Oops, I did it again. I have a new puppy. Her name is Enyo, and she is wonderful.
I love having a new puppy for all of the obvious reasons such as puppy breath, puppy snuggles, and really just the sheer adorableness of them. But I also really love having a clean slate, a fresh, eager, malleable little being who is new in the world, ready to learn and explore and is looking for guidance.
Most importantly, as a professional puppy trainer, raising a pup is a fabulous reminder of what our Sirius Puppy Training students are going through with their new puppies. It serves as a great dose of empathy and humble pie. No matter how many times I have a new puppy in my home to raise and train, it’s always occasionally overwhelming, and I always learn something new.
Puppies will warm your heart and make you belly laugh; they may even improve your social life, because everyone wants to come and visit when you have a new puppy. However, they will also deprive you of sleep, bite up your hands and feet, tear your clothes, and nothing in the house at ground level is safe. They require a ton of vigilance and supervision, which means your relaxing evenings of tuning out while gaming or binge watching go out the window, too. When you have a new puppy, there is a lot of work to be done.
Additionally, with a young pup, time is of the essence, there are so many things he or she need to learn to successfully navigate in our world. Some lessons are very important, such as to reliably come when called or to drop on a dime into an emergency down. But these lessons aren’t urgent, as a puppy is easy to manage and really shouldn’t be out at the park at a young age. Other lessons are developmental and therefore both important and urgent. These types of lessons serve as introductions to civilized human and canine society. These lessons are often first experiences with the world at large and set the stage for future behavior and the comfort level of the dog in various environments. Early experiences also set expectations for appropriate canine etiquette. Basically I am talking about socialization. Nothing is more important nor more understood.
Nowadays lot of people know that they are supposed to socialize their puppy, and that is great progress. Unfortunately it seems that many people are still a bit unclear as to what the goal of puppy socialization is, or how to go about it. People tend to think that socialization is about puppies playing with other puppies. Presumably people who believe this think that puppies must practice their social skills to be able to function in the presence of other dogs and a to be able to do things such as go to the dog park. However, from a dog trainer’s point of view, socialization is more about what I mentioned previously, acclimating a young pup to the types or people and human-centric environments that the dog is going to be expected to thrive in as adult dogs.
As you introduce a puppy to the world, the pup needs a balance of protection and guidance from you. Proper puppy socialization is actually about gentle, positive exposure to all sorts of sights, sounds, smells, substrates, and experiences that we would like these puppies to not only tolerate, but ideally to completely accept as normal. Sure, other dogs are a part of that picture, but puppies already have a head start when it comes to dog/dog interactions, because they are dogs; they speak the language. I would argue that safe and comfortable interaction with humans are more important because we are the creatures alien to their nature, and we greatly impact the lives and well-being of dogs. They must learn our language and customs in order to make it in this world.
Ideally, off-leash puppy classes teach people how to best engage with their puppy in a way that keeps them focused on the relationship over outside distractions or influences. A good puppy class will teach you how best to introduce your puppy to new people, places, and things in a way that brings them confidence, but also, perhaps a bit of nonchalance. A well-run puppy class will have little bit of puppy/puppy interaction to help the pups keep their inherent and learned canine social skills as they now grow up, away from their litter. But primarily a puppy class will mostly serve as a place for puppies and their people to learn to be in the presence of other people and pups without it being a big deal or a free-for-all. A perfectly run puppy class is off leash to encourage puppy owners to use their brains and relationship with their puppy over their brawn or tools to control their dog. So, obedience skills are important, yes, and socializaton is urgent, but equally important and urgent is building engagement and relationship so that when out and about in the world with your pup, you are so much more interesting and important than sniffing another dog’s bum.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, SiriusPup.com, the family business.
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