The Not-So-Perfect Puppy

Okay, by now you might be ready to admit that nobody’s perfect: not you, not your kids, not your significant other—not even your puppy. Imperfections are, in fact, the spice of life, and many are good signs that your puppy is developing normally. Take, for example, the puppy who steals the remote control: a classic sign of monkey see, monkey do. The remote control is an object of your fascination and constant use. Love me, love my remote. Your puppy’s expressions are oral and interactive but no less a sign of observation. The same holds true for food on the countertops and stuffed animals. Fortunately, there are ways to shape puppies’ behavior. You won’t have to clear the countertops and hide the remote forever. However, the first step in resolution is respecting your puppy’s spunk and creative interest. I find the puppy who can orchestrate a family chase simply by stealing a napkin to be quite clever. This puppy doesn’t know he’s bad: he’s having a great time. Even his cooperative cower at the end of the game doesn’t erase the fun of the chase. So step one in problem resolution is to rethink the problem from your puppy’s perspective, and step two is to reshape your approach, knowing that blaming your puppy and confrontational corrections will get you nowhere. Remember the behavior scale from page 43? A quick review will remind you that your attention reinforces your puppy’s behavior. And the puppy doesn’t care whether the attention is negative or positive. If you pay attention to the puppy, you’re guaranteeing a repeat performance. The more assertive you are, the more assertive he’ll be: these are the ground rules for confrontational play. As you read through this chapter or the sections that apply to you directly, stay very calm. Be the authority. Metaphorically, it’s like being a team captain with a new player who doesn’t know the rules. If you scream at your new player, you’ll overwhelm him. If you keep it up, he’ll quit or get defensive or frightened. Repetition is always kind and helpful, so come up with a plan and be patient. This table will give you an overview of age-appropriate interference: the timing, meaning, and when it’s use is appropriate.


Most of your puppy’s behavior is motivated by five basic needs: to eat, drink, sleep, play, and eliminate. Unlike babies who cry when a need’s not being met, your puppy will get nippy, distracted, and impulsive. Underscore nippy. Ninetynine percent of early nipping is simply the result of a puppy who is confused by his own body’s impulses. Metaphorically, have you ever tried to think about something serious when, let’s say, you really had to go to the bathroom? I mean, really had to go? Or when you were hungry? Really hungry? Puppies, especially young ones, are like infants—when they need something, they don’t understand “five minutes.” Mentally, they can’t grasp time. Don’t take it personally if your puppy piddles as you’re putting on your coat or nips you really hard when you’re playing past his meal time. My husband, a grown man, gets very testy when he’s tired and hungry. I don’t banish him for that—I feed him! Nobody, not a dog or a puppy, an adult or a child, likes to be told that they’re bad at something. Would you like it? You’re a bad spouse. You stink! I can’t stand your work. Bad employee.

How would hearing something like that make you feel? Before harassing your puppy, who really just wants to play and get his needs met, ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. Next, ask not what your puppy is doing wrong, but what you’re not doing right. Reference the specific section of the book, borrow my insights, and with a few minor adjustments in your delivery everyone will fell better.

Ask not what your puppy is doing wrong, but what you’re not doing right.

Creative Connections

Think of your puppy’s attempts to get your attention as being like a plug in a socket. Your puppy wants to stay plugged into your thoughts. When puppies are very young, they need constant reflection. By this, I don’t mean that they need time alone to reflect on the meaning of life. Quite the opposite. They need to continually see themselves reflected in your eyes, in order to gauge their own progress and status in the pack by whether or not their behavior meets with your approval. As they mature, your lessons will teach them that you’re with them even when you can’t be watching or physically present. But what about the young puppy who never got enough reflecting time when he was small? Either circumstances demanded isolation, or his parents were just unaware of his needs. This youngster will grow into a needy adolescent with a laundry list of annoying behaviors: jumping, barking, chewing, and grab-n-go. And what do these behaviors have in common? They’re efforts to get more attention. Yes, even negative attention beats none at all. This puppy isn’t bad: he simply needs reassurance that his parents understand his needs, and his parents need to learn better communication skills. Even naughty puppies are healthy puppies. They’re letting you know that staying connected and being a part of your world is their top priority.
Puppies use their mouths to grasp things: our hands are a mouth equivalent. What we pick up, they’ll want to pick up, too!
Is It Fear or Understanding?

Some of you are convinced that your puppy knows he’s been bad. He cringes when you shout, grovels when you storm at him. I do understand your argument. On face value, many would agree. I, however, would describe the reaction in terms of fear, not understanding. Imagine just for a moment that you’re in my classroom. I’m a cheerful teacher most of the time. Suddenly, in the midst of the lesson, I notice that you are doing something wrong, but instead of pointing it out and showing you, I go ballistic—running at you and screaming. How would you react?

The truth is that assertive corrections actually create more mischief. Yes, more. It’s nerve-racking to be disciplined by someone—especially throughout the day. A puppy can’t develop normally in this environment. On the other hand, if good behavior is highlighted and encouraged, and mischief is downplayed and redirected, the world will be a safe place to grow up in. If you’ve got a family, gather everyone around the table and use the metaphor of a team dynamic to pitch your plan. Most issues can be resolved by all of you working together to modify everybody’s behavior simultaneously. Cause-and-Effect Corrections

All puppies learn through cause and effect. Human babies do, too! If a certain behavior like jumping or barking gets your attention, is it any wonder that a puppy will do it again? Although I don’t believe discipline is effective, some behaviors

warrant discouragement. Here’s where you use the cause-and-effect principles in reverse! When addressing an issue, there are three steps to remember. The reaction should be seen as

1. Coming from the environment, not from you.

2. Causing a withdrawal of human attention.

3. Your interactions should refocus the puppy’s energy onto a displacement activity.
From the top. Using this cause-and-effect approach, all reactions to a given behavior must be perceived as environmental, not interactive. If you’re using a side swipe or a spray-away correction, it must be done discreetly with a calm, detached body frame so that your puppy doesn’t perceive your involvement or confrontation. His misdeeds must not be seen as attention-getting: even a quick glance can guarantee a repeat performance. No eye contact in Steps 1 and 2. Step 3 is fun: redirecting a puppy to a better alternative. Here’s an exercise I give my clients: create a chart that lists

(a) The current frustration

(b) An appropriate alternative

(c) The words necessary to communicate

(d) Any equipment that might be helpful in making your point