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.




Why I don’t suggest Boot camp…


Have you heard it said that when your car needs fixing you send it to a qualified mechanic and therefore when your dog has problems it makes sense to send him/her away too…

The problem with this analogy is that a dog is not as simple as a car. A canine is a biological organism and an emotional one at that. A better analogy would be to consider your relationship with a dependent and ask yourself if you will improve your relationship with a child by sending him/her to boarding school?

To build a relationship with a dog you need to spend quality time. I suggest this time be spent building a strong relationship based on mutual respect and trust. So how do you get a dog to trust you?

Firstly, and most importantly, you give a dog predictability and control.

You make yourself understandable by being a benevolent leader who rewards the dog for following cues and teaches cues that are understood. A good leader of a dog does not lose his/her temper or teach through the use of punishment.

When you send a dog away you create stress – new place, new people, other dogs. Dogs and people do not learn well when they are stressed. In fact stress damages the learning and memory areas of the brain. Dogs can feel so overwhelmed by the process that they may appear obedient (learnt helplessness) during camp but this is seldom a long lasting change. Dogs attending camp are taught through aversive means and sometimes even have shock collars placed upon them whilst under such “care”.

Ending up with a well trained and happy dog does not happen in a few days, or even in a few weeks, at boot camp, but rather comes about by the slow, kind and consistent work of a caregiver who has their dog in their front of mind. Look at the dog in front of you and design a plan under the guidance your behaviour veterinarian and their recommended trainer if you want to achieve a life time of happy dog memories. The work may not be instantaneous but the change will come and it will be long-lasting, ethically-created and be mutually beneficial to you and the dog.


Say No to Punishment

When it is suggested to caregivers to use a shock device they are often told “it won’t hurt the dog.” This is knuckle headed in so many ways.

Sometimes sellers of these products even claim they “tickle” just enough to get the dog to stop what they are doing.

Some owners may have tried the device on themselves and claim they can hardly feel it. If that is the case then why use a device like this at all? By definition for punishment to work it must be aversive enough and occur within 0.5 seconds of the behaviour you are intending to stop. This means two things – the animal is still performing the behaviour you are wishing to eradicate, and then you are applying some physical correction immediately after it. This does not set up a dog to succeed.

An example of positive punishment at work is when you place your hand on hot plate. Immediately you are “punished” and you may never do something like this again.  Yet we don’t teach children not to touch a hot plate by putting their hand on one – instead we instruct, we manage the environment and they learn. Most shock devices are being used over and over again to deliver what is akin to abuse. This is neither effective punishment or humane.

A shock device may stop some unwanted behaviour, but the question caregivers should ask is at what cost.

Often these devices cause momentary pain that does immediately halt the behaviour, but if the behaviour is rooted in fear and anxiety (as most unwanted behaviour is) this is not a long-term solution. The emotion behind the behaviour has not gone away and may even have been made worse.


Treating behaviour problems humanely and with positive reinforcement techniques has been shown to be both effective and without harm – whereas using punishment in the form of a shock device or an aversive collar can lead to the worsening of aggression, a change to compulsive behaviours or physical illness.

In my mind these devices should be banned. Most caregivers are not equipped to use them, and most trainers who advise them would be better not working with any animals at all.


Dominance thinking getting in the way…


Daily I am confronted by the pervasiveness of dominance theory as a describer of canine behaviour problems. As an explanation for canine behaviour it befuddles clients with advice like not letting dogs go through doorways first, getting them off high vantage spots like couches or beds and insisting owners take stuff from their dogs.

The theory suggests to caregivers that dogs are on a mission to rule the planet and take over the world, and that any hint of aggression is a dog’s signal to you that you are “below” them in some pack hierarchy. This kind of magical thinking gets owners all worked up into making sure their dog understands who is boss – suddenly rules are changed in households and dogs are being ordered about – because this is what “alphas” do.

Can you see how confusing this is to dogs? Dogs who like couches like comfy spots. Big deal. Dogs who like human beds like to be close to their people and the smells and coziness of being next to members of their social group. Dogs who exit doorways first are simply in a rush to get outside, because dogs find it hard to wait for good stuff, and may not have been taught to exit in any other way. Dogs who want to keep hold of something tasty they have been given are just normal, greedy dogs and maybe haven’t been taught to exchange in the first place.

Assigning dominance to dogs has resulted in may dogs being confused and mistreated. When a dog has an issue with aggression it is more likely to have come about through fear and anxiety. It may be genetically predisposed and have been reinforced through prior learning. There are many explanations for aggression to humans, but when the detective work is done – pain, anxiety, fear, conflict and learning are some of the possible causes – but dominance is not one of them.

Aggression is a tool that dogs use to keep scary things away.

It is what we call a distance-increasing signal that tells the receiver that I need space from you. Invariably signals to indicate this need for space have been given before the bite but many times humans have missed these. Sometimes humans have punished previous signals such as growls, as they make them uncomfortable, and hence the growl is forgone as either ineffective by the dog or not to be expressed. But, if the worry and fear remains, and the person continues to proceed, then the bite becomes more likely.

This is what caregivers should be spending their time contemplating. What makes the dog uncomfortable? List triggers. And then how do I change the emotional association with that object/event/person into a positive one. It is not curative to suppress a growl by admonishing it – since the fear remains. Cure only comes about through changing the way a dog feels. Actions are an expression of emotions. If you want the dog to be safe, then this is the kind of work that needs to be done. And in the meantime set up the environment so the dog is no longer coming into contact with the objects, persons or events that create that fear in the first place.

Positive Communication

When treating dogs with behavioural issues it is important for caregivers to understand the importance of developing positive communication. Effective communication results in a pet that has some control and predictability in their lives. Both these factors are soothing to anxious animals. It makes the pet feel safe.

When communication is poor between pet and caregiver the end result can be frustration for the caregiver and confusion for the pet. When caregivers are frustrated they are more likely to resort to punishment in an attempt to stop behaviours that they don’t like, but simply stopping behaviours is not usually a long-term solution. Often unwanted behaviours are repeatedly punished ineffectually with the added effect of not decreasing the behaviour. This results in a nagging, abusive relationship. Punishment has the added disadvantage of destroying the human-animal bond. The pet will lose trust in its caregivers and be less willing to interact. Punishment has been linked with dog bites and increased aggression.

When communication is based on a common language learning is fast and the animal becomes enthusiastic to participate.

Rewarding an animal for behaviours you want to strengthen is the key. If you DON’T want a dog to jump up on visitors, teach a sit for a reward. Ask all persons to follow your lead. Instead of chastising a dog for jumping up, try ignoring behaviour you don’t like. Even “telling off” can be the attention a dog is seeking and may not result in a decrease of the behaviour.

Instead always ask yourself – What do you want the dog to do? – then teach it.

Use a clicker, or a marker word, to signal to your dog it is performing the behaviour you are after. Over time the dog will be an active participator in trying to do behaviours that earn him/her a reward.

A click is always followed by a tangible reward in the form of a very small piece of food. Acquiring a new skill is fastest when reinforced at every opportunity at a high rate. Over time the reward can be intermittent but still remembering to reward every time the click or marker word is used. See clicker handout.

Working in a positive style with your dog has many other advantages. It teaches you that behaviour change can be force-free. When you stop punishing your dog you will be surprised how quickly your dog can learn. Without fear the dog is much more willing to engage and play. Both are powerful motivators.

Giving a dog a choice is also important. Sometimes new learning is hard and a momentary break is required. It is okay for a dog to say No – I can’t do it, not yet. It is your job to make it easier.

Only engage in training when you are in a good mood and have the patience to teach and guide. Think of them as cues NOT commands.

As a Veterinary Behaviourist my advice will only ever be based on the principle of using the most minimally aversive and least intrusive methods to achieve change.