The Curse of the Puppy
If I ever was reincarnated, I can tell you what I would never want to come back as. No it is not a dung beetle, slug, or other gruesome animal most people initially state as a horrible animal to be. My answer would be even more specific. I would never want to come back as a puppy. Yes, you heard correctly, a dog trainer would never want to be reincarnated, if that were even possible, as a puppy. It has nothing to do with my love of dogs or coming back as something cute that would potentially receive human companionship and love as that creature. It has everything to do with the fact that many puppies are just plain set up for failure. While may answer may shock you, there are many reasons why puppies need a little more credit and how you can help set your puppy for success.
First off, puppies are doomed to fail from the start by many owners because people forget that they are puppies. Potty training is a huge issue and many people get so frustrated when a puppy isn't perfectly potty trained immediately. Human children aren't usually fully potty trained until they are three years old. In fact, more than half of children over 32 months of age can't "stay dry" for a whole day (Schum et al 2002). We have big primate brains and consider ourselves a more intelligent species, yet we expect puppies to get potty trained immediately while we struggle for years to get it right. I am not saying a puppy should take three years to get potty trained, but we need to be patient with our little puppies and set realistic expectations. A younger puppy should be taken out frequently, whether it be every 30 minutes to an hour, and older puppies every few hours. Breed also needs to be taken into consideration. A four-pound jack russell terrier puppy is probably going to have to potty more often than a 20 pound golden retriever puppy simply due to the actual size of the bladder. No one likes to clean up potty accidents, but your puppy is not doing it out of spite or because it wants you to get mad and yell at it. Your puppy just hasn't either learned where the appropriate places to potty are, or hasn't learned a reason to hold its bladder and wait to go to an appropriate space to relieve itself. Potty training issues fall on the owner, not the puppy. People that are not wiling to change their schedules around or go the extra mile to work through potty training issues are going to find struggles that ultimately set the puppy up for failure. Do not overcomplicate potty training. Set clear, simple and explicit rules for yourself and your puppy. If you try to make things more complicated than they need to be, potty training is going to be even more complicated than you will probably desire. Again, we want puppies to be successful, not always making "oopses".
Secondly, range of knowledge is also another principle that dooms all puppies. People expect their puppies to learn so much so quickly and retain all the information we think we have presented clearly in very short bursts of time. Think about it: we expect them to learn to cope with being away from their mother and siblings, learn to socialize and be ok with every potential scenario thrown at them, suddenly know where to go to the bathroom, learn that the cage we put them in is not a bad thing and something they need to learn to love, sit, lay down, pay attention to us, come to us, not chew on us or our things, walk on a leash, and do pretty much anything else our mind thinks of that day. That is a tall order. What's worse, many people expect this without putting much if any effort into working with their puppy to help them achieve this. More worse than that, people expect their puppies to also perform at this level with very high distractions present. We throw lots of expectations at our puppies and we need to keep in mind that we do ask a lot from them. We don't put that much pressure on children in kindergarten; we should be careful and mindful of our expectations of our puppies as well. Set clear rules in your home for your puppy with no gray areas. Figure out the "why" of what they are doing that you want to work through (hint: it's not "dominance") and figure out how you can control the reinforcers. As for teaching sit, down, attention, walking, etc., take it slow and be patient. I get told all the time by owners how I must have amazing patience from when they see me working with dogs. Why, yes, I do have lots of patience and it is a skill that has been learned and acquired, not intrinsic to my personality, and it is what leads me to successfully train the dogs in front of me. If your child is learning addition and subtraction for the very first time and you were over their shoulder groaning and getting frustrated because they took too long to figure it out or kept getting the answer wrong, do you think they would like math, want to try it again, or even want to do it anywhere around you? Probably not. So if you are standing there huffing and puffing because your puppy is not laying down immediately, take a breather and learn some patience. You getting impatient with your puppy is not going to speed up the learning process; it is only going to hinder it. Puppies are smart and do learn all the time, but you need to take it slow and go at your puppy's pace when first teaching them anything. Try to take shortcuts and speed through it only leads to frustration and possibly your puppy never learning what you desired.
Thirdly, not all puppies are created equal! Just like we all learn at a different pace, same goes for puppies. I can't tell you how many times in puppy classes I have seen an owner get discouraged as someone else's puppy learning everything immediately and performing like a genius, while they struggle just to get a dog to look at them. Not all puppies are the same. Focus on your own puppy in front of you, not everyone else's dog. If your puppy is not engaged with you, figure out why. Some puppies are more distractible than others, so figure out how you can lessen the distractions and become more desirable and reinforcing to your puppy. If you let your puppy wander around while you shout at it to "sit" or other behavior you are trying to work on, your chances of success are slim. You also need to keep in mind how much you personally work with your puppy. If you come home from work and just play with them for a few minutes, take them out potty, feed them, and stick them back in a crate, you pretty much have a poor furry goldfish, not a puppy. But if you put contingencies on things like waiting for the food bowl, sitting to get to go outside to play, and teach your puppy to start thinking and working with you, you not only will have a much better relationship with your puppy, but your puppy will also learn how to work. Setting aside just the hour of puppy class once a week to work with your puppy is not enough. You should be working with your puppy every day for short increments (2-15 minutes). You don't even need to set out huge chunks of the day, it is literally a few minutes to help learn to learn.
Lastly, they need to continue with their education. Imagine a world where many people have the highest education of kindergarten. If that's too much of a stretch, then imagine a world where the highest education level of a huge portion of the population never received an education past fifth grade. Guess what? That's a reality for most puppy owners. A lot of puppy owners treat puppy classes as the only class they need. That is not what puppy classes are for. Puppy classes are meant to help you work through socialization, common puppy issues, and how to set your puppy up for success to live in a human-centric world. Puppy classes are not meant to be the only class you ever take with your dog in their whole life. I see many older dogs with behavior issues or training issues that later seek out a trainer and say they took a puppy class once two years ago. When you finish a puppy class, you continue on with their education to then set them up for foundation behaviors to really help them now learn how to live in our society and open up a communication line with us. I have a one year old dog that earned her AKC Canine Good Citizen title at 10 months old. Did I stop training her after that? No. Even before then did I stop training her because I took her into a puppy class? Absolutely not. Do I plan on finishing my training? Nope. I get comments and compliments all the time on how well-behaved my dog is, but I don't take that to mean we are done. There are always things I can improve with her and things I wish were much better. I don't even devote large bouts of time to work with her and there are some days where she may be lucky to get more than 5 treats worth of training in due to lack of time in the day. But alas, many people choose to quit after minimal effort is given even in a puppy class. Dogs are always learning and they can always improve. If you choose to stop educating your dog after a 6-week puppy class, you again, set them up for failure and are the one responsible for the consequences thereafter.
Now, not all puppy owners behave this way. I see many that follow socialization protocols exactly, train little bits with their puppy every day, have patience worthy of an award, and always go at their puppy's pace. These owners become successful with their puppies and go on to live happy lives with their pups. Strive to be like these owners. We are human and sometimes make our own "oopses", but we have the bigger brains that allow us to think through what we are doing and help our puppies through this important time. No one is perfect, not even big-wig dog trainers. But if we set our puppies up for success, we can create puppies that turn into amazing dogs that co-habitate with us and give us what we wanted: a true friend that wants to work and strive for the same things we want. Don't curse your puppy and set them up for failure. Do everything you can to create success and raise the puppy of your dreams.