Right now we are approaching the best years with Jackson. The two year mark is when Labradors start to really get control of their brains but are still young and the fun type of crazy…the nicely trained version of crazy. A few of my friends across the country have tiny new puppies in their home. Every time I see their photos I look at my big strong boy and for a few seconds I miss the days when he was just 15 pounds and I could pick him up. And then I wrap my arms around his strong 75 pound body for a hug and I am happy he’s a big boy now.
Although we still have some training issues and things where Jackson is not quite perfectly trained I feel so blessed that we had so much help in knowing what, how and why to train him on several key areas. Between our breeder, our veterinarian’s in –house puppy socialization class and our amazing dog training school we have raised a fine young dog. So here are my tips to new puppy owners:
- Bite inhibition, bite inhibition, bite inhabitation. When we bring puppies into our homes at the usual eight weeks old they explore everything with their mouths…including you. Although it can seem cute for a tiny little puppy to nibble on your hand you want to stop this behavior immediately. Puppies tell each other that a sibling has bit them too hard by yelping in pain and removing themselves from their puppy play session. This tells the biting puppy that they went too far. As their human you need to draw the line that any biting is too far. When your cute little sweetheart nips you in play or tries to knaw on your hand make a yelping sound as if you are in pain. Once those razor sharp puppy teeth get some jaw muscles behind them is quite easy to make a sincere yelp of pain! Quickly get up and remove yourself from their play session immediately after yelping. Eventually they learn that biting humans is not acceptable.
- Teach your children how to play with the dog. This was a huge lesson for us and something I did not expect. Every time we looked it seemed as if one of the kids was playing with Jackson with their hands or playing chase with him. Neither is ok! We had to quickly teach the human children that they were encouraging him to bite and that we did not want him to grow up running after people, biting them and jumping on them. We explained time and time again when we corrected their behavior that he was growing to be a large dog, and a jet black one at that. We explained the Black Dog Syndrome in which people tend to fear black dogs. We explained that if he playfully bit a friend of theirs or knocked them down we could have an issue with the parents that could possibly put our beloved Jackson in jeopardy. We taught them that they could pet him, play fetch with him and play tug with his toys, but no waving their hands in front of his face, no wrestling or roughhousing and no games of chase. We let them practice his commands like sit and down, and we involved them with the recall game in which he learned to come to us on command.
- Socialize like a starlet. Our veterinarian gave us a list of fifty things that a puppy should experience before a certain age and that we should avoid consoling him when faced with something new and potentially scary. A soothing “oh, puppy, it’s ok” and a hug from Momma would only confirm in his brain that the scary thing was indeed scary and that his reaction was appropriate. Instead we were taught to act like it was the most fun and exciting thing in the world, clapping in joy and exclaiming “good boy, good boy” in our happiest puppy party voices whenever we saw something on the list or something new in his world. I can tell you that I looked like an absolute idiot for a good six months, but today at almost two years old our dog is beautifully socialized, not at all fearful and doesn’t flinch when things like the lawnmower or the motorcycle start or he hears a loud noise. We took the list and found or recreated many of the new experiences. I stood with the puppy on the leash while my husband started the Harley near him. I clapped and happily exclaimed “good boy, yaye, Jax, yaye good boy”. We had our kids and all of their friends ride their skateboards and bikes in front of the puppy. We found an old baby stroller and rolled that around in front of him. We waited for the garbage truck, the UPS man, the garage door. All while jumping up and down exclaiming that he was a good boy and that this was fun and exciting.
- Don’t home school. Enroll in at least a basic obedience class. We have done several different levels of training and are about to resume classes to really fine tune his obedience skills. A basic obedience class is not just to make your dog a more pleasant member of human society, but most of the commands can save a dog’s life in some situations. Sit/stay is essential at the front door. You cannot spend your entire life body blocking your dog to keep them from running out the door. A lost dog can happen in the blink of an eye. You can open the door to deal with the pizza delivery and your dog can bolt from the house and get lost or hit by a car. The off/leave it command is important if you drop something that is toxic to them like a medication or a candy bar or if you drop a glass on the floor. Down will make your life easier at the veterinarian’s office every time you need to weigh them. The best item we learned at obedience school was reliable recall, a word that means that he is to run directly to us as fast as he can and that he will be showered with the most amazing array of treats and toys that a dog has ever seen. I train it periodically now and used it for real when he was nose deep in a yard exploration project and the tornado sirens went off.
- Be patient as they explore our world. Our dogs did not ask to live in a human world. They were born, plucked from their mothers at just eight weeks old and brought into a strange house where they know nobody. Be patient. They are not furry humans. I know a lot of people think that I view my dogs the same as humans. The fact of the matter is that I LOVE them like humans but I know that they are dogs. So while they deserve the same excellent treatment that any of my family receives I have to respect that they are dogs for their own benefit. They do not have hands to explore; they must use their mouths. They cannot magically know that a stuffed dog toy and a child’s teddy bear are not the same. They do not know that peeing inside is ok. They do not know that the balls on the Christmas tree are different from their tennis balls. We must teach them, be kind to them, be patient with them, love them, protect them, teach them and communicate with them in a way that they understand.