Dogs have great memories. Anyone who has ever fed a dog from the dinner table "just this once" knows how true this statement is. Puppies instinctively know how to find food and nurturing from the moment they're born. As pack animals, puppies are wired to remember the lessons they learn from their mothers, siblings and even the humans they meet early in life. Some of those lessons are more pleasant than others.
In many states, laws have been enacted prohibiting the selling of puppies younger than 8 weeks old; and for good reason. When a puppy nurses, her mother's milk is imparting important nutrients to keep her healthy throughout her life. Nursing for the full eight weeks or more ensures the puppy is well-nourished and getting all the antibodies she needs to have a strong immune system. Another reason puppies should stay with their mothers has to do with learning. When a mother dog reprimands her puppy, the puppy remembers the lesson. This makes for an emotionally healthy puppy. For example, if the puppy bites the mother dog too hard, she will swiftly nip and growl at him, letting him know his actions hurt. He won't do it again. Humans can simulate this disciplinary tactic, but they can't perfect it.
According to Birgit Edler, Owner of Canine College and a veteran dog trainer with 20 years of experience working with dogs, It's never too early or too late to train your dog. "Dogs are fast learners who remember anything that is significant in their development; puppies are just like little sponges and soak up everything around them." She explains that an owner needs to understand how important the treatment of the puppy is to the dog's development. The way you relate to your puppy affects him in some way. If you hit your puppy, he will remember it -- and he'll be less likely to come when you call. If you discipline your puppy harshly, snapping a choke collar, for example, while trying to teach him to heel, he will remember the lesson, but the training won't be fun for him; instead of looking forward to learning, he'll be distracted by his wariness of you. "This is why enlightened dog trainers have switched to positive training methods instead of harsh discipline," asserts Edler. "I saw these early positive training methods in action when I attended a workshop with Cesar Milan in Miami many years ago and immediately put them into practice with my own clients, with great success."
He Looks Guilty
According to by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., author of "How Dogs Think : Understanding the Canine Mind" and other best-selling canine-related books, the temptation to anthropomorphize dogs is strong. But that's only because humans have only their own emotions, feelings and responses as frame of reference. So if your dog does something wrong, such as shredding the toilet paper in your absence, he may wear a certain look that you think of as a guilty one, but the puppy is likely not feeling guilt. He looks that way because he knows that when you come home, sometimes you yell at him but he doesn't know why. He's not guilty, he's wary.
In the Act
In order to stop an unwanted behavior, you have to catch your dog in the act. If he does something wrong, but you're unaware of it until later, trying to discipline him after the fact of the behavior is a waste of time. The dog's clueless as to why you are so angry. He just remembers that sometimes, when you come home, you yell.
Some people will get a dog and abuse him with intent, to "make him mean" because they think that will make him a good watch dog. They tie him up outside and fully expect him to protect the home and family if there is an intrusion. But dogs are smart; if they are abused, will run away when they get the chance, in the face of trouble. A puppy you've raised with love, respect and firm but gentle training will develop a fierce loyalty to his home and family, and will lay down his life for you. A puppy whom you have disciplined harshly remembers that abuse; instead of having a watch dog, you'll have a dog who's waiting for the first chance he gets to escape. Your plan backfires. The better approach, if you want a guard dog, is to engage in Schutzhund or similar training and sports sessions that are supervised and sanctioned, and conducted under the authority of a law enforcement agency or with written permission by the American Kennel Club.
- Perfect Puppy Care: Puppy Memory
- Cesar's Way: Starting Your Puppy Off Right
- WebMD: Training Your Pet Through the Life Stages
- Psychology Today: Thinking about Dogs as if They Were People: Is Anthropomorphism a Sin?
- American Kennel Club: Policy Manual
- WebMD: Is Your Dog Emotionally Scarred?
- Birgit Edler, Owner of Canine College, Juno, Florida
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.