The Importance of Puppy Socialisation and Training

The most common and the most serious dog behaviour problem we deal with is aggression towards people and dogs. Lack of early socialisation is the cause of most of these problems.

Recently I had a telephone call from a distressed client whose 155lb Newfoundland, Bert, had so distressed her through his bad behaviour that she was in semi trauma. This case in itself, is not an unusual one at the Canine & Pet Behaviour Centre. Many people call each week to describe a difficult or dangerous dog which is upsetting family life.

The culprit of most peoples’ dilemma is a mixture of misinformation, inexperience, ignorance of the species and in this case, relying on the wrong advice of a particular breeder who is less well informed than the client they are advising.

What is a dog breeder?

Dog breeders are people who have taken up the challenge of improving breeds of dogs by physical appearance and temperament by KC rules.

The improvement is often a contentious issue even among quality breeders themselves. I am an ex-breeder and show exhibitor so I understand the desire to enthuse and take part in the enjoyable pastime of the dog show. I attend Crufts each year and am surrounded by hundreds of dogs of every breed daily so as a dog behaviorist I see some bizarre behaviour, and I mean, of the handlers not the dogs.

Thousands of dogs, including pedigree ones, are needlessly euthanased each year when they have generally been bred with a good temperament but they have been inadequately socialised when very young.

A Dog Behaviour Problem Case

I started off with Bert, the Newfoundland, because his particular Breeder had advised my clients, Mr & Mrs Harding, not to let their new puppy off the lead for exercise until he was nine months of age.

Bert is a beautiful well bred male pup who no doubt is a good show specimen. Unfortunately he has overwhelming dominating characteristics with all species he meets, including people and a penchant for chasing and grabbing dogs, especially small ones. He causes chaos in the home when visitors arrive and a great deal more with the furnishings. The owners have had a Newfoundland before and are intelligent people. However they did follow the breeder’s advice and kept Bert on a lead until nine months to prevent damaging his bone structure. This is mad advice to say the least.

When, with some trepidation, they did release him at the age of nine months, he went mad with excitable erratic play, having fun and employing bully boy tactics on all living creatures around him.

He has since spent a further 12 months on the lead so I must presume that his skeletal structure has so improved that he can now chase, squash and collect dogs by the mouthful. His idea of play is to torment all he meets.

Bert, by the way, has been banned from two kennels for grabbing the staff – i.e. excessive mouthing attached to 155 lbs of dog! He now stays with me and he doesn’t attack the staff nor is he malicious towards my staff. He has on occasion grabbed a tee shirt and ripped it playing tug of war games when it was attached to my kennel man, but we know that Bert is a lovable, huge, bouncy dog who is being wildly playful. It is his size that makes modifying his Behaviour just a touch difficult.

Big Dog Jumps Up – Result We Get Knocked Over

Mr & Mrs Harding listed the following on their behaviour profile form presented to me:

Excessive: boisterousness, barking, jumping up, mouthing, biting, aggression to dogs and some people, ignoring all commands, mad in the car, stealing food, furniture destruction, refusing to obey any commands and so it went on…..

At nearly two years of age Bert is still on a lead because to let him off would without doubt place Mr & Mrs Harding in the courts with chance of prison or a hefty fine and Bert maybe destroyed under the dangerous dogs act 1991. But why?

Because this breeder obsessively believes that a Newfoundland’s bone structure will be impaired if let off the lead. Will it? I believe not. If it will, why are they breeding dogs which are so much in need of formative convalescent care? Is the breed too heavy or is it deficient in bone density for its weight? I rang two Newfy breeders who told me that they advised socialisation immediately not at nine months. That was a relief and I realised that this was not common advice about keeping a dog confined on a lead for so long.

I have trained many young Newfoundlands for obedience without ever hearing of them needing to be formally exercised in this most restrictive manner. But that said, my main query is why is this particular breeder of Newfoundlands, with many years experience in the breed and shows, was so ignorant of early canine socialisation? If a breeder cannot by example show the pet owning public the way forward in pedigree dog care then the euthanasia rate will continue unabated.

It’s a part of the breed – training them is a waste of time.

Not wishing to upset Newfy breeders too much let me include some other examples.

Another, not uncommon, statement we hear at this centre is from the breeders of Pointers, Whippets, Basset Hounds and other hunting breeds.

“Oh, they don’t or won’t come back when called. It’s a part of the breed – training them is a waste of time.”

These breeders are placing negative suggestions in the client’s mind. They themselves are not spending the right amount of time training their own puppies during the formative months – including obedience training. They compound the ignorance by passing on this misguided view to their new puppy buyers.

By the way, one of the most obedient dogs I saw performing for a pet owner was a Basset Hound called George he was trained 10 minutes a day by his owner, not a professional dog trainer and George could poo on command in the gutter. Walk beautifully to heel and come on command.

Smart Puppy Training

I do recognise that, many hound breeds – sight or scent oriented – are less malleable for training than say the gun dog breeds but we have found that with early training, from six weeks of age, (demonstrated in the new Smart Puppy Training video by Ross McCarthy for all breeds), obedience is not difficult to achieve. In the film Ross purposely used a Rottweiler with Vicky Lawes the trainer because it is a large breed that requires early rapid training. He did well and is now a young adult happily walking about Berkhamsted Town in Hertfordshire. He is as obedient as any well-mannered dog should be.

Lead by Example

If some breeders imbue the public with psychological negatives that the breed is untrainable then, when owners have difficulties – which many can do at times – they will just give up. That is a bad start for an owner and new puppy and of course, poor presentation of the breed as a family pet. Rescue centres know this story line to well.

I do realise that the good breeders educate themselves in canine husbandry and their keenness and desire to see their stock reared to adulthood is genuine. If not, I would have a queue outside the centre with even more misbehaving pets. I also know that many of the problems presented to me are directly related to the public’s mistreatment or poor care management of their pet. However, this article is about a group of people who have decided to breed dogs and moreover impart advice to clients as self-declared experts. I believe it is incumbent upon them to show the way by example.

When I use the term Breeder, I often think hard because the term means nothing really. It is a person who breeds and possibly shows. Someone who breeds in a flat, a house, a large house, bad kennels, good kennels, backyard, farm and so on. All sorts of people, intelligent people, not so intelligent, profit first, profit last, at a loss but it’s a good job – the variations are endless, so the term has many connotations.

Dog Training & Behavioural Solutions

Back to Bert. Bert’s owners had four hours of behavioural advice and Bert has taken part in obedience training courses. He is slowly being allowed, under supervision, the natural inclination to investigate other dogs. Unfortunately due to his huge size and weight it is a very precarious re introduction to his own kind. He will often pounce on a dog and therefore two trainers and the owners have to be at hand. Also, a supply of trained, stable tempered dogs whose owners don’t mind them being assaulted, growled at and dominated by Bert.

It is quite a tall order and an expensive one too, all for the sake of socialising a puppy between six and twelve weeks and beyond.

Only use food when training and use force or tell the dog off – this is nonsense

The web is full of unsubstantiated advice saying only use food when training and never use any force or tell the dog off – this is unrealistic nonsense. It also is in conflict with Criminal Law under the dangerous dogs act 1991 and in public places were dogs are walked and such a dog that is deemed dangerously out of control – the owner commits a criminal offence.

We use food reward and it works for some dogs – but dogs with acutely embedded behaviours and of this size it will rarely work as a sole motivator. First, Bert is not interested in food at all even his own main meals. He has no interest in toys as a motivator. He gets his joy and motivation by chasing and harassing other dogs.

We used a new psychological programme in the home environment – first getting Bert to work for rewards of touch, attention, meals and much more. He learnt through Mikki Discs the word “No” meant – No.

A rapid dog training course took place using other well trained dogs as stooges. No food was used but praise and touch were proffered. It didn’t always go well as is normal on such rehabilitation and socialisation programmes but we got there in the end.

He learnt a new language of what dog training means. Most of all with our help he learnt that is owner/handler would enforce every command whether he liked it or not.

Bert is now Manageable and a Joyful Dog

I telephoned Mrs Harding and the update is that Bert has stopped grabbing, pushing and mouthing guests to the point of injury. He will now walk without catapulting his 155lbs at every passing dog and he no longer spins around in their little car like a dervish.

Bert’s life style has changed dramatically as consequence of the dog training and Behaviour advice, he gets more walks because he is manageable, he gets attention for actions we want and without doubt he is no longer a confused dog. Mr Mrs Harding have stopped shouting and telling him off many times a day. He’s a joyful dog and he only wants to play with dogs when his owner permits and the other dog can manage his bulk.

Dog Breeders have a choice

If breeders of certain breeds feel that the dogs are so difficult to train or control then why breed and sell them to the unwitting pet owning public in the first place? Dogs do have to come on command, walk properly and not run amok in public places and have to mix with large numbers of dogs and domestic pets.

I hope that the responsible breeders will read this article and remind their less responsible fellow breeders, to get up to date with the need for critical socialisation for our dogs. Most dogs live in ordinary pet homes, not in the world of shows, rural kennels, kitted out cars and the other trappings of the dog hobbyist.

In conclusion let us understand what has gone on.

For the sake of socialisation at six weeks onwards a dog like Bert has taken three trainers, twelve helpers, including owners, three less than confident kennel staff and hundreds of hours of time plus thirty participating dogs, all of whom have been temperament tested to the limit by Bert’s exuberance. The cost in money has been substantial not counting the free time from helpers.

All because of advice from a lady who has had many years breeding, showing and winning with her Newfoundlands but doesn’t understand the basics needs of habituation of the domestic dog.

I believe socialisation to be the most critical factor in pet dog ownership. Dogs can look good. However, dogs must behave well if they are to fit into our complex law driven society. More and more restrictive laws are excluding dogs from public places – it pays us all to not only train our dogs to be well behaved but also to be ambassadors for the right to own a dog because one day it may not be so.

Colin Tennant – Expert Dog Behaviourist – MA Canine Behaviour & Psychology