Two Pounds of Fur and Fury - Understanding Puppies with Drive | The Collared Scholar
“We adopted a puppy, and we NEED you,” said the exasperated voice on the voicemail message.
I chuckled to myself when I heard it. I laughed… and not because I was writing off her plea and complete desperation. While most would assume that a two pound puppy couldn’t wreak too much havoc, I knew better.
Nope… I laughed because I had been there. This woman wasn’t the first (and certainly wouldn’t be the last) customer who called with the same tone of desperation after having been bested by two tiny pounds of fur.
When I arrived at the home, the so-called monster lay soundly asleep in her puppy pen. Giant ears poked out of her tiny head, and as she heard me speak she stirred softly, staring up at me with big, round, innocent eyes.
Her owner began to explain their troubles.
“I’ve always had Labs,” she told me, as the Corgi puppy stirred again, trying to take in the stranger who stood before her but still too shrouded in sleep to fully make sense of me. “I’ve never had a dog that was bred to herd cattle.”
I laughed again. Dogs with drive were regularly pulling the wool over the eyes of well intentioned puppy buyers, lulling them into a false sense of security with their ridiculously adorable faces and big eyes… and then unleashing the wrath of a thousand demons as soon as they had weaseled their way into the hearts of the family. And judging by the absurd level of cuteness this puppy possessed, I knew she had fooled them well.
The new puppy owner continued on with the saga that had unfolded the previous week, but her words fell on deaf ears as I found myself completely smitten with the tiny monster lounging in the pen at my feet.
As we finished our conversation, I scooped up the little ball of fur, her wide eyes blinking up at me as she struggled to fully wake herself.
I placed her onto the floor next to me. Within moments and without hesitation, she latched onto my pant leg, growling and shaking the denim as hard as she could. The rabid attempts at piercing my flesh were frustratingly futile for the little pup as the leather of my boots was impenetrable to her puppy teeth and impossible to grip with her miniature jaws. When she realized she wasn’t getting the reaction she was so used to seeing, she took off, running as fast as her tiny puppy legs would take her, circling laps around the couch and making a furious figure 8 into the dining room.
After several laps, the explosion of puppy energy passed, and she redirected her focus onto a large stuffed soccer ball that laid in the corner of the room. She gripped the toy with force, and despite the fact that she was a fraction of its size, she shook it furiously, picking it up off the ground and flinging it across the room.
If I didn’t love her already, her display instantly did me in.
For the next two hours, her owners and I talked. The entire time we sat conversing, the puppy alternated between racing zoomies through the house, picking up and thrashing any and every toy she could find, tearing at my pant leg with all of her might, and chewing feverishly on my leather boots. She had the intensity of a working Malinois, all tucked into the cutest little two pound package you’ve ever seen.
I wanted to put her in my pocket and take her home.
So, were the unsuspecting puppy owners simply dealing with normal puppy craziness? Or had they in fact been contributing to their puppy problems?
Lesson #1: Bite Inhibition
After extensively researching puppy raising online, the “prepared” puppy owners began implementing widely accepted training principles, one of which was the theory of “Bite Inhibition”.
Common Bite Inhibition Training looks like this:
When the puppy bites, you should shriek or say “Ouch!”. Act like it hurts (because it does!). Give praise and reward when the puppy stops biting.
The psychology behind Bite Inhibition Training comes from observations and studies of normal puppy play. Puppies play rough. And when it gets to be too much, one of the puppies will shriek, calling “Mercy!” and signaling the other to lay off. It works between puppies. So it must work with humans….right?
I hate to break it to you, but…..YOU are NOT a puppy. And no matter what anyone says, your dog knows that.
In my humble and very opinionated opinion, plainly stated, most techniques for teaching Bite Inhibition are a load of…well, you can guess. Teaching puppies how hard they are and are not allowed to bite isn’t possible using the traditionally spouted off methods dictated by “behaviorists” and “trainers”. Especially not with a prey driven dog.
In fact, a highly driven dog plays in “prey drive”. That means that all of their puppy games are rooted in their inherent drive to hunt small animals. The more you shriek and the more you move, the more you ACTIVATE their prey drive. In essence, you are making yourself look JUST like a prey item. Your attempts at Bite Inhibition are simply making the game more fun.
I confirmed my suspicions about this highly driven Corgi as I watched the owners playing with the puppy and its toys. Throughout the entire playtime, the puppy repeatedly sought to bite the item that was moving the most – which, more often than not, was the owner’s hand. If the owner kicked a ball, the pup would latch onto her leg, as it was the item that moved first and that moved BIG. And as the owner dangled a rope toy in front of the crazed pup, her hand made such big, sweeping movements, the puppy could barely contain herself!
Puppies bite. It’s a behavior driven by instinct and rooted in their genes. In my opinion, suppressing that which is natural to a dog’s development is counterproductive and can result in quite a bit of frustration and confusion as the puppy grows and matures. Rather than going against the grain, and correcting young puppies for that which is natural to them, we instead seek to understand the dog’s inherent drives and needs and ensure that we are satiating them fully.
In order to temper a puppy’s inherent instinct to bite, we simply teach them which things are appropriate to bite and which things are not. Since prey games are typically activated by quick movement, we always ensure that the item we WANT the puppy to bite has movement, while the item we DON’T want the puppy to bite remains still. We praise heavily when the puppy has a toy in its mouth, and we redirect their focus to positive play when they start to find trouble.
This technique has worked wonders for both working puppies and family pets when implemented consistently and correctly, and it has resulted in satiated and well adjusted adolescent and adult dogs.
Lesson #2: Basic Commands
To fully understand how the new owners were interacting with their pup, I asked them to show me what, if any, commands they had taught her.
Proud to demonstrate their accomplishments, the owner asked the petite puppy to sit. Complying with her wishes, the puppy sat, and the moment her tiny, fluffy, tailless bottom hit the floor, the woman erupted into a fit of praise.
Now, if you know me, you know that I am all for getting loud and playing with your dog. I love nothing more than seeing dog owners throw caution to the wind, make a fool of themselves, and praise….I mean REALLY praise their dogs. But here, the timing was all wrong.
You see, in this case, we had a wild puppy. And our goal was to have a CALM puppy.
Inevitably, the praise broke the dog from her position, led her to hop up in excitement, and as a result, worked completely against everything we were trying to achieve.
I calmed the puppy down, built patience in our work, and within two or three minutes I had a happy puppy, patiently gazing up at me, inquisitively asking “What’s next?”, instead of a puppy that raced zoomies non-stop, skidded around corners, and had to constantly seek out something… anything… to pacify her excess energy and excitement.
Dog owners regularly struggle when training their dogs because they focus all of their attention on the dog’s behavior and forget all about the dog’s state-of-mind.
While you may be super proud of your dog for sitting, be sure your rewards and your tone reflect the state of mind you are after. There are times when you want your dog calm and relaxed, and there are other times you want your dog amped and excited. Don’t get the two mixed up.
As a rule of thumb, we train for state-of-mind first and for behavior second. If I want my dog to be patient, I won’t reward him when he is excited and jumping up for the treat. Not only do I want my dog to be patient, I also want my dog to sit still in their command, as opposed to popping up the moment their butt hits the ground, a reward or affection the anticipating driver.
On the other hand, there are times when I want my dog to be totally, out-of-his-mind excited for the work we are about to do. During those times, I again reward state-of-mind as often as, if not more than, I reward the actual behavior. I need my dog focused and in the right frame of mind before the behavior even matters, so it’s important he understands my expectations.
In the scenario with the puppy, the proud owner had been rewarding overly excited behavior with overly excited praise anytime her puppy performed a basic command. The result? An overly excited puppy that, in turn, lived her life in that same, overstimulated, electrified, high drive state.
Plainly stated, rewarding behavior perpetuates it. The same can be said for state-of-mind.
Lesson #3: Don’t Fight Genetics
This puppy had some serious instincts. She was bred to work, and she wasn’t going to stop until the world knew it! As is typical for her breed, this particular puppy had a very strong prey drive. She was tenacious, brave, and she was built to herd.
At times, some of those natural instincts showed up in worrisome ways. The young puppy loved to herd the couple’s young son, regularly grabbing at his ankles with her sharp puppy teeth when he ran. She bit hard and would grab at pant legs, shoes, and anything else she could get her puppy teeth on.
As most owners do, the couple became exasperated with the young pup and began correcting the undesired behavior. As a result, the puppy became frustrated, her attempts to satiate her intrinsic drives consistently met with swift correction.
There are dogs bred to herd cattle, and there are others bred to look cute. Understand your dog’s genetics, and work with them. You can’t turn off your dog’s genes, but you can use them to your advantage.
Instead of trying to suppress that which naturally compelled the tiny puppy, we began focusing the drive into more positive behaviors. Instead of meeting the puppy’s outbursts with corrections and punishment, we sought to understand the behavior, provide positive outlets for the energy, and used the drive to teach and reward good behavior.
A dog with drive will always be a dog with drive. If you attempt to “correct” or “suppress” those natural drives the dog was inherently bred for, you will create conflict and can propel your originally friendly dog into varying levels of frustration.
The tiny Corgi puppy was one of the highest drive pups I’ve seen in quite some time. Weighing in at a whopping two pounds, this little ball of fur and fury would give even the most experienced trainers a run for their money.
The puppy’s energy was a force to be reckoned with, and her very loving and adoring owners found it cute… rewarding her outbursts with affection, playtime, and treats….until it hurt. Once the behavior became too much to handle, they began correcting the dog’s natural instincts in an attempt to prevent them from escalating and to prevent the pup from “becoming the pack leader”.
Not only were they sending the pup mixed signals, sometimes finding her playful antics cute, and other times correcting them, but they were also attempting to suppress that which came naturally to the dog. As a result, the pup became frustrated, her energy level peaking with no outlet in sight.
Puppies bite. It’s only natural. And puppies with drive bite more. But understanding your dog’s drive and the psychology behind your puppy’s behaviors will dictate whether you are part of the problem, or whether you are the driving force for a solution.