Puppies are irresistible. They have to be. That’s how they convince you to take them home. Later, when the initial euphoria dissipates with yet another malodorous pile on the dining room rug, you think, “It’s okay because he’s my friend for life.” But what if your four-legged bundle of joy would rather mooch than smooch? While dogs have been our best friends for centuries, occasionally, there are individuals who require schooling in the art of companionship. I found myself with such a dog.
Sure, during our initial introduction, the little guy offered a textbook lick and cuddle, just as the proverbial puppy protocol guide instructs. However, the moment his four feet landed on my doorstep, it was quite clear I had a brazen puppy on my hands. In short order, he ascended the throne and put my two unassuming veteran dogs under the command of his mighty paw. He lacked people skills, too. When he was with me, he demonstrated his disdain for being held by squirming until he was free. When I petted him, he merely tolerated it, happiest once he resumed his own agenda. Fortunately, I did garner his favor several times a day, but only when food was involved. At the onset of meal preparation, he fawned all over me. When the kibble was gone, so was he. This wasn’t what I had in mind.
Essentially, he was a poster pup for dogs who end up homeless due to their seemingly uncontrollable ways. From Day One, my precocious boy indicated his plan to rule my roost. Little did he know, I had other ideas.
The Game Plan
It should be obvious where this is going. I had to get the upper hand, and fast. But how? Naughty Boy and I were living in alternate universes, and whether we ended up simpatico or forever at odds would be determined by the path I followed. It was a philosophical choice: should I correct the puppy’s bad behavior, or should I nurture his good behavior? Since companionship was the reason I brought this little guy home, I opted for the positive approach. I’d show my youngster that we could have fun together, but the key to party time would be his willing compliance. Etiquette would be the door to his heart.
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However, my game plan was destined to fail. That’s because pushy puppies tend to be self-reliant. Therefore, I needed this dog to need me. First, in order for him to do so, I had to become gatekeeper for the stuff he naturally enjoyed: food and the outdoors. Second, I had to teach him that there are rules, and abiding by them brings good fortune. Third, I had to show him that playing games with me is more fun than going off to do his own thing.
Puppies aren’t hard to understand if you recognize that they’re rapidly maturing, and as part of that process, are not only learning about themselves but also how to interact with others. That’s why it’s critical to teach them self-control. They must understand how to internally monitor their needs and whims—in other words, how to make polite requests rather than vehement demands, and whether or not a particular desire is reasonable or inappropriate. A tall order? Not if you incorporate a few basic tenets into your daily routine. For Naughty Boy, the restructuring of our relationship began with convincing him to give me the attention I so richly deserved.
It’s been said that the eyes are the mirror of the soul, so what better place to start? My initial objective was to teach the puppy that simply looking at me is beneficial. At first, glances in my direction were rewarded, and gradually those were shaped into purposeful gazes. How do dogs learn self-control from imposed stares? There are several ways: one, the puppy learns to look to me for guidance; two, he learns that his actions have significance; and three, he learns how to problem solve because the act of looking provides the solution to many puzzles (how to earn the treats in my hand, how to make me open the door to go outside, and how to get me to release him from his crate). In fact, “look at me” is such an important aspect of my puppy’s upbringing that I regard it as a default behavior, something I expect rather than something I ask for on cue. “When in doubt, seek me out,” is my mantra.
Next, my little guy was introduced to three critical cues that bring peace to any doggie household: sit, stay and drop it (release an object from the mouth). As time passed and the puppy’s responses to these cues became consistent, they were incorporated into the “look at me” behavior. For example, in order to gain outdoor access, the puppy learned he must offer a brief sit, stay and look—every single time—before permission to exit was granted. Talk about self-control! Additionally, notice that this scenario positions me as gatekeeper and rule maker, two of the three original objectives.
Furthermore, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of a rock-solid “drop it” command, not only because puppies end up with all kinds of stuff in their mouths, but also because relinquishment is critical to the next stage of the plan—fun! In fact, think of a puppy’s ability to surrender items as equivalent to being able to share. Athletes in any sport who hog the ball aren’t considered team players, and it was crucial for my puppy to be a bona fide member of the home team.
Ah, the exuberance of youth. Obviously, puppies need to burn off loads of energy, and there are three ways for them to do so: get into trouble doing inappropriate things like stealing objects or rooting through the garbage; go off to chew a bone or meander alone in a fenced yard; or interact appropriately with their person in a meaningful way. Of course, it’s impossible to entertain puppies every waking moment, so there’s nothing wrong with giving them safe chew toys or allowing them to stretch their legs in a secure area.
However, it’s also important to build a relationship through play. In my experience, the best relationship-building game is tugging—yes, the oft-maligned tug-o-war. It’s been said that playing tug-o-war creates bad dogs, but contrary to popular belief, if it’s taught within the context of designated rules, the game can actually be a training tool, an energy outlet and a relationship builder. Why such a divergence of opinion on whether it makes or breaks a dog’s character? Perhaps because there’s a vast difference between free-for-all tugging and structured, friendly tugging. Of course, there would be no freefor-alls for my puppy!
Fast-forward to the “drop it” command, a key component of structured tugging (along with the sit and stay cues). In a nutshell, here’s how the game works: after the dog sits and looks, the tug toy appears. The dog enjoys tugging until he’s given the release command, at which point he must let go of the toy or the game is over. The dog then sits, looks and eventually stays until he’s invited to play again. Of course, training all of the aforementioned can’t be undertaken at once. As the dog ages and his skills improve, additional expectations are incorporated. In the meantime, the dog is having a blast—with me! By far, tugging is my youngster’s favorite activity. He’ll pick up a toy and bring it to me with a gleam in his eye that says, Can we play? Mission accomplished!
I brought home an especially challenging puppy. At the outset, our relationship was rocky, and the potential for lifelong discord loomed large. Yet, despite my boy’s impish core, he’s grown up to be quite the gentleman. In fact, he recently became a certified therapy dog. He’s far from perfect, and he’ll always be a work in progress, but he’s got potential. Perhaps he can demonstrate his self-control skills to some at-risk kids and show them that they have potential, too. Now that the tough stuff is behind us, I consider myself lucky. I have the best naughty puppy in the world!