded with a wonderful outcome. But don't hold your breath on that one. Most of the time, you'll get what you give.

Remember: It's a Puppy, Not a Problem

When my children were small, I removed valuable and breakable objects from the house. Same with my puppies. No more fights about "don't touch this" or "don't chew that." When my children were small, we ate most of our meals at home; no more fights about how to behave at a table in public. If I don't want puppies underfoot when I make food then I remove them from the room. When my children shared their toys or talked quietly with friends or remembered to remove their dirty shoes before entering the house – I told them I appreciated that! And the puppies? I help them too – they're puppies. Doing their puppy best. But they still need to be given a chance to express their puppy natures.

I'm not perfect with my kids or with my puppies. I get frustrated. I get mad! But at the end of the day, I know perfectly well that I am the adult – the one who is responsible – and that there is nothing wrong with my child or my puppy for behaving like a child or a puppy. There is no problem.

My kids are doing fine. They are growing into interactive confident young people with excellent manners and joyful personalities. My puppies are doing fine as well, and consistently grow into entertaining, interactive, confident dogs with lively natures. No one is breaking things or chewing up the wrong stuff anymore. The best part is that the kids and the dogs seem to like me! They choose to spend time with me, which is why I wanted them in the first place! It's working out okay, in spite of the fact that I spared the rod all around. It does not appear that I have spoiled anyone.

When you're frustrated or mystified by your puppy, consider how you raised your children and you might find a comparable technique that will work just fine. Think of puppies as pre-verbal children. Show patience. Structure the environment for success. Accept that inconvenience will happen. Remember that what you do now is going to determine the type of relationship you will have into the future. What are you looking for? Do you want to be seen as an accommodating person who creates opportunities to do interesting things, or as a domineering tyrant that is best avoided? When you ask your dog or child to come see you, do you want them to come running with enthusiasm, or to experience worry and anxiety about your presence?

If you hit your small kids, yelled a lot, and considered their childhood a problem to be solved, then it would make sense that you would do the same with your dogs. But if you raised your small children with patience and you accepted that small children are not little adults, then you might find that you have all of the tools you'll need to raise your puppies very very well. Now you just need a few tricks of the trade to give you ideas for how to manage specific situations and you're on your way. That's where a good dog trainer will be able to help you.

Find a trainer who focuses on what is right for both you and the puppy! Find a trainer who can help you understand appropriate management strategies as your puppy works through his more challenging phases. Find a trainer who can listen to you complain about how hard puppies are, and who helps you see the light at the end of the tunnel! Add a few skills like walking nicely on a leash and a solid recall, throw in a healthy dose of time and maturity, and you're on your way to having a very rich and interactive relationship with a well behaved adult dog.

But start by understanding that there is nothing wrong – there is no problem. There is only a puppy, and training to be done. What happens now is up to you.

Good luck.

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