Puppy Series Part Four: Housetraining, Biting, and Socialization

This week is puppy week so I couldn’t go without mentioning Ian Dunbar, the puppy man.  He is all over this post, and I didn’t even give you all of his material!  He’s a lively and brilliant speaker, see him if you ever get the chance.

When you get a puppy there are so many things you must do.  Teaching your puppy basic obedience cues, impulse control, walking politely on a leash, how to hang out in a crate, and of course the fun stuff like naming your new addition, buying supplies for him, and so much more are all going to take place very quickly.  But you have three main objectives that you must get working on immediately, and they are houstraining, socialization, and puppy biting.  The seriousness of these three things can’t be overemphasized.  Most dogs in this country do not live to see their second birthday, simply because they are unwanted, and most of them are unwanted because of a failure on the part of the humans responsible to teach them one or all of these three things.  When I saw Ian Dunbar speak not long ago he said to the group of trainers in the room, “you must convince people when they have a puppy that they are at a fork in the road and it goes one of two ways; the dog is dead or abandoned by his second birthday, or fast forward 15 years and you’re in a rocking chair, and he comes up and rests his head on your knee.”  He wiped a tear from his eye, took a deep breath, and kept talking.  I can think of no more profound statement on the importance of good puppy owner education than that.  So please, take these three things seriously and do your best.  Your dog needs you to.    

Housetraining is the obvious first step because people want their dog to be proclaimed “housetrained” as soon as possible.  I often have to choke back laughter when dog owner’s tell me their dog is perfectly housetrained, and then I find out the thing is 4 months old.  Don’t kid yourself, no he isn’t, you’ve been lucky.  Upon further prodding I usually find that “perfectly” means he usually does his business outside, but has accidents in the house about once a week.  Silly humans.

Here’s what you need to know about housetraining: Ian Dunbar is the man.  He’s a dog trainer, and he has done actual research in an actual university setting on the elimination habits of dogs.  He is old school in a lot of ways, and I don’t agree with him half the time, but when it comes to housetraining he has better material than I could ever come up with.  So here is his housetraining protocol, for free, on the internet.  If you do what he says you will have a superbly housetrained puppy and will do very little cleaning up.  Hallelujah! It basically says your puppy should be constantly supervised and always given feedback on his behavior.  People are shocked by the amount of supervision I insist that they give their puppies, but I ask you, would you leave a two year old child to her own devices in your house while you went about your day?  Would you leave her alone while you went outside to chat with the neighbor or fetch the mail?  Would you expect her to toilet-train herself?! I hope your answers were no, no, and no.  Understand that your puppy is a baby.  Not a baby human of course, but a baby dog.  And babies must be nurtured and cared for and provided with gentle guidance.  Babies make mistakes because they are learning how to exist.  They haven’t been around very long! So be nice, and under no circumstances should you become terrifying to your puppy when he makes a mistake.  He made the mistake because you weren’t watching him.

Usually people do not realize that their biggest most important job when they have a puppy is to socialize him.  They figure simply having the puppy meet all of their family and friends and a few dogs is good enough.  I can’t tell you how many times I have found myself explaining to a puppy owner that their puppy is worried about dogs and needs more positive dog exposure when I am interrupted by the owner with, “Oh well we have two other dogs, so I’m not worried about that.”  At which point I attempt to explain that family doesn’t count as socialization.  Your puppy will get to know and enjoy your dogs, your kids, your family, and that will not teach them to accept novel people and dogs.

This topic truly deserves its own text book but that’s not what I’m writing, so this is the bare bones of what you need to know

  • Your puppy has to meet as many different kinds of people as you can think of (different ages, sizes, sexes and ethnicities!), and as many of them as you can come up with, before he is 12 weeks old.  Got your puppy at 12 weeks? Get started anyway, understand that your puppy might be a little more shy than an 8 week old, so use lots of yummy treats.  Never hand your puppy over to a stranger, this can make him more fearful.  He should be able to approach and interact with these new humans at his own pace.  If he chooses to approach, take a cookie, and walk away, respect that and end the interaction.   
  • Your puppy needs to play with other puppies in a safe, supervised puppy class.  He needs to meet as many puppy-appropriate adult dogs as you can find.  You need to consistently give him the choice of interacting with dogs–never force it.  If he isn’t interested and makes a great choice (like turning away from the dog) praise him for his good choosing and walk away.  Always respect your puppy!
  • Puppies need to go to a lot of places.  Take your puppy everywhere you can, but avoid dog-heavy places until your puppy is older and his immunity is more up to par.  Here’s some info on vaccines and socialization.  A lot of outdoor shopping malls are dog-friendly these days, so hit the mall!  I like to position myself outside of a coffee shop with a hot beverage and a bag of tasty treats.  Every person that wants to meet my puppy (and there will be so many!) gets to feed him a treat. 
  • Don’t stop socializing! The first YEAR of your dog’s life should be so packed with novelty that you can’t think of a place your dog might need to go that he hasn’t already been.  

My final thought on socialization that I will share here is a tough pill to swallow but I think it’s necessary to put out there.  Having a dog that is undersocialized isn’t fair to anyone.  Dogs that are “aloof” or “reserved” with new people are not “of appropriate temperament for their breed” or “good guard dogs,”  they are undersocialized, and undersocialized dogs are dangerous.  They are also under constant stress which is so unfair for them it’s almost criminal.  They have to live in our world, so make it easier for them by exposing them early and often. If your puppy or young dog is fearful or reactive in any way to anything do not hesitate to call a professional.  I assure you, it isn’t a phase, and he won’t grow out of it, he will grow into it. 

Onto your second most important job which actually goes hand-in-hand with socialization; bite inhibition training.  Acquired bite inhibition is probably the most important life skill a dog has.  It basically means that the dog understands the power of his own mouth and understands that if he feels compelled to use his one and only weapon (either playfully or otherwise) he understands that he need not use all of that force.  A dog of good breeding who is well-socialized and has good bite inhibition is the safest dog there is.  Once again, Ian Dunbar is the man.  Here’s his puppy biting protocol.  There is a lot of controversy and disagreement surrounding this topic for some reason and there really shouldn’t be.  Ian’s protocol is successful, research-based, and makes sense.  A lot of vets and dog trainers will try to tell you to curb puppy biting immediately by some violent means like gagging, pinching, yelling, holding the puppy’s muzzle, etc.  If a professional tells you those things they are being unprofessional, and they are giving you inaccurate information.  I urge you to look elsewhere for dog services if they do, and let them know why you are leaving–the field won’t get better if no one speaks up.