Dog really is Man's best friend. Raising a puppy can be one of the most rewarding times in your life. Not only are puppies super cute, they can be very loving and loyal, if you give them the chance. Of course, puppyhood is not all cute pictures and tug-o-war. Puppyhood can be incredibly challenging. Not only must you be patient, but you must provide everything for this animal. You must consider every danger for him or her, you must schedule the vet visits and pick up the dog food. You have to socialize, potty train, and bond with this little animal who can't just speak up and tell you how to help. Puppyhood is unique, but there are some areas of life you will keep working on far beyond the puppy years.
We have a wonderfully sweet Boxer/Lab mix named Zoey. She loves EVERYONE when she gets introduced to them properly. That's not to say she would bite anyone or even bark or growl, but she can be very wary of new people who just pop up in her world. The reason I am saying this is because this is her limitation in this situation. Because I have spent a lot of time putting her in situations, taking her new places, and introducing her to new people and things, I know where she is most likely to have an issue.
Food & Treats
Being a boxer mix we have a constant concern for Zoey's long term health and preventing any unnecessary health risks, so we do not give her ANY people food. Occasionally she will get a baby carrot or a piece of popcorn, but she does not eat any food that we prepare for ourselves. No table scraps, no leftovers, nothing. She eats a very high-end dog food that is grain free as well. And the same held true for my 15-year-old Golden Retrievers that recently passed away. I want them all to have the longest and best life possible so giving junk food just isn’t something we do.
So when we have parties I go on high alert about people giving her food. I always mention it to everyone, especially new people and friends of friends that have come over. But man Zoey can pack on the puppy dog eyes when someone is sitting there with a snack in their lap, doing her best to convince them that she can have. So we are very wary of that and making sure we are good dog parents in taking care of our puppy.
And seriously, chocolate kills dogs. A bag of Hershey's kisses may not do it, but these days with more and more artisanal dark chocolates on the market and accessible, those will. We have a candy bowl in our lobby at work year-round, and we have a strong "no chocolate in the bowl" rule. It can hard because, you know, chocolate! But it's what is best for the dogs, and we want to set the best example.
Comfort & Safety
My goal for Zoey was for her to sit calmly when she gets uncomfortable with someone or a new situation and wait until she is introduced to go visit. Having just moved downtown, which you can read about here, we have had a lot of opportunities lately to practice this. What I have done consistently is while we are out walking I keep a close eye on her, and if she alerts to something and starts to back away, drop her ears back, or tuck her tail underneath her I will simply give her the command to Heel (which gets her back to my side) and have her sit calmly until the situation passes.
This does a couple of things for me. First giving her a command helps to get her out of defense drive and moving back towards pack drive where she is a lot calmer. The second thing this does is condition her to move towards me and sit calmly when she gets scared. The key here being consistently and gently moving her into position as soon as she starts feeling anxiety about a situation. One of my greatest fears is that she gets scared of something, backs away from it and ultimately me, pulling out of her collar and running to find cover, never to be seen again. This makes working on this very near and dear to my heart.
Now that we have been working with Zoey for quite a while on reaching our goal she usually responds to things that scare her or take her off guard by moving closer to one of us and sitting calmly. She also responds similarly when we are in the house and friends walk in the door. She stays calmer and waits until they come in to say hi before she goes to visit (which is a huge improvement over her first reaction when she heard the open which was to woof under breath.) We have worked hard to take a limitation that Zoey had and help her be more comfortable with everything so that she responds better unconsciously.
Along the same lines when we are in controlled areas we practice the leash sliding off, or while we are walking I will un-clip her leash and have her walk with me so she gets used to the fact that even if the leash does come undone she isn’t just in a free for all state. In our line of work, we see that a lot. Dogs that are conditioned to thinking that as soon as the leash comes off they no longer have to listen and can run wild.
One of the best ways to teach your dog that the leash coming off doesn’t mean "listening time is over" is every time you take the leash off, you have them sit and wait. You take their leash off them. If they get up to leave you, use their collar to redirect them to the sitting position and tell them to wait again so that you can put their leash away. And once you are ready, you release them with a soft “It’s Okay” so as to tell them they are free to go, but this is calm time. Other times, you can put the leash back on and take it off again so you are changing up the pattern, as well as using a more exuberant “It’s Okay!” to indicate that it's time to play and have some fun! The more you communicate in these ways, the safer your dog will be if something were to go wrong.
Clothes & Costumes
Just like with anything else, dogs can easily (well, usually it's easily) be taught to at least accept being dressed up in clothes. With Zoey, this started very early in her life. Being a super short haired dog she gets cold very easily! So her first introduction to being wrapped in something was usually a blanket that she welcomed because it kept her warm! So from there it was easy to transition to putting on sweaters that would keep her properly warm as she moved around. Then an occasional hat or scarf would be put on her for a minute for our own amusement. Then ultimately putting on multiple pieces of a Halloween costume.
This progression took a while and LOTS of treats, praise and physically distracting her when she went to paw a hat off or to chew on her new sweater. But in the end, she now LOVES getting dressed in an article of clothing. Honestly, if you sit and think about it, dressing a dog in a costume is a bit weird for them. They are already wearing a fur coat that covers them, why are you adding another layer, and strapping a hat to their head that jingles or moves and sways in their peripheral vision.
That is another thing that is so important, teaching your dog not just to accept the clothing, but to help in getting dressed. This is definitely a next level exercise in trust and training with your dog, but it is so helpful for you. The first step to getting your dog to help you get dressed is teaching them to stand. Check out our podcast on Gentle Handling and Restraint for even more tips on this subject. But once you can get your dog to stand still for you, it is time to start picking up their paws one at a time. Just picture how nice it would for you to be able to lay the sweater on their back and simply have them lift a paw up to put in the hole when you grab it instead of wrestling them like an MMA fighter every time. It just takes practice and your patience in showing them what you want.
Once they will stand and let you pick up each paw independently its time to actually grab an article of doggie clothing to slide on them. Choose something loose fitting the first time, so that you don’t have to hunt for arm holes or constrict them unnecessarily. Then use their new found skill of picking up paws to help you get them where they are supposed to go.
Be patient, use LOTS of treats and praise, and don’t push your puppy if they get overwhelmed. This is supposed to be fun for everyone, not just us as dog owners. The dog should enjoy it too. And the more time you take teaching them to enjoy life, the better everyone's life will be.