When it comes to our puppies, Dr. Ian Dunbar says that we are not doing one tenth of the training, one hundredth of the socialization or one thousandth of the classical conditioning that we should. As a result, puppyhood is wasted, and our dogs inevitably grow up to have behavior or temperament problems. These problems are not only predictable, they are easily preventable if we intervene early enough. Ian’s fed up with dogs being rehomed, or worse, euthanized, because they were failed by their breeders, trainers, and owners. Today, I’m going to write about what he thinks each party should do.
A Breeder’s Responsibilities
Ian says that the eight week old puppy you bring home from the breeder may be so developmentally retarded that he’ll never catch up to where he should have been. Since half (or more!) of the dog’s socialization period happens while the puppy is still at his breeder’s, it is vital that breeders do their share to set our dogs up for success. This includes house training, chew training, and socialization.
On the house training front, Ian says the breeder should have a long term confinement area set up in three distinct sections. At one end, there’s the whelping box, where everyone sleeps. In the middle is a play area, and at the far end there should be a toilet area. Ideally, that toilet area will include natural substrates such as grass or dirt because puppies will develop a life-long preference early on.
In the middle play area, Ian wants the breeder to tie chew toys to the barriers. This makes it difficult for the puppies to fight over toys, plus it keeps the toys out of the toilet area. Ideally, these chew toys will include Kongs, and he wants all meals fed from them to encourage good chew habits early on.
Most importantly, a good breeder will also socialize their puppies. From an early age, all puppies should receive daily neonatal handling by all kinds of people, and especially men and children. They should be exposed to regular household sounds. The puppies ought to meet five new people a day, again, concentrating on men and children of all ages and sizes.
The First Month at Home
Ian believes that a dog’s temperament is forged by 12 weeks, so it’s important that the puppy’s first month at home is used wisely. He wants people to “flood” them with social stimuli. Again, the puppy should be exposed to five new people a day, and the wider variety, the better; every day should be Halloween for a puppy!
New owners should continue to use a long-term confinement area with three distinct sections, like at the breeders. This should be used whenever the owner is gone. While the owner is home, the puppy should be crated unless the owner is interacting with him. It is very important that the dog learns how to be alone in small doses.
Finally, he strongly believes that a food bowl should be a rite of passage. All food should be hand-fed until your dog is perfect for you. Meals should be used for classical conditioning during socialization or for training. If there’s anything left over, it should be put in a chew toy.
Ian is obviously a huge proponent of puppy classes. Unfortunately, he believes that they have gone downhill since they began in the 80s. Instead of focusing on socialization, many trainers are focusing on obedience commands, which Ian finds to be a poor use of time.
Ian believes that puppies should start class around 12 weeks of age. This is for two reasons. First, Ian wants puppies to be very well socialized to their new families. If a dog is well-socialized to his environment, his family, and their friends, he is less likely to be rehomed later. But also, Ian really wants the puppy in class when the dog enters adolescence at 18 to 20 weeks so he can help them through any rough patches.
Puppy classes should be held completely off leash. The primary purposes of puppy class are socialization and teaching bite inhibition, neither of which can happen unless the puppies are interacting with each other. He also emphasizes off-leash reliability, and he does not think you can get that unless the puppies are trained off leash.
Along those lines, every 15-30 seconds, there should be a training interlude, where everyone calls their puppy back to them. Sometimes they simply grab a collar and give a treat, and sometimes they lure behaviors like sits or downs. Then the puppies are sent back to play. This helps build off-leash reliability, modulates arousal levels, and teaches the puppies to think despite distractions.
Puppy classes should have puppies of all shapes and sizes. Although owners love it, Ian thinks it’s detrimental to have all small-breed dogs together. They simply must learn how to interact with dogs of different sizes. Small dogs must learn not to run and squeak, and big dogs must learn how to be gentle.
Finally, all social problems must be resolved week one. The bully must be stopped, and the fearful dog must gain confidence. If it doesn’t happen then, it will be much more difficult during week two. If it doesn’t happen then, the dog is likely to have a problem for life. For bullies, Ian likes to provide running verbal feedback to the puppy to help him learn to interact appropriately. For the fearful puppies, he carefully pairs them up with suitable buddies to play one-on-one and build confidence.
That, in a nutshell, is how Ian recommends we raise puppies. Obviously, I’ve glossed over a lot of details, and I’ll admit- this post is a bit dry. The thing is, I had some pretty strong emotions about the concept of a “wasted puppyhood,” even though I mostly agree with him. Since I recognize that my feelings might be a bit irrational, I decided to write a separate post detailing my reactions.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear how you all have raised puppies. I’d love to hear what breeders are doing to socialize their puppies. I’d like to know what puppy-buyers are doing to ensure they receive emotionally-healthy puppies. Did you go to puppy class, and if so, how did it compare to Ian’s ideal? If you were to do it all over again, would you follow Ian’s ideas exactly, or would you modify them somehow? Let me know!