Saturday, September 24, 2011

When is it OK to give a puppy more freedom?

Inspired by a feature on NBC's Today Show this week - when is it OK to give kids more freedom? Marginally interesting that 59% of parents think 13 years old is an OK age to bring a cellphone to school, and 44% would send a child home to an empty house at 12 years old (16% think it's OK to send a 10 year old home alone. For what it's worth, I came home to an empty house when I was in 3rd grade (approximately 8 years old), I seem to have grown up OK - did I mention that I walked home 1.5 miles home from school by myself too?
Murphy is all too willing to demonstrate bad behavior.

What does this mean for puppies? In my opinion most puppies are routinely given too much freedom from the start - meaning that a lot of owners are forced to work a whole lot harder (and have a lot more to start) to 'fix' bad habits and behaviors than the time it's have taken to add some boundaries to a puppy's routine.

Puppies are cute and at 9-12 weeks (maybe a bit longer) they sleep well, they aren't all that active most of the time and owners are far more diligent about keeping eyes on puppies when they're hip deep in housebreaking. But what happens afterwards?

The two things I'm called on the most to 'fix' in my private lessons with dog owners are self-rewarding behaviors mainly counter surfing (incredibly self rewarding) and chasing cats, children, etc (also BIG fun). Counter surfing has the potential to be very dangerous when dogs ingest things that are poisonous, toxic or non-digestible. Chasing cats (other dogs, kids, cars) is dangerous for the cat even if the intent of the dog or puppy is play with most dogs outweighing most cats.

Both of these behaviors could have been in large part prevented early on in the training process before they become an issue. In my program puppies wear a leash in the house until they are about 6 months old. Sometimes younger, sometimes older. An awful lot depends on the owner and how diligent they are with boundaries and also setting and maintaining restrictions. I find that I can have my puppies out and about in a limited area (one or two rooms) and with my full attention on them when they're about 5 months old, but until that point they're dragging leashes.

When the leash comes off is dependent on two pretty key training milestones and a lifeskill. The first training milestone is a recall. If you're in the house (relatively low distractions) and I say your name you are to present yourself to me on the first call (not using the word come mind-you) every time - without delay. I'll always reward this recall with something - a young puppy with get food (typically something really good) and an older puppy might get food, play or some attention/scratches/pats. In every case a recall earns praise as well.
An on-leash puppy Teller chills with Q.

The second milestone is an incompatible behavior to whatever it is that they're really like to do. If they'd really like to chase the kitty - I'd like to have a solid 'down' from a distance anywhere in the house - also rewarded with something - usually food with a young puppy and progressing to play/attention for older puppies when they make the right decisions.

With Kipling, this milestone came when the cat (who is not an innocent party in cat chasing around here) ran up to Kipling, 'murrr'ed' and ran away. Kipling looked at the cat, took a step towards the cat, paused, turned around and laid down (he was jack-potted for that decision).

The life skill is settling off-leash. Exist in space with the other dogs without constant play, bitey face, wrestling - no scoping for things to pick up, no orbiting the space looking for something to do, just settle down with or without a bone and just be still.

Here's the Today Show link:

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