Developmental Priorities


The most urgent priority
is to continue socializing your puppy to a wide variety of people, especially children, men, and strangers. Well-socialized puppies grow up to be wonderful companions, whereas antisocial dogs are difficult, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous. Your puppy needs to learn to enjoy the company of all people and to enjoy being handled by all people, especially children and strangers.

The most important priority is that your puppy learns reliable bite inhibition and develops a soft mouth before he is eighteen weeks old. Whenever a dog bites a person or fights with another dog, the seriousness of the problem depends on the seriousness of the injury. Hence, the ease and success of retraining depends almost entirely on the dog's degree of bite inhibition. The reliability of your dog's bite inhibition determines whether you have a minor problem which may be easily corrected with a few safe, basic training exercises, or whether you have a serious and potentially dangerous problem which is going to be extremely difficult to resolve.

In a perfect world, you will successfully socialize your puppy so that he thoroughly enjoys the company and actions of all people, all dogs, and all animals. More realistically, though, accidents happen. Someone accidentally shuts the dog's tail in the car door. Someone runs to answer the telephone and accidentally treads on a sleeping dog's leg. A child runs and trips and falls on top of the dog while he is gnawing on a bone. When dogs are hurt or startled, their natural response is to snap, lunge, and even bite. Even wonderfully friendly dogs may feel inclined to protect or defend themselves when picked on by other dogs and people.

For example, when hurt or frightened a dog may snap and lunge at a person. But if a dog has well-established bite inhibition it is unlikely his teeth will even touch the skin. Or if there is skin contact, it is unlikely that the teeth will break the skin. The dog has caused no damage. On the other hand, if the dog has inadequate bite inhibition and his teeth puncture the skin, then you have a serious situation which may be difficult and time-consuming to resolve.

Similarly, dogs with well-established bite inhibition never cause damage when fighting with other dogs. The problem is minor because your dog is simply squabbling in a socially acceptable manner. On the other hand, if your dog ever hurts another dog or another animal, you have a major problem and resolution is unlikely.

Bite inhibition must be established in puppyhood, before eighteen weeks of age, since it is difficult to instill bite inhibition in an adolescent or adult dog. Learning the skills and techniques to ensure your puppy develops a reliable bite inhibition and an ultra-soft mouth is the primary reason for you to attend off-leash puppy classes. Your puppy needs to play with other puppies. Playing with adult dogs at home or in the park is simply not sufficient.

The most enjoyable priority of dog ownership is to accustom your well-socialized, soft-mouthed puppy to the world at large and prevent the development of predictable adolescent problems, thus assuring that he remains well-socialized and soft-mouthed. Remember, your dog will only remain sociable if he continues meeting and greeting unfamiliar people and unfamiliar dogs every day. Meeting the same people and dogs over and over is not sufficient. You want your dog to practice the art of meeting and getting along with strangers, not simply getting along with old friends. Consequently, regular walks with your dog are as essential as they are enjoyable.

Your life is about to change. You are about to enjoy all the joys of dog ownership — long, energetic, or relaxing walks, trips in the car, afternoons in the dog park, picnics on the beach, plus so many enjoyable organized doggy activities.

Here are your puppy priorities listed in order of urgency and ranked in terms of importance.

1. HOUSEHOLD ETIQUETTE - from the very first day your puppy comes home. Housetraining, chewtoy-training, and teaching your dog alternatives to recreational barking are by far the most pressing items on your puppy's educational agenda. From day one, employ errorless management teaching programs, comprising confinement schedules plus the liberal use of chewtoys (Kongs, Biscuit Balls, Squirrel Dudes, and sterilized longbones) stuffed with kibble. Simple behavior problems are so easily preventable, yet they are the most common reasons for people's dissatisfaction with their dogs and the most common reasons for dog euthanasia. Without a doubt, behavior problems are the #1 terminal illness for domestic dogs. Teaching household manners should be your number one priority the first day your puppy comes home. #1 Urgency Rating — Household etiquette is by far the most pressing item on your new puppy's educational agenda. If you want to avoid annoying behavior problems, training must begin the very first day your puppy comes home. #3 Importance Rating — Teaching household etiquette is extremely important. Puppies quickly become unwelcome when their owners allow them to develop housesoiling, chewing, barking, digging, and escaping problems.

2. HOME ALONE - during the first few days and weeks your puppy is at home. Sadly, the maddening pace of present-day domestic dogdom necessitates teaching your puppy how to enjoy spending time at home alone — not only to ensure your pup adheres to established household etiquette when unsupervised, but more importantly to prevent your puppy from becoming anxious in your absence. Normally, these go hand in hand because when puppies become anxious, they tend to bark, chew, dig, and urinate more frequently. From the outset, and especially during his first few days and weeks in your home, your puppy needs to be taught how to entertain himself quietly, calmly, and confidently. Otherwise he most certainly will become severely stressed when left at home alone. #2 Urgency Rating — Teaching your pup to confidently enjoy his own company is the second most urgent item on his educational agenda. It would be unfair to smother your puppy with attention and affection during his first days or weeks at home, only to subject the pup to solitary confinement when adults go back to work and children go back to school. During the first few days and weeks when you are around to monitor your puppy's behavior, teach him to enjoy quiet moments confined to his puppy playroom or doggy den. Especially be sure to provide some form of occupational therapy (stuffed chewtoys) for your puppy to busy himself and enjoyably pass the time while you are away. #4 Importance Rating — Preparing your puppy for time alone is extremely important both for your peace of mind (i.e., preventing housesoiling, chewing, and barking problems), and especially for your puppy's peace of mind. It is absolutely no fun for a pup to be over-dependent, stressed, and anxious.

3. SOCIALIZATION WITH PEOPLE - especially before twelve weeks of age but forever thereafter. Many puppy training programs focus on teaching your puppy to enjoy the company and actions of people. Well-socialized dogs are confident and friendly, rather than fearful and aggressive. Show all family members, visitors, and strangers how to get your puppy to come, sit, lie down, roll over, and enjoy being handled for pieces of kibble. Living with an undersocialized dog can be frustrating, difficult, and potentially dangerous. For undersocialized dogs, life is unbearably stressful. #3 Urgency Rating — Many people think that puppy classes are for socializing puppies with people. Not strictly true. Certainly puppy classes provide a convenient venue for socialized puppies to continue socializing with people. However, puppies must be well socialized toward people before they attend classes at twelve weeks of age. The time-window for socialization closes at three months of age, and so there is some urgency to adequately socialize your puppy to people. During your pup's first month at home, he needs to meet and interact positively with at least one hundred different people! #2 Importance Rating — Socializing your puppy to enjoy people is vital — second only in importance to your pup learning to inhibit the force of his bite and develop a soft mouth. Socialization must never end. Remember, your adolescent dog will begin to de-socialize unless he continues to meet unfamiliar people every day. Walk your dog or expand your own social life at home.

4. DOG-DOG SOCIALIZATION - between three months and eighteen weeks of age to establish reliable bite inhibition and forever after to maintain friendliness to other dogs. As soon as your puppy turns three months old, it is time to play catch up vis-a-vis dog-dog socialization, time for puppy classes, long walks, and visits to dog parks. Well-socialized dogs would rather play than bite or fight. And well-socialized dogs usually bite more gently, if ever they should bite or fight.#4 Urgency Rating — If you would like to have an adult dog who enjoys the company of other dogs, puppy classes and walks are essential, especially since many puppies have been sequestered indoors until they have been immunized against parvovirus and other serious doggy diseases (by the very earliest at three months of age).#6 Importance Rating — It is hard to rate the importance of dog-dog socialization. Depending on the lifestyle of the owners, dog-friendliness may be an unnecessary or an essential quality. If you would like to enjoy walks with your adult dog, early socialization in puppy classes and dog parks is essential. Surprisingly, though, very few people walk their dogs. Whereas large dogs and urban dogs tend to be walked quite frequently, small dogs and suburban dogs are seldom walked. Regardless of the desired sociability of your adult dog, dog-dog play and especially play-fighting and play-biting during puppyhood are absolutely essential for the development of bite inhibition and a soft mouth. For this reason alone, puppy classes and trips to the dog park are the top priority at three months of age.

5. SIT AND SETTLE DOWN COMMANDS - begin anytime you would like your puppydog to listen to you. If you teach your dog just a couple of commands, they would have to be Sit and Settle Down. Just think of all the mischievous things your puppydog cannot do when he is sitting. #5 Urgency Rating - Unlike socialization and bite inhibition which must occur during puppyhood, you may teach your dog to sit and settle down at any age, so there is no great urgency. However, because it is so easy and so much fun to teach young puppies, why not start teaching basic manners the very first day you bring your puppy home, or as early as four or five weeks if you are raising the litter? The only urgency to teach these simple and effective control commands would be if ever your puppy's antics or activity level begin to irritate you. Sit or Settle Down will solve most problems.#5 Importance Rating - It is difficult to rate the importance of basic manners. Personally, I like dogs that can enjoy being dogs without being a bother to other people. On the other hand, many people happily live with dogs without any formal training whatsoever. If you consider your dog to be perfect for you, make your own choice. But if you or other people find your dog's behavior to be annoying, why not teach him how to behave? Indeed, a simple sit prevents the majority of annoying behavior problems, including jumping-up, dashing through doorways, running away, bothering people, chasing his tail, chasing the cat, etc., etc. The list is long! It is so much easier to teach your dog how to act appropriately from the outset, i.e., to teach the one right way (e.g., to sit), rather than trying to punish the dog for the many things that you think he does wrong. Regardless, it would be unfair to get on your dog's case for bad manners if he is only breaking your rules that he didn't even know existed.

6. BITE INHIBITION - by eighteen weeks of age. A soft mouth is the single most important quality for any dog. Hopefully, your dog will never bite or fight, but if he does, well-established bite inhibition ensures that your dog causes little if any damage. Socialization is an ongoing process of ever-widening experience and confidence building that helps your pup to comfortably handle the challenges and changes of everyday adult life. However, it is impossible to prepare your puppy for every possible eventuality, and on those rare occasions when adult dogs are badly hurt, frightened, scared, or upset, they seldom call a lawyer or write letters of complaint. Instead, dogs customarily growl and bite, whereupon the level of bite-inhibition-training from puppyhood predetermines the seriousness of the damage. Adult dogs with poor bite inhibition rarely mouth and seldom bite, but when they do, the bites almost always break the skin. Adult dogs with well-established bite inhibition often mouth during play, and should they bite, the bites almost never break the skin because during puppyhood the dog learned how to register a complaint without inflicting any damage.Bite inhibition is one of the most misunderstood aspects of behavioral development in dogs (and other animals). Many owners make the catastrophic mistake of stopping their puppy from mouthing altogether. If a puppy is not allowed to play-bite, he cannot develop reliable bite inhibition. Pups are born virtual biting machines with needle sharp teeth for one reason only — so that they learn their bites hurt before they develop the jaw strength to cause appreciable harm. However, they cannot learn to inhibit the force of their bites if they are never allowed to play-bite and play-fight. Bite inhibition training comprises first teaching the puppy to progressively inhibit the force of his bites until painful puppy play-biting is toned down and transformed into gentle puppy mouthing, and then, and only then, teaching him to progressively inhibit the incidence of his mouthing. Thus the puppy learns that any pressured bite is absolutely unacceptable and that mouthing is by and large inappropriate.#6 Urgency Rating - You have until your puppy is four and a half months old, so take your time to ensure your puppy masters this most important item in his educational curriculum. The more times your puppy bites in play, the safer his jaws will be as an adult since he has had more opportunities to learn that biting hurts. If you are at all worried about your puppy's biting behavior, seek further advice from a Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT) and enroll in a puppy class immediately, so that your puppy may redirect many of his bites towards other puppies during play sessions and so develop stellar bite inhibition.#1 Importance Rating - Bite inhibition is of crucial importance and by far the single most important quality of any dog, or any animal. Living with a dog that does not have reliable bite inhibition is unpleasant and dangerous. Bite inhibition must be acquired during puppyhood. You must fully understand how to teach your puppy bite inhibition. Attempting to teach bite inhibition to an adolescent or adult dog is often extremely difficult, dangerous, and time-consuming.

Adapted from BEFORE You Get Your Puppy by Dr. Ian Dunbar

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