Puppy Mile Markers: By Request

Johnson_Bayou_road_signJustin Wilson, the famous Cajun comedian, tells a story about a city slicker who finds himself lost in a small Louisiana town. The man stops a small child and asks “Hey, child, if I take this road, where I gonna be at?” To which the boy answers, “It breaks my heart to tell you, mister, but, me, — I don’t know.” After asking about each of the roads in view, and getting the same answer, the man disgustedly comments, “Kid, you don’t know a darned thing!.” To which the child replies, “Maybe so, but I ain’t lost.”.

Like the city slicker in unfamiliar territory, many puppy owners find themselves in the position of being helplessly lost. By contrast, their puppies are like the child who has no idea of the outside world, but yet, “ain’t lost.” Finding the right training road for you and your puppy is similar to navigating to a known destination – it is a wise idea to know how to get there, before you start your trip.

Starting points and destinations: The starting point of your puppy’s educational journey is usually a great distance from the destination. Puppies have very few instinctive behaviors that help them automatically adjust to human society. This should not surprise anyone – they are infant predators. Their ancestors passed along genetic tendencies that are best used in the occupation of killing furry objects. Left to their own devices, puppies grow into animals that are fearful, destructive, messy, aggressive and dangerous. The on-ramp to the educational highway starts with understanding that most of what we think of domestication is the result of the learning journey.

Mile Marker #1: Your puppy will learn how to deal with his environment, with or without your help.
Unless you are a breeder, your puppy was already on his journey before you ever saw him. He started his journey at about 3 weeks of age. He recently opened his eyes and began toddling along on very weak and uncoordinated legs. He will continue to use his eyes, ears, nose and brain to investigate and interpret his environment. Your choice will not be whether your dog will learn, but merely whether or not you will be in control of his learning.

Mile Marker #2: Puppies cannot fully control elimination until five or six months of age. Whether you like it or not, puppies are infants. While they are capable of learning where to eliminate at an early age, they are often incapable of “holding it”. You should expect a few accidents along the way.

Mile Marker #3: Puppies use their mouths to investigate and taste things. They will bite inedible objects, people and toys with equal interest. This is perfectly natural, potentially dangerous and usually unacceptable. Controlling this behavior is part of the main road to your destination.

Mile Marker #4: If the consequence of an action is positive, your dog will try to recreate that situation. EXAMPLE: If nudging your arm brings the touch of your hand or some playful scratching, be prepared for your dog to nudge your arm when you are drinking a cup of coffee. As your puppy investigates its environment it will be attracted to certain things and repelled by others. Puppies like to lick faces, as the result of an instinctive greeting ritual. If you pick up a puppy and cuddle it close to your face, you will increase your pup’s desire to repeat this position. As the puppy grows, its size will limit your ability to pick him up, but not the puppy’s desire to get close to your face. The easiest way for the pup to get close to your face will be to jump up on its hind legs. If you gently grasp, rub or shove your dog away, there is a chance that the dog will consider those actions “affection”. If the consequence of jumping on people is positive, from the dog’s point of view, it will become a habit.

Mile Marker #5: If the consequence of an action is consistently negative, your dog will learn avoid the situation. In contrast to habits that are created by positive reinforcement, many behaviors are the result of things which are unpleasant. These should be the dead end roads of your dog’s education. Dead ends need to be created for behaviors such as jumping on guests, getting into the garbage and darting out the front door. A rarely considered aspect of this is that negative consequences are magnified for young animals. This is a two edged sword. If you understand how to use safe and humane punishment you can create inhibitions that will last a lifetime. If you punish the pup incorrectly, you can cause repairable roadblocks. Remember that the word ‘punishment’ does not imply abuse. It describes an event that suppresses a behavior.

Mile Marker #6: Marker #6 looks remarkably like Marker #2. Now that you know a little about the mechanics of house training, you need to sustain the journey. While dogs have the tendency to avoid making a mess where they sleep, it is only a tendency. To pave the way to a truly house trained dog, it takes the same patience and positive reinforcement that we usually reserve for obedience training. The common practice of punishing “mistakes” usually teaches the pup to avoid “mistakes” by avoiding humans at “potty time”. The most common result of punishment for house training problems is a sneaky dog. Since the pup now thinks that humans punish peeing and pooping, he is unlikely to eliminate in front of his owner. A cycle develops where the owner waits and waits outside with the pup – who is waiting and waiting for the owner to leave so that he may relieve himself. When the owner finally gets tired of waiting, the pup is taken back indoors, where he is compelled to sneak off and finally have his “accident”. The best solution to this problem is to give food treats for correct elimination and ignore the accidents. Confining the pup to a place where he is unlikely to eliminate can speed up this process.

Mile Marker #7:Walking on leash “happens” whether you like it or not. While most dogs live the majority of their lives in a house or yard, there are times when you cannot avoid using a leash. Besides the enjoyable aspects of walking in public, trips to the vet are impossible without some means of control. Starting your puppy on a leash training program is a necessary and beneficial part of your trip. If you are frustrated trying to train a squirming pup on the end of a leash, it won’t get any easier when the animal is several times bigger and better coordinated. The time to start is now.

Mile Marker #8:Your dog needs a formal education: Back at Mile Marker #6 we found out that young animals are very sensitive to negative consequences. A broader view of this is that animals with very limited repertoires are overly sensitive to changes in the environment. Formal behaviors such as sit, down and stay, have therapeutic powers as well as practical applications. Dogs that learn new things as a regular part of their lives are much more adaptable than those that are left in ignorance. Puppy Kindergarten classes offer a great opportunity to get your dog into a regular pattern of learning and adapting to new situations. Puppies that are trained from early infancy usually become resilient, adaptable adult dogs.

Mile Marker #9: Dogs are not naturally good with strangers or small children. Dogs are naturally aggressive toward strangers. Most of them are highly territorial and will defend their family against perceived threats. On the highway of learning, this is the side road to a washed out bridge. The sign reads “Danger ahead!” Overcoming this problem is a matter of offering the pup many opportunities to meet new people. People who offer treats and affection soon come to be looked at as friends of the family. Contrary to popular belief, this will not prevent the dog from barking at real intruders. Real burglars and bad guys are rarely invited into the home – and a well trained dog can tell the difference between a welcome guest and a skulking intruder.

Mile Marker #10:Your dog will eventually need regular grooming and veterinary Care. : A major cause of learned aggression and fearfulness is failure to acquaint a dog with the often unpleasant experience of a trip to the vet or groomer. One of the most important stops on your trip will be at the veterinarians’ office. Medical treatment often causes pain and discomfort. Even simple nail trimming can be disconcerting for the pup. Getting advice from your veterinarian about how to handle the pup during regular home exams can make your journey much smoother. While many breeds of dog require minimal grooming, a flea bath or dip is occasionally necessary for even short coated dogs. This process is best taught while the puppy is still very young. The more you work on the grooming and handling necessary for proper care, the fewer pot holes you will encounter later.

These mile markers are just the main stops on a very interesting journey. Along the way there are many side roads, like Frisbee games, fetching the paper and belly rubbing. The pleasure of owning a gentle, loving and spirited dog is your final destination. Knowing the route and avoiding the potholes and dead ends will make your trip safe and pleasurable, and when you finally arrive you’ll know where you are and how you got there.



4 thoughts on “Puppy Mile Markers: By Request

  1. Hi Gary,
    I work and train at QCDTC in Cincinnati, OH. I love the above Puppy Mile Markers” and would love to hand out those papers to our Puppy Kindergarten class participants. It would be copied as above and would be credited to you.
    Do we have your permission to do this?
    Thank you,
    Love your blog !

  2. I have always thought it was interesting that puppies use their mouths like humans would use their hands. They are really just exploring most of the time so make sure not to get upset until you have to. Good tips!

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