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Proper (and Improper) Handling of Young Puppies

Written by Leah Roberts
Taken from the Orlando Dog Training and Behavior Examiner and can be seen here.

Puppies are very impressionable, especially in the critical socialization window of 6-12 weeks of age.  This is considered such a crucial phase because it is the most valuable time to teach puppies that they can trust people, thereby preventing fear and aggression issues later in life.  Yet there are trainers and other canine professionals out there giving absolutely horrendous advice to new puppy owners, instructing them to do things that will essentially accomplish the opposite and promote distrust of humans. 

The most potentially damaging advice comes from those who attribute dog behavior to the dominance or alpha/wolf pack theory.  This explanation of behavior was originally created by Dr. David Mech in a study of captive wolf packs, but he himself has since admitted that the concept is flawed and untrue.  And even if it did apply to wolves, Dr. Ian Dunbar, father of positive reinforcement-based puppy training, states:  "Since humans share roughly the same amount of DNA with chimps as dogs do with wolves, trying to train dogs by studying wolf behavior is like learning how to raise a child by watching chimps to see how they do it." 

The myth of the "dominant" puppy

Puppies are not willful, stubborn or dominant.  They are simply curious, free-spirited and untrained.  A puppy is not concerned about his status, but simply wishes to behave in ways that are fun and rewarding for him.   If you want to pick him up and he's busy exploring, he's probably going to complain and squirm to get away.

Some traineres and/or vets advise people to force the reluctant puppy into a submissive position, pinning him on his back or side in an "alpha roll" until he quietly submits.  This is supposed to address and suppress that mythical goal your puppy has ot taking over the world.  What it actually does is frighten the confused puppy and teach him that you can be mean to him for no reason.  When a puppy is on his back, he instinctively feels vulnerable.  Melissa Alexander says in the article History and Misconceptions about Dominance Theory, "A wolf would flip another wolf against his will ONLY if he were planning to kill it.  Can you imagine what a forced alpha roll does to the psyche of our dogs?"

Puppies should love being handled

To prevent aggression issues in adulthood, a puppy should learn that human touch is not threatening; instead, human handling should signal only good things happening.  That puppy struggling to go investigate an interesting scent may change his mind about being lifted on your lap if he's offered a yummy treat at the same time.

Teach your puppy that he is safe whenever your hands are on his body.  Play with his ears, his feet, his tail, rub his thighs, massage his gums, all in a gentle, easy and fun manner.  If he has a problem with any kind of touch, pair it with treats and do it only briefly at first.  The goal is for him to learn to happily anticipate even those touches that may initially make him nervous.  If the peanut butter appears when you touch his paws, eventually he should start to allow and even enjoy longer and longer foot massages.

Though you should never forcefully pin a puppy, it is important for him to learn that he is safe with you even in his most vulnerable position.  Cradle him on his back lovingly, giving belly rubs, treats, and soft praise.  Some puppies automatically melt in that position, and others may take more gentle convincing that cradling can be as rewarding to them as exploring.

Rough stuff is never required

Unless it's a case of emergency, like grabbing the pup to prevent him from jumping out of a shopping cart, you should never handle him forcefully.  If he's nipping, as normal puppies usually do, there are effective and humane ways to deal with it that do NOT include holding his mouth shut, shoving your fingers down his throat, or any other unpleasant and painful methods that are sometimes advised.  Additionally, there is never any reason to yell, growl, shake, or otherwise physically intimidate a puppy.  If he is doing something "bad," it's just because he hasn't been taught what you want him to do yet.  Be gentle, kind and patient with him, and teach him what to DO instead of what NOT to do.  It's far more effective.

The concept of true leadership gets lost in the mythology of dominance theory.  Dogs need structure, guidance and limits in their lives, just like children do.  But as in the case of raising children, science discovered years ago that the least effective and most counter-productive way to provide leadership is by the use of bullying and violence. 

The best investment you can make in your future with your puppy is to take him to a well-run puppy class led by a modern, science-based trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques.  That way you can learn how to communicate with him, teach him basic house manners, and develop a healthy mutual respect for each other.  If you live in the Orlando area, visit Dog Willing Positive Training Solutions for both Puppy Classes and Puppy Socials.  In other areas, you can find a good training class at the Truly Dog Friendly trainers roster.

Interview your prospective trainer carefully.  If you hear the words "alpha" or "dominance," or if force-training tools such as choke, spike/prong or shock collars are required, go elsewhere.  Your puppy's future as a well-socialized, trusting and trustworthy dog depends on it.


The information contained in this document is the property of the author, Leah Roberts and is re-printed with permission.

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