Stages of Puppy Development
Puppies are usually weaned at six or seven weeks, but are still learning important skills as their mother gradually leaves them more and more. Ideally, puppies should stay with their littermates (or other role-model dogs) for at least 12 weeks.
Puppies separated from their littermates too early often don’t develop appropriate “social skills,” such as learning how to send and receive signals, what an “inhibited bite” means, how far to go in play wrestling and so forth. Play is important to help puppies increase their physical coordination, social skills and learning limits. Interacting with their mother and littermates helps them learn “how to be a dog” and is also a way to explore ranking (“who’s in charge”).
Skills not acquired during the first eight weeks may be lost forever. While these stages are important and fairly consistent, a dog’s mind remains receptive to new experiences and lessons well beyond puppy-hood. Most dogs are still puppies, in mind and body, through the first two years.
The following chart provides general guidelines for the stages of development.
0 – 2 weeks = Neonatal
- Most influenced by their mother.
- Touch and taste present at birth.
2 – 4 weeks = Transitional
- Most influenced by their mother and littermates.
- Eyes open, teeth erupt, hearing and smell developing.
- Beginning to stand, walk a little, wag, bark.
- By four or five weeks, sight is well developed.
3 – 12 weeks = Socialization
- During this period, puppies need opportunities to meet other dogs and people.
- By four to six weeks they’re most influenced by their littermates and are learning about being a dog.
- From four to 12 weeks they’re most influenced by their littermates and people. They’re also learning to play, including social skills, inhibited bite, social structure/ranking and physical coordination.
- By three to five weeks they’re becoming aware of their surroundings, companions (dogs and people) and relationships, including play.
- By five to seven weeks they’re developing curiosity and exploring new experiences. They need positive “people” experiences during this time.
- By seven to nine weeks they’re refining they’re physical skills/coordination (including housetraining) and full use of senses.
- By eight to ten weeks they experience real fear — when puppies can be alarmed by normal objects and experiences and need positive training.
- By nine to 12 weeks they’re refining reactions, social skills (appropriate interactions) with littermates and are exploring the environment, spaces and objects. Beginning to focus on people. This is a good time to begin training.
3 – 6 months = Ranking
- Most influenced by “littermates” (playmates now include those of other species).
- Beginning to see and use ranking (dominant and submissive) within the pack, including humans.
- Teething (and associated chewing).
- At four months they experience another fear stage.
6 – 18 months = Adolescence
- Most influenced by human and dog “pack” members.
- At seven to nine months they go through a second chewing phase — part of exploring territory.
- Heightened exploration of dominance, including challenging humans.
- If not spayed or neutered, beginnings of sexual behavior.
When you feel frustrated with your dog’s behavior, remember that someone must teach a dog what is acceptable behavior and what is not. A dog that hasn’t been given any instructions, training or boundaries can’t possibly know what you expect of him. By teaching your dog how you want him to behave, you’ll not only have a saner household, but a healthier and happier dog as well.
An Educated Dog:
- Allows you to handle every part of his body, to check for injury or illness and to give him medication.
- Has good manners, so he can spend most of his time indoors with his people. That means more supervision, less boredom and fewer opportunities for dangerous mischief. The more time you spend with your dog, the more likely you’ll be to notice when something is wrong with him, like a limp, a cough, a sensitive area or a loss of appetite. By recognizing such irregularities early, you can seek medical attention immediately and, hopefully, prevent more serious problems.
- Wants to stay near you, listening for instructions (and praise). This means he’ll have less opportunity to stray into danger.
- Will walk or run beside you on a leash without pulling, dragging or strangling, so you and your dog can get more exercise and spend more time together.
- Knows that “drop it” and “leave it alone” are phrases that mean business, so he’ll have fewer opportunities to swallow dangerous objects. He also can be taught what things and places are out of bounds, like hot stoves, heaters or anxious cats. However, you’ll still need to limit his access to dangerous places when you cannot supervise or instruct him.
- Will “sit” immediately, simply because you say so. No matter what danger may be imminent, a dog that is suddenly still is suddenly safe. And a dog that will “stay” in that position is even safer.
- Understands his boundaries, knows what’s expected of him and has fewer anxieties. Less stress means a healthier dog.
By training your dog, you can help prevent tragedy and develop a better relationship with him. Keep in mind, however, that even an educated dog needs supervision, instruction and boundaries — sometimes even physical boundaries. Allowing your dog, no matter how educated he may be, to walk, run or roam outside of a fenced area or off of a leash, is putting him in danger.
Crate training your dog may take some time and effort, but can be useful in a variety of situations. If you have a new dog or puppy, you can use the crate to limit his access to the house until he learns all the house rules – like what he can and can’t chew on and where he can and can’t eliminate. A crate is also a safe way of transporting your dog in the car, as well as a way of taking him places where he may not be welcome to run freely. If you properly train your dog to use the crate, he’ll think of it as his safe place and will be happy to spend time there when needed.
Important note: Sometimes people hear the words “crate training” and they think it is a bad or cruel thing. Often this is because they have been misinformed about how crate training is actually done. The crate is not a punishment. Your dog should always associate the crate with positive experiences: toys, treats, privacy, peace and quiet. If your dog does do something you do not like, never say “bad dog!” and put him directly into the crate. If you do that, the crate WILL seem like a punishment to the dog. Also, a dog or a puppy should only spend a maximum of a few hours in the crate at a time, during the times when you are not able to directly supervise him. At all other times he should be with you! While crate training your dog or puppy, you must be able to arrange your work/sleep/school/social schedule to allow the dog or puppy a “bathroom break” and some affectionate interaction every few hours during the day and sometimes during the middle of the night.
Selecting A Crate
Crates may be plastic (often called “flight kennels”) or collapsible, metal pens. They come in different sizes and can be purchased at the Soffer and Fine Adoption Center. Your dog’s crate should be just large enough for him to stand up and turn around in.
The Crate Training Process
Crate training can take days or weeks, depending on your dog’s age, temperament and past experiences. It’s important to keep two things in mind while crate training. The crate should always be associated with something pleasant, and training should take place in a series of small steps – don’t go too fast.
Step 1: Introducing Your Dog to the Crate
Put the crate in an area of your house where the family spends a lot of time, such as the family room. Put a soft blanket or towel in the crate. Bring your dog over to the crate and talk to him in a happy tone of voice. Make sure the crate door is securely fastened opened so it won’t hit your dog and frighten him.
To encourage your dog to enter the crate, drop some small food treats near it, then just inside the door, and finally, all the way inside the crate. If he refuses to go all the way in at first, that’s okay – don’t force him to enter. Continue tossing treats into the crate until your dog will walk calmly all the way into the crate to get the food. If he isn’t interested in treats, try tossing a favorite toy in the crate. This step may take a few minutes or as long as several days.
Step 2: Feeding Your Dog His Meals in the Crate
After introducing your dog to the crate, begin feeding him his regular meals near the crate. This will create a pleasant association with the crate. If your dog is readily entering the crate when you begin Step 2, put the food dish all the way at the back of the crate. If your dog is still reluctant to enter the crate, put the dish only as far inside as he will readily go without becoming fearful or anxious. Each time you feed him, place the dish a little further back in the crate.
Once your dog is standing comfortably in the crate to eat his meal, you can close the door while he’s eating. At first, open the door as soon as he finishes his meal. With each successive feeding, leave the door closed a few minutes longer, until he’s staying in the crate for ten minutes or so after eating. If he begins to whine to be let out, you may have increased the length of time too quickly. Next time, try leaving him in the crate for a shorter time period. If he does whine or cry in the crate, it’s imperative that you not let him out until he stops. Otherwise, he’ll learn that the way to get out of the crate is to whine, so he’ll keep doing it.
Step 3: Conditioning Your Dog to the Crate for Longer Time Periods
After your dog is eating his regular meals in the crate with no sign of fear or anxiety, you can confine him there for short time periods while you’re home. Call him over to the crate and give him a treat. Give him a command to enter such as, “kennel up.” Encourage him by pointing to the inside of the crate with a treat in your hand. After your dog enters the crate, praise him, give him the treat and close the door. Sit quietly near the crate for five to ten minutes and then go into another room for a few minutes. Return, sit quietly again for a short time, then let him out of the crate. Repeat this process several times a day.
With each repetition, gradually increase the length of time you leave him in the crate and the length of time you’re out of his sight. Once your dog will stay quietly in the crate for about 30 minutes with you out of sight the majority of the time, you can begin leaving him crated when you’re gone for short time periods and/or letting him sleep there at night. This may take several days or several weeks.
Step 4-A: Crating Your Dog When Left Alone
After your dog is spending about 30 minutes in the crate without becoming anxious or afraid, you can begin leaving him crated for short periods when you leave the house. Put him in the crate using your regular command and a treat. You might also want to leave him with a few safe toys in the crate (see “Dog Toys and How to Use Them”). You’ll want to vary at what point in your “getting ready to leave” routine you put your dog in the crate. Although he shouldn’t be crated for a long time before you leave, you can crate him anywhere from five to 20 minutes prior to leaving.
Don’t make your departures emotional and prolonged, but matter-of-fact. Praise your dog briefly, give him a treat for entering the crate and then leave quietly. When you return home, don’t reward your dog for excited behavior by responding to him in an excited, enthusiastic way. Keep arrivals low key. Continue to crate your dog for short periods from time to time when you’re home so he doesn’t associate crating with being left alone.
Step 4-B: Crating Your Dog at Night
Put your dog in the crate using your regular command and a treat. Initially, it may be a good idea to put the crate in your bedroom or nearby in a hallway, especially if you have a puppy. Puppies often need to go outside to eliminate during the night, and you’ll want to be able to hear your puppy when he whines to be let outside. Older dogs, too, should initially be kept nearby so that crating doesn’t become associated with social isolation. Once your dog is sleeping comfortably through the night with his crate near you, you can begin to gradually move it to the location you prefer.
Too Much Time In The Crate
A crate isn’t a magical solution. If not used correctly, a dog can feel trapped and frustrated. For example, if your dog is crated all day while you’re at work and then crated again all night, he’s spending too much time in too small a space. Other arrangements should be made to accommodate his physical and emotional needs. Also remember that puppies under six months of age shouldn’t stay in a crate for more than two or three hours at a time. They can’t control their bladders and bowels for longer periods.
If your dog whines or cries while in the crate at night, it may be difficult to decide whether he’s whining to be let out of the crate, or whether he needs to be let outside to eliminate. If you followed the training procedures outlined above, your dog hasn’t been rewarded for whining in the past by being released from his crate. Try to ignore the whining. If your dog is just testing you, he’ll probably stop whining soon. Yelling at him or pounding on the crate will only make things worse. If the whining continues after you’ve ignored him for several minutes, use the phrase he associates with going outside to eliminate. If he responds and becomes excited, take him outside. This should be a trip with a purpose, not play time.
If you’re convinced that your dog doesn’t need to eliminate, the best response is to ignore him until he stops whining. Don’t give in, otherwise you’ll teach your dog to whine loud and long to get what he wants. If you’ve progressed gradually through the training steps and haven’t done too much too fast, you’ll be less likely to encounter this problem. If the problem becomes unmanageable, you may need to start the crate training process over again.
Attempting to use the crate as a remedy for separation anxiety won’t solve the problem. A crate may prevent your dog from being destructive, but he may injure himself in an attempt to escape from the crate. Separation anxiety problems can only be resolved with counter-conditioning and desensitization procedures. You may want to consult a professional animal behaviorist for help (see “Separation Anxiety”).
Many adult dogs adopted from animal shelters were housetrained in their previous homes. While at the shelter, however, they may not have gotten enough opportunities to be walked and to eliminate outside, and consequently, they may have soiled their kennel areas. Additionally, scents and odors from other pets in the new home may stimulate some initial urine marking. Remember that you and your new dog need some time to learn each other’s signals and routines. Even if he was housetrained in his previous home, if you don’t recognize his “bathroom” signal, you might miss his request to go out, causing him to eliminate indoors.
Therefore, for the first few weeks after you bring him home, you should assume your new dog isn’t housetrained and start from scratch. If he was housetrained in his previous home, the re-training process should progress quickly. The process will be much smoother if you take steps to prevent accidents and remind him where he’s supposed to eliminate.
Establish A Routine
Take your dog out at the same times every day. For example, first thing in the morning when he wakes up, when you arrive home from work, and before you go to bed.
Praise your dog lavishly every time he eliminates outdoors. You can even give him a treat. You must praise him and give him a treat immediately after he’s finished and not wait until after he comes back inside the house. This step is vital, because rewarding your dog for eliminating outdoors is the only way he’ll know that’s what you want him to do.
Choose a location not too far from the door to be the bathroom spot. Always take your dog, on leash, directly to the bathroom spot. Take him for a walk or play with him only after he’s eliminated. If you clean up an accident in the house, leave the soiled rags or paper towels in the bathroom spot. The smell will help your dog recognize the area as the place where he’s supposed to eliminate.
While your dog is eliminating, use a word or phrase like “go potty,” for example, that you can eventually use before he eliminates to remind him of what he’s supposed to be doing.
Feeding your dog on a set schedule, once or twice a day, will help make his elimination more regular.
Supervise, Supervise, Supervise
Don’t give your dog an opportunity to soil in the house. He should be watched at all times when he’s indoors. You can use baby gates, to keep him in the room where you are. Watch for signs that he needs to eliminate, like sniffing around or circling. If you see these signs, immediately take him outside, on a leash, to his bathroom spot. If he eliminates, praise him lavishly and reward him with a treat.
When you’re unable to watch your dog at all times, he should be confined to an area small enough that he won’t want to eliminate there. It should be just big enough for him to comfortably stand, lie down and turn around in. This could be a portion of a bathroom or laundry room blocked off with baby gates. Or you may want to crate train your dog and use the crate to confine him (see “Crate Training”). If he has spent several hours in confinement, when you let him out, take him directly to his bathroom spot and praise him when he eliminates.
Most dogs, at some point, will have an accident in the house. You should expect this, as it’s a normal part of your dog’s adjustment to his new home. If you catch your dog in the act of eliminating in the house, do something to interrupt him like making a startling noise (don’t scare him). Immediately take him to his bathroom spot, praise him, and give him a treat if he finishes eliminating there.
Don’t punish your dog for eliminating in the house. If you find a soiled area, it’s too late to administer a correction. Do nothing but clean it up. Rubbing your dog’s nose in it, taking him to the spot and scolding him, or any other type of punishment, will only make him afraid of you or afraid to eliminate in your presence. Animals don’t understand punishment after the fact, even if it’s only seconds later. Punishment will do more harm than good. Cleaning the soiled area is very important because dogs are highly motivated to continue soiling in areas that smell like urine or feces (see “Removing Pet Odors and Stains”).
A puppy under six months of age cannot be expected to control his bladder for more than a few hours at a time. If you have to be away from home for more than three or four hours a day, this may not be the best time for you to get a puppy. If you’re already committed to having a puppy and have to be away from home for long periods of time, you’ll need to train your puppy to eliminate in a specific place indoors. Be aware, however, that doing so can prolong the process of teaching him to eliminate outdoors. Teaching your puppy to eliminate on newspaper or wee-wee pads may create a life-long surface preference, meaning that he may, even in adulthood, eliminate on any newspaper or other items he finds lying around the house.
When your puppy must be left alone for long periods of time, confine him to an area with enough room for a sleeping space, a playing space and a separate place to eliminate. In the area designated as the elimination place, you can either use newspapers, wee-wee pads, or a sod box. To make a sod box, place sod in a container, like a child’s small, plastic swimming pool. You can also find dog litter products at a pet supply store. If you clean up an accident in the house, take the soiled rags or paper towels, and put them in the designated elimination place. The smell will help your puppy recognize the area as the place where he is supposed to eliminate.
Other Types of House-Soiling Problems
If you’ve consistently followed the housetraining procedures and your dog continues to eliminate in the house, there may be another reason for his behavior.
Medical Problems: House soiling can often be caused by physical problems such as a urinary tract infection or a parasite infection. Check with your veterinarian to rule out any possibility of disease or illness.
Submissive/Excitement Urination: Some dogs, especially young ones, temporarily lose control of their bladders when they become excited or feel threatened. This usually occurs during greetings, intense play or when they’re about to be punished (see “Submissive and Excitement Urination”).
Territorial Urine-Marking: Dogs sometimes deposit urine or feces, usually in small amounts, to scent-mark their territory. Both male and female dogs do this, and it most often occurs when they believe their territory has been invaded (see ‘Territorial Marking Behavior in Dogs and Cats”).
Separation Anxiety: Dogs that become anxious when they’re left alone may house soil as a result. Usually, there are other symptoms, such as destructive behavior or vocalization (see our handout: “Separation Anxiety”).
Fears Or Phobias: When animals become frightened, they may lose control of their bladder and/or bowels. If your dog is afraid of loud noises, such as thunderstorms or fireworks, he may house soil when he’s exposed to these sounds (see “Fear of Noises“).
There are many factors that contribute to the safety or danger of a toy. Many of those factors, however, are completely dependent upon your dog’s size, activity level and personal preference. Another factor to be considered is the environment in which your dog spends his time. Although we can’t guarantee your dog’s enthusiasm or his safety with any specific toy, we can offer the following guidelines.
The things that are usually the most attractive to dogs are often the very things that are the most dangerous. Dog-proof your home by checking for: string, ribbon, rubber bands, children’s toys, pantyhose and anything else that could be ingested.
Toys should be appropriate for your dog’s current size. Balls and other toys that are too small can easily be swallowed or become lodged in your dog’s mouth or throat.
Avoid or alter any toys that aren’t “dog-proof” by removing ribbons, strings, eyes or other parts that could be chewed and/or ingested. Avoid any toy that starts to break into pieces or have pieces torn off. You should also avoid “tug-of-war” toys, unless they’ll be used between dogs, not between people and dogs.
Ask your veterinarian about which rawhide toys are safe and which aren’t. Unless your veterinarian says otherwise, “chewies” like hooves, pig’s ears and rawhides, should be supervision-only goodies. Very hard rubber toys are safer and last longer.
Take note of any toy that contains a “squeaker” buried in its center. Your dog may feel that he must find and destroy the squeak-source and could ingest it, in which case squeaking objects should be “supervision only” toys.
Check labels for child safety, as a stuffed toy that’s labeled as safe for children under three years old, doesn’t contain dangerous fillings. Problem fillings include things like nutshells and polystyrene beads, however, even a “safe” stuffing isn’t truly digestible.
Remember that soft toys are not indestructible, but some are sturdier than others. Soft toys should be machine washable.
Toys We Recommend
- Very hard rubber toys, like Nylabone-type products and Kong-type products. These are available in a variety of shapes and sizes and are fun for chewing and for carrying around.
- “Rope” toys that are usually available in a “bone” shape with knotted ends.
- Tennis balls make great dog toys, but keep an eye out for any that could be chewed through and discard them.
- Kong-type toys, especially when filled with broken-up treats or, even better, a mixture of broken-up treats and peanut butter. The right size Kong can keep a puppy or dog busy for hours. Only by chewing diligently can your dog access the treats, and then only in small bits – very rewarding! Double-check with your veterinarian about whether or not you should give peanut butter to your dog.
- “Busy-box” toys are large rubber cubes with hiding places for treats. Only by moving the cube around with his nose, mouth and paws, can your dog access the goodies.
- Soft stuffed toys are good for several purposes, but aren’t appropriate for all dogs. For some dogs, the stuffed toy should be small enough to carry around. For dogs that want to shake or “kill” the toy, it should be the size that “prey” would be for that size dog (mouse-size, rabbit-size or duck-size).
- Dirty laundry, like an old t-shirt, pillowcase, towel or blanket, can be very comforting to a dog, especially if it smells like you! Be forewarned that the item could be destroyed by industrious fluffing, carrying and nosing.
Get the Most Out of Toys!
Rotate your dog’s toys daily by making only two or three toys available at a time. Keep a variety of types easily accessible. If your dog has a huge favorite, like a soft “baby,” you should probably leave it out all the time, or risk the wrath of your dog!
Provide toys that offer a variety of uses – at least one toy to carry, one to “kill”, one to roll and one to “baby.” “Hide and Seek” is a fun game for dogs to play. “Found” toys are often much more attractive than a toy which is blatantly introduced. Making an interactive game out of finding toys or treats is a good “rainy-day” activity for your dog, using up energy without the need for a lot of space.
Many of your dog’s toys should be interactive. Interactive play is very important for your dog because he needs active “people time.” By focusing on a specific task, like repeatedly returning a ball, Kong or Frisbee, or playing “hide-and-seek” with treats or toys, your dog can expel pent-up mental and physical energy in a limited amount of time and space. This greatly reduces stress due to confinement, isolation and/or boredom. For young, high-energy and untrained dogs, interactive play also offers an opportunity for socialization and helps them learn about appropriate and inappropriate behavior with people and with other animals, like jumping up or being mouthy.
Puppies may be just as much work as human babies – maybe more so because puppies can’t wear diapers and they have very sharp teeth! It’s definitely true that, similar to infants and toddlers, puppies explore their world by putting things in their mouths. In addition, puppies are teething until they’re about six months old, which usually creates some discomfort. Chewing not only facilitates teething, but also makes sore gums feel better. Although it’s perfectly normal for a puppy to chew on furniture, shoes, shrubbery and such, these behaviors can be a problem for you. A puppy won’t magically “outgrow” these behaviors as he matures. Instead, you must shape your puppy’s behaviors and teach him which ones are acceptable and which aren’t.
Discouraging Unacceptable Behavior
It’s virtually inevitable that your puppy will, at some point, chew up something you value. This is part of raising a puppy! You can, however, prevent most problems by taking the following precautions:
- Minimize chewing problems by puppy-proofing your house. Put the trash out of reach, inside a cabinet or outside on a porch, or buy containers with locking lids. Encourage children to pick up their toys and don’t leave socks, shoes, eyeglasses, briefcases or TV remote controls lying around within your puppy’s reach.
- If, and only if, you catch your puppy chewing on something he shouldn’t, interrupt the behavior with a loud noise, then offer him an acceptable chew toy instead and praise him lavishly when he takes the toy in his mouth.
- Make unacceptable chew items unpleasant to your puppy. Furniture and other items can be coated with “Bitter Apple” to make them unappealing (see “Sample Aversives for Dogs”).
- Don’t give your puppy objects to play with such as old socks, old shoes or old children’s toys that closely resemble items that are off-limits. Puppies can’t tell the difference!
- Closely supervise your puppy. Don’t give him the chance to go off by himself and get into trouble. Use baby gates or close doors so you can prevent him from going where he shouldn’t.
- When you must be gone from the house, confine your puppy to a small, safe area such as a bathroom. You may also begin to crate train your puppy (see “Crate Training Your Dog”). Puppies under five months of age shouldn’t be crated for longer than three hours at a time, as they may not be able to control their bladder and bowels longer than that.
- Make sure your puppy is getting adequate physical activity. Puppies should not be left alone in a yard as they don’t know how to play by themselves. Take your puppy for walks and/or play a game of fetch with him as often as possible.
- Give your puppy plenty of “people time.” He can only learn the rules of your house when he’s with you.
Encouraging Acceptable Behavior
- Provide your puppy with lots of appropriate toys (see “Dog Toys and How to Use Them”).
- Rotate your puppy’s toys. Puppies, like babies, are often more interested in unfamiliar or novel objects. Put out four or five toys for a few days, then pick those up and put out four or five different ones.
- Experiment with different kinds of toys. When you introduce a new toy to your puppy, watch him to make sure he won’t tear it up and ingest the pieces.
- Consider the various types of toys that can be stuffed with food. Putting tidbits of food inside chew toys focuses your puppy’s chewing activities on those toys instead of on unacceptable objects.
- If your puppy is teething, try freezing a wet washcloth for him to chew on.
What Not to Do
Never discipline or punish your puppy after the fact. If you discover a chewed item even minutes after he’s chewed it, you’re too late to administer a correction. Animals associate punishment with what they’re doing at the time they’re being punished. A puppy can’t reason that, “I tore up those shoes an hour ago and that’s why I’m being scolded now.” Some people believe this is what a puppy is thinking because he runs and hides or because he “looks guilty.” “Guilty looks” are canine submissive postures that dogs show when they’re threatened. When you’re angry and upset, the puppy feels threatened by your tone of voice, body postures and/or facial expressions, so he may hide or show submissive postures. Punishment after-the-fact will not only fail to eliminate the undesirable behavior, but could provoke other undesirable behaviors, as well.
Other Reasons for Destructive Behavior
In most cases, destructive chewing by puppies is nothing more than normal puppy behavior. Adult dogs, however, can exhibit destructive behaviors for a variety of reasons, which can occasionally be the cause of chewing problems in puppies, as well. Examples include separation anxiety, fear-related behaviors and attention-getting behavior. Contact a professional animal behaviorist for more information. Click here for recommendations.
When puppies play with each other, they use their mouths. Therefore, puppies usually want to bite or “mouth” hands during play or when being petted. With puppies, this is rarely aggressive behavior in which the intent is to do harm. Because puppies are highly motivated to exhibit this type of behavior, attempts to suppress it or stop it are unlikely to be successful unless you give your puppy an alternative behavior. The goals of working with this normal puppy behavior are to redirect your puppy’s desire to put something in her mouth onto acceptable chew toys and to teach her to be gentle when a hand is in her mouth.
Encourage Acceptable Behavior
Redirect your puppy’s chewing onto acceptable objects by offering her a small treat whenever you pet her. This technique can be especially effective when children want to pet her. As you or the child reach out to scratch her behind the ears (not over the head) with one hand, offer the treat with the other. This will not only help your puppy learn that people and petting are wonderful, but will also keep her mouth busy while she’s being petted. Alternate which hand does the petting and which one has the treat. At first, you may need to pet or scratch your puppy for short periods of time, since the longer she’s petted, the more likely she is to get excited and start to nip.
Discourage Unacceptable Behavior
You must also teach your puppy to be gentle with hands, and that nipping results in unpleasant consequences for her. Teach your puppy that nipping “turns off” any attention and social interaction with you. After a nip, look your puppy right in the eye, and yell “OUCH” as though you’ve been mortally wounded, then ignore her. Leave the room if you must, but ignore her until she’s calm, then try the treat-and-petting method again. It’s even better if you can coax your puppy into a sitting position using food. It may take many repetitions for her to understand what’s expected.
Nipping and mouthing hands can also be discouraged by loosely holding your puppy’s lower jaw between your thumb and forefinger after she’s taken your hand in her mouth. Don’t hurt her by squeezing too hard, just gently hang on so that wherever her mouth goes, your hand hangs on. This will quickly become tiresome and she’ll eventually pull away. After several seconds, release her jaw, but continue to offer her your hand. If she licks or ignores it, praise, pet and offer a tidbit. If she closes her mouth on your hand again, repeat the procedure.
A third alternative is to wear cotton gloves coated with a substance with an unpleasant taste such as “Bitter Apple.” In this way, your puppy will learn that “hands in mouth taste bad.” For this method to work, every time she nips your hand she must experience this bad taste. The possible disadvantage to this method is that your puppy may learn “hands with gloves taste bad and those without gloves don’t.”
Remember that any of these three methods will probably not be effective unless you work hard to teach your puppy the right behavior by offering her an acceptable chew toy.
When your puppy jumps up on you, she wants attention. Whether you push her away or block the jump by raising your knee towards your chest, she’s being rewarded for jumping up (even though it’s negative attention, she’s still getting attention). When your puppy jumps up: Fold your arms in front of you, turn away from her and say “off.” Continue to turn away from her until all four of her feet are on the ground, then quietly praise her and give her a treat. If she knows the “sit” command, give the command when all four of her feet are on the ground, then quietly praise her and give her a treat her while she’s in the sitting position.
When you begin to praise her, if she begins to jump up again, simply turn away and repeat step two, above. Remember to keep your praise low-key. When your puppy realizes that she gets no attention from you while she’s jumping up, but does get attention when she stops jumping up and sits, she’ll stop jumping up. Remember, once you’ve taught her to come and sit quietly for attention, you must reward her behavior. Be careful not to ignore her when she comes and sits politely, waiting for your attention.
What Not To Do
Attempts to tap, slap or hit your puppy in the face for nipping or jumping up are almost guaranteed to backfire. Several things may happen, depending on your puppy’s temperament and the severity of the correction:
- She could become “hand-shy” and cringe or cower whenever a hand comes toward her face.
- She could become afraid of you and refuse to come to you or approach you at all.
- She could respond in a defensive manner and attempt to bite you to defend herself.
- She could interpret a mild slap as an invitation to play, causing her to become more excited and even more likely to nip.
Never play “tug-of-war” or wrestling games with your puppy if you’re having a nipping problem. These types of games encourage out-of-control behavior, grabbing, lunging and competition with you. These aren’t behaviors you want her to learn.
A Note About Children And Puppies
It’s very difficult for children under eight or nine years old to practice the kind of behavior modification outlined here. Children’s first reaction to being nipped or mouthed by a puppy is to push the puppy away with their hands and arms. This will be interpreted by the puppy as play and will probably cause the puppy to nip and mouth even more. Dogs should never be left alone with children under ten and parents should monitor closely all interactions between their children and dogs.
Animals that live in groups, like dogs, establish a social structure within the group called a dominance hierarchy. This dominance hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among pack members. Dogs also establish territories, which they may defend against intruders or rivals. This social and territorial nature affects their behavior when a new dog is introduced to their household.
- Choose a Neutral Location: Introduce the dogs in a neutral location so that your resident dog is less likely to view the newcomer as a territorial intruder. Each dog should be handled by a separate person. With both dogs on a leash, take them to an area with which neither is familiar, such as a park or a neighbor’s yard. If you frequently walk your resident dog in a park near your house, she may view that park as her territory, so choose another site that’s unfamiliar to her. We recommend bringing your resident dog with you to the shelter and introducing the dogs before adopting the new dog.
- Use Positive Reinforcement: From the first meeting, you want both dogs to expect “good things” to happen when they’re in each other’s presence. Let them sniff each other, which is normal canine greeting behavior. As they do, talk to them in a happy, friendly tone of voice – never use a threatening tone of voice. Don’t allow them to investigate and sniff each other for a prolonged time, as this may escalate to an aggressive response. After a short time, get both dogs’ attention, and give each dog a treat in return for obeying a simple command, such as “sit” or “stay.” Take the dogs for a walk and let them sniff and investigate each other at intervals. Continue with the “happy talk,” food rewards and simple commands.
- Be Aware of Body Postures: One body posture that indicates things are going well is a “play-bow.” One dog will crouch with her front legs on the ground and her hind end in the air. This is an invitation to play that usually elicits friendly behavior from the other dog. Watch carefully for body postures that indicate an aggressive response, including hair standing up on the other dog’s back, teeth-baring, deep growls, a stiff legged gait or a prolonged stare. If you see such postures, interrupt the interaction immediately by calmly and positively getting each dog interested in something else. For example, both handlers can call their dogs to them, have them sit or lie down and reward each with a treat. The dogs will become interested in the treats which will prevent the situation from escalating into aggression. Try letting the dogs interact again, but this time for a shorter time period and/or at a greater distance from each other.
- Taking The Dogs Home: When the dogs seem to be tolerating each other’s presence without fearful or aggressive responses, and the investigative greeting behaviors have tapered off, you can take them home. Whether you choose to take them in the same, or different vehicles, will depend on their size, how well they ride in the car, how trouble-free the initial introduction has been and how many dogs are involved.
If you have more than one resident dog in your household, it may be best to introduce the resident dogs to the new dog one at a time. Two or more resident dogs may have a tendency to “gang up” on the newcomer.
Introducing Puppies to Adult Dogs
Puppies usually pester adult dogs unmercifully. Before the age of four months, puppies may not recognize subtle body postures from adult dogs signaling that they’ve had enough. Well-socialized adult dogs with good temperaments may set limits with puppies with a growl or snarl. These behaviors are normal and should be allowed. Adult dogs that aren’t well-socialized, or that have a history of fighting with other dogs, may attempt to set limits with more aggressive behaviors, such as biting, which could harm the puppy. For this reason, a puppy shouldn’t be left alone with an adult dog until you’re confident the puppy isn’t in any danger. Be sure to give the adult dog some quiet time away from the puppy, and perhaps, some individual attention as described above.
When to Get Help
If the introduction of a new dog to a household doesn’t go smoothly, contact a professional animal behaviorist immediately. Dogs can be severely injured in fights, and the longer the problem continues, the harder it can be to resolve. Conflicts between dogs in the same family can often be resolved with professional help. Punishment won’t work and could make things worse.
What Is Canine Rivalry?
Canine rivalry refers to repeated conflicts between dogs living in the same household. Animals that live in social groups establish a social structure within the group called a dominance hierarchy. This dominance hierarchy normally serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among group members. Conflicts arise between household dogs when there is instability in the hierarchy, that is, when the ranking or social position of each dog is not clear or is in contention. Initially, dogs may only snarl, growl or snap without injuring each other. Sometimes, however, the conflict may intensify into prolonged bouts of dangerous fighting which may result in one or both dogs being injured.
Getting Professional Help
Ongoing canine rivalry is potentially dangerous since the dogs could be severely injured, as well as family members, if they become the object of redirected aggression when the dogs are fighting. Because resolving rivalry problems requires managing the dogs’ somewhat complex social behaviors, it’s often necessary for owners to obtain assistance from a professional animal behaviorist. Animal behaviorists are trained to observe, interpret and modify animal behavior.
Why Conflict Occurs
Conflicts between household dogs usually develop when the ranking of each dog is not clear or is in contention. This may occur if:
- You attempt to treat both dogs equally, rather than supporting the dominant dog’s position.
- You interrupt or interfere with the dominant dog’s ability to control the preferred items (food, toys, beds, attention) in his environment by giving preferential treatment to the subordinate dog(s).
- You prevent the dogs from expressing the signals and ritualized behaviors that establish dominance.
- A new animal has been introduced into the house.
- A resident animal has died or no longer lives in the house.
- A resident animal is re-introduced after an absence.
- A young, subordinate dog reaches social maturity (usually between ten months and two years of age).
- A dominant dog ages and cannot maintain his dominant status.
Understanding Dominance Behavior and Social Structure
You cannot choose which dog you want to be dominant. The dogs will establish this among themselves, and any attempt to interfere may result in increased conflict. Where each dog ranks in the dominance hierarchy is determined by the outcomes of interactions between the dogs themselves.
Determining which dog is dominant: Individual personality, as well as breed characteristics, are important factors. The dog that demands to be fed first, petted first and through the door first is usually the dominant dog. Remember that the rankings may be different in different contexts (one dog may control food, while another may control resting places) and they may change over time.
How dominance is established: Dogs usually establish their dominance hierarchies through a series of ritualized behaviors that include body postures and vocalizations that don’t result in injury. One dog may “stand over” another by placing his paws or neck on the shoulders of the other. However, because of past experiences, inadequate socialization or genetic temperament tendencies some dogs may, with very little warning, escalate dominance displays into aggression.
Dealing With Rivalry Problems
- If the dogs involved are intact males or females, spay or neuter both dogs.
- Determine each dog’s dominance status relative to each other. Remember, this ranking is based on the behavior of the dogs, and not what ranking you prefer.
- Support the dominance hierarchy. You need to support whatever dominance hierarchy or “pecking order” your dogs establish for themselves. Don’t undermine their hierarchy by attempting to treat them equally or by preventing the dominant dog from asserting his position. Dominant dogs can, and should, be allowed to take toys away from subordinate dogs, to push in to receive attention and petting from the owner, to control favorite sleeping places, toys and other valuable resources (from the dogs’ point of view). Support the dominant dog’s status by allowing this to occur.
- Never, under any circumstances, attempt to break up a fight between dogs by grabbing their collars or inserting any of your body parts between them. If you feel you must break up a fight between dogs, do so by squirting them with a hose (outdoors), or squirting them with a vinegar/water mixture from a squirt bottle (indoors).
With the help of a professional animal behaviorist, elicit and reinforce non-aggressive behaviors using counter conditioning and desensitization techniques. These procedures must be designed and tailored to specifically meet the needs of each individual case and require professional in-home help.
You should be aware that if you respond to this type of problem inappropriately, you run the risk of intensifying the problem and potentially causing injury to either yourself, your dogs or both.
Punishment Will Not Solve the Problem
Punishment can actually make the problem worse. We encourage you to seek assistance from your veterinarian regarding: spaying and neutering your pet; evaluating the health status of your dogs; and for a referral to a professional animal behaviorist. Click here for recommendations.
Rivalry and fighting problems can usually be resolved so that you and your dogs can live together in peace.
What does “dominance” mean?
In order to understand why your dog is acting “dominant,” it’s important to know some things about canine social systems. Animals who live in social groups, including domestic dogs and wolves, establish a social structure called a dominance hierarchy within their group. This hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among group members. A position within the dominance hierarchy is established by each member of the group, based on the outcomes of interactions between themselves and the other pack members. The more dominant animals can control access to valued items such as food, den sites and mates. For domestic dogs, valued items might be food, toys, sleeping or resting places, as well as attention from their owner.
In order for your home to be a safe and happy place for pets and people, it’s best that the humans in the household assume the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy. Most dogs assume a neutral or submissive role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance. A dominant dog may stare, bark, growl, snap or even bite when you give him a command or ask him to give up a toy, treat or resting place. Sometimes even hugging, petting or grooming can be interpreted as gestures of dominance and, therefore, provoke a growl or snap because of the similarity of these actions to behaviors that are displayed by dominant dogs. Nevertheless, a dominant dog may still be very affectionate and may even solicit petting and attention from you.
You may have a dominance issue with your dog if:
- He resists obeying commands that he knows well.
- He won’t move out of your way when required.
- He nudges your hand, takes you’re arm in his mouth or insists on being petted or played with (in other words, ordering you to obey him).
- He defends his food bowl, toys or other objects from you.
- He growls or bares his teeth at you under any circumstances.
- He won’t let anyone (you, the vet, the groomer) give him medication or handle him.
- He gets up on furniture without permission and won’t get down.
- He snaps at you.
What to do if you recognize signs of dominance in your dog:
If you recognize the beginning signs of dominance aggression in your dog, you should immediately consult an animal behavior specialist. Click here for recommendations. No physical punishment should be used. Getting physical with a dominant dog may cause the dog to intensify his aggression, posing the risk of injury to you. With a dog that has shown signs of dominance aggression, you should always take precautions to ensure the safety of your family and others who may encounter your dog by:
- Avoiding situations that elicit the aggressive behavior.
- During the times your dog is acting aggressively, back off and use “happy talk” to relieve the tenseness of the situation.
- Supervise, confine and/or restrict your dog’s activities as necessary, especially when children or other pets are present.
- When you’re outdoors with your dog, use a “Gentle Leader” or muzzle.
- When you’re indoors with your dog, control access to the entire house by using baby gates and/or by crating your dog. You can also use a cage-type muzzle, or a “Gentle Leader” and leash, but only when you can closely supervise your dog.
Dominance aggression problems are unlikely to go away without your taking steps to resolve them. Treatment of dominance aggression problems should always be supervised by an animal behavior specialist, since dominant aggressive dogs can be potentially dangerous.
The following techniques (which don’t require a physical confrontation with your dog) can help you gain some control:
- Spay or neuter your dog to reduce hormonal contributions to aggression. NOTE: After a mature animal has been spayed or neutered, it may take time for those hormones to clear from the system. Also, long-standing behavior patterns may continue even after the hormones or other causes no longer exist.
- Have your dog obey at least one command (such as “sit”) before you pet him, give him dinner, put on his leash or throw a toy for him. If your dog doesn’t know any commands or doesn’t perform them reliably, you’ll first have to teach him, using positive reinforcement, and practice with him daily. You may need to seek professional help if your dog is not obeying each time you ask after two to three weeks of working on a command.
- Don’t feed your dog people food from the table and don’t allow begging.
- Don’t play “tug of war,” wrestle or play roughly with your dog.
- Ignore barking and jumping up.
- Don’t allow your dog on the furniture or your bed, as this is a privilege reserved for leaders. If your dog growls or snaps when you try to remove him from the furniture, use a treat to lure him off. Otherwise, try to limit his access to your bed and/or furniture by using baby gates, a crate, or by closing doors.
- Always remember to reward good behavior.
- Consult your veterinarian about other medical or holistic treatments.
- Obedience classes are helpful in establishing a relationship between you and your dog in which you give commands and he obeys them. Obedience classes alone, however, won’t necessarily prevent or reduce dominance aggression.
A Note about Children and Dogs
From your dog’s point of view, children, too, have a place in the dominance hierarchy. Because children are smaller and get down on the dog’s level to play, dogs often consider them to be playmates, rather than superiors. Small children and dogs should not be left alone together without adult supervision. Older children should be taught how to play and interact appropriately and safely with dogs; however, no child should be left alone with a dog, especially one who has displayed signs of aggression.
Dog aggression is any behavior meant to intimidate or harm a person or another animal. Growling, baring teeth, snarling, snapping and biting are all aggressive behaviors. Although aggressive behaviors are normal for dogs, they’re generally unacceptable to humans. From a dog’s perspective, there’s always a reason for aggressive behavior. Because humans and dogs have different communication systems, misunderstandings can occur between the two species. A person may intend to be friendly, but a dog may perceive that person’s behavior as threatening or intimidating. Dogs aren’t schizophrenic, psychotic, crazy, or necessarily “vicious,” when displaying aggressive behavior.
Because aggression is so complex, and because the potential consequences are so serious, we recommend that you get professional in-home help from an animal behavior specialist if your dog is displaying aggressive behavior.
Types Of Aggression
Dominance Aggression: Dominance aggression is motivated by a challenge to a dog’s social status or to his control of a social interaction. Dogs are social animals and view their human families as their social group or “pack.” Based on the outcomes of social challenges among group members, a dominance hierarchy or “pecking order” is established (see “Understanding Dominance In Dogs“).
If your dog perceives his own ranking in the hierarchy to be higher than yours, it’s likely that he’ll challenge you in certain situations. Because people don’t always understand canine communication, you may inadvertently challenge your dog’s social position. A dominantly aggressive dog may growl if he is disturbed when resting or sleeping, or if he is asked to give up a favorite spot, such as the couch or the bed. Physical restraint, even when done in a friendly manner, like hugging, may also cause your dog to respond aggressively. Reaching for your dog’s collar, or reaching out over his head to pet him, could also be interpreted by him as a challenge for dominance. Dominantly aggressive dogs are often described as “Jekyll and Hydes” because they can be very friendly when not challenged. Dominance aggression may be directed at people or at other animals. The most common reason for dogs in the same family to fight with each other is instability in the dominance hierarchy (see “Canine Rivalry”).
Fear-Motivated Aggression: Fear-motivated aggression is a defensive reaction and occurs when a dog believes he is in danger of being harmed. Remember that it’s your dog’s perception of the situation, not your actual intent, which determines your dog’s response. For example, you may raise your arm to throw a ball, but your dog, perceiving this to be a threat, may bite you because he believes he is protecting himself from being hit. A dog may also be fearfully aggressive when approached by other dogs.
Protective, Territorial And Possessive Aggression: Protective, territorial and possessive aggression are all very similar, and involve the defense of valuable resources.
Territorial aggression is usually associated with defense of property. However, your dog’s sense of territory may extend well past the boundaries of “his” yard. For example, if you walk your dog regularly around the neighborhood and allow him to urine-mark, to him, his territory may be the entire block!
Protective aggression usually refers to aggression directed toward people or animals that a dog perceives as threats to his family, or pack. Dogs become possessively aggressive when defending their food, toys or other valued objects, such as Kleenex stolen from the trash!
Redirected Aggression: This type of aggression is relatively common, but is a behavior that pet owners may not always understand. If a dog is aroused into an aggressive response by a person or animal that he is prevented from attacking, he may redirect this aggression onto someone else. A common example occurs when two family dogs become excited, bark and growl in response to another dog passing through the front yard. The two dogs, confined behind a fence, may turn and attack each other because they can’t attack the intruder. Predation is usually considered to be a unique kind of aggressive behavior, because it’s motivated by the intent to obtain food, and not primarily by the intent to harm or intimidate.
Dogs differ in their likelihood to show aggressive behavior in any particular situation. Some dogs tend to respond aggressively with very little stimulation. Others may be subjected to all kinds of threatening stimuli and events, and never attempt to bite. The difference in this threshold at which a dog displays aggressive behavior is influenced by both environmental and genetic factors. If this threshold is low, a dog will be more likely to bite. Raising the threshold makes a dog less likely to respond aggressively. This threshold can be raised using behavior modification techniques. How easily the threshold can be changed is influenced by the dog’s gender, age, breed, general temperament, and by whether the appropriate behavior modification techniques are chosen and correctly implemented. Working with aggressive dogs can be potentially dangerous, and should be done only by, or under the guidance of, an experienced animal behavior professional who understands animal learning theory and behavior.
What You Can Do
- First check with your veterinarian to rule out medical causes for the aggressive behavior.
- Seek professional help. An aggression problem will not go away by itself. Working with aggression problems requires in-home help from an animal behavior specialist.
- Take precautions. Your first priority is to keep everyone safe. Supervise, confine and/or restrict your dog’s activities until you can obtain professional help. You’re liable for your dog’s behavior. If you must take your dog out in public, consider a cage-type muzzle as a temporary precaution, and keep in mind that some dogs can get a muzzle off.
- Avoid exposing your dog to situations where he is more likely to show aggression. You may need to keep him confined to a safe room and limit his people-contact.
- If your dog is possessive of food, treats or a certain place, don’t allow him access to those items. In an emergency, bribe him with something better than what he has. For example, if he steals your shoe, trade him the shoe for a piece of chicken.
- Spay or neuter your dog. Intact dogs are more likely to display dominance, territorial and protective aggressive behavior.
What Not To Do
- Punishment won’t help and, in fact, will make the problem worse. If the aggression is motivated by fear, punishment will make your dog more fearful, and therefore more aggressive. Attempting to punish or dominate a dominantly aggressive dog is likely to cause him to escalate his behavior in order to retain his dominant position. This is likely to result in a bite or a severe attack. Punishing territorial, possessive or protective aggression is likely to elicit additional defensive aggression.
- Don’t encourage aggressive behavior. Playing tug-of-war or wrestling games encourages your dog to attempt to “best” you or “win” over you, which can result in the beginning of a dominance aggression problem. When dogs are encouraged to “go get ’em” or to bark and dash about in response to outside noises or at the approach of a person, territorial and protective aggressive behavior may be the result.
Living with a pet can be beneficial to children. Pets can enhance a child’s self-esteem, teach them responsibility and help them to learn empathy. However, children and dogs are not always going to automatically start off with a wonderful relationship. Parents must be willing to teach the dog and the child acceptable limits of behavior in order to make their interactions pleasant and safe.
Selecting A Dog
What age is best? Many people have a “warm fuzzy” image of a puppy and a child growing up together. If you have a young child and are thinking of adopting a puppy (less than one year old) there are a few things you need to consider.
- Time and energy: Puppies require a lot of time, patience, training and supervision. They also require socialization in order to become well-adjusted adult dogs. This means they need to be taken places and exposed to new things and new people. If you have a young child who already requires a lot of care and time, will you have enough time to care for a puppy, as well?
- Safety: Puppies, because they’re babies, are somewhat fragile creatures. A puppy may become frightened, or even injured, by a well-meaning, curious child who wants to constantly pick him up, hug him or explore his body by pulling on his tail or ears.
- Rough play: Puppies have sharp teeth and claws with which they may inadvertently injure a small child. Puppies also tend to jump up on small children and knock them down. All interactions between your child and puppy will need to be closely supervised in order to minimize the chances of either being injured.
- Advantages of getting an adult dog: Adult dogs require less time and attention once they’ve adjusted to your family and household routine, although you’ll still need to spend time helping your new dog with the transition to his new home. You can better gauge how hardy and tolerant an adult dog will be of childish enthusiasm and you can work with your local animal shelter to adopt a dog with a history of getting along well with children. Although puppies can be a lot of fun, and it’s exciting and rewarding to help them grow into wonderful companions, they do require significantly more time to train and supervise than an adult dog.
What breed is best? Although some general statements can be made about specific dog breeds, the characteristics of an individual dog are just as important as a dog’s breed.
- Size: Small breeds of dogs, such as toy or miniature poodles, Chihuahuas or cocker spaniels, may not be good choices for a young child. These small breed dogs are more easily injured than larger dogs and may be more easily frightened by a lot of activity, loud noises and by being picked up and fondled frequently. Frightened dogs tend to snap or bite in order to protect themselves. Larger dogs may be better able to tolerate the activity, noise and rough play that is an inevitable part of living with children.
- Breed type: Some of the sporting breeds, such as Labradors and Golden Retrievers, make good pets for families with children. Breeds that have been selected for protective behavior, may not be as good for families with children. It’s sometimes difficult for this type of dog to comfortably tolerate the many comings and goings of children and their friends, who may be perceived as territorial intruders. Herding breeds are inclined to “herd” children, chasing and nipping at their heels.
Who Will Care for the Dog?
It’s unrealistic to expect a child, regardless of age, to have sole responsibility for caring for a dog. Not only do dogs need basic things like food, water and shelter, they also need to be played with, exercised and trained on a consistent basis. Teaching a dog the rules of the house and helping him become a good companion is too overwhelming a task for a young child. While responsible teenagers may be up to the task, they may not be willing to spend an adequate amount of time with the dog, as their desire to be with their friends usually takes over at this age. If you’re adopting a dog “for the kids,” you must be prepared and willing to be the dog’s primary caretaker.
Starting Off Right
Following are some guidelines to help you start off on the right foot. Remember, small children should never be left alone with a dog or puppy without adult supervision.
- It’s safest for both your child and puppy, or small breed dog, if your child is sitting down whenever he wants to hold the pet. Puppies are squirmy and wiggly and may easily fall out of a young child’s arms and be injured. If held insecurely, a puppy or small breed dog may become frightened and snap or scratch in response. After your child is sitting, you can place the puppy or small breed dog in his arms.
- Have your child offer the puppy a chew toy while he pets the puppy. When puppies are teething, they tend to chew on everything, including hands and arms, so having a chew toy handy will divert the puppy’s teeth away from your child. An added benefit is that the puppy will come to associate pleasant consequences (getting a treat) with being held by your child.
- For larger dogs, have your child sit in your lap and let the dog approach both of you. This way you can control your child and not allow him to get “carried away” with pats that are too rough. You are also there to teach your new dog to treat your child gently.*
Petting and giving affection: Children often want to hug dogs around the neck. Your dog may view this as a threatening gesture, rather than an affectionate one, and may react with a growl, snap or bite. You should teach your child to pet your dog from underneath the dog’s chin, rather than hugging him or reaching over his head. You should also teach your child to avoid staring at, or looking directly into, your dog’s eyes.
Giving Treats: Children tend to become somewhat fearful and anxious when a dog tries to take a treat from their hand. This causes them to jerk their hand away at the last second. The dog may then jump up or lunge to get the treat which may result in the child being knocked down. Have your child place the treat in an open palm, rather than holding it in his fingers. You may want to place a hand underneath your child’s hand to help guide him.
Supervising Play: Children move with quick, jerky movements, have high-pitched voices and often run, rather than walk. All of these behaviors somewhat resemble the behavior of prey animals. Almost all of a dog’s play behaviors are based on predatory behavior. Consequently, your dog may respond to your child’s behavior by chasing him, nipping at his heels, jumping up at him or even trying to knock him down.
At first, your child may need to play quietly around your new dog until he becomes more comfortable and calm and your child has gained more control over the dog. Your dog must also learn that certain behaviors on his part are unacceptable, but he must also be taught what behaviors are the right ones. However, most children under the age of ten are not capable of carrying out these procedures, so it’s helpful to teach your dog a “leave it” command that you can use when play gets too rough. Taking an obedience class together is a good way to teach your dog to respond to commands.
An approach that is not helpful is to punish your dog for his behavior. If he learns that being around children always results in “bad things” happening to him, he may become defensive in their presence.
Possessions: Your dog won’t know the difference between his toys and your child’s toys until you teach him.
- Your child must take responsibility for keeping his playthings out of your dog’s reach.
- If, and only if, you catch your dog chewing on something he shouldn’t, interrupt the behavior with a loud noise, then give him an acceptable chew toy and praise him lavishly when he takes the toy in his mouth.
- Don’t give your dog objects to play with such as old socks, old shoes or old children’s toys that closely resemble items that are off-limits. They can’t tell the difference!
- Dogs can be possessive about their food, toys and space. Although it’s normal for a dog to growl or snap to protect these items, it’s not acceptable. At the same time, children need to learn to respect their dog as a living creature who is not to be teased or purposefully hurt and who needs time to himself. If your dog is growling or snapping at your child for any reason, the situation needs IMMEDIATE attention. Punishing your dog is likely to make matters worse.
The noises and movements you make when you play are very exciting to dogs. When dogs play with other dogs, they often play roughly with their sharp teeth and claws. Sometimes dogs forget that they can’t play the same way with you, and because they don’t have hands, they use their mouths to grab things. A dog can hurt you by accident, just by being too excited.
What you should do: Play gently and calmly and if a dog gets too excited, freeze and walk away. Take some time out to give you both a chance to calm down.
Pain or Sickness
When a dog is in pain, he doesn’t understand where the pain comes from. If you touch him, he may think you are causing the pain and will bite you to stop the pain.
What you should do: If a dog is acting like he is sick or hurt, leave him alone — even if he belongs to your family. Tell an adult, and together you can get medical help for the dog.
A dog will protect anything that’s important to him: his toys; his bed; his food and water bowls; his people; his yard; his house; or his car. If you come near something that a dog feels is off-limits to you, he may bite to make you leave his “property” alone!
What you should (or should not) do: Don’t go into a yard where there’s a dog you don’t know. Don’t reach through a car window or a fence to pet a dog. Don’t pet a dog that’s tied up. Don’t touch a dog’s “property.”
Fear or Surprise
Quick movements and sudden or loud noises are scary for dogs, and they may bite to protect themselves. If a dog thinks you’re a stranger who might hurt him, he may not know how to get away, so he’ll protect himself by biting.
What you should do: When you’re around a dog you don’t know, be quiet and move slowly. Always ask the dog’s owner for permission before you pet him. If the owner isn’t there for you to ask, LEAVE THE DOG ALONE.
Watch and listen for the warnings a dog will give you to let you know when he is upset. If his ears are laid back against his head, or his legs are very stiff, he is probably warning you that he feels threatened and will protect himself if he must. If the hair on his back is standing up, that’s another warning. If a dog is growling or barking with his teeth showing, it means he is ready to bite. A dog’s warning signs mean that you’re doing something he doesn’t like, so stop doing it!
What you should do:
- • Freeze.
- • Count to five, slowly and silently.
- • Move away very slowly, sideways or backwards.
- • If the dog jumps on you, act like a rock by curling up into a ball and covering your face and head with your arms.
What you should NOT do:
- Don’t stare at the dog — that means “I dare you to bite me!”
- Don’t run, jump or wave your arms around.
- Don’t scream.
- Don’t throw anything at the dog or hit him.
If a Dog Bites You
If you’re bitten by a dog, or any animal, you should:
- See your physician.
- Wash the wound with soap and warm water.
- Write down the type, size and color of the animal. Was he wearing a collar? Did it have any identification tags? Where were you when you were bitten? Where did the animal go?
- Report all of this information to the animal control agency in your city or county.
Submissive urination occurs when a dog feels threatened. It may occur when he’s being punished or verbally scolded, or when he’s approached by someone he perceives to be threatening to him. It’s important to remember that this response is based on the dog’s perception of a threat, not the person’s actual intention. Submissive urination may resolve as your dog gains confidence. You can help to build his confidence by teaching him commands and rewarding him for obeying. You should also gradually expose him to new people and new situations and try to make sure all of his new experiences are positive and happy.
Your Dog May Be Submissively Urinating If:
- Urination occurs when he’s being scolded.
- Urination occurs when he’s being greeted.
- Urination occurs when someone approaches him.
- He is a somewhat shy, anxious or timid dog.
- He has a history of rough treatment or punishment after the fact. The urination is accompanied by submissive postures, such as crouching or rolling over and exposing his belly.
What To Do If Your Dog Has A Submissive Urination Problem:
- Take your dog to the vet to rule out medical reasons for the behavior.
- Keep greetings low-key.
- Encourage and reward confident postures from him.
- Give him an alternative to behaving submissively. For example, if he knows a few commands, have him “sit” or “shake” as you approach, and reward him for obeying.
- Avoid approaching him with postures that he reads as dominant, for example:
- Avoid direct eye contact – look at his back or tail instead.
- Get down on his level by bending at the knees rather than leaning over from the waist and ask others to approach him in the same way.
- Pet him under the chin rather than on top of the head.
- Approach him from the side, rather than from the front, and/or present the side of your body to him, rather than your full front.
- Don’t punish or scold him – this will only make the problem worse.
Excitement urination occurs most often during greetings and playtime and is not accompanied by submissive posturing. Excitement urination usually resolves on its own as a dog matures, if it’s not made worse by punishment or inadvertent reinforcement.
What To Do If Your Dog Has An Excitement Urination Problem:
- Keep greetings low-key. Don’t punish or scold him.
- To avoid accidents, play outdoors until the problem is resolved. Take your dog to the veterinarian to rule out medical reasons for the behavior.
- Ignore him until he’s calm.
Dogs may display a variety of behaviors when they’re afraid. A fearful dog will display certain body postures, including lowering his head, flattening his ears back against his head, and tucking his tail between his legs. He may also pant, salivate, tremble and/or pace. A frightened dog may try to escape, may show submissive behaviors (avoidance of eye contact, submissive urinating, rolling over to expose his belly), or he may freeze and remain immobile. Some dogs will bark and/or growl at the object that is causing their fear. In extreme cases of fearfulness a dog may be destructive (out of general anxiety or in an attempt to escape), or he may lose control of his bladder or bowels and, therefore, house soil.
Causes of Fearful Behavior
Determining why your dog is fearful isn’t always essential to treating the fearful behavior, although the reason for his fear will dictate the relative success of the treatment. A dog that is genetically predisposed to general fearfulness, or a dog that was improperly socialized during a critical stage in his development, will probably not respond as well to treatment as a dog that has developed a specific fear in response to a specific experience. It’s essential, however, to first rule out any medical causes for your dog’s fearful behavior. Your first step should be to take your dog to your veterinarian for a thorough medical evaluation.
What You Can Do
Most fears won’t go away by themselves, and if left untreated, may get worse. Some fears, when treated, will decrease in intensity or frequency but may not disappear entirely. Once medical reasons have been ruled out, the first step in dealing with your dog’s fearful behavior is to identify what triggers his fear. If he is afraid of startling noises see “Fear Of Noises.” If he is afraid of being left alone, see “Separation Anxiety.” Most fears can be treated using desensitization and counter conditioning techniques, which require a lot of time and patience. You may need help from a professional animal behavior specialist to help you with these.
- Begin by exposing your dog to a very low level or small amount of whatever it is that’s causing his fear. For example, if he is afraid of bicycles, start with a bicycle placed at a distance of 100 feet from your dog.
- Reward him for calm, non-fearful behavior in the presence of the bicycle. Gradually move the bicycle closer to him. As long as your dog remains relaxed, reward him with treats and praise. If at any point he becomes anxious, move the bicycle further away and proceed at a slower pace.
- When your dog can remain relaxed in the presence of a stationary bicycle, move the bicycle 100 feet away again, but have someone ride it slowly by him. Again, gradually increase the proximity of the slowly moving bicycle, rewarding your dog for remaining calm and relaxed. Repeat this procedure as many times as necessary, gradually increasing the speed of the moving bicycle.
- This process may take several days, weeks or even months. You must proceed at a slow enough pace that your dog never becomes fearful during the desensitization process.
Counter conditioning works best when used along with desensitization and involves pairing the fear stimulus with an activity or behavior incompatible with the fear behavior.
- Using the desensitization technique example described previously, while your dog is exposed to the bicycle, ask him to perform some obedience exercises, such as “sit” and “down.” Reward him for obeying and continue to have him obey commands as the bicycle is moved closer to him.
- If your dog doesn’t know any commands, teach him a few using treats and praise. Don’t ever use punishment, collar corrections or scolding to teach him the commands, as the point of counter conditioning is for him to associate pleasant things with the thing that frightens him.
Some of the things that frighten dogs can be difficult to reproduce and/or control. For example, if your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, he may be responding to other things that occur during the storm, such as smells, barometric pressure changes and/or changes in the light. During the desensitization process it’s impossible for you to reproduce all of these factors. If your dog is afraid of men, you may work at desensitizing him, but if an adult man lives in your household and your dog is constantly exposed to him, this can disrupt the gradual process of desensitization.
When To Get Help
Because desensitization and counter conditioning can be difficult to do, and because behavior problems may increase if these techniques are done incorrectly, you may want to get professional, in-home help from an animal behavior specialist. It’s important to keep in mind that a fearful dog that feels trapped or is pushed too far may become aggressive. Some dogs will respond aggressively to whatever it is that frightens them (see “Understanding Aggression In Dogs“). If your dog displays any aggressive behavior, such as growling, snarling, snapping or baring his teeth, stop all behavior modification procedures and seek professional help from an animal behavior specialist as soon as possible.
Consult with Your Veterinarian
Medication may be available that can help your dog feel less anxious for short time periods. Your veterinarian is the only person who is licensed and qualified to prescribe medication for your dog. Don’t attempt to give your dog any over-the-counter or prescription medication without consulting with your veterinarian. Animals don’t respond to drugs the same way people do, and a medication that may be safe for humans could be fatal to your dog. Drug therapy alone won’t reduce fears and phobias permanently. In extreme cases, behavior modification and medication used together may be the best approach.
What Not to Do
- Don’t punish your dog for being afraid. Punishment will only make him more fearful.
- Don’t try to force your dog to experience the object or situation that is causing him to be afraid. For example, if he is afraid of bicycles and you force him to stand in place while bicycles whiz by, he’ll probably become more fearful, rather than less fearful of bicycles.
- Never punish your dog after the fact for destruction or house soiling caused by anxiety or fear. Animals don’t understand punishment after the fact, even if it’s only seconds later. This kind of destruction or house soiling is the result of panic, not misbehavior. Punishment will do more harm than good.
It’s not uncommon for dogs to be frightened of thunder, firecrackers or other loud sounds. These types of fears may develop even though your dog has had no traumatic experiences associated with the sound. Many fear-related problems can be successfully resolved. However, if left untreated, your dog’s fearful behavior will probably get worse.
The most common behavior problems associated with fear of loud noises are destruction and escaping. When your dog becomes frightened, she tries to reduce her fear. She may try to escape to a place where the sounds of thunder or firecrackers are less intense. If, by leaving the yard or going into a certain room or area of the house, she feels less afraid, then the escape or destructive behavior is reinforced because it successfully lessens her fear. For some dogs, just the activity or physical exertion associated with one of these behaviors may be an outlet for their anxiety. Unfortunately, escape and/or destructive behavior can be a problem for you and could also result in physical injury to your dog.
Things that are present in the environment whenever your dog hears the startling noise can, from her viewpoint, become associated with the frightening sound. Over a period of time, she may become afraid of other things in the environment that she associates with the noise that frightens her. For example, dogs that are afraid of thunder may later become afraid of the wind, dark clouds and flashes of light that often precede the sound of thunder. Dogs that are afraid of firecrackers may become afraid of the children who have the firecrackers or may become afraid to go in the backyard, if that’s where they usually hear the noise.
What You Can Do To Help
Create A Safe Place: Try to create a safe place for your dog to go to when she hears the noises that frighten her. But remember, this must be a safe location from her perspective, not yours. Notice where she goes, or tries to go, when she’s frightened, and if at all possible, give her access to that place. If she’s trying to get inside the house, consider installing a dog door. If she’s trying to get under your bed, give her access to your bedroom. You can also create a “hidey-hole” that’s dark, small and shielded from the frightening sound as much as possible (a fan or radio playing will help block out the sound). Encourage her to go there when you’re home and the thunder or other noise occurs. Feed her in that location and associate other “good things” happening to her there. She must be able to come and go from this location freely. Confining her in the “hidey-hole” when she doesn’t want to be there will only cause more problems. The “safe place” approach may work with some dogs, but not all. Some dogs are motivated to move and be active when frightened and “hiding out” won’t help them feel less fearful.
Distract Your Dog: This method works best when your dog is just beginning to get anxious. Encourage her to engage in any activity that captures her attention and distracts her from behaving fearfully. Start when she first alerts you to the noise and is not yet showing a lot of fearful behavior, but is only watchful. Immediately try to interest her in doing something that she really enjoys. Get out the tennis ball and play fetch (in an escape-proof area) or practice some commands that she knows. Give her a lot of praise and treats for paying attention to the game or the commands. As the storm or the noise builds, you may not be able to keep her attention on the activity, but it might delay the start of the fearful behavior for longer and longer each time you do it. If you can’t keep her attention and she begins acting afraid, stop the process. If you continue, you may inadvertently reinforce her fearful behavior.
Behavior Modification: Behavior modification techniques are often successful in reducing fears and phobias. The appropriate techniques are called “counter-conditioning” and “desensitization.” This means to condition or teach your dog to respond in non-fearful ways to sounds and other stimuli that previously frightened her. This must be done very gradually. Begin by exposing her to an intensity level of noise that doesn’t frighten her and pair it with something pleasant, like a treat or a fun game. Gradually increase the volume as you continue to offer her something pleasant. Through this process, she’ll come to associate “good things” with the previously feared sound.
- Make a tape with firecracker noises on it.
- Play the tape at such a low volume that your dog doesn’t respond fearfully. While the tape is playing, feed her dinner, give her a treat or play her favorite game.
- In your next session, play the tape a little louder while you feed her or play her favorite game.
- Continue increasing the volume through many sessions over a period of several weeks or months. If at any time while the tape is playing, she displays fearful behavior, STOP. Begin your next session at a lower volume – one that doesn’t produce anxiety – and proceed more slowly.
If these techniques aren’t used correctly, they won’t be successful and can even make the problem worse. For some fears, it can be difficult to recreate the fear stimulus. For example, thunder is accompanied by changes in barometric pressure, lightening and rain, and your dog’s fearful response may be to the combination of these things and not just the thunder. You may need professional assistance to create and implement this kind of behavior modification program.
Consult Your Veterinarian: Medication may be available which can make your dog less anxious for short time periods. Your veterinarian is the only person who is licensed and qualified to prescribe medication for your dog. Don’t attempt to give your dog any over-the-counter or prescription medication without consulting your veterinarian. Animals don’t respond to drugs the same way people do, and a medication that may be safe for humans could be fatal to your dog. Drug therapy, alone, won’t reduce fears and phobias permanently, but in extreme cases, behavior modification and medication used together might be the best approach.
What Not to Do
- Attempting to reassure your dog when she’s afraid may reinforce her fearful behavior. If you pet, soothe or give treats to her when she’s behaving fearfully, she may interpret this as a reward for her fearful behavior. Instead, try to behave normally, as if you don’t notice her fearfulness.
- Putting your dog in a crate to prevent her from being destructive during a thunderstorm is not recommended. She’ll still be afraid when she’s in the crate and is likely to injure herself, perhaps even severely, while attempting to get out of the crate.
- Don’t punish your dog for being afraid. Punishment will only make her more fearful.
- Don’t try to force your dog to experience or be close to the sound that frightens her. Making her stay close to a group of children who are lighting firecrackers will only make her more afraid, and could cause her to become aggressive in an attempt to escape from the situation.
- Obedience classes won’t make your dog less afraid of thunder or other noises, but could help boost her general confidence.
These approaches don’t work because they don’t decrease your dog’s fear. Merely trying to prevent her from escaping or being destructive won’t work. If she’s still afraid, she’ll continue to show that fear in whatever way she can (digging, jumping, climbing, chewing, barking, howling).
Animal Behavior Specialists
If your dog has severe fears and phobias and you’re unable to achieve success with the techniques we’ve outlined here, you should consult with an animal behavior specialist and your veterinarian. Click here for recommendations.
Dogs with separation anxiety tend to display behaviors that reflect a strong attachment to their owners. This includes following you from room to room, frantic greetings and reacting anxiously to your preparation to leave the house.
Factors that can precipitate a separation anxiety problem:
- A change in the family’s schedule that results in your dog being left alone more often.
- A move to a new house.
- The death or loss of a family member or another family pet.
- A period at a shelter or boarding kennel.
These behaviors are not motivated by spite or revenge, but by anxiety. Punishment will only make the problem worse. Separation anxiety can be resolved by using counter conditioning and desensitization techniques.
Without realizing it, we often pay more attention to our dogs when they’re misbehaving. Dogs who don’t receive a lot of attention and reinforcement for appropriate behavior may engage in destructive behavior when their owners are present as a way to attract attention – even if the attention is “negative,” such as a verbal scolding.
- Make sure your dog gets a lot of positive attention every day – playing, walking, grooming or just petting.
- Ignore (as much as possible) bad behavior and reward good behavior. Remember to reward your dog with praise and petting when he’s playing quietly with appropriate toys.
- Make his favorite “off-limits” chew objects unattractive or unavailable to him.
- Teach your dog a “drop it” command so when he does pick up an “off-limits” object, you can use your command and praise him for complying. The best way to teach “drop it” is to practice having him exchange a toy in his possession for a tidbit of food.
Fears and Phobias
Your dog’s destructive behavior may be a response to something he fears. Some dogs are afraid of loud noises (see “Fear of Noises“). Your dog’s destructive behavior may be caused by fear if the destruction occurs when he’s exposed to loud noises, such as thunderstorms, firecrackers or construction sounds, and if the primary damage is to doors, doorframes, window coverings, screens or walls.
- Provide a “safe place” for your dog. Observe where he likes to go when he feels anxious, then allow access to that space or create a similar one for him to use when the fear stimulus is present.
- Don’t comfort your dog when he’s behaving fearfully. Try to get him to play with you or respond to commands he knows and give him praise and treats when he responds to you instead of to the fear stimulus.
- Don’t crate your dog unless he’s thoroughly crate-trained and considers the crate his safe place. If you put him in a crate to prevent destruction and he’s not crate-trained, he may injure himself and/or destroy the crate.
What Not to Do
Punishment is not effective in resolving destructive behavior problems and can even make them worse. Never discipline your dog after the fact. If you discover an item your dog has chewed minutes, or even seconds later, it’s too late to administer a correction. Your dog doesn’t understand that, “I chewed those shoes an hour ago and that’s why I’m being scolded now.” People often believe their dog makes this connection because he runs and hides or “looks guilty.” Dogs don’t feel guilt, rather they display submissive postures like cowering, running away or hiding, when they feel threatened by an angry tone of voice, body posture or facial expression. Your dog doesn’t know that he’s done something wrong; he only knows that you’re upset. Punishment after the fact will not only fail to eliminate the undesirable behavior, but may also provoke other undesirable behaviors, as well.