Freedom Isn't Free
One of the biggest mistakes dog people make is to give a new dog too much independence, too soon. Whether a puppy or adult dog, one of the most important techniques in getting a new pet to fit in nicely is to start with a regimented routine, then gradually, over a period of months, reward him with more and more privilege, and freedom. A puppy, for instance, has very little understanding of decorum, housetraining, manners, etc. If left to his own devices, he would surely live his life like one of the naked cherubs from Lord of the Flies.
I see it often; I’ll walk into a client’s home, and an eight month-old hellion storms up and jumps all over me. The home has the ill perfume of failed housetraining, and the furniture has dirty towels draped all over them. There are baby gates everywhere, scratches on the cupboards, a terrified cat sitting atop the fridge, and a frantic owner running around clicking a clicker and waving treats around like carrots to a donkey. Nine times out of ten, it’s all because the people have been far too permissive from the start, and, now faced with a maturing “teenager,” don’t know what to do short of calling me.
Do your new pooch a kindness, and limit his freedoms at first. Adopt a loving, “2nd grade school teacher” attitude, one that operates on a quid pro quo basis- the dog gets attention and praise only when he behaves and focuses. Crate train, to build solid housetraining, and to prevent destructive behaviors. Have the pup sleep in a crate for the first few months, to create a secure, predictable night routine, free from worry or temptation. Tether a puppy to your belt loop and walk around, instead of letting him run hog wild. Lots and lots of leash work, in and out of the home, right away, to create a sense of control and focus, and a “team” mentality. Basic obedience from the moment the dog comes home, including teaching a solid down/stay right off. Lots of controlled social interactions, with ramifications if/when the pup jumps up or chews on fingers. Initially deny the pup access to beds and furniture, to teach him there are others in the home with more privilege, and accountability. Teach boundary training (Wait), to build patience and respect, and the “leave-it” command to teach self-control. Remember, your dog isn’t a trust fund baby or an Astor, but a dog.
Regarding rewards, discipline, etc., don’t fall for the anthropomorphic chatter about never disciplining your dog, or even exposing him to “negative vibes.” Frankly, it’s crap, especially with pushy dogs who might be starting to show significant behavior problems. I have debates regularly with other behaviorists about even using the word “No,” as if teaching a dog good from not-so-good is an affront to his basic sentient rights. Baloney. They are brilliant animals who deserve to learn right from wrong.
Every sentient creature on earth experiences both positive and negative inputs in its life, on a moment-to-moment basis, then learns from these, and changes behavior accordingly. What would life be like for a fox kit, for instance, if it never learned about the dangers of getting too close to a grizzly? Or a crow not understanding the danger of eating road kill with its back turned to traffic? Does it harm them to learn these things, or help?
If in doubt, simply watch five unfamiliar dogs in a yard, interacting for the first time. They learn from each other almost instantly, in positive and negative ways. It’s nature, and it’s good.
With that in mind, why on earth would you not utilize the same basic process in training your dog? To think that the use of an occasional baritone “No” to tell a dog not to jump up on the baby’s crib, or to stop him from straying into the garden- it’s a pure example of trying to applying humanistic, non-judgmental, “permissive parenting” techniques to a sweet but egotistical canine with all-wheel-drive, and no idea of what is allowed if not taught. Distraction training, extinction techniques, etc- they rarely work consistently, and almost always create a pushy dog obsessed on treats. As long as you are not actually hurting your dog (hitting, choking, intimidating etc.), you can balance praise with steadfast, honest, caring authority. Just don’t try to make him into a proxy person; instead, make yourself into a proxy dog.
Slowly, you start rewarding the newbie dog with more and more freedoms. Let the pup have some free access indoors, then joyously call him. Work obedience, then reward with play and the occasional treat. Slowly teach a solid recall, first on-lead, then on a long-line or extendable lead, then off-lead. Put him on a sit/wait in a yard or field, walk off fifty feet, then call. Make these things seem to be privileges he is honored to earn.
Remember; training is all a game. It’s all drama and posturing and performance. But to him, it’s the real thing. By gradually giving him more freedom, as he earns it, while at the same time expecting manners and focus, you’ll create a happy home, and a happy dog. Freedom isn’t free, and when he figures that out, he’ll be grateful, trusting, and at ease, instead of problematic, pushy, and confused.
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