A wee pup, until about 16 weeks of age or so, comes with a license to kill. Well, not exactly, but she does have a natural permit to explore and test behaviors without getting hurt. No socially normal adult dog attacks or injures a pup regardless what she does, and regardless if she belongs to his intimate social group or is a chance encounter on a walk or at the park. Puppy license, though, does not mean that a rude youngster couldn’t receive a lesson in manners from an older pooch.
World-renowned Norwegian dog expert Turid Rugaas - you might recognize the name when you think calming signals - said at a seminar I attended almost 10 years ago that if dogs raise dogs they get it right. Like humans, some are more lenient and others stricter; some don’t correct even if a pup is hanging of their ear or lip, while others have narrowly drawn lines and swiftly reprimand the little brat if she oversteps it, but still won’t correct so harshly that it inhibits learning, stifles curiosity or creates anxiety.
The first who teaches important life lessons is mom-dog. When the brood is about 4 weeks old, when they become more mobile and a pestering mob, she dishes out consequences for obnoxiousness that can range from walking away and temporarily denying a basic need: food, to applying mouth threats and inhibited bites: the corrector’s mouth briefly taking hold of the correctee’s snout. Bruce Fogle says that it is imprinting deference and feels that if those early lessons are missed, the dog can be nearly impossible to train. The muzzle grab can be combined with a rigid body, or preceded by warnings: a hard stare and growls.
So, Cesar Millan is correct that the mother dog is crucial. But that’s where it stops. He is barking a false tune when he advices that we must continue to be a pretend mother dog when the pup joins us. Why? Because humans naturally get it wrong when they get physical. Humans aren’t dogs. They correct at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, are generally too overbearing and not fast or accurate enough. It takes a certain amount of skill to nose correct an out-of-control dog properly. That’s why Millan pins, I assume, but I argue that that is not a natural correction (more a little later).
Even if a person can pull off a proper muzzle grab correction, it puts the hand provokingly close to a dog’s teeth, and the last thing I want my pup to learn is how to successfully dodge or fight a hand around his mouth. To the contrary, I want her to learn that a hand in and around her snout is always a good thing. That makes it much easier if you have to take something out of it, or if the veterinarian is doing his health check.
Dogs are most balanced when mother’s corrections were less aggressive and the pup extensively groomed afterwards. Humans typically get that wrong as well. They don’t groom, but continue to nag and be upset, or at best ignore the pup and withhold social acceptance for a too long period of time. Granted, Millan, so hyped on what the mother dog does, leaves emotions out of the equation, but still only applies the correction portion, not the extensive making up part that follows in nature.
Plus, how is a puppy ever to understand how we humans function as a species if we crudely, klutzily pretend that we’re a dog.
The warning stare, growls and the muzzle grab are normal canine ways to lecture a pup, juvenile and generally younger, lower ranking dog that is too close, too rude or too wound up. They are meant to teach self-control, teach a pup to tone it down a bit or be space polite. That’s all.
In my opinion, pinning falls outside the “for educational purposes” realm. Yes, some mother dogs pin, but I would question if she was anxious or stimulatory overwhelmed, or if the pup was temperamentally straddling the extreme pole of exuberance, determination and confidence. Pinning is ritualized aggression and signals that the pinner is stressed, frustrated, and needs help; needs a human to referee – the topic of my next post.
In addition to it being aggression, it is also ineffective, even harmful. I met plenty of dogs that were nailed as puppies, by dogs or humans, and despite of it, or possibly because of it, offensively attacked once they reached adolescence.
Another thing that just won’t go away is the belief that grabbing and shaking a puppy’s scruff is how a mother dog punishes her offspring. No, she doesn’t. In nature, she might carry her itty-bitty babies by the scruff, but only when she has to move them, if she needs to find a safer place. It is a nurturing behavior, not a punitive one. In fact, neck grabbing and shaking is how dogs kill smaller animals. Imagine the message you’re sending your pup if you grab her by the scruff, and imagine what it does to her little brain if you shake her head.
When you get your pup, ideally not before she is 8-10 weeks old, she should have experienced appropriate early lessons taught by her mother, and you should continue to provide opportunities for her to meet healthy and socially normal adults. Of course, a puppy also needs to play with littermates, and later on with compatible youngsters, but siblings and same-age friends can’t make up for what elders teach. So you see why it is important to investigate how long your pup was with her natural mother, and how she was treated? A good breeder has that information, the pet store doesn’t - and a lousy breeder doesn’t know and doesn’t care. I recently had a client whose breeder removed mom-dog from her litter when they were 4 weeks old with the explanation, according to my client, that since she can’t nurse anymore what other use does she have.
Your role, when your puppy arrives, is not to morph into another mother dog. People don’t get it right. They don’t heed to the puppy license, unjustly pin or scruff-shake for the slightest infractions or mistakes that are not the pup’s fault. Humans often do stifle curiosity and confidence, and create a dog that is suspicious, skittish and anxious.
I, as a human, stay away from getting physical, but do follow mom-dog’s lead in one aspect: denying a rude pup something she wants. Not food, but social attention and inclusion, another crucially important resource. Dr. Ian Dunbar recommends stepping out of the pup’s playpen with the word “bully”. Even very briefly withholding social attention - the pup should get another chance to play “nicely” right away - has a great impact and will teach an uninhibited one self-control quickly. I love it, and you can do that at home and leave corrections to a wise “grey muzzle”. Hopefully you know one. If you do, trust him in his judgment and execution, even if the puppy yelps. Likely she deserved it. Like Turid Rugaas says, dogs know best, provided they are socially normal.