How does one raise a puppy to it's fullest potential? Every new dog owner must ask this question. Buying a puppy is not like buying a new television or SUV. It is a living creature that can suffer or be happy. It has the potential to receive and give affection in a satisfying relationship, or conversely become a menace to others.
There are some simple, but not well known, steps that can make puppy adaptation smoother and healthier. First of all, I am not talking about a couch dog, an ego-propping appendage to the owner's social and mental dysfunctions. I am talking about an active working, healthy dog that takes its proper place in the social arrangements of its family. Like humans, dogs are social, and they are built for activity with a goal. Being predators makes them creatures that focus on a goal, such as catching their next meal. So a lazy, pampered dog is one that is degenerated into something unnatural. This often results in mental illness in dogs. It also makes them fat, unhealthy, and neurotically bored. All of this is true for human owners as well.
Where dogs differ from humans to some degree is that their senses are far more potent than ours. They also are born in a litter, so social position in the pack/family is far more important to dogs than to humans. Imagine being a human baby with 6-10 competing infant siblings all wrestling for your mother's milk. If we humans commonly had litters of children all at once rather than one at a time, we would be very different psychologically. The first consequence, is that dogs are not meant to be alone. They must be within sight or hearing of their fellows, or they get upset and afraid. That is one reason wolves howl to each other. They must know that they are not alone in the world. Isolating a dog in the back yard with no social interaction is not how dogs were created to live. A wolverine is a solitary animal that would like to be left alone in the back yard, provided there is enough rotten meat to eat. But a dog is not a wolverine.
Secondly, because they are very sensual, having heightened senses, they communicate by more than mere vocalizations. They can see, smell, feel, and hear your disposition, and even taste you with the friendly lick. This forms in their minds a total package experience of who you are and what is going on inside your head. They can smell fear, and anger. They can get stressed out by seeing you physically stiff and tense. Your body posture says more to them than any verbal command ever would. The tone of your voice is more meaningful to them than the words you say. The are very tactile also, always touching and feeling others to make social contact. In some ways the dog may know you better than you do.
The best time to start socializing your puppy is a few days prior to their eyes opening. Handle them carefully and rub them(with your hands) like their mother licks them. Even adult dogs properly socialized will roll over to have their tummy rubbed, because they want you to be mommy and they a perpetual puppy. Hold the puppy near your face and make soft grunts and whimpers like a mother dog calling her pups to nurse. Sniff the puppy near its face so that it can hear you smelling it. This is a common dog greeting. Then let the puppy smell your hair and natural body odor. A dog can remember how you smell and imprint on your odor at a very young age. This creates a familiar and comforting bond for the puppy.
The next step, is building trust in vulnerability. As the puppy begins to see and explore it's environment, occasionally pick it up and pet it to mimic the cleaning habits of it's mother. After it has grown accustomed to this contact turn it over onto its back on your lap. At first a puppy is irritated and even frightened by this humiliating posture. It is the posture of vulnerability and weakness, something all dogs avoid with strangers. Rub the belly, the foot pads, and between the toes until it calms down and accepts this treatment. Do this until it relaxes, and falls asleep. Let it slumber until it's head goes limp and lays back exposing the throat. At this point the puppy has accepted its vulnerability and trusts you in away it never would a stranger. This technique should be done at least three times for maximum effect. Some breeds are more suspicious than others and may require more handling. This step firmly establishes you as the dominant and protective parent, thus reducing any future challenges to your alpha dog status.
This is important for a few reasons. First of all, you must be able to restrain your dog from destructive habits by social demands alone. This is especially true of guardian and hunting dogs that may have a violent temperament. Secondly, you must be able to physically handle a dog without it getting stressed or hostile. Being able to handle your dog's feet and rub the webs of their toes it a good test of their trust. A stranger could only attempt such at the risk of being bitten or growled at.
Anyone that is expected to live with the puppy must also establish this bond and social dominance with them. This prevents social rivalries with humans in the family. Sometimes a dog may see a child or boyfriend/girlfriend as a competitor for status and affection, rather than a person higher in the pack order. This is the cause of many tragic child maulings. So when the puppy is very young, children should be taught to handle the puppy in these ways also, to teach it its proper role(with adult supervision of course).
As the puppy grows bigger and more active, around 6-10 weeks, teach it to tag along. The puppy must learn home is where ever you are. My practice is to place the puppy in a back pack and hike to a wilderness place unfamiliar to the puppy. Take the puppy out of the pack and let it look around and exercise it's senses in this new environment. Some will get curious and wander a little, but most will get nervous, especially if it's just you and one puppy. Take a short walk away, turn to see if the puppy is following. If it has not followed, stay within eye sight and wait until it does. They always do eventually, for being alone as a puppy is foreign to them. Go a little further, stop, and wait for puppy to catch up. Do this for an hour or so, but not too long, because they will tire eventually. You want this to end as a good experience. Starting a campfire and roasting some tasty food to share with puppy is a good end to the experience. You could simply share a sandwich with the puppy. What ever reward you give, save it for the end of the journey. You know that you have succeeded if the puppy falls asleep right next to you after the reward for following you. They will be worn out and have to trust that you will be the watchman while they slumber.
Why this is done is simply because a dog is constructed for travel. They are meant to wander about and hunt. In the wild this wandering/hunting activity was a social activity only done with one's pack. The younger they are, and the more often you do this, the more they identify you as their pack. It strengthens this bond even more if you include your family, especially children.
These early steps go a long way to socialize and establish mutual respect with your new puppy. It is a foundation that must be laid to build skills in your dog later. This is especially true for working dogs, such as hunting, herding and draft dogs. Remember that a working dog is a happy dog. A puppy must start early in physical activity with you the owner. If not, the puppy will find destructive and dangerous ways of satisfying that need.
As the puppy ages up to one year there are distinctive ways that dogs show affection for each other. Petting is instinctive to most dog owners, especially those who like to feel soft fur. But there are certain places that dogs touch each other to show affection and trust. The first is to rub the inner corner of their mouth, on the inner lip. Normally they do this to each other with their tongues(an ill advised practice for human owners for hygienic reasons). But using your fingers to massage their inner lips at the corner of the mouth, and anywhere along the lips of the puppy is common canine etiquette. It is their version of kissing. It is learned as mother dogs lick their puppies clean and puppies(especially wolves) lick the mothers' mouth to provoke the involuntary regurgitation instinct. Rubbing a dogs mouth and lips is saying, "I'm hungry, feed me," in some situations. I have seen cases of wolves regurgitating food to pups not their own offspring; for the entire pack takes turns feeding young pups partially digested food.
Another instinctive dog gesture is to nibble at each others' ears. It is gentle in affection, and rough in play. A human owner simply rubs the corner of the ear at the base of the ear, between thumb and two fingers. Rubbing the inside surface of the ear is also very socially bonding. Another gesture puppies need to experience is rubbing their face around the eyes, even rubbing over the eyes downward to close the eyes. Like us, they get tension headaches in stressful situations and this gesture relaxes and reassures them. It also builds trust for they are instinctively protective of their eyes. Beginning while they are young and conditioning them to accept this treatment makes them trusting and bonded with you, in contrast to not allowing strangers to do the same things.
Finally, for puppies that are rough with their mouths one can discourage this by nonverbal acts. First of all, when a puppy bites, nips or growls, force them onto their back with their belly exposed. This is an act that makes them the looser in a confrontation with you. You become dominant and they submissive. This is especially necessary for dog breeds with more aggressive temperaments. If they resist hold them down in this upside down position until they display fear or submission by whines and even the occasional urination on themselves. It is like getting a wrestling partner to say, "uncle." This establishes a pecking order.
To reinforce a prohibition against biting or nipping, you can force their mouth open and grab their tongue. As you hold their tongue they can not close their mouths. This is a situation a dog never experiences. It is shocking to them and sends a strong but harmless message. I once had a neighbor with a nippy dog that kept biting me when I visited. The owner would not stop this behavior, so I simply grabbed their tongue and gave it a harmless tug. The dog never bit me again. This is important especially if their are children in the house hold.
As a puppy grows and searches for it's place in the family these methods can go a long way towards socializing your dog properly. They build trust, but also respect and cooperation. In future blogs I will explain early steps in prepping your puppy as a hunting dog or sled dog. Again, starting early is the first step to success.