Dog on the Couch

2015-10-01 06:00

Hi Susan,

MY puppy was given the best start in life, good food, puppy school and yet I am now faced with a nightmare rather than the well behaved dog I expected to have after completing puppy school. He is now a nine-month-old monster. What do I do now?

Thanks, W. E.

I am sorry that you are experiencing problems but you have to accept that from the age of sixteen weeks until around two years, dogs are in their equivalent of human teenage years, and as parents and keen observers know, these years are usually fraught with troubles.

Unfortunately people often misunderstand the function of puppy school. This is basically to expose the puppy to various stimuli, experiences and lessons, in order to build a solid foundation for future development. There’s a lot of sense in the phrase, “use it or lose it.” Lessons learnt between eight to fourteen weeks really do need to be regularly and thoroughly inculcated. “Practice makes perfect” is another truism worth remembering, because that is what keeps the learnt repertoire alive and well.

However, it is as well to note that the brain goes through a re-wiring process during adolescence, and even well- learnt and established behaviours can be forgotten during these re-wiring “wobblies”, because behaviours that are allowed to fall out of use will be discarded. This helps explain why human teenagers sometimes do the most bizarre things that seem totally out of character. During these bumpy times teenagers are over-sensitive and highly reactive, and this is when powerful memories are indelibly retained. A bad experience during this phase is most likely to create future emotional conflict-triggering fight or flight reactions. If you think of puppy school as a kindergarten, you’ll realise that schooling really should be continued beyond that level if a well-developed member of society is to be cultivated. This is also the time to develop good social skills.

The best way to avoid unwanted behaviours is to be consistent and maintain a strict schedule, revising all exercises learnt in puppy class, paying particular attention to impulse control and counter-conditioning. It is crucial to remember that unwanted behaviours, such as jumping onto people, should never ever be rewarded. Do take particular note that fussing and shouting the dog down might be considered by the dog to be a reward, because his action has got him attention. Try rather to ignore the unwanted attention-seeking action, and do remember that any response that might be seen as encouraging, even though unintended as such, whether from you or other family members or visitors, amounts to intermittent reinforcing, which is actually highly gratifying. Intermittent rewards have been found to have a more powerful effect, because the levels of dopamine thus produced are greater than for an expected, routine outcome. In other words, if a dog has been rewarded just once in twenty attention-seeking jump-ups, an unwanted behaviour has been reinforced to a degree much greater than might be realized. If you do not feel equipped to cope with this kind of trouble alone, invest in more training sessions with a reputable trainer. Most importantly, make sure that only force-free training methods are applied.

Susan Henderson (accredited animal behaviour consultant). Send questions to info@dogboxtraining

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