“Once you have had a wonderful dog, a life without one is a life diminished.” -d.k.
Knowing Johnny Cash has changed my life. No, not the country singer, but the Collie we named after him. He is adorable, wiggly, and all-together the most stubborn Collie available to man. But he is ours, and we love him.
But make no mistake – raising Cash hasn’t been easy. I had to learn a lot of tough lessons and let go of a lot of out-dated advice in order to raise the dog I have today. But now that I have, I couldn’t be happier.He’s one of our greatest joys.
I’ve started to notice the struggles other dog owners face when they get their own puppies. I’ve heard a lot of the same questions and seen a lot of the same issues pop up as those puppies mature into dogs, issues that aren’t cute. They’re frustrating, require obnoxious accommodation, or are even dangerous.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. So, in honor of National Dog Day, I wanted to share a bit of the journey we took with Cash and some ways we used to get him to where he is today. He’s not perfect, but I’m proud of him. He’s the kind of dog I hope everyone gets to have in their lifetime. So here are my tips for raising a puppy you can be proud of too.
Do Your Homework
Oftentimes, people will pick a dog at the pet store or shelter without thinking about how this will alter their lifestyle (Christmas puppies anyone?). In reality, getting a puppy is kind of like deciding to have kids. While it’s not a lifelong decision, it is a 10-15 year commitment.
With that comes a very important family conversation – how are you going to raise it? With that one question comes a gillion more: Will it sleep in the crate or in your room? Will it be allowed on the furniture or not? Who’s going to walk it? What times will you feed it? What puppy classes are you taking it to? Who will watch it when you’re gone? What vet will it be going to? What are the first shots it will need? When will it need to be spayed or neutered?
But the most important of those questions is what breed you’re going to get. The beautiful varieties of dogs out there can make it easy to choose your “favorite” breed or “cutest” puppy.
But do you have the energy to keep up with a Border Collie? Are you going to make sure that your Belgian Malinois always has a job to do? Can you outsmart that Alaskan Malamute when it starts testing you?
Many people choose the wrong breeds for their lifestyle, and I strongly encourage you to choose a dog that suits your activity level and personality. A rough collie was the breed that matched us. Collies have moderate energy, are easily trained, and are great with kids (not to mention the fact that Spencer had a collie ever since he was a boy and was very familiar with the breed). They just happen to also be completely gorgeous dogs! Sure, I’ve had to let go of some “dream breeds” since I know they won’t fit my personality and lifestyle – but having a dog that suits me makes for the best pet experience imaginable.
Understand the Facets of Dog Training
Most people think they know how to raise puppies. We see it in movies, our grandfather had that one perfect dog when we were kids, and there’s those obedience classes we can take our dogs to just in case. So, we probably have it in the bag, right? Wrong. I can guarantee that you most likely have no idea how to actually raise a well-balanced puppy. I certainly didn’t – and I definitely thought I did.
One of my favorite topics is animal behavior, and I thought I was up and coming on dog training information. Fortunately, I had the sense to brush up on some training techniques before Cash came home. And it made me realize how dumb mainstream media has taught us to be with dogs.
If the term “alpha” is regular in your dog training vernacular, you may need to take a serious step back. Time and time again, scientists and trainers have proven the fallacy of establishing yourself as the alpha dog in training.
The idea of an “alpha” came from captive wolf research that said wolf hierarchy was based on physical strength and dominance. We then thought it was a good idea to apply this to our dogs, and started flipping puppies on their backs to show that we were boss.
Here’s the problem. They disproved that science when wolves were studied in their natural habitat. There are theories that dogs aren’t even descendants of wolves to begin with anyway. But old habits die hard.
People are people, and dogs are dogs. They are not dogs trying to be wolves, or dogs that think we are funny looking wolves ourselves. We’re two different species working together to form a bond and develop trust, which is why positive reinforcement – which is NOT the same as treat bribery – is so crucial to your dog training success.
I could write an entire article about the alpha fallacy and importance of positive reinforcement training, but I’m going to leave that to all the articles I’ve linked to in this section. Educate yourself and don’t use bad science on your puppy. My favorite expert is vet and animal behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar. Check out his website, and read both of his free puppy rearing books to develop your training skills. You won’t be sorry.
Accept that Your Puppy Will Break the Rules
Okay, now that you’ve done all that reading and research, accept that your puppy is probably going to break some or all of those rules. I know, I know, what’s the point then, right? Well, it’s going to give you a base for the improvisation that is necessary with puppy training.
Some of the things we learned really helped us with Cash. But other things just didn’t apply to him. For instance, Cash doesn’t really care about food. Sure, he learned to sit for his food bowl, but once I put it down and released him to eat it, he’d take one kibble and walk away. I mean… what? He just didn’t care about food like I expected him to, or take to Kong toys like he should have. It took us a long time to figure out easy rewards for good manners.
Cash also didn’t bite. At all. It’s sort of hard to teach a puppy not to bite if he doesn’t bite to begin with. I’m not complaining, but Cash wasn’t following the rules!
It’s important to remember that your puppy is an individual. They don’t read our training books before they come home and they certainly don’t care what Dr. Expert expects them to do at certain ages. It’s okay to do your best, and improvise on the rest. At least you’ve got something to go on.
It’s Not Them. It’s You.
While your puppy is most likely going to break some of the rules of puppyhood, the truth is so are you. Even if this isn’t your first go-round with a puppy, each individual puppy is probably going to pose different challenges than you’ve faced before. And you’re probably going to get it wrong.
Before you think you have a defective dog, or blame too much misbehavior on uniqueness, self-evaluate. Is it possible that you are doing something only halfway? Perhaps you’re only taking some of the trainer’s advice or only following through with your puppy most of the time. If that’s the case, and you’re still having behavioral issues, be honest with yourself.
Get the best results by fully committing to your puppy. Make adjustments! Have a chewer? Put things away where they can’t get to them. Have a dumpster diver? Make sure your trash can has a lid. Have too much energy? Take walks. Remember, you’re the smarter species. You’ve got this.
Socialization, Socialization, Socialization.
Aside from the alpha fallacy, this is the most important part of puppy rearing. Time and time again, I see puppies and dogs develop problems, because they aren’t socialized enough. We think we’re protecting our puppies, or people, or other dogs, when we shelter them from the outside world. In reality, we’re creating an unstable, socially awkward, and ultimately socially dangerous animal.
Dogs need high levels of socialization as soon as possible. Obviously, taking the puppy’s health into account is important, but there are plenty of ways to keep your puppy from getting sick while exposing them to as much as the world has to offer. The day after we got Cash, he was in an apartment with 15 other college kids who cuddled him, played with him, and gave him lots of love. Cash never learned to be afraid of people, of children, or of either gender. He was exposed to every person available, so at no point would he ever show unwarranted aggression to a human.
This training also included food handling and toy handling. I fed Cash by hand, and had other people do so, and regularly stuck my hands in his bowl while he ate. We also made sure that we removed toys mid playtime so Cash did not become possessive of his toys.
We also had him exposed to other puppies as soon as it was medically safe (puppies can catch diseases rather easily, so make sure you’re up to date on shots before you venture out with other dogs). Our friends getting puppies, and taking him to puppy class, was especially good for this. He played and romped, got bitten, bit back and learned his doggie manners. I find other dogs are aggressive with Cash when they themselves haven’t been exposed to dogs of different breeds, ages, sizes, and temperaments. This is how you create a dog aggression problem.
Your pooch might be comfortable with people, but that does not mean they’re going to be automatically comfortable with other dogs (which goes back to the people are people and dogs are dogs concept – dogs don’t interchange the two), or any animals for that matter. Whatever you want your pup to be comfortable with, safely expose them to as much variety of that thing as possible. This kind of socialization will prevent a lot of stress, and even danger, for you and your dog.
Start Immediately on the Basic Commands
Puppies are like sponges. They soak up everything you teach them the moment you bring them home. Don’t wait to start teaching your puppy basic commands. Cash learned how to sit within two to three days of coming home, and he could lay down not long after. I taught him to hold still so I could check his ears, eyes, nose, and teeth, and our vet was very impressed by his manners.
The sooner you can teach you puppy the basic commands (come, heel, sit, stay, lay down, leave it/take it), the sooner you will have more peace in your household. Sure, puppies are still full of energy, but when you direct that energy into learning, it’s incredible. No, they won’t be perfect. Yes, they have short attention spans. But they advance as they age, and you’ll be happy you started younger. No person ever claimed that starting later in life helped their skills. They all pretty much agree that it’s best to start as early as possible. That counts for your puppy too.
It Takes About Two Years
Puppy training is a lot of hard work. I remember fretting about taking a shower the first week Cash was home, lest he get into something or I miss the time to take him outside for his potty break. I remember how he cried ALL EIGHT HOURS in his kennel the first three nights he was home. And one time, in a span of fifteen minutes, Cash peed and pooped in my friend’s apartment after I had just bragged about his budding obedience.
I remember how he never chewed anything until something just snapped and there went my bras and heels. I remember how he would never come in high distraction environments and run off in the woods for hours, much to my absolute fright. People made faces at Cash, while we insisted on his puppyhood and eventual maturity. I don’t think they believed us.
But mostly, I remember how adorable he was when he first fell asleep next to me, how hard he would concentrate when we were working on a new skill, and the way he used to lay with this legs straight out behind him. I remember his first romp in the snow. And I remember how the same people who made faces now say to us that he is such a good dog. And he is.
In terms of puppyhood, dogs aren’t done maturing until two years of age, and I can testify to that. Cash is a little over a year and a half old now, and is just about settled in his good habits. We still are working out the kinks, but I think we’re just about there.
Enjoy the Journey
This is a journey. You’re going to have hiccups and have to make constant efforts to create a baseline for lifetime success. And even after two years, I know that things will never be perfect. Some days, Cash is great. Some days, he’s a little menace. There are time when he comes perfectly when called, and time when he just walks the other direction.
But you didn’t buy perfect. You bought a puppy. And that’s one of the most practically perfect things you could have ever done.