Raising a puppy is a dead serious yet often deliriously enjoyable business – and how many things can you say that about? But being at home on Planet Puppy – the world that puppy parents inhabit – is about so much more than measuring out the daily feed and teaching your puppy what “sit” means. (Sit, verb: to be alert while grounded, not knocking off people’s glasses and breathing up their necks.) By all means, listen to experts on training and behaviour; just don’t take everything they tell you to heart. Experts will fill you up, if you’re not careful, with instructions you don’t need and routines you can do just swimmingly without, but only the experienced parent knows this. Experts are mainly restricted to the standard-issue do’s and the scientific don’ts, set out text-book-like in the approved deadpan manner, when in fact there is much to laugh at, and a franker perspective would actually be more illuminating. We are talking about puppies and people’s passions, after all, not the migration patterns of the lesser-footed doveturtle. (Yes, that sounds a little odd: I made it up).
In this guide, I intend to be frank about raising puppies, to give the need-to-know information on day-to-day life, and also to offer sympathy and advice for those times when things don’t go right. It’s not a project to tell you all about fleas (a niche interest, you’ll agree) or how to primp your puppy to perfection. It doesn’t pretend to be an A-Z on the minutiae of every possible facet. Instead, I’m going to talk about what raising a puppy is really like, from the puppy’s perspective as well as yours. It’s a joyful tour of the close but sometimes messy relationships of puppies and their parents – who may be old hands, or struggling, or somewhat lost. Since you will be meeting these people at the vet’s, and on walks, and at puppy block parties on someone’s lawn, you might as well know who they are. You may even be one of them yourself.
PART ONE: LIFE WITH A PUPPY
1. What Puppies Know, Or Pretend to Know
A puppy is one of nature’s most squeezable delights, but knowledge of the world has nothing to do with it. At six weeks old, its experience is limited to lying on or stumbling over its siblings, making squeaking noises, and listening to visitors drooling over how adorable it is. By the age of eight weeks, it has become completely blasé about the praise, and its eyes have turned from blue to brown. Stepping on other puppies is no longer the high point of its day, and instead it would prefer to climb all over a human being, and, if possible, get in a friendly bite to the ear or a playful poke in the eye. At this age, puppies know nothing of postmen, umbrellas, or what doors are for. Depending on how precocious their dental equipment is, they will sooner or later want to chew everything in sight, whether rawhides, cabinet legs, or your hand. This is the teething stage, and it may come sooner than you expect. But through it all – and between applications of bandages and colour-matched wood-filler – you will be learning that a plastic mat stretched over the puppy’s little play area is a better idea than bare, exposed carpet.
A puppy, as we have seen, knows very little. It would seem to know what food is, but this is merely a stab in the dark. The fact that puppies are confused about what may be eaten becomes clear when they have ingested such items as rubber bands, yarn, wasps, acorns and other flora found around the neighbourhood. (You may not know about the botanical collection until you find it, unmasticated and regurgitated, on your puppy’s blanket in the morning.)
2. What Puppies Do
Many people worry about strange things their puppies do. Most of the time, however, they are witnessing normal behaviour, and often, the puppy will grow out of it.
Puppies may be surpassing piddle-sneakers, and this is something you must watch for. When they are six weeks old, they cannot control their venting equipment, whether bladder or bowel. This situation improves within weeks, first with bladder control and then with bowel, but young puppies are often caught off guard by their sudden need ‘to go’. You, apparently, shouldn’t be. Any how-to book will tell you that, while puppies are young and untrained, you must watch them beadily and relentlessly, like a CCTV camera with an actual bobby at the controls.
Why are you watching? Well, you are looking for the tell-tale sign that they need to be lifted – quickly, bodily – and deposited on a piddle-safe puppypad. This is like a helipad for helicopters, but instead it is the place chosen for your puppy and any of its liquids to land on. Experts tell you that the puppy, when it needs relief, will sniff or look around eagerly, perhaps whimper, and widen its stance (both boys and girls squat in early life).
Some puppies do perform this ritual, and they certainly have their humans’ gratitude. But many do not. Instead they sneak, sliding their feet sideways ever so slightly – a few millimetres does it – to make a good surreptitious wee possible. And wee they do. By the time you realise what is happening, there is a sizable puddle on the carpet, which will require powder or spray and a curtain-length of kitchen roll, unless it’s oozing into your floorboards, which is another matter.
If this happens to you, you should still pick up the puppy immediately, show it the pool of piddle while emphatically saying “No!”, and then put it in the spot where you want it to be piddling (even though this means a trail of drops along the way). The puppy’s mind will start to catch on, and eventually, so will its bladder.
* Answering the Other Call of Nature – Indoors
Young puppies – the ones whose age you tend to count as weeks rather than months – need to relieve their bowels about five times a day. When you add to this a similar number of piddles, the puppy parent has a lot of watching and/or mopping up to do. Never mind ‘stooping and scooping’; at this stage in the puppy’s life, you will be doing a lot of ‘stooping and swooping’, to get the puppy in the right place for pooping! Some people find it helpful to keep a sort of diary of when the puppy does its various businesses, the better to predict the next one and take appropriate action. Notes of this kind may also serve as a reminder to you, unless the puppy is in a gated area or crate with a ‘toilet’ section, to take the puppy out at regular intervals.
Puppies, like young children, sometimes get caught unawares and have accidents, even after you think they’ve learned the essential toilet lesson. If the puppy is two months old and you’re wondering why it is still having occasional accidents in the house, despite your strenuous efforts at training, don’t despair. The puppy will become reliable, but you may need to take a more active role in offering it the chance to go outside. Just as some puppies are ‘piddle-sneakers’, they may also be less than communicative when they need you to open the door. For instance, they may come into a room where you are and look at you intently. What they are thinking is, ‘I need to go’; all you can think is ‘does Ginger want a treat / play time / stroke?’ It might be worth getting into the habit of asking ‘Do you need to go outside?’ or ‘Do you need to hurry up?’ or whatever the word is that you’ve chosen for this purpose. Walk to the door while you’re saying this, open it, and see what happens. Your puppy will get better at showing you, by going to the door and looking at that expectantly, when it needs to go out.
* Twitching While Napping
When your puppy falls asleep and spends the next several minutes twitching and wiggling its feet, this is perfectly normal and nothing to be anxious about. Veterinary science does have explanations for why this occurs, but it’s not much different from the twitching you yourself probably do in the night (and you’re just not aware of it, though your bedmate might be). Some puppies even “talk” in their sleep. Sound familiar?
If, however, your puppy is not sleeping but is shivering, this is an indication of pain and then you should take the puppy toute suite to the vet. The same is true if the puppy suddenly dislikes being touched in a previously “okay” area, e.g. if she flinches when you stroke her back.
Puppies and dogs will occasionally snack on grass, which many people assume that they do because they are ill. Often, however, they are bouncing with good health and are simply enjoying the flavour. Other types of grazing are not so innocuous. Extensive sampling of garden plants should be prevented, since many have poisonous parts (though toxic roots and bulbs are usually out of reach). A young puppy might need supervision in the garden, but don’t feel that you have to denude it of lupins or rip out your rhododendron stand. A well-fed and well-stimulated pet will come to see the plants as extra-dietary, and ‘chewing the scenery’ will revert to something actors do, not your puppy.
Everyone knows that dogs bark, but very young puppies aren’t barkers. They take some months to warm up to full-throated barking, and in the meantime they make lots of other sounds. These can be anything from a breathy whinge to a wolf-howl, though you are guaranteed to hear the former but will be lucky to witness the latter. In any case, puppies and dogs don’t bluff with their voices, so when they ‘say’ something, you should listen. They mean it.
* Mouthing and Ingesting
Puppies often bite, mouth, and ingest things around the home. Like human babies, they rely on their mouths as a means of learning about the world. Furthermore, as mentioned, puppies are not discerning diners. They do not understand that certain foods are bad for them, even if their noses can tell ‘fresh’ from ‘rotten’. (Notice how your puppy sniffs every piece of food you hand to it.) This combination of mouthy curiosity and lack of discrimination can lead to trouble.
If your puppy does consume something that it shouldn’t – such as chocolate – you should of course seek medical advice. But the reassuring news is that quantity matters, i.e. quantity of toxin and quantity of dog. Let’s say you drop a piece of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut on the floor, and your puppy dives after it before you can act. If the puppy is small – under 20 lbs, say – but it’s just a crumb or two, then chances are there won’t be any ill effects. If the puppy is older and heavier, able to fell a row of hollyhocks in a single bound, then a mere crumb of chocolate will have even less effect. If, on the other hand, you’ve dropped the whole bar, then you need to throw your body selflessly at it like Andy Murray running down a tennis ball. No matter how big your dog, chocolate, tea, macadamia nuts and many other substances will always be toxic, and you’ll want to find out what’s safe before giving people-food as a treat.
When the puppy’s teeth start erupt, in their first months of life, it will feel an overwhelming need to chew on things, partly to relieve the discomfort and partly because chewing is fun. You will want to provide appropriately-sized rawhides and also, as a soothing remedy, small ice cubes. Crunching the ice cubes won’t hurt the teeth and will seem like a treat, especially if you put the cubes in a tray or bowl with a little broth or gravy flavouring (puppy ice cream!). Puppies love to chase ice cubes if you have a place where you can throw them.
Rawhides should be given when you are there to supervise, especially when the puppy is several weeks to only a few months old. They can be safely ingested, but puppies are tempted to get a whole flattened, softened rawhide into their gullets and it may be a good idea, by that point, to remove that rawhide and present a fresh, hard one. Rawhide does have calories, but not very many, particularly if there is no treat filling in the centre.
* Being where they shouldn’t, borrowing what they shouldn’t
It’s an open secret that most dogs find their way onto the humans’ bed, even if even if the parents think they have a rule about 'no puppies on the bed'. (Puppy rules will be made and trust me, they will be broken.) But at least a bladder-trained puppy is not likely to get into trouble among the pillows – which is more than can be said for your laundry pile, your stack of magazines, or your mass of extension cords. All such vulnerable things are best kept safely off limits, until the puppy learns that they are a) not consumables , and b) not toys. You can help them learn by making it clear that items you hand to them are fair game, but what they pick up of their own accord is none of their business. The rawhide or bouncy ball given by you is a treat, and most people will naturally tell the puppy it’s a treat or toy or reward. If the same word is used when giving the same reward often enough, the puppy will eventually learn the word that accompanies your approval. On the other hand, if the puppy picks up a shoe and you say ‘no’ and perhaps ‘not for doggies’, it will already be on the way to ignoring shoes altogether. Which of course will make life easier for you.
* Mounting people’s legs or other dogs, and other assertive behaviours
Some puppies never mount people’s legs (or ‘hump’ them), and they won’t do it as adults, either. Some do it as puppies but not as adults, which is generally a great relief to their owners. We are told that it has something to do with the desire for dominance, and this may possibly be true, even with friend-dogs; but when you witness it, it’s hard not to rule out impolitely expressed affection. It’s hard to fathom at all, if you’re human, but unless it becomes a habit, it’s not something to get worked up about. Chances are, it will pass, especially if you are providing the home life your puppy really needs, including lots of attention, mental stimulation, opportunities for exercise, together-time with the family (as much as possible, for most breeds), and a sure sense that you are in charge, not the puppy.
For the same reason, it doesn’t matter much or at all if now and then your puppy presses its rawhide against you when it’s chewing on it. On the one hand, some experts say that this is a way of using you and therefore not to be tolerated (it supposedly lowers your status), but on the other hand, this probably happens rarely and does not actually mean anything when it does. If you hold out the rawhide or bone or hard chewy treat for your puppy, and keep holding it while the puppy gnaws, you are doing the same thing in a non-underling way: providing a firmer clamp on the treat than the puppy can manage with its own paws. There is a temptation, during puppyhood, to view everything the puppy does as a cosmic sign of its existential adjustment, especially with respect to how it is minding you, and whether it is treating you as sufficiently god-like. While it’s certainly important to assess the puppy’s development – for instance, is the training coming along nicely or does progress seem as unlikely as a galloping sloth? – it is also important to realize that growing up can be ragged, not a smooth upward curve, with the boxes checked all at once. Vigilance and kindness are essential for raising a puppy, so that both of you will be happy during and after; but perfectionism mixed with puppyhood is a recipe for bad temper – yours, if not your dog’s.
3. What Puppies Need Most: Appropriate Praise
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that what puppies need most, apart from food, sleep, affectionate handling, and play, is praise. Many new puppy parents (like parents of human babies) understandably focus on preparing the home as a physical setting for the puppy: putting breakables away, hiding electrical cords, keeping the floors free of anything that might be swallowed, etc. And that is very important. But once that is done, the focus shifts, as it should, to the way that you and your puppy interact with each other, as members of a family. Praise – ‘good boy!’ or ‘good doggie!’ or ‘what a good girl!’ – tells the puppy what it’s doing right but also helps to make you the fount of good feelings: it helps to create your emotional bond. Puppies that are praised all the time are puppies that are welcome in the home, and they certainly are aware of this. This is one reason why training should be more about reinforcing the right behaviours than about showing disapproval of the wrong ones: praise for jobs well done sets the tone of the whole relationship.
What does this mean in practice?
Let’s say that you have taught ‘sit’, and now you want to teach ‘stay’. Perhaps you have had someone help you, by gently restraining the puppy with a hug while you move a short distance away, saying ‘stay’ and then coming back with a treat as a reward for doing so. Perhaps you have the puppy on a short tether – so that if she gets up, she can’t go anywhere – or perhaps you have managed to keep the puppy interested and watchful at the ‘sit’ stage for long enough that ‘stay’ is happening by itself, albeit for only a handful of seconds. (Depending on the dog’s temperament and other factors, some parents will rely more than others on devices that restrain the puppy during initial training sessions. For instance, some people use leads to teach ‘come’, while others may never use a lead for this purpose, even with a wilful dog.)
Anyway, if the puppy stands up and walks towards you after you’ve said ‘stay’, of course you’ll want to say ‘no’ and bring the puppy back to the starting point. But there’s no need to make a big fuss about doing this. There’s no need to scold or carry on – in fact, talking to the puppy in a reasonable voice, as if you were explaining a simple thing to a small child, is probably the most encouraging approach. Then, when the puppy does stay – keep your expectations short in the early stages – that is the time to make a big fuss. Then you should be fulsome and overflowing, speaking with great excitement and a smiling, joyful face, as if the puppy had just told you that your pension has tripled in value or that a large emerald in high-carat gold has magically appeared beneath the sofa.
In sum, when the puppy does the wrong thing (or the not-quite-right thing), your task is quietly to reset the situation, re-position the puppy, and try again. Chances are that in these relatively short bursts of training – little and often is better than the alternative – you and the puppy will have made progress, and you’ll have given enthusiastic praise. This will be important for your future training sessions, since the praise that in the beginning was accompanied by food treats will begin to have greater power as its own reward, the puppy doing more work for less food but with the same quantity of praise. Again, it’s the relationship with you that really matters: you don’t want your dog to obey you simply because you’re a treat-dispenser; you want your dog to respond to you as a parent, as the one that gives praise. And think about it: treats can be bribes, a compensation for a lack of authority, but praise is never a bribe or a caving-in.
4. Puppy Gastronomy
We have seen that puppies are not discerning about whence they get their calories, or even non-calories, but that is not to say that they will eat anything. They do, however, naturally crave variety, for much the same reasons that humans do. This omnivorous tendency is always present, as you will see when you bring home pizza. (Technically, dogs are mesocarnivores, unlike cats, which are hypercarnivores.) But with each passing month, the puppy that would eat almost anything becomes choosier and choosier. Cardboard and tree bark will be ‘out’, for example, while raw carrots and apples will be ‘in’. Then, some time later, you may find that raw carrots are no longer good enough and only cooked ones will do (an attitude with which you may be sympathetic). Lettuce leaves, which were formerly interesting, will have been found out for what they are, though less rabbity items such as cooked potatoes and peanut butter will retain their appeal. (Note that peanuts are all right, being ground nuts not tree nuts.)
When the puppy is very young, it may accept three daily helpings of kibble (dry food pellets) without much in the way of gravy. This will be breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In time, however, the puppy’s need for variety will require you to do some sleight of hand. By adding a squirt of fish oil (available in pet shops) or a dash of broth, perhaps with a bit of lunch meat sprinkled on top, you can make the same old kibble seem like some other, more exciting kibble. Warming the whole dish helps, as well, since heat enhances that lovely smell – not to your nose, which is hopeless, but to the puppy’s.
Kibble is highly recommended by vets for two reasons: 1) the crunchiness is good for canine teeth; and 2) it’s highly scientific, packing nutrients into a tiny space like commuters in a London train. We can add two further benefits: it’s convenient, and cheaper than soft commercial food, pound for pound.
There are times, however, when ready-made stews may be preferable. When you’re travelling, the puppy may feel a bit iffy about eating; and you may be reluctant to fuss with the fixings when you’ve parked the car in a lay-by and are keen to get going again. That is the time to whip out the Angus beef stew with reduction sauce, glazed peas, and marinated carrots. This will not spoil the puppy or put it permanently off its kibble. To the contrary, after a spot of Boeuf-Élan Bourguignon avec pommes frites délicieuses aux omelettes, your puppy will view the daily kibble as a welcome change. One hopes.
As the puppy grows into adulthood, three meals a day will become too frequent, and you’ll want to feed only breakfast and dinner, knocking out lunch. (Yes, your great-aunt Harriet may have fed her dog once daily, but that’s old-fashioned: the modern finding is that dogs are better off getting a boost in fuel and blood sugar twice a day, perhaps with snacks in between.) There’s no magic in guessing when to do this: your puppy will inform you, simply by showing no interest in lunch. As long as your dog is still keen on breakfast and dinner, this is completely natural and nothing to fret about.
Sometimes puppies get upset stomachs, either as a symptom of a broader health problem or just as an isolated and passing discomfort. This can of course be enough to put them off their food. You may get a sign of this if the puppy behaves in a subdued manner, perhaps with its tail clamped down, or the puppy simply seems to be presenting herself to you in a way that says “look at me, I’m not feeling well.” If the condition doesn’t worsen and there aren’t other visible symptoms – check carefully – then it may help to put out a soft meal of rice and broth, perhaps with some meat pieces in it. If the puppy eats this, then it’s likely that nothing is deeply wrong. Rather than make rice, you can do this quickly and easily by crumbling rice crackers (such as Magic Pops) into broth.
This is also a good meal to give if the puppy has suffered any distress, for instance, if it’s had a hard day at the vet’s in a spaying or neuter operation. No puppy likes to go through this, and some take it very badly and are quite upset, which is understandable. To get over the experience sooner rather than later, they will need all the love you can give, and providing a delicious, easily downed meal will help with that, as well.
Grooming: Fetish or Necessity?
A lot of rot is talked about dog grooming -- but not Chez Brenchley. Let's have a look.
* Bathing and brushing
Many puppies need nothing more than brushing – once a day if you can remember it, though you probably won’t. The type of implement depends on the type of coat: a curry comb works well for short coats, and a fearsome-looking dog brush works best for shaggy ones. Brushing is worth the attempt, and don’t worry if it feels vaguely pointless: the hair will keep coming out as you brush, but fortunately you’ll give up for the day long before your dog ends up naked.
Bathing is best done as little as necessary, partly because frequent shampooing can irritate a dog’s skin and partly because most dogs don’t like it. Dogs need their own shampoo, and as this will not be labelled Cucumber Coconut with Aloe Vera and Waterfall Mist, you won’t get it mixed up with your own. It may be kindest to the puppy to support and embrace it while it’s in the bath, not with a scarily full tub but with a jug nearby to perform an improvised shower. Later, when the puppy is more used to bathing, the easiest thing may be to bring it into a shower stall – not, however, with a disconcerting torrent – and it all gets done very quickly. Nor will the puppy risk breaking a leg as it tries to leap out of the bath.
Some dog experts get quite artistic with bathing and grooming, and seem to enjoy it, though most people find it a pain in the neck. Dogs aren’t silly: they’ll often dash away when they sense the ordeal of bathing coming on, and then your job is to grope after them, sweet-talking and bribing with biscuits. When it’s over you’re both relieved and want to do something else – but dog experts say this is the moment to shine up that coat with a chamois. Or trim the ‘featherings’ (wispy hairs around extremities) to make everything perfectly neat. If you like the featherings the way nature made them, sit down and have a gin and tonic instead. And as for the chammy: save it for the car. Or just refuse to own one.
* Nail Trimming
The subject of nail trimming takes up a surprising amount of space in dog books, when you consider how many how-to’s have been written over the decades, but the fact is that it doesn’t much matter. If you walk your dog on any sort of paving, with any sort of frequency, the chances are very high that you will never need to trim your dog’s nails at all. The pavement or road does that for you. Yes, you can be on the safe side and buy any number of trimmers – special pet clippers or rotating sanders, or whatever is the latest ingenious new gadget – and practice on your puppy while it’s calm and relaxed, trying not to cause pain and draw any blood. But unless you have a sponge neighborhood or your entire property is grass, you’ll probably find it’s a better investment to work instead on tooth-brushing.
Unlike some other things that tradition tells us to do, brushing your puppy’s teeth is a really excellent idea and not the eccentric oh-come-off-it exercise that at first it might appear to be. It’s best to start this when puppy is young, with about the same rigor that you use in brushing your own teeth: easy on the gums, but not too wimpy, either. I used to buy a small wedge-shaped dog toothbrush (i.e. the bristles form a triangle), to fit a puppy’s mouth. Then I saw a brush that claimed to be for dogs but looked exactly like a really basic people-toothbrush. At which point I asked myself why I was spending lots of money on indifferent or awkward toothbrushes “for dogs”, when a decent human brush would serve just as well or better. I’ve been using normal toothbrushes for my grown-up puppy ever since.
Dogs don’t rinse, so they have their own toothpaste, too, in all sort of flavors that you’ll find quite revolting but the puppy of course quite likes: peanut butter or poultry or sometimes mint. Thirty seconds of brushing may be all you can get in before the paste is off the brush and the puppy has had enough, thanks; but eventually you should be able to do 50 or 60. (You can always add a bit more paste to the brush if need be.) I advise brushing with a sense of urgency, covering as many of the teeth as you can, as if you want the puppy’s teeth fresh as a daisy for Her Majesty the Queen, who might turn up any minute. This requires less stillness from an animal that doesn’t see the point and is trying to champ on the bristles, and it makes sure you get full coverage before everyone’s patience wears out.
How often to brush? Once a day is not too much, and you get the biggest bang for your endeavour if you wait till after the puppy’s last daily meal.
Why should you brush? Even though the saliva of dogs is more anti-bacterial than ours, they need dental health for reasons similar to ours, including the issue of breath. Sweet breath or death breath? Brushing can help make a difference (as can store-bought dental chews). Dogs that never have their teeth cleaned at home will often require an industrial session later in life, at the vet’s and under anesthetic, which carries risks for the dog. Better to avoid this and reap the benefits early in the puppy’s life.
6. Puppy Fun and Games
Pet shops are crowded with commercial toys aimed at specific dog sizes and ages, and many of these do actually last more than five minutes. ‘Lasting’ is defined as a) being more interesting to your puppy than the bag it came in, or b) withstanding the first bout of play before you bin it, in tatters. If you can afford to fill a toy box with toys, you will probably think this is the least you can do for a puppy that lives for fun. However, the best toys are generally home-made or adapted from their original purposes. This is one of those truisms that happen to be true.
If you dangle an empty plastic jug on the end of a string, your puppy will probably be delighted. There is no need to worry that the toy won’t be accepted as ‘real’; it’s the one you paid £10 for that the puppy will regard as suspect. For one thing, anything you put together from home materials (a long sock with a ball down in the toe, a pass-the-parcel package with a treat in the middle) will necessarily have the right scents on it. A toy from a shop smells like the little white dog in a tote bag that sneezed on it, as well as the six other puppy parents who handled the toy before moving on. Consequently, a store-bought toy may get a better welcome if it’s allowed to ‘freshen up’ for a while – in your laundry basket, for example.
All puppies love to be chased. If you throw a lunch bag or a hollow ball with a treat inside, and they run away from you with it, they will probably be content to let you follow them all over the house. This can be very useful when it’s raining or snowing or too hot to go out. The best approach with puppy games is to keep in mind their natural inclinations. Since dogs are made for sniffing, a game of Sniff-and-Seek is bound to be a winner (strategically place bits of treats around the room, in paper bags or as they are). Retriever dogs will naturally love to fetch, but don’t expect your non-retrieving puppy to think this is great: tearing up cardboard boxes may be more their thing. Some puppies will love a blow-up swimming pool in the garden, as long as the water is not too deep and of course you are there as life-guard. Others will only want to leap around a sprinkler. Many short-nosed dogs are very good at tug-of-war, and for this any towel or old brassiere will do.
Let’s say that you’ve already got a sizeable pile of toys, with lots of variety, but the puppy has tried them all and seems to be bored with them. What do you do? Well, there’s no need to donate them to the newest puppy in your neighbourhood, only to go out and buy more toys, and repeat the cycle all over again. Just as you dress up the same old dinner, you’re better off finding ways to dress up the same old toys.
Many puppies are not much different from kittens in their tastes: everything is better with a string on it. Imagine a fairly dull toy that looks like a cloud or possibly a sheep (the toy is so featureless that it’s not easy to tell). Your puppy has mouthed it a bit but basically there’s not much one can do with it. Solution: tie on securely a length of string (a natural material is safest). What difference does a string make? Well, it helps to turn a mere toy into a game—in this case, the game of “chase me while I dangle a sheep.” Similarly, any toy can be jazzed up and made newly interesting by being pushed down a pantyhose leg and swung about the room. When the pantyhose gets frayed or otherwise revolting, you can cut off the nasty bottom, tie a knot, and put a toy down the leg again.
Fortunately for puppies – and for you – the line between a toy and a game is very thin. There is no great distinction between them. Humans of course are quite different in this. We have creations we call “antique bears,” and dolls made of porcelain and fabric. These are toys, strictly speaking, but no one is allowed to play with them. Even when someone did play with them (back in the mists of history), swinging by the arms was frowned upon, and biting on the head was a definite, hysterical no-no. But if you can only play with toys by talking sweetly to them, what sort of game is that? In addition, humans speak of “collections,” as in “my Barbie and Ken collection” or “my collection of glass frogs.” Dogs are liberated from the need to collect. In fact, they crave newness and variety. Not for them dumpy giraffe with the stunted legs and last month’s slobber on it. They want fresher, less conventional fish to fry.
This is why, when something is delivered to the house, the humans think that the package is for them, when really it’s gift-time for the puppy. There is a box – that’s a toy – and paper wadding (toy) or perhaps some plastic air-strips or bubble-wrap (both toys). Savaging the box is a game; and trailing around the plastic, popping pieces as they go – that’s a game also. What’s more, it has something to offer every type of puppy: funny textures, funny sounds, and thorough deconstruction.
Of course, the playful puppy can’t just rely on the availability of packages. Instead, the puppy learns how to convert non-toys into toys, with human connivance and, ultimately, approval. They do this unconsciously by applying the toy-making principle: preparing the item to become a toy before it officially is one. Let’s imagine a woman parent – possibly you – getting dressed and taking a bra from the drawer. When you dangle the bra, with the intention of putting it on, your innocent puppy may bite at it once or twice in a cheeky manner. The more brazen puppy may even try to run off with it. Your of course will say something like ‘no’, but you’ll have the thought in your mind: “I can tell that Betsy / Summer / Sugar would love to play with this. Too bad it’s mine, and she can’t.” And yet, unless the bra is a model they don’t make now and it’s perfect and you paid too much for it, the truth is that you may soon let you play with it, and it will be hers, and you’ll no longer wear it. You won’t be able to wear it, since the plastic clasp will have been cut off for her safety.
The same principle applies to pajamas (“oops, sorry, I’ve torn the pocket off”), ties (“you can’t wear a fuzzy-threaded one like that”), and anything else the puppy sets its heart on. The item, after wear here and tear there, begins to have the puppy’s name on it, so to speak. This is actually a better bargain for you than it looks: much better to donate old stuff that’s getting tatty, than spend yet more hard-earned pay on smelly plastic monkeys and leaden boring balls that gather dust in the puppy’s toy box.
7. A Home Within A Home: The Puppy’s Own Place
It’s hard to generalize about dog breeds because, for one thing, ‘companionable’ means different things to different people: to some it’s an energetic, work-all-day-in-the-fields dog, having a certain independence in the service of a goal you both share. To others, it’s wanting to snuggle up close and shadow your almost every move. And then there’s the whole range in between. But the type – or more accurately, the temperament – of puppy does matter when it comes to choosing the puppy’s own place within the home, or private ‘den’. For some puppies, a basket or dog-lounger, open on all sides, will be all you need. They will happily go to that place when told, they will stay there, and they will treat that spot as their very own private retreat and bed. Others, with perhaps a more strenuous sense of wanting to be ‘here’ rather than ‘there’, will need something more, something with sides to it. This is what is known as a ‘crate’. Basically, it’s a box.
‘Crate’ suggests that you are about to ship your puppy off on a long voyage, but at least it sounds better than ‘cage’. The basic and original crate is a wire box with lots of gaps so the dog can see out and get lots of air; a basic crate like this (if you can find one) would be useful for helping the puppy learn where to do its business, but not much more. Most people want a more solid crate for one of two purposes: 1) air travel, in which the dimensions and type of crate are specified by law, depending on the size of your dog; and 2) as a place for the puppy to sleep or be quiet or be out of harm’s way. This latter type of crate can often be made of tent material, with a nice blend of privacy and good ventilation through the mesh, and a zip-up flap on at least one side that makes this rectangular crate secure. A pup-tent, if you will. Whatever you choose, since the puppy is likely to spend a large amount of time in there, it ought to be long enough for its legs to really stretch out. Just as you yourself would not want to be always cramped or curled up in a ball, the puppy doesn’t want to be, either.
Crates are essential furnishings for a number of reasons:
1) Crates encourage puppies, who need rest whether they realise it or not, to have quiet times when you want them to. This includes bedtime, when you want them to go quietly to sleep so that you in turn can get your rest.
2) Crates help with toilet-training because dogs naturally wish to avoid soiling their dens: a puppy that whines will be learning to tell you when it needs to go to a suitable place for its toilet needs. Large crates can even be fitted out with pads or squares of fake turf that represent the ‘toilet’ end, while they have room to rest at the clean end. Eventually the puppy learns that the neat and tidy behaviour it naturally engages in here is also what you require for the home as a whole: a clean den comes first, then a clean house.
3) Crate-time for puppy is adult-time for you: the crate can be placed where the puppy can see and hear you, but the need to supervise is a weight off your shoulders while the puppy is thus contained.
4) When you go out without the puppy, you know that the puppy can’t get into trouble – scratching at doors or leaping over baby gates or chewing up whatever happens to be around, since only safe items will be placed with it in the crate.
5) On occasions when you want to keep the puppy in one place – when the plumber is visiting or you’re throwing a party, for instance – the crate is a welcoming place for the puppy that keeps him secure without feeling like a punishment.
There is another use for the crate that requires a bit of explanation. This involves training or discipline. If, for instance, you are sitting down to dinner and don’t want distractions, but the puppy won’t be quiet or won’t stop begging, it is perfectly reasonable to put the puppy in its crate, which may be placed in another room if the puppy is being noisy. Such an action will not cause the puppy to hate the crate, much less resent you, but it does have the effect of reinforcing the behaviour you want. The crate after all is for quiet time. So when you put the puppy there, you are letting it know that now you want it to be quiet – in fact one can teach the command ‘Quiet’ by praising the puppy for settling down silently in the crate.
No dog or puppy should be left in a crate for more than a few hours at a time, and ideally, less. Working puppy parents may find it difficult to manage the crate-time, but then perhaps it would be better to keep the puppy restricted to a relatively safe room where it can wander around, and arrange for the puppy to have visits – if not from you, then from a trusted somebody else. Again, the crate is meant to be a welcoming place of rest, not a prison for a large part of the day.
So now you are fairly well informed about the uses of a crate. The only question now is: how do I get my puppy to enter it? The answer is the same one as for most other puppy questions: you don’t put anything scary in the way, and you toss a treat. If the crate or pup-tent has padding and is warm enough when the room is chilly and cool enough when the weather is warm, and you establish a connection between that soft place and some tasty tidbits, your puppy will accept the crate as a its own little den. As with a basket, the puppy will then start to go there of its own accord – especially if the crate is not a place of over-long confinement and not associated strongly with your displeasure.
8. Puppies and Cats
Young puppies have no firm opinions about other living beings, mostly because they know so little about them. Thus, whatever they may think of cats later in life, puppies are willing and able to conceive of them as housemates. But the type or breed of puppy matters, as does the disposition of the cat. In practice, when cats and dogs are said to get along, what this really means is that the resident cat is Grand High Lord of the Perches, who has first dibs on the sofa or any other location. The dog is viewed by the cat in much the same manner as Matron views the junior interim assistant nurse: ‘acceptable in the circumstances but apron is slovenly and must do better’. Cats in the nature of things are Matrons; dogs however are unlike junior nurses in that they fail to see the cats’ superiority. They may acknowledge the cat as a fact, and get off the favourite chair when the cat approaches, but the cat’s inability to wag like a dog and play like a dog remains a life-long puzzle. However, dogs and cats often co-exist peaceably regardless of character, since they want different things in life: a cat wants pride of place, while a dog wants pride of place in your heart. As long as one is not seen to trespass too much on the other’s point of pride, they will be fine.
Understandably, if there is a cat in your life, you will want your cat and puppy to get beyond glaring at each other. With puppies, time is on your side: they have not yet come round to the inescapable conclusion that cats were made for chasing. On the other hand, you may have an uphill climb on account of your puppy’s breed (or breed mix, or temperamental background). Although it is not much expressed in very young puppies, some breeds have a strong prey drive, which leads them more easily than others to view smaller animals, including cats, as prey. It’s a good idea to keep this in mind when introducing cats to the older puppy. Your darling dog may seem to be coming along nicely, accepting the cat’s presence and not growling or glowering; but this may be a sham. If it is a sham, the cat will of course know how to deal with it, but you would prefer not to have your puppy painfully swatted on the nose. Especially if those claws are not trimmed.
9. Choosing A Vet
In keeping with his or her high vocation, a veterinarian should take your scrumptiously snugglesome bundle with the utmost seriousness, while at the same time refraining from foisting on said S. S. B. every test, procedure, and overnight stay that medical fussing can devise. In other words, your puppy’s doctor must inspire complete confidence. If he or she doesn’t, go to someone else. You will know that you have found your perfect vet when you are tempted to send cards at Christmas and Halloween and Chinese New Year, put their office number on speed-dial, and point out fondly how they slightly resemble your pet.
1. The Trainer’s Magic
You may have noticed that some professional trainers seem to operate on a higher planet than other mortals: a planet where dogs do remarkable things with remarkable smoothness remarkably quickly. Naturally, you want to know how it’s done. For instance, you may look to a trainer to discover what sort of magic is available to get your puppy to go to its basket and stay there. That’s easy, says the trainer: just watch me and then try it at home. So, in a room lacking anything but paint on the walls and a very cosy dog lounger, the trainer chucks biscuits onto the lounger and tells the puppy ‘go to your basket’. Et voilà – the puppy races into the corner. But when you consider it, this really isn’t so magical, nor is the trainer a wizard. Of course the puppy will rush back to the only spot that holds any interest. You, on the other hand, must try to train your puppy in an actual home, with actual myriad furnishings, and all manner of commotion and family members to bewitch the puppy. Anyone could teach anything to a puppy in a room with nothing in it. You have to deal with real life. Who is the trainer kidding?
Similarly, trainers tend to suggest that you use treats when outdoors – as they demonstrate, lavishly – to train your puppy to walk nicely on a lead. The trouble with this is that the public street is intimidating to most puppies: the outside world is a disconcerting blur of rushing cars, noise, strange smells, and unfamiliar people. Until they become more accustomed to the wide outdoors, many puppies will not accept treats from you at all, so treats are useless for training until you return home. Something else is required to make your puppy pay attention to you.
This is why you should not feel that trainers have some special touch that you don’t have, or that your puppy is slow to learn or that you are inadequate. Some trainers can arrange the learning set-up and select their demonstration puppies in a way that you obviously cannot. They may be inclined to address the easy cases and leave the more challenging ones alone. This is not to say that professional advice isn’t helpful, but even the best training professionals can and should do only so much. You as parent are always the most important trainer: every day you will be guiding the puppy’s behaviour, and it’s your voice, attitudes, and body language that the puppy will be reading all its life. It is you that will have the character-shaping bond with your puppy, not the classroom or TV trainer.
2. You As Trainer, Or How Deception Helps Your Puppy To Learn
There is no reason why the training of your puppy shouldn’t begin almost from the moment you bring it home. Assuming that your puppy is at least eight weeks old, training in a gentle but purposeful manner will:
- establish you as the mother/authority figure (or figures, if you live with other adults)
- stimulate and develop your puppy’s mind
- give the puppy welcome ‘jobs’ to do, helping to make each day more interesting
- deepen your bond with your puppy
- keep you sane.
Training must be appropriate, beginning with the basic command that most of the others will build on – and that is ‘sit’. ‘Sit’ is easy for any dog because it is a natural position, unlike ‘down’ which certain breeds in particular are somewhat reluctant to do. (They are reluctant for much the same reason as you would be if a receptionist in an office said ‘lie down’ instead of ‘take a seat’.) The hand that wafts the treat above their nose while they sit (and while you say the word) becomes, after many repetitions, the hand that gives the signal for sitting – only by then there isn’t a treat in it. Treats are indispensable in training because no one, including puppies, likes to work without a reward.
But food treats are not the be-all and end-all of training. Puppy psychology is much like that of a very young child: they are quickest to do whatever seems the most fun at the moment. Training that is fun is training that goes unnoticed – the dog doesn’t even realize that you have an ulterior motive. (And dogs, especially as they grow older, are certainly capable of sussing ulterior motives, if you have any.)
Let’s take the commands ‘give’ and ‘come’ (or ‘come on’, which is probably better). ‘Give’ can be very useful when the dog has something in its mouth that you need to remove – perhaps a forbidden item of food, a tie that you particularly cherish, or a love letter. (‘Leave it’ has a similar meaning but it’s what you say when an item has not yet made it up the dog’s nose or into its mouth: mushrooms and their spores, for example.) ‘Come’ is what you say as leader of the pack, calling the members in to prowl through new hunting-grounds or get off the driveway to avoid being run over, whichever applies.
The best way to teach ‘give’ is to make it part of the game, whenever you’re playing chase-the-parcel or fetch. At first you will take the ball or disc or bag of treats carefully from the puppy’s mouth, while saying ‘give’: the puppy won’t actually release the item without your physical help, since obviously it has no idea what you mean. Then you will throw the toy and let the puppy chase after it. You can repeat this cycle a few times in one game (though it’s best not to overdo it and frustrate the puppy if it wants to keep mouthing the toy). As you can see, what you are doing is teaching the puppy that ‘give’ is fun, since when you say ‘give’ further play will result; it’s a temporary joyful giving, not a permanent and sorrowful one. The puppy naturally misses the deeper aim: in time it will give you anything at all, as soon as it can unhook its teeth from the object, whether there’s a game on or not. ‘Give’ has become a happy thing to do, and the puppy will always see it this way if you keep ‘give’ familiar and practise it.
‘Wait’ can also be part of this game, and then you’ve got two for one: ‘wait’ and then ‘give’ soon afterwards: both commands will be playfully reinforced.
‘Come’ is a trickier command because usually the dog is outside with a million distractions and a much greater incentive for not hearing. It stands to reason: in any given hectare, full of insects, toads, birds, fungi, flowers, wood, and bacteria, you are the least interesting thing in the landscape. The puppy is having a wonderful time, lost in its own world of stinky mystery, and along comes Mum or Dad barking ‘Come!’ The better idea is, once again, to make a game of it.
The thing to do is go out in the garden together, and after a while say in a jolly way, ‘I’m going to hide now and I want you to find me.’ You don’t really mean it, of course: you don’t want to hide from the dog, you want the dog to come to you when told. But for now you pretend that you’re just playing, and this is the nature of the game. (It’s always worth speaking real English to dogs, including puppies: they’ll never get the syntax but they often get your meaning.) Then go and crouch behind a tree or a car or the potting shed – without the puppy seeing you – and then, when the puppy has gone off, call ‘Where AM I?’ in an innocent sing-song. As long as your darling is not too far off – and in your garden it shouldn’t be – it will probably come looking for you. When it finds you, congratulate your puppy and act all pleased. Do this a number of times.
Later, when the dog understands the game and enjoys ‘discovering’ you in various places, you’ll want to substitute the words, ‘Come ON, Booby’ or whatever the dog’s name is. The sing-song will be very similar and the mood will be just as playful. (The problem with ‘Come’ is that it sounds stern and flat and like something to be avoided. It also doesn’t carry through the air like a song.) At this point, when you want the puppy to come and it’s not a game, the puppy will still respond as it did when you were playing. You could start your hide-and-seek game with ‘Come on, So-and-so’ instead of ‘Where AM I?’, of course, but many people have already tried out ‘Come’, partially ruined it, and need to start again with a different phrase. Often, the effectiveness of ‘come’ is compromised early on because the dog doesn’t obey and the parents can’t force it – which is a bad way of teaching commands, anyway.
Games That Teach Double Lessons, or Having It Both Ways
Another way to teach ‘come’ (and there’s no reason not to use both) is the more basic one of having the puppy wait or sit at a distance, and then offering a treat while saying ‘come’. The puppy will naturally rush towards you, which is better than feeling the pull of a string around its collar: you want the puppy to associate ‘come’ with its own desire and the eager rush that follows. Initially you may need another person to help keep the puppy on the spot while you retreat a short distance, to repeat this behaviour of waiting and coming, but this same game is a good way to teach ‘wait’, as well. The puppy wants to rush towards you and the treat, but it will quickly learn that if it rushes before being told, you will simply make it sit and wait again, delaying the moment when the puppy gets the treat. Wanting to avoid this delay, the puppy realizes that it’s simply better to stay on the spot in the first place: the reward comes more quickly for the puppy that waits. So the game of ‘treating at a distance’, moving from spot to spot around the house and having the puppy race after you when told, is a great way to teach and reinforce three separate commands all at once: ‘sit’, ‘wait’, and ‘come’.
Whichever methods you use, patience is important in training. Playfulness helps; consistency is key; persistence is necessary; and it never pays to get cross
3. Choosing A Repertoire of Commands
* Useful Words
The main commands that people give their dogs are fairly standardised: sit, stay, leave it, quiet, and so on. But fortunately there is no statute or Olympics-Committee directive stating that the same commands must all be used by everybody. You are free to choose from the alternatives or, if none of them satisfy, make up your own.
The most useful command, as mentioned, is ‘sit’; the puppy should learn this first (along with ‘no’) before anything else. Later, ‘stay’ can follow from ‘sit’: the puppy will learn to hold the sitting position until you release it with a suitable word, such as ‘okay’ or ‘all right’. ‘Wait’ is a similar command but it’s useful when your dog is in motion and you want it to stop. Some people say ‘halt’ or some other word, but ‘wait’ has the advantage of sounding somewhat like ‘stay’, which will help to reinforce its meaning.
Further commands that you might want to consider adding to your repertoire are ‘cross’ and ‘up’. If you tell your puppy ‘wait’ at the kerb, and then say ‘cross’, two things will eventually happen: 1) if your puppy wants to change direction, it will at least wait for your permission rather than dart out into the road, and 2) when you want to change direction, the puppy will follow smoothly. If the puppy is dawdling a bit or a car is coming, useful words are ‘quickly, quickly’ and then ‘up’, i.e. ‘get up from the road safely onto the pavement’.
Some may wonder why they should say ‘quickly, quickly’ (the repetition helps) instead of ‘hurry up’. Others may already be aware of ‘hurry up’ as the signal that a puppy should do its business – a gift of tact and tastefulness from the late Barbara Woodhouse, a great English trainer to whom millions of otherwise embarrassed dog-people will always be grateful. As she points out, when you say ‘hurry up’ during the deed, the puppy learns what you mean and doesn’t need to hear anything more descriptive. Neither do the neighbours.
There are times when you will want to reassure your puppy, usually as a way of saying ‘no need to bark/bite/growl at the vacuum cleaner’. You might say ‘leave it’ first, but if the puppy has left it and is still agitated, then what? One could put away the vacuum or move the puppy to another room, while saying ‘it’s all right, Shoopy’. But ‘all right’ is what you may be using as a ‘release’ word, i.e. as shorthand for ‘go ahead’. And you don’t mean to say, ‘go ahead, growl at the vacuum cleaner’.
To avoid this confusion, it’s a good idea to use another phrase that you speak in a sharper, more business-like voice, such as ‘never mind’. ‘Never mind the postman’, ‘never mind the cat’. The dog may ignore you completely, but trust me on this: you will want to say something because that’s what humans do, and it’s less frustrating when you have a handy phrase to employ, however ineffectual. Again, your handy phrase can’t be ‘it’s all right’ because that sounds like ‘go, Bonzo, go!’ to the dog. When you say ‘never mind’, at least you know what you mean, and perhaps the puppy will learn it, too. Eventually. In the meantime, when you say ‘okay’ or ‘all right’, speak in a jollier, more emphatic voice: O!-kay ALL! right. This will reinforce your meaning as well as keeping your ‘no’ and ‘go’ phrases distinct.
* Words to Avoid
‘Down’ is usually considered to be a command worth teaching – it means ‘lower your elbows to the floor’ – but in practice it has almost no utility for most people. What is more, if you teach ‘down’, you then have to find a word for getting down from people’s trousers and shirtfronts, to say nothing of the kitchen counter. A good word is ‘off’: it’s snappy and not needed for other purposes. It works for any place where you don’t want your puppy to be. But ‘down’ strikes people as more natural. If you don’t teach ‘down’ as ‘belly on the floorboards’ then you don’t need ‘off’ at all.
* Making Sure Puppy Understands – And Obeys (In the Long Run)
A puppy may genuinely not comprehend certain commands, for the same reason that Frizz the Amazing Light-Bulb-Changing Monkey, fresh from the jungle, can’t change any light bulbs. It hasn’t been taught. Furthermore, young puppies in particular can’t understand what you really want regardless of the words you might use, and in this way they differ from older dogs who can judge a great deal from tone of voice and context. Older dogs know you; they know the household; they know the ropes. But when it comes to commands, puppies only have ears for the right ones.
In the confusion of daily life, you may bungle your own commands – momentarily forgetting the code words you’ve been patiently teaching your puppy. So when you want puppy to fetch a pathetic twig you’ve tossed, you shout “Go get it!” instead of “Fetch!” When puppy is playing with a full plastic bottle, which is punctured and leaking all over the place, you shout “Oh, no!” instead of “Leave it!” “Would you knock it off!” replaces “Quiet!” and so on. Now, the puppy may very well sense your meaning. On the other hand, since these are not the confirmed code words, the puppy may feel no obligation to respond to your confused, impromptu barkings. If you don’t say the magic word, you can’t expect to get the response you want.
* Hand Signs
Many if not most commands can be reinforced with hand signs, since dogs tend to look as well as listen when you speak. Gestures are most useful with ‘sit’ (raised hand with forefinger pointing), ‘stay’ (flat hand at an angle to the puppy’s face), and ‘come here / come on’ (beckoning motion). These signs are tried and true. For other commands, you may wish to invent whatever signals seem appropriate, keeping them clear and simple. A sign for ‘off’ that looks just like the one for ‘stay’ is not going to work. And a sign that is best achieved by the double-jointed and resembles a club’s secret handshake is not going to work, either. Obviously, deaf dogs rely on signs completely, but spoken commands are most important for hearing dogs, especially at those times when they can’t see you.
* What’s A Reasonable Command?
When it comes to using commands, most puppy parents simply adopt the old standbys – “give,” “stay,” and “leave it,” for example. But others are more ambitious, and some enjoy inventing new ones, whether achievable or not. So the advanced older puppy may hear things like “fetch slippers, the red ones,” or “shut the door,” or “wipe your feet.” Depending on what the command is, the puppy may eventually learn it – or then again, maybe it won’t. The odd thing is that the intelligence of various dog breeds is often measured by their quickness in grasping commands. But this of course assumes that the intelligent thing is to be so commandable; whereas it seems obvious to dog parents that an intelligent dog may very well ‘drag its feet’, since the dog has ideas of its own. As a parent, it is sometimes difficult to judge when the puppy is simply not understanding, or when the puppy is not understanding simply because it doesn’t want to. But eventually, as long as the commands are simple and they build on even simpler ones already learned, most puppies will master them in the end. Much depends on persistence as well as maintaining your puppy’s motivation.
Everything you say and do as a trainer, and a parent more generally, must be done in ‘dog-time’. This means pretty much ‘instantly’. Let’s imagine a scenario in which your puppy does something that you don’t like. Two minutes later, when you finally get off the sofa/treadmill/recliner, you glower at the puppy and tell it ‘no’! The puppy looks at you, turning its head this way and that, wondering what on earth you’re talking about. What have you achieved? The answer is: nothing.
The puppy, of course, is nonplussed. Was it the growling, scratching, nipping at a fly, or the chewing of houseplants you objected to? They will never know, since two minutes, one minute, or even half a minute is quite a long stretch in dog-time. And anyway, as far as they’re concerned, everything they did was totally above-board and perfectly in order. Only by catching the puppy at the precise moment an action has happened – or the moment after – will you make it clear to the puppy what it is you didn’t like.
4. Practice Makes Almost Perfect
To have the marvellous relationship you want with your puppy, there is no need for expectations of puppy perfectibility. If you are diligent, loving, and kind, your puppy will eventually learn all that it most needs to learn, not the least of which is that you are the very best thing in its life. But however responsible you are, accidents and mistakes are bound to happen once in a while – a wet one in the hallway when you thought your puppy had been bladder-trained; enthusiastic leaps up at strangers when you thought you’d instilled the need to sit; and so on. Sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes it’s embarrassing, and sometimes it signals a need to revisit the basics. But coaxing and enchanting your puppy into good behavior is as good as laying down the law – and often better.
If no man is a hero to his valet (or, for want of that, his valet parking attendant), then no human is a lofty “sir” or “madam” to the modern dog. Fourteen thousand years after canines were domesticated, the relationship has become too intimate, too lovey-dovey for that. Even if a human seems godlike at times, dogs know that it’s really just mummy or daddy making the car move or wafting food into their bowl. They never lose perspective. But the humans, sitting on their easy-chair cloud in their bathrobe-toga, eating their coffee-cake-ambrosia and wondering where they left their glasses, sometimes try to take their special powers too far. They believe they are the masters of the canine universe, which is mainly true but not completely: most dogs, and certainly all puppies, do things that are strictly unauthorized. Despite what the training experts may say, your life with puppy is never going to fit a perfect, seamless pattern. And why not? Because — to improve an old cliché— dogs have wills, and dogs need thrills, and where there’s a will, there’s a way.
PART TWO: PUPPY PARENTS
THE TRUTH ABOUT PUPPY PARENTS
‘Puppy parents’ as a term is fair enough. ‘Owner’ is a necessary legal fiction, without which certain of society’s shadier personnel could make off with your puppy with the excuse that they are merely ‘borrowing’ it and you don’t ‘own’ it, anyway. We can’t have that. But as an accurate description of the human-puppy bond, ‘owner’ is all wrong. PPs (puppy parents) will often call themselves ‘owners’ when non-PPs are listening, but this is mainly a front: what they really are is ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ / ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’. Their dogs are officially ‘Queen Sinestra of the Mountains’, ‘Lord Nelson’, and ‘Rupert’, but this too is a kind of front: in daily life the dogs are ‘lovey’, ‘sweetheart’, and ‘Wupy-Pupy’. Similarly, the great pretense of many parents of pedigree breeds is that they value their puppy for its bloodlines, colouration, working nose, or ‘cut’. These things may have been important when they first went looking at litters. But now that the puppy is theirs, in the home where it belongs, what really matters are the wet kisses and the silly way the ears flop. Say what they will and bluster as they may, no one is gooier and soppier than a puppy parent.
1. How To Talk To Other Puppy Parents
Puppy parents have a particular way of talking to each other, and honesty often has nothing much to do with it. No PP likes to look inadequate in the eyes of another PP, which may happen since they often have different standards. For instance, some people think it’s strange, inconvenient, or plain insanitary to let your dog sleep all night with you in your bed (even if it’s an older puppy that by now is fully toilet-trained). So when they say, ‘Our BoBo just loves her crate / beanbag / boudoir’, you will find that, like others in your position, you will not burst out with ‘But we let Blakeney under the covers!’ You will instead fib – or, to give it a kinder word, dissemble. You will say that of course Blakeney / Sausage / Terrence loves their cramped quarters in the spare bedroom where you can just make out the snoring, and then add that on the rare occasion when they are allowed to visit your bedroom, they behave on the whole rather handsomely. But whatever you say, you must say something. If a puppy parent does not respond at all about where and how their puppy sleeps, then the other PP knows for sure that the set-up is dire indeed.
A certain amount of dishonesty is needed in your relations with other PPs, as well. This is fairly obvious. Even if you can’t stand Aberdeen Terriers, were traumatised in childhood by a dog suspiciously like a Chihuahua, and don’t trust any dog whose eyes you can’t actually see, this does not matter when chatting to their parents. In public, you love any and all canines howsoever their evolution brought them into being. Any breed preferences – and sometimes prejudices – that dog people usually have in their hearts must be buried beneath praise of all and sundry. This helps enormously when you must sit beside fellow patients, squished onto short and bony benches, at the vet’s.
2. Dealing With Other Puppy Parents
Puppy parents come in many flavours but there are three main types
These types present you with irritation at best, danger at worst. Let’s review them now and discuss how you might deal with them.
1) Proud PPs make you feel abashed – or annoyed – because their puppy is always better than yours: better tailored (‘oh, your puppy’s father was unauthorised, was he?’), better cared-for (‘we cook each meal at home for our Tootie’), and better behaved (‘I find that ‘off’ is such a useful command, don’t you?’).
You may choose either to ignore the Prouds or rebuff them, even if you do so under your breath. The truth is that they probably need to make the most of their puppy because life with one is not quite what was advertised. The puppy they so looked forward to enjoying has a cough and is given to bouts of regurgitation; the barkiness of the breed shatters their peace and Haydn’s 48th symphony; home-cooking dog-food is running them ragged and the vet said it’s missing some minerals; and the puppy won’t come when called. The fact that the puppy gets the word to come and then promptly runs off among the trees is highly embarrassing; hence the need to boast about the one command it does actually obey, some way, some how.
2) Calamitous PPs are those that intimidate you with the sheer scariness of raising a puppy. They tell tales of midnight flights to emergency vets, which cost them their summer holiday when the bills were paid; infestations by various forms of life, small as snowflakes but not nearly as pretty; and hair-raising puppy escapes, in which the puppy was taught weird tricks by a group of Druids for three weeks before they finally found out where it lived.
The solution here is to learn from these people, mainly by not doing whatever it is they do. If they ignore a bump on their dog until it’s the size of a bowling ball, perhaps you would do better to have it looked at fairly early on. If they let nature take its course and do its own wonderful thing, perhaps you would prefer to give your puppy a monthly flea, worm, and tick preventive dosing. (The choice of medicine depends on which critters are thriving in the spots where you spend time with your dog.) If the calamitous are forgetful and leave the garden gate open, make sure you remember to shut it. This will cut down on calamity and reduce your need for cover-ups later.
3) Lastly we have the clueless, who are vague about everything. They haven’t read up on puppies because they don’t have time or can’t read; and when they watch television programs about training, they merely point out the trainer’s bad hairdo and the cute collar on Dog Number Three. Some of them are too busy to pay attention, and only bought the puppy as a playmate for the children. Others are just lazy, or not very intelligent: when the vet tells them what’s troubling Jelly-Bear, it’s not so much that the facts go in one ear and out the other as that they’re lip-reading. Never ask these people for advice: they have none whatever to give and are always in a mess and a muddle.
Those are the three main types, then. But what about the others? Here we shall survey the sub-species of puppy parents, who mainly fall within the Clueless category, but sometimes are Calamitous or Proud.
3. Breeds of Puppy Parent
The Stodge is a responsible type who is deeply deficient in imagination. Dogs live for seeing, hearing, smelling, and biting, which sets them up nicely for adventure – but as far as the Stodge is concerned, adventure must always be avoided and the dog might as well be a canary. Though truth to tell, if the puppy were a canary or parrot, the conversation between them might be more scintillating. The Stodge is not much of a talker, and there’s never any squealing, whooping, giggling, or affectionate gibberish to liven things up a bit. What’s more, the Stodge is very dutiful about walking the puppy, without realizing just how grateful it is to be out where the smelly things are. The daily exercise allotment is predictable, but unfortunately, so is the route. The puppy’s chief problem, of course, is boredom.
Everyone else knows that a pair of socks tied together make a terrific floppy propeller, but this would never occur to the Stodge. For this person, the only conceivable arrangement for socks is with one sock-top folded over the other, neatly laid in a drawer. Needless to say, this by-the-book thinking is just deadly for dogs. It means that any rawhide bone is simply handed over; the puppy is never shown two or three treats at a time and given the chance to choose one, even though it is quite capable of choosing. Some treats are better than others, and how else can Frisky indicate his preferences?
There is always the chance that a lively puppy will bring out the latent (very latent) playfulness in the Stodge. A pillow fight may even be on the agenda, one day. Pretending to be a wild boar, complete with stamping and snorting, so that puppy can pretend to attack them is, however, never going to happen
This person never seems to have enough time for the dog. Or indeed, any time for the dog. Absentee is are always bursting through the door and squealing the tires, late for the appointments that are chronically overbooked. This person’s calendar looks like someone is using it to write a thriller, having run out of regular paper: it’s full of codes, initials, and exclamation marks (“buy T. P. for the W. C., A. S. A. P!”) No doubt very exciting for the Absentee, but when they are M. I. A. it’s a sad situation for the puppy.
This sort of parent is frequently caught in the puppy’s friendly (and desperate) ambush whenever they dress to go out. When they protest they try to put their socks on or tie their shoes, the puppy clasps them round the shoulders and licks their faces repeatedly, in an effort to delay Mum or Dad’s exit for a minute or two. Such desperate actions sometimes do have a beneficial effect. The thought may eventually sink in that “perhaps I should spend more time with my dog. Play with him more, talk to him more. Anything to keep this slobber off my chin/tie/scarf/blue suede shoes.”
The Sofa Growth
Also known as the Sofa Sloth or Couch Potato, this human is often very companionable. Because they are addicted to the sofa – indeed, their body shape somewhat resembles it – they can’t be bothered to rouse themselves enough to stop whatever mischief the puppy gets up to. On the other hand, they are inconsiderate: too lazy to find a treat for the dog while they’re getting another bag of popcorn. The TV, which is always on, is loud and unsettling, and what’s more, it never has anything good on, like the sight and sound of other doggies. It’s true that the puppy can find plenty to do while the Sofa Growth is in position, but what a dog really wants in life is to do as much as possible with its people or person. Throughout its life, a dog will enjoy spontaneous games or decent walks in an interesting setting. Some hopes with the Sofa Growth around.
When the TV gets between a puppy and its human, the only chance of change is when the puppy – real as life and more poignant than a soap opera – gets between the human and the TV.
The Camp Director
An avid athlete, busybody, or do-it-yourselfer, this owner would not know what to do with five minutes of rest, and is determined to make sure that the puppy doesn’t get much, either. Most of their free time is occupied in flinging their own body parts around, but other activities include power-washing, tree lopping, and sandblasting their brickwork, supplemented by the sawing of bricks in case they should ever need a chicken house. Quieter times are not very quiet, either: they expel so much hot air into their cell phone, it could be used as evidence in place of a breathalyzer in the event of a drunk-driving accident.
The Camp Director insists that the puppy join him or her in everything they do. Believing that a moment spent away from them is a wasted moment of its life, they strap the puppy into every vehicle they’re operating – be it a tractor, mower, or high-speed motor-boat – and expect it to enjoy the ride. They fear that peace and quiet means boredom, which equals neglect. In a word, they’re a nightmare to live with. The best thing that can happen with a parent like that is that the puppy finds its shoes, and chews them all. One can’t be quite so noisy or busy in bare feet.
The Feckless Leader
Dog experts (or rather, experts on dogs) are always telling humans that they must take charge, lead the pack, direct and guide their dog through life, and otherwise be the guarantor of their safety, health, and happiness. Would that it were so. Instead, there is a type of owner that has very little passion for this role, and almost no interest in learning how to fulfill it. A puppy to this person is an afterthought, an accessory to a lifestyle. “Here is my loft, my canopy bed, my decorative pillows, and my dog.” The dog is merely a follow-on from other events: marriage, house, children, playground set.
The practical consequences for the puppy are that this owner is inattentive. More often than not, the water in your bowl is stale, with bits of whatever garden flora it’s been nibbling floating in it. By contrast, the attentive owner knows that when it comes to water, the puppy demands fresh, and given the choice would probably rather have it mineraled, and very nice, too, if it comes from a mountain spring. The fact that the puppy snacks on weeds and sniffs dead squirrels has absolutely nothing to do with it. But to the Feckless Leader, Darcy / Duchess / Sam is “just a dog,” so what does it matter anyway? This person can hardly be bothered to take the puppy for a walk, preferring to let it run off-leash near traffic and cliff edges, simply because it’s easier for them. Indeed, the Feckless Leader is usually clueless with a leash, choosing the wrong length and style, keeping it taut when it ought to be slack, and droopy when you need reeling in. We have all seen dogs being pulled around to such an extent that only two paws were on the ground, and sometimes none at all. The Feckless Leader doesn’t even notice, since their mind is on a million things, and the dog isn’t one of them.
The Feckless Leader is a tough case but not a hopeless one. There is always the chance that over time, this owner will blossom into a true parent, who loves the dog really and truly and not just because it’s cute. With real love comes a desire to learn more about the dog and a wish to serve it better. Second, Feckless Leaders usually don’t live alone, but have many family members and friends swilling about the house (or loft, as it may be). Some of these people will even be responsible, loving, and serious-minded. They may have a beneficial influence on the Feckless Leader; and if the F. L. tires of their burdens (namely, the dog), one of these other people may even give the dog its new and better home.
Even dogs can acknowledge that they are not the most sensitive interior decorators, but the Fusspot has a horror of every physical contribution the dog makes to life at home. Shredded shopping bags are an “unholy mess” and toys lying about are “a shambles,” but what this person really abhors are the traces of puppy DNA. These are strewn around the house in the form of hair, drool, dander (only slightly better than dandruff), and uneaten bits of rawhide. The Fusspot nearly has a nervous breakdown when the puppy is in training and there are accidents on the carpet, but even when it grows up, the dog’s metabolism will still keep them busy with sweeping, swabbing, disinfecting, and vacuuming. When the puppy sneezes, which often happens on account of the deodorizing powder, they say “Gezundheit.” When the puppy has a drink, they are standing by with a towel, wiping its flews so that drips from them won’t leave a trail on the floor. This is understandable, and doesn’t bother the puppy at all; it’s the weekly full-body bathing that is honestly just too much. The shampoo seems to be replacing all its natural layers with a strange concoction, like embalming fluid.
However, the worst part of living with Fusspot is not even the obsession with hygiene. The thing that really gets up the puppy’s nose is that so much of the house is off-limits. Boris is not allowed on any sofa or chair. He gets slippered if he’s spotted in the bedroom. He is scolded for loitering in the kitchen. He’s shooed from the table. And so on. His only safe option is your basket, but even a basket-loving dog likes to stretch their legs now and then, and take a stroll down the corridor to see what the laundry room is doing (all those dirty socks!). But guess what? He’s not allowed near the laundry, either. Especially if it’s clean.
This puppy will probably learn to listen for the car, and to do all its household
adventuring when the Fusspot is out of the house. The places where it is not allowed to go will be all the more attractive for being forbidden.
Also known as the Drill Sergeant, this person is widely reputed, over about three neighborhood blocks, to have highly disciplined dogs who know the Voice of Command when they hear it. Well, most dogs know a Voice of Command, but these dogs actually obey. (For the Show-Off, two or three are better than one.)
The Show-Off makes sure that the puppy knows several tricks, which its made to perform whenever a visitor comes round. If a group of dogs and owners are gathered sociably on someone’s lawn, the Show-Off will be sure to spot them through their binoculars and turn up promptly with their act – namely, the dog or dogs. But the Show-Off won’t greet the others until he or she has their attention first. Ostentatiously, the Show-Off strolls across the road alone, leaving the Lovely Assistants off-leash on the other side, having drummed it into them that they may only cross the road when told. The neighbors take notice and watch expectantly. And then, like a circus master bringing on the clowns, the Show-Off gives the signal. You cross. Ta-dum-dum. Although the other owners have a good word and a pat for you, it’s understood who the real star is.
Day-to-day life with a Show-Off need not be tiresome, but their ego is the elephant in the living room that is sometimes hard to get around. They delight in giving commands just because they can, especially if others are watching. So you do the “down” for no particular reason, other than to satisfy your owner’s sense that they really are the Top Dog. Do they ever catch the look in their dog’s eyes that says, “Oh, come off it, boss”?
Puppies that grow up with Show-Offs may occasionally decline to play the game, especially if they sense what might be termed a lack of seriousness or sincerity in their human. If they are told to sit, they may remain standing and investigate someone’s trouser-leg instead. If they hear “give your paw,” they may raise one uncertainly, drop it quickly as a hand reaches out to grasp it, and then raise the other paw. Most humans will then decide that it’s pointless to carry on. Finally, if the Show-Off has the temerity to require of a “down,” simply to impress someone else, the dog may give them a withering look and find a place to piddle instead. By the time that’s over, the conversation with the Show-Off’s chosen audience will have moved on to some other subject.
The Exercise Conundrum, a. k. a. ‘Do I Have To?’
Those dogs that live on ranches, or large estates, or near great woods, don’t have to worry too much about getting their fun and freedom. A door is opened – be it cottage or castle – and out they go. How much effort does it take a human simply to open a door? The trouble comes for most dogs when humans have to leash them and personally take them on a walk. You would think that this would be easy: humans, being bipeds, are biologically advanced at putting one foot in front of the other. Yet people, though committed to their jobs and ready enough to toil for their families, are often lazy when it comes to the family dog.
There are several reasons for reluctance to walk the dog. Here are five of them, in no particular order.
Reason No. 1. Bad weather, e.g. hail, sleet, driving rain, lightning, or a few clouds vaguely gathered on the horizon. Some in hot climates could not bear going out when the mercury hits 80, or, on the low end, 60 degrees Farenheit (that’s 26.6 Celsius and 15.5, respectively).
Reason No. 2. Dog sniffs every bird-dropping, lamp-post, and clump of shrubbery. Stops and sits to watch every car make its way down the road. Stops to watch telephone repairman knock on someone’s door. Watches stray feathers blowing. Hardly any progress can be made. Owner gets no exercise on these “walks.”
Reason No. 3. Owner dislikes exercise. Also, dog is too lively or perky, moves too fast, and wants to make too much progress. (Note: Many of those surveyed should have claimed No. 3 instead of No. 2, but preferred to fib.)
Reason No. 4. Dog’s walking manners are appalling. Strains on leash; runs after bicycles; leaps on people at the slightest sign of friendliness; is always well behind or well ahead of the owner. Dog returns from this ordeal feeling, on the whole, rather refreshed; owner returns needing a long hot shower and an alcoholic beverage.
Reason No. 5. Owner wishes to avoid neighbors, on account of disputes/incompatible dogs/invitations to block parties. Can’t spare the extra 40 minutes needed for a round trip to the nearest park. Dog ends up spending much of their time by the driveway gate, looking out longingly and barking. Owner has attacks of guilt and takes dog on walks occasionally.
Parents of puppies and grown-up dogs do sometimes get exasperated by the way they break the pace of a walk, sniffing here at bird splats, or scouting over there for snails and robins. Yet they might be less impatient when they remember who the walk is really for. You may also find that if you speed up – break into a run or just walk very purposefully – the puppy will move along, too, now that it has to keep up with you. Sometimes a walk just needs to get its own sense of momentum – and you’re the one that has to provide it.
A further note on sniffing. Certainly, what the dog discovers is not always very pleasing. But parents need to pay attention to what the dog is sniffing, in case it’s dangerous, such as snakes, ants, poisonous plants. And you never know what they may find: it was dogs that discovered the Stone Age cave paintings of Altamira in Spain (some think these are the best of such paintings). We have all heard, too, about missing bodies being found by “a man out walking his dog” – not the same man, but it’s usually men that wander off the beaten path: women have more sense. Anyway, when you think about it, you can be sure that it’s the dog who really found the body. The man just happened to be there at the other end of the leash. And yet, do the papers ever say “Benny, aged 3, cracks difficult case”? Do we ever read “Dusty, a border collie-Bernese mountain dog, strikes blow for justice?” Curious dogs deserve a little patience, even if they never get the glory.
Amanda Brenchley’s husband told her that he didn’t really need a puppy right now, but it turns out that he was only kidding. This was not her first experience with dogs and their owners, but it did open her eyes to the passion that puppies inspire in some people. Since then she has come to realise that life is better with puppies – at least one at a time, anyhow – even if your carpets are better off without them. She has lived with puppies in Canada and the United States and hopes to come back to England one day, whenever her now-grown-up puppy gives her permission. Which, given the latter’s fascination with American wild turkeys, may be some time away.