Why Not Pass The Puppy?

puppy conditioning exercise
In this image a trainer demonstrates conditioning a pup to being handled – no force is used.

Recently I read the responses a client had given in her Behaviour Q (which is the basis to the history taking ahead of a behaviour consultation) and noted how during puppy class her pup was often put in the “settle pose” for behaviour that was considered unwanted as well as the pup’s perceived comfort whilst being handed around during “pass the puppy”.

These are two antiquated and out-dated exercises that are still practiced in some puppy classes. So why not pass the puppy? Why not make pups submit to the settle pose?

It is true that we want your puppy to be friendly and affiliative with new people, but the way to ensure this is to expose the puppy, when he/she is neurodevelopmentally ready to do so, with the experience of new people.

The experience of new people should be that they are warm and nurturing – not giants that pick you up and pass you around as if you are their next meal.

The pup makes the choice to engage and that engagement results in a positive association – yummy treats. “Passing the puppy” takes away the puppy’s control and essentially allows a fearful puppy (maybe undetected) to be overwhelmed. This is what flooding looks like. A puppy that is worried about the approach of strangers should not be passed around as it confirms to the pup that the approach of new people is scary. If a pup cannot move away he/she may learn that a better strategy to keep these scary people away will be to act more threatening him/herself.

The “settle pose” was described as scruffing the dog till he desisted. It is used when a pup, who is acting in ways we don’t like, is held by the scruff, and asked to settle. The thought behind this is that it shows the dog who is in control – you – and that struggling or displaying any signs of resistance is pointless. This is relatively easy to do to a small pup and is very reinforcing for owners, as they immediately feel they have stopped whatever it is they don’t like and have therefore solved a problem. Trainers may tell owners that this is what a mother dog might do too and so therefore it is natural and normal and allows an effective way to communicate with your dog. Like you are speaking their language.

The problem with this is that it is untrue. Mother dogs do not scruff their puppies. Yes they move them like this, very gently when they need to, up until a certain age, but they do not grab them by the back of the neck and shake them.

And besides we are not dogs’ mothers. It is very likely that pups do not mistake us for their mothers. We are humans and we are scary enough.

When we physically restrain a dog and punish him with our touch we teach a dog that we will use force to get our way and that we do not care that they are experiencing distress. Their subtle signals do not work on us. We are not listening to what the body language is telling us (“I am afraid”, “I am overwhelmed”,  “I am over threshold”) and we continue on till the dog gives up. This neither helps the dog learn a behaviour that we want, (no replacement behaviour is taught) nor does it change the negative association into a positive one. It is unhelpful in so many ways. Later, as the dog grows, the “settle pose” can no longer be easily administered and many a person has been bitten attempting to assert themselves over a worried dog. The dog will then be labelled “dominant” and treated with more punishment. The cycle of misunderstanding will continue, till eventually the dog bites and bites hard. Then the dog will be euthanased or rehomed.

We do want the dog to be able to be relaxed, even on his back, perhaps being cradled in your lap – but this is done through slow manipulation of a relaxed and calm pup – a puppy that has come to be very trusting of what human touch means.

A pup receives deep, slow, long pats so he lies down and then once he has chosen to lie down, then he can be gently stroked along his belly. The pup is not forced into any position and  is not held down against his will. The pup is not scruffed.

Dr Karen Overall DACVB (my behaviour guru) says: “scruffing by humans is inappropriate to use in dogs”. That alone should be enough of a reason to stop this exercise.

Please give pups CHOICE, recognise when they are fearful and start making positive associations with the triggers of their fearfulness.

 

 

 

You’ve been advised that your pup should see a vet behaviourist!

“Puppies who are shy, worried, or anxious throughout early veterinary visits are likely to exhibit the same behaviours as adults at 1.5 to 2 years of age. Early intervention is essential for such dogs.” Karen Overall, Manual of Clinical Behavioural Medicine

“If a timid puppy does not make dramatic gains, it is a sign that formal effort, likely extending well into adulthood, will be necessary.” Jean Donaldson, Culture Clash.

When your vet or trainer tells you that your puppy may benefit from the input of a veterinary Behaviourist it can be a confronting time. Shouldn’t time and love be enough!

Your trainer or vet though has seen hundreds, if not thousands of young animals, and knows what constitutes normal responses in puppies.

A puppy that is exceedingly fearful, has little bounce back and is not exploring the world with rambunctious energy is not normal behaviourally and has a high chance of continuing to suffer from fear and anxiety through later life.

Responses to fear and anxiety will be dependent on breed, but common strategies are reactivity and aggression that come to the fore as the dog reaches social maturity at around 2 -3 years old.

So what can you do?

Early intervention is vital. Just as it is in the treatment of children with developmental issues animals treated earlier make better progress and have more chance of living normal lives.

Behaviour treatments involve managing the fears and anxieties, gentle behaviour modification that proceeds at the puppy’s pace and sometimes with medication as an adjunct.

A veterinary behaviourist is the most qualified professional to assist you with these decisions and making the right choice for your puppy.

All behaviour conditions have come about through the combination of genetics, learning and the environment, but when we see fear in puppies it often has a significant hereditary component. Genetic components to anxiety-based disease need both remedial work and the assistance of behavioural medications that do two things – they protect the brain from stress and they allow the pup to learn new ways of feeling safe. There are many very effective and well-tested medications that can be used for a period of time while the puppy is being assisted by a skilled behavioural trainer.

“Just like us, animals can’t learn anything when they are really scared. And learning not to be scared is a form of learning too! This is when medication can be especially helpful. Medication can reduce the fear so a dog can learn to play games, eat treats, and learn through behaviour modification exercises that she does not need to be fearful. The goal is for the dog to create new neural circuits in her brain and learn on her own not to be fearful of the situation. Then, in the future she may not need medication.” Decoding your Dog editors Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi