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It Takes a Village to Raise a Puppy

Your family, friends, neighbors—even strangers can bolster or unravel your best training efforts.

I’ll admit that I’m often guilty of it, too, even though I know better. Someone else’s cute little puppy jumps up on my leg and I reach down to pet it, fully aware that doing so is reinforcing a canine habit many humans hate, but powerless to resist the powerful draw of puppy love for a moment or two until I come to my senses.

It’s something my dog training students frequently complain about. Other people unintentionally have a tendency to cause setbacks to such training goals as teaching a dog not to jump up. Although they work hard to set their puppy up to learn alternate greeting behaviors that they like and make sure that they always “shun the jumping puppy,” just one person can cause spontaneous recovery of the habit by responding in a counterproductive way to the puppy’s overly friendly greeting. Of course, these people don’t intend to derail training progress. Perhaps they just don’t know any better, or don’t want to offend the owner by behaving rudely toward their puppy. Or, like me, they might, even just for a moment, lose their senses when faced with big brown eyes peering up from a furry, little bundle.

In my classes, I often have students role play to practice dealing with such people. I teach them how to put their foot on their leash in such a way that it allows the pup to stand and sit, but not jump up. An additional benefit of this technique is that it keeps the puppy close. Since most people are respectful of personal space, this gives us time to explain our puppy greeting protocol before letting the puppy have more freedom to say hello.

I also emphasize that we can’t expect people to get the full gist at first. We’ll still probably need to coach people to turn away or walk away at the specific moment when our puppy makes a mistake. Giving people who want to meet our pup this little preview speech just makes it seem less jarring when we then ask them to step away from the jumping dog. The more we can get everyone our puppy meets to play along, the faster our puppy will learn the rules. Consistency in dog training is critical.

There is another way in which other people can be a very big help with your young puppy: socialization. I know—it may seem like I never stop lecturing about just how important it is to socialize young puppies, but this message bears repeating. It isn’t enough to take your dog around lots of people and hope for the best. You must make sure your puppy has positive experiences with all kinds of people doing and wearing all sorts of things in as many different situations as possible before the age of three-months (when the window of easy socialization begins to close).

In cases where a dog’s history is known, inadequate exposure to certain predictable stimuli or even just failing to provide sufficiently positive consequences during exposure to these is probably the biggest root to a great many of the aggression cases I see. Certainly, if a puppy has an unpleasant experience with a stimulus during this critical socialization period, and not enough work is done to counteract the resulting negative association, aggressive behaviors that surface later during adolescence or adulthood can be a consequence.

Having a number of “dog training parties” during the first month that your young puppy lives in your home can go a long way towards crossing items off your socialization hit list while training your puppy how to behave around your friends and relatives, and vice versa.

If you gather props and costumes to hand out to your guests, you can get even more mileage out of your event. Include such things as caps, hooded sweatshirts, fake beards, sunglasses, puffy coats, clanging bangle bracelets, strong perfumes, backpacks, big bags, a cane, crutches, a skateboard, in-line skates and if at all possible, a wheelchair. These are all typical triggers that I see adolescent and adult dogs get spooked by later in life. Also be sure to include men, women and children of various ages and ethnicities.

Making sure your dog forms fabulous associations with stimuli like these by the age of three months, and then making sure they still have occasional positive experiences with them from time to time beyond that will make it much less likely that they’ll ever behave fearfully or aggressively around them later in life.

What constitutes a “positive experience”? Certainly fun counts, so playing with your puppy and performing what I call the “happy, jolly routine” around potential triggers can be helpful. Hand feeding your puppy is almost guaranteed to be a success. Keep in mind that some dogs lose their appetite around exciting or frightening situations, so you may need to choose food that is a bit more enticing than basic kibble for some pups. See my Weekly Yip, Top 10 Training Treats, for some healthy ideas that won’t wreck your pup’s nutrition or waistline.

When you approach people the right way and set them up for success by making sure that they understand not only what you want them to do around your puppy, but why, I think you’ll find that most people are eager to bolster your training efforts rather than unravel them. And next time you encounter someone else’s puppy, keep in mind the things that would be important to you if you were them, but don’t assume that their training protocol is the just the same as yours. There are so many different approaches out there! Don’t hesitate to ask how you can be of the best help.

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