The Importance of Learning Boundaries
The photo on the left shows Astro freezing, head up but expression friendly, saying, "give me space, please. I do not want to engage with you." The Vizsla remains too close, so Astro tells him to back off. The other puppy is staying a bit further away, barely outside of Astro's personal boundary. Their body language is very deferential (bodies curved and low, ears back). Note how Astro's tail carriage changes a bit, as well as his head and ears; he is issuing a more serious warning in the second photo.
Puppies! So innocent, so cute, so full of unmitigated joy, such blank slates. Or not… at least not when it comes to “blank slates.”
Puppies are surprisingly full of knowledge and replete with genetic programming that predisposes them to think and behave in certain ways, even when they come into our homes at a mere 8 weeks of age. They’ve already learned to interpret many patterns in their environment that help them understand the ways of their little worlds. The patterns that become relevant are the ones that contribute to their feeling of safety - physical and emotional - and those which lead to either getting what they want or avoiding what they don’t want.
When we see a litter of very young puppies engaged in rough-and-tumble play, we don’t often think how these seemingly inconsequential interactions may influence future interactions with other dogs. Does one puppy tend to slam into another? Is there one particular puppy who always seems to be at the bottom of the puppy pile? Individual characteristics emerge very early in a dog’s life and can affect their long-term development.
At 4-7 weeks of age, puppies are interacting with their littermates and learning the subtleties of social interactions. They are also learning some basic manners thanks to Mom (and other adult dogs who may be present). Mom will have begun the weaning process which may be the first time the puppies are denied something they really want. “No” becomes a new but critical concept. Littermates may or may not be effective teachers when it comes to learning what is and what is not acceptable behavior.
Boundaries. Rules. Structure.
Young puppies need to learn to respect personal boundaries, whether it’s within their own litter, with other puppies, adult dogs or with humans. “Just because I want it doesn’t mean I can have it,” is a lesson each of us needs to learn in order to be good citizens in this world. A puppy will best learn boundaries through the consequences of his behavior: appropriate behavior may gain him what he wants; inappropriate behavior will not.
“I see a dog! Yay! I can run over and jump on him!” says the puppy who has never learned boundaries. Later, this same puppy will likely grow into a dog who still feels the same way. It is asking for trouble to enable puppies to practice this rude behavior.
The Importance of Adult Dogs in a Puppy’s Life
We often hear that puppies need to meet puppy-loving adult dogs so that they learn they are safe around all sizes and ages of dogs. Indeed, this is true, but just as important is having them meet adult dogs who do not want to engage with them and who can appropriately and effectively get the message across that they are not available or that a puppy has committed a civil infraction. Adult dogs are usually better-equipped than puppies when it comes to teaching respect, but we want them to do it with the appropriate intensity in order to avoid traumatizing the puppy. It’s a careful balancing act. A puppy who grows up understanding that not every dog he sees wants to meet him is far easier to live with than a puppy who thinks every dog is his new best friend.
Deference: Yielding to Another’s Wishes
An example of deference is turning away from a dog who is standing still (freezing is a signal that an interaction is not welcome) or moving away if a play partner yips or growls. It’s a conversation of body language. Yielding space is a form of deference: in a play situation, both partners should be giving and taking space fairly equally. It takes hundreds of managed interactions with many dogs for a puppy to become well-versed in canine language. Make sure your puppy gets this education.
Bullies Hate to be Bullied
Whether you are dog or human, this rings true. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not a recognized canine concept. Bullying behavior is a common feature in puppies and it should not go unaddressed, no matter their age. Puppies, like small children, are always testing their boundaries, and if there isn’t anyone around who can let them know exactly where that boundary truly lies, they will not learn how to modulate their own behavior.
Interrupt. Redirect. Avoid punishing.
We don’t need to punish our dogs for being rude: we just need to make sure they don’t get what they want unless they are polite. If your puppy or dog starts to look like he’s going to cross the line, interrupt him and give him something else to do. Separate him from the situation if you need to, but do not let him practice the unwanted behavior. “Practice makes perfect” even if it’s unwanted behavior.