The Most Difficult Lesson to Learn

Dogs have pretty much taken over my life.  I blog about them, foster them, rescue them, train them, and, most of all, I love them.

As with anything that a person spends copious amounts of their time on, there are valuable insights that are only gained when the light of experience illuminates their hiding spots.

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This is especially true with foster dogs.  There are so many different personalities that come through our doors.  From scared to hyper, we have experienced a full-spectrum of various personality types.  Fortunately, “breaking through” to earn trust is, almost always, requires the exact same sequence of events regardless of the dog.  Being as such, once the process of actually being trust-worthy, combined with plenty of positive reinforcement and patience, is understood, it is relatively simple to implement.

But, there is one lesson that was extremely difficult for me to learn.

Most folks who have a dog inherently know that their reaction times and reflexes make us look like we are moving in slow motion.  One of the areas that this becomes most relevant, for me, is when one of our dogs or the mama dog, engages in a behavior know as a “correction” directed at one of our foster puppies.  I’ve spent the last 2 hours trying to find a video that illustrates how fast and seemingly violent a correction is, but to no avail.  The best metaphor that I can think of for the behavior is when you see a pack of wolves in the wild feeding on a kill(I watch a ton of documentaries).  You will often see individuals “snap” at one another during this footage, and while it looks very intense, violent, and dangerous, there is never any severe injury sustained by any of the pack.

The same is true for our dogs and mamas when they teach puppies how to behave.  To the human eye and mind, it is aggressive, dangerous, scary, and violent, but when the behavior is broken down into it’s constituent parts, it becomes apparent that none of those adjectives are anywhere near realistic descriptors of the behavior.

2016-06-11 10.19.59-2I remember the first time I allowed Sully, our large boxer/amstaff mix, to correct a puppy for jumping into his face.  Up to that point, I would actively discourage behavior that I deemed to be “mean” that, I now know, is perfectly healthy, normal dog/puppy interaction.  Not only is this behavior healthy and normal, but it is also integral in teaching a puppy the manners and behavior that is acceptable in dog/dog interactions later in his/her life.  So, after I realized that I needed to not only allow the behavior but encourage it, I did just that.  The first time I praised a correction, I remember my skin was actually tingling because the puppy, like puppies are prone to do, went off yelping like someone had just run over its tail.  But, of course, Mr. drama llama, aka the puppy, was perfectly fine and completely stopped jumping up into my boy’s face after that.

sign-24061_1280Since then, I have only had to allow corrections from my dogs four times, not including the first one described above.  That period encompasses roughly two and a half years and approximately 100 foster puppies. Two of those instances resulted in a superficial cut on the muzzle of the pupper in question, but, considering, all of my dogs are huge, that is nothing to be concerned with.  The reason that the correction is such a rare event is that I no longer stop the other behavior mentioned in the graphic above.  Most people would interject themselves when a dog starts to growl, show teeth, or go stiff, thinking that they are going to prevent him/her from seriously injuring the puppy.  But when we do this, it enforces the behavior, because we cut off the, all important, “you have gone to far” step of the correction.

The other, very, very, very difficult behavior to allow is when a mama dog teaches her babies using corrections.  It sounds downright violent, with puppies often sent yelping into a corner, for jumping into mom’s food or just being overly rambunctious.  It is doubly intense when all this occurs when the person tasked with their care (me) is in another room of the house and has to listen to this!  But, through experience, I’ve learned that these corrections are absolutely critical in teaching these little babies the correct and proper way to socialize with other dogs later in life.

Does my experience line up with yours? Let me know in the comments below!


26 thoughts to “The Most Difficult Lesson to Learn”

  1. I’ll have to study this more – I’m not informed in this area, so appreciate your writing it! We have small dogs and when we’ve added a new one to our family we have found it works better when we carefully, thoughtfully and always monitored, allow them to establish a bit of their own ‘rules’ when engaging. We don’t let them escalate. Thanks for this – will continue to re-read!

    1. Glad to generate some good discussion! I will say that I have no experience with small breed dogs, so the fact that puppies more closely mimic “peers” for those breeds may throw a wrench into my ideas!

  2. Good momma dogs are to be prized. It’s important like MattieDog suggested to always monitor, as I know you do.

    1. I’m not 100% sure how the process would go in the “wild”, but I assume the mama would be able to seperate herself from her pups when they reach this age(3-5 weeks) and develop teeth and claws(her poor belly/nipples). One of the other things I do is to keep the pups downstairs during the day around this time to give her a bit of space and time to decompress.

  3. I agree with the post. Dogs are the best at “schooling” pups, and often it sounds/looks far scarier and dangerous than it actually is. And, as you say, interrupting this process often makes it continue or even escalate to REAL danger points. Great points! Also…boy puppy urine contains WAY HIGH levels of testosterone (higher than adults) that alerts the adults he’s an adolescent in need of schooling. *s* Sort of a way to set the tone for the future, perhaps.

    1. I didn’t know that! Very good information. It’s also an interesting caveat to my experience and that information that only 1 “correction”, as I use the term here, is from my girls. The rest were my boy sully!

  4. Wow this is really eye opening. We only have one dog now, two of our elders past this last year sadly. I will keep this information tucked into my mind for future reference, or friends who may need it. Thank you!

    1. Our pleasure, I enjoy sharing my experience and generating discussion to further our understanding our favorite 4 leggers 🙂

  5. So fascinating getting insight from someone living the experiences. It can definitely be brutal watching nature in action, especially if their care is entrusted to you and you have to return them in one piece!! Animals know what they’re doing, and what a wonderful experience being able to witness and learn first hand, even if it’s a bit “violent.”

    1. It’s interesting because, once I learned to put a lid on my own reaction, the violence is very much a construct of our human minds. The adult to puppy correction is so accurate, fast, and “at the perfect intensity” that it is beyond our ability to comprehend how effective and safe it is in the moment

  6. Such an interesting topic. I think many are quick to interject when a dog is “correcting” another dog/puppy. I believe I would be one of those people only because it unnerves me. I would like to read more on this subject so I can understand it fully. Thank you

    1. It is really important to understand that there is a huge distinction between allowing corrections between puppys/adults and adult/adult. In grown dog interactions I interject before or at the growling/teeth/freeze stage. Adult interactions can escalate into a full blown fight in the blink of an eye once that stage is reached!

  7. Great post! Knowing good play from bad play and when to interject yourself as an owner is a great skill to know. But sometimes you have to let the dog’s work it out themselves. Very interesting read.

    1. Just to clarify my experience a bit, it is definitely NOT a good idea to allow adult dogs to get to the point of correcting each other. Allowing such behavior can escalate into a full blown fight in a matter of microseconds(not exaggerating, it can happen faster than we could possibly react).

      In socially “healthy” dogs, after another canine displays growling, stiff body, teeth showing, etc the “annoyance” should stop. In the event that it does not, the impetus lies with the human caretaker to interject and seperate the dogs before corrections can occur.

      1. Yes you are so right. I was referring to puppy play. I wish my rescue Kilo the Pug had learned from his mother or from safe socialization early on. He clearly has had bad experiences and is very reactive which is stressful for both of us.

  8. If it is just snapping I can see what you’re saying. But how do you tell a snap from something that results in a bite? I’ve been working with my dog who is a snapper to other dogs (fortunately, never people). I’m his fourth home and clearly someone taught him to to growl. I’m actually trying to encourage the growl as his warning then responding to that by removing what’s bothering him.

    1. Yes, I should have mentioned this in my post, but my dogs are well socialized and adjusted to having strange dogs(fosters) and puppies in the house all the time. Because of that, they follow a healthy progression(as shown in the image) of “stop messing with me” behavior.

      For a dog that has some dog reactivity/unhealthy habits, I wouldn’t have them around puppies at all. I would do exactly what you mention to counter condition the healthy responses and I would also look for a behaviorist that works with a “therapy dog” for other dogs to help him learn.

      Just a bit more info on that last part, many trainers have dog “partners” that are specifically trained to work with reactive pups and help them to develop their social skills and interactions. In extreme cases, like a dog being on his fourth home, this would be the best avenue to help him IMO.

  9. Spot on! Puppies learn important behavior from both & other puppies. It teaches them what is acceptable & when they’ve gone too far. Corrections look & sound really bad to us but it’s learning, doggie style.
    Love & biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  10. It’s good for adult dogs to teach puppies manners… but some dogs are really not good with puppies and overcorrect them. Puppies still have puppy license! Mr. N will tell them off but will not do anything physical.

  11. What a great subject! Gremlin (male) makes correctional snaps at our cat who he raised from 6 weeks. I agree with how alarming it is when you see it happen the first couple times. Its so important to let moms do their thing! We know what we’re doing!! 😉

  12. It is so critical that we allow dogs to be dogs and that we allow adult dogs to properly correct puppies, especially during that early socialization period (3-16 weeks). This is when puppies learn bite inhibition, proper social interactions etc. My oldest, Zora is great at puppy corrections. We, as humans, have to better educate ourselves on dog body language and behaviors so that we are not inhibiting appropriate interactions. Great post!

  13. Great post and always learning something especially as Layla is getting older and becoming sometimes grumpy with the pups

  14. I guess you need to have a certain amount of trust in your adult dog to not overreact. I know that I would trust a mom not to harm her puppies, but I think I would be nervous with another adult dog.

  15. The best socialization skills and behavior is shaped when pups are with their mothers. Also in case of an adult dog it is best to watch out for calming signals that he/she may display while interacting with another dog and if the situation gets unpleasant. Dogs have either a fight-flight reaction to situations so its always best to let them decide rather than force them in a situation

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