Raising a puppy: Training your puppy to be people-friendly

Raising and training a pup to be people-friendly is the second most important goal of pet-dog husbandry. Remember, teaching bite inhibition is always the most important goal. But during your pup’s first month at home, urgency dictates that socialization with people is the prime puppy directive.

Your puppy must be fully socialized to people before he is three months old. Many people think puppy classes are the time to socialize puppies to people. Not so. It’s too little, and too late. Puppy classes are a fun night out to continue socializing socialized puppies with people, for therapeutic socialization of puppies with other puppies, and most important, for puppies to learn bite inhibition.

You now have just a few weeks left to socialize your puppy. Unfortunately, your pup needs to be confined indoors until he is at least three months old, when he has acquired sufficient immunity through his puppy shots against the more serious dog diseases. However, even a relatively short period of social isolation at such a crucial developmental stage could all but ruin your puppy’s temperament. Whereas dog-dog socialization may be put on temporary hold until your pup is old enough to go to puppy school and the dog park, you simply cannot delay socialization with people. It may be possible to live with a dog that does not like other dogs, but it is difficult and potentially dangerous to live with a dog that does not like people, especially if the dog doesn’t like some of your friends and family.

Consequently, there is considerable urgency to introduce your puppy to a wide variety of people-to family, friends, strangers, and especially men, and children. As a rule of thumb, your pup needs to meet at least a hundred different people before he is three months old-an average of three unfamiliar people a day.

Don’t put off puppy socialization

From the very first day you get your puppy, the clock is ticking. And time flies! By eight weeks of age, your puppy’s Critical Period of Socialization is already waning and within a month, his most impressionable learning period will start to close. There is so much to teach, and nearly everything needs to be taught right away.

Socialization shapes temperament

The most important quality in a pet dog is his temperament. A dog with a good temperament can be a dream to live with, but a dog with a tricky temperament is a perpetual nightmare. Moreover, regardless of breed or breeding, a dog’s temperament, especially his feelings toward people and other dogs, is primarily the result of his level of socialization during puppyhood-the most important time in a dog’s life. Do not waste this golden opportunity. Solid gold temperaments are forged during this period.

Introduce your puppy to a hundred people

Capitalize on the time your pup needs to be confined indoors by inviting people to your home. Your pup needs to socialize with at least a hundred different people before he is three months old. I know this may sound like a bit of an ordeal, but it is actually quite easy to accomplish. Twice a week, invite different groups of six men to watch sports on TV. Generally, men are pretty easy to attract if you offer television sports programs, pizza, and beer. On several other nights a week, invite different groups of six women for ice cream, chocolate, and good conversation. (Or the other way round-you know your friends better than I do.) On another night of the week, catch up on all of your outstanding social obligations by inviting family, friends, and neighbors for meet-the-puppy dinners. Another tactic is to bring your puppy to visit your office for the day. Or, have a puppy party once a week. Above all, don’t keep your puppy a secret. One of the great things about puppy socialization is that it also does wonders for your social life!

Training your puppy to like and respect people

Compensate for your puppy’s temporary but necessary social vacuum during his first month at home by introducing him to as many people as possible in the safety of his own home. Initial impressions are important, so make sure your puppy’s first meetings with people are pleasant and enjoyable. Have every guest handfeed your puppy a couple of pieces of kibble. Puppies that enjoy the company of people grow up into adult dogs that enjoy the company of people. And dogs that enjoy the company of people are less likely to be frightened or bite.

Make sure to invite a number of different people to your home each day. It is not sufficient for your pup to meet the same people over and over again. Your puppy needs to grow accustomed to meeting strangers-at least three a day. Maintain routine hygiene at all times; have guests leave outdoor shoes outside and wash their hands before handling your puppy.

Give every guest a bag of training treats so that your puppy will be inclined to like them from the outset. Show your guests how you use your puppy’s dinner kibble to lure/reward train him to come, sit, lie down, and roll over. Ask your puppy to come. Praise him profusely as he approaches and give him a piece of kibble when he arrives. Back up and do it again. Repeat the sequence several times.

Each time the puppy approaches, have him sit. Say, “Puppy, Sit,” and slowly move a piece of kibble upwards, from in front of his nose to between his eyes. As the puppy raises his nose to sniff the kibble, he will lower his rear end and sit. If the puppy jumps up, you are holding the food lure too high. Repeat the procedure with the food closer to the pup’s muzzle. When your puppy sits, say, “Good dog,” and give him the kibble.

Now have the puppy come, sit, and lie down. Once the pup sits, say, “Puppy, Down,” and lower a piece of kibble from just in front of his nose to between his forepaws. As the puppy lowers his head to follow the food, he will usually lie down. Don’t worry if your puppy stands instead; just keep the kibble hidden under the palm of your hand until he lies down. As soon as he does so, say, “Good dog,” and give him the food.

Now teach your guests how to train your pup to roll over. Once the pup is lying down, say, “Puppy, Roll over,” and move the kibble from in front of his nose to his shoulder blade and slowly over his backbone. Once the puppy rolls over onto his back, say, “Good dog,” and give him the kibble.

Repeat the come here, sit, down, and roll over sequence until the puppy responds reliably, and then help each guest practice these maneuvers until each one can get the puppy to come, sit, lie down, and roll over three times in succession for a single piece of kibble.

If your puppy is regularly handfed dinner by guests in this manner, he will soon learn to enjoy the company of people and to approach happily and sit automatically when greeting them. And, of course, as an added bonus you will have successfully trained your family and friends to help you train your puppy.

Training your puppy to like and respect kids

The actions and antics of children can be extremely scary to adult dogs that are not socialized with children during puppyhood. Even well-socialized adult dogs may get into trouble, since much that children do excites dogs and incites them to play and chase. Puppies and children must be taught how to behave around each other. This is easy and fun to do, so let’s do it.

For puppy owners with children, the next few months present a bit of a challenge. It is infinitely worthwhile, however, because puppies successfully socialized with children generally develop exceedingly sound temperaments-they have to-and once they mature there is little in life that can surprise or upset them. However, to maximize the relationship between dogs and children and to ensure the dog’s good nature and solid disposition, parents must educate their children as well as the pup. Teach your children how to act around the pup, and teach your pup how to act around children.

Puppy owners without children have a different kind of challenge. You must invite children to your home to meet your puppy, now! However, unless your child-training skills exceed your puppy-training skills, initially invite over children only in small numbers. To start with, invite only a single child. One child is marvelous. Two are fine. But usually, three children plus a puppy quickly reach critical mass and emit levels of energy unmeasurable by any known scientific instrument. And, after all, we are trying to teach the puppy and the children to be calm and mannerly.

First, invite over only well-trained children. Supervise the children at all times. I repeat, supervise the children at all times. (Later on, puppy classes will offer a wonderful source of children who have been trained how to act around puppies and who have been trained how to train puppies.)

Second, invite over your friends’ and relatives’ children-children your puppy is likely to meet regularly or even occasionally as an adult.

Third, invite over neighborhood children. Remember, it is usually neighborhood kids who terrorize your dog through the garden fence, exciting him and inciting him to bark, growl, snap, and lunge. Then, of course, it is the children’s parents, your neighbors, who complain because your dog is barking and harassing their kids. Dogs are less likely to bark at children they know and like, so give your puppy ample opportunity to get to know and like neighborhood children. Similarly, children are less likely to tease a dog they know and like owned by people they know and like, so give the neighborhood kids ample opportunity to get to know and like you and your puppy.

Give children tasty treats such as freeze-dried liver as well as kibble to use as lures and rewards during handling and training exercises. Thus, your puppy will quickly learn to love the presence, and presents, of children.

For the first week, make sure your puppy’s interactions with children are carefully controlled and calm. Thereafter, however, it is important for puppy parties to be festive. Balloons, streamers, and music set the stage, and treats for the puppies plus presents, noise-makers, and costumes for the children set the scene.

It is so important that your puppy be very young when he first encounters and becomes thoroughly accustomed to the noise and activity of children. If your dog is already an adolescent before he sees his first child running and screaming in the park, generally you will be in for trouble because the dog will want to give chase. However, for the lucky puppy who has hosted numerous puppy parties with children (or adults) laughing, screaming, running, skipping, and falling over . . . well, that’s just old hat. Been there, done that! After just a couple of occasions partying with children, it is unlikely anything in real life will be as weird as what has become the snoring-boring, established status quo during puppy parties.

Playing puppy party games

Initially, Round Robin Recalls and Puppy Push-ups are the best games to play. Have the children sit in chairs in a big circle. The first child calls the puppy and has him lie down and sit up three times in succession before sending him to the next child in the circle-“Rover, Go to Jamie,” whereupon Jamie calls the puppy to come and perform three puppy push-ups, and so on. This is a wonderful exercise to practice prompt recalls and lightning-fast control commands-sits and downs.

In subsequent puppy parties, Biscuit Balance and Drop Dead Dog competitions are the name of the game. Give each child praise and a prize, but give special praise and special prizes to the children who can get the dog to balance a dog biscuit on his nose for the longest time-the longest sit-stay-or to get the dog to lie down and play dead for the longest time-the longest down-stay.

As a rule of thumb, before your puppy is three months old he should have been handled and trained (to come, sit, lie down, and roll over) by at least twenty children.

Training your puppy to like and respect men

Many adult dogs are more fearful of men than they are of women. So invite over as many men as possible to handle and gentle your puppy. It is especially important to invite men to socialize with your puppy if no men are living in the household. Make sure you teach all male visitors how to handfeed kibble to lure/reward your pup to come, sit, lie down, and roll over. Add a few extra tasty treats to each male visitor’s bag of training kibble so that your puppy forms a fond and loving bond with men.

Training your puppy to be safe with strangers

Young puppies tend to be universally accepting and tolerant of all people, but, unless taught otherwise, adolescent and adult dogs predictably develop a natural wariness of people they do not know. Introducing your puppy to a hundred people before he is three months old will help make him more accepting of strangers as an adolescent. To remain continually accepting of strangers, however, your adult dog needs to continually meet strangers. Meeting the same people over and over just won’t do it. Your adult dog needs to meet new people each day, so you must maintain your newly improved social life at home or walk your dog regularly.

Shy puppies need help — now!

If your puppy is slow to approach, or doesn’t approach your guests, do something about it now. Certainly your puppy may be shy, but he is also frighteningly undersocialized. It is absolutely abnormal for a two- to three-month-old puppy not to eagerly approach people. You must resolve this problem within one week. Otherwise, it will rapidly get worse-much worse. Moreover, if you let the days slip by, future attempts at therapeutic socialization will become progressively less effective. Please do not ignore your puppy’s fears by rationalizing: “He takes a while to warm to strangers.” If your pup takes a while to warm to strangers now, he will likely be intolerant and scared of strangers as an adult. It is simply not fair to let your puppy grow up to be scared and anxious around people. Please help your puppy today.

The solution is simple and effective, and usually only takes one week. For the next seven days, invite over half a dozen different people each day to handfeed your puppy’s meals. For just one week, your puppy must not receive any food from family members or in his dog bowl. This technique works quickly if your puppy only receives kibble and treats from the hands of household guests. Once the puppy happily accepts food from the hand, your guests may then ask the pup to come, sit, and lie down for each piece of kibble. Your guests will soon become your puppy’s new best friends.

Roughhousing with your puppy

Some people appear to enjoy teasing, manhandling, or roughhousing with puppies. Puppies may find teasing and roughhousing to be positive and enjoyable, or unpleasant and frightening.

Good-natured teasing can be a lot of fun for both parties. Properly done, teasing can do a lot to build a puppy’s confidence by gradually and progressively desensitizing him to all the weird things people, especially men and children, do. On the other hand, relentless teasing can be frustrating and damaging. Malicious teasing is not teasing; it is abuse.

Confidence-building might involve temporarily withholding toys or treats from the pup, temporarily hugging or restraining the pup, making strange noises, or temporarily making mildly scary faces or slightly weird body movements, and then praising the pup and offering a food treat. The food reward builds the puppy’s confidence by reinforcing his acceptance of your scary faces and weird actions. With each repetition you may act a little scarier and weirder before offering a treat. After time, your puppy will confidently accept any human action or mannerism. If the puppy ever refuses a treat, you have stressed him. So stop being silly for while until you have handfeed the pup half a dozen treats in a non-threatening situation.

Puppies have to be trained to enjoy teasing. For example, being relentlessly pursued by a child with outstretched arms can be the scariest thing on the planet for a puppy without prior preparation. However, being pursued round the dining room table by an owner doing monster-walks can be one of the most enjoyable games for a puppy who has been taught to enjoy playing the game. Most dogs love to be chased as long as they have been taught that the game is non-threatening.

Malicious teasing-taking pleasure in the puppy’s displeasure-is just too cruel and silly for words. It is decidedly not funny to cause the puppy discomfort or to make him afraid. You are teaching the pup to distrust people, and it is your fault when, as an adult, the dog reacts defensively. Sadly though, it will be the dog that gets into trouble, not you. Please don’t allow this to happen.

There is a simple test to determine whether or not the puppy finds teasing to be enjoyable. Stop the game, back up, and ask the puppy to come and sit. If the puppy comes promptly with a wagging tail and sits with his head held high, he is probably enjoying the game as much as you are. You may continue playing. If the pup approaches with a wiggly body, lowered head and tail, makes excessive licking motions with his tongue, and lies down or rolls over when asked to sit, you have pushed the puppy too far and he no longer trusts you. Stop playing and rebuild the puppy’s confidence by repeatedly backing up and asking the pup to come and sit for a piece of kibble. If the puppy is slow to approach or doesn’t come when called, he doesn’t like you any more than he likes the evil game you’re playing. Stop playing immediately. Take a long look in a mirror. Reflect on what you’ve done. Then go back and repair the damage by tossing food treats to the puppy until you can get him to confidently and happily come and sit three times in a row.

Because teasing may be beneficial or detrimental, you must regularly and repeatedly test that your puppy is having a good time. Check that the pup will come and sit before starting the game, and stop the game at least every 15 seconds to see if he will still do so. This is a sensible precaution anyway, and checks that you are still in control of the puppy, even when he is excited and having fun.

Similarly, make sure that your family and friends all demonstrate the same ability to get the pup to come, sit, lie down, and roll over before allowing them to play with your puppy. This simple and effective precaution should apply to men, women, and children.

When played intelligently, physical games, such as play-fighting and tug-of-war, are effective bite inhibition and control exercises, and are wonderful for motivating adult dogs during obedience training. In order to be effective and not produce out-of-control dogs, however, these games must be played according to strict rules, the most important being that you are in control at all times. That is, at any time you are able to get your puppy to stop playing and lie down calmly with a single down command. If you do not have this level of control, do not roughhouse with your puppy; you’ll ruin him so quickly. If, on the other hand, you would like to play physical games with your puppy, I suggest you read my booklet on Preventing Aggression.

Excerpted from After You Get Your Puppy, by Ian Dunbar.

Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and the author and star of numerous books and videos on dog behavior and training. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, trainer Kelly Dunbar, and their three dogs. The Dunbars are contributing editors to DogTime.