The learning weeks – Case Notes

The learning weeks – Case Notes – training puppies

Kelley Bollen

After a history of adopting adult dogs, we just acquired an eight-week-old German shepherd puppy. Help! Housetraining is going OK–we know that takes time–but how do we get this little beast to stop biting us? A lot of people are telling us to take Rudy to a puppy kindergarten class. Is this really necessary?

It’s so hard to resist that cute little ball of fluff, yet a puppy can be a lot more work than most people bargain for. Teaching a puppy not to soil in the house or chew on everything in sight can be a full-time job. Know, however, that this is the most important time in your puppy’s life, and there are other aspects of dog rearing that you need to pay attention to so that Rudy grows up to be a well-adjusted adult dog.

A dog’s temperament is a product of both nature and nurture. You can’t change your pet’s genetic inheritance. But you can control what he learns, and the lessons will be remembered his whole life.

At 8 weeks, Rudy is well into the critical period for socialization. All animals, from dogs to lions, have a phase in their infancy when they are particularly open to learning about their environment. In dogs, this short period lasts until the pup is 12-14 weeks old. What happens during this time can impact his entire life. This is the time when you have the power to set your puppy up for a successful life through proper socialization.

Socialization means exposing your puppy to all the things he might encounter in his life. This includes a variety of people and other dogs, as well as experiences such as riding in the car, getting a bath, being handled, or being left alone. Without proper socialization as a puppy, a dog can become fearful, anxious, and even aggressive as an adult. Introducing your puppy to as many different things as possible in a positive way will help him develop into a stable, secure, and social adult dog.

People come in all shapes and sizes, so your puppy should meet as many different kinds of people as possible–adults and children, men and women, people of different races, people with beards, people with hats, people in uniform. The best way to do this is to get Rudy out and about. Take him around the neighborhood, to the park, to the playground. Make sure that each encounter he has with a person is positive. A surefire way to accomplish this is to carry treats with you and ask everyone who greets him to offer a small treat.

It’s equally important to socialize Rudy to other dogs. This is where puppy kindergarten can help. These classes are usually more about socialization than obedience training, although puppies do learn basic commands–such as sit, down, stay, and come–very quickly and easily. The playtime during the class gives the puppies the opportunity to learn canine social skills and body language. Without these skills, dogs are often unable to communicate properly with other dogs, which can lead to dog-on-dog aggression. Meeting and spending time with nonaggressive adult dogs will also help Rudy learn about canine communication. Although there was a time when veterinarians routinely advised owners to keep their puppies away from other dogs until they were fully vaccinated (usually at 16 weeks of age), this is no longer the case. We now know that not socializing your puppy during this critical period can often be more detrimental than the small risk of exposure to disease.

You also asked about stopping the ever popular puppy activity of biting. It is true that puppies bite because they are teething. It is also true that puppies explore and learn about their environment with their mouths. But another important reason for all that puppy biting and those darn needle-sharp teeth is the learning of bite inhibition. Because dogs are social animals with very powerful jaws and sharp teeth, nature had to provide them with a mechanism to learn to control these weapons. This learned control, or bite inhibition, helps to prevent injury to social partners during altercations. Puppies learn about the strength of their jaws from the feedback they receive from their mom and siblings when they bite too hard in play. The problem is that people routinely take puppies away from their canine families before bite inhibition is fully instilled. So it is up to the owners, who are the young dogs’ new social group, to continue the lessons.

When your puppy bites you, letting loose a high-pitch yelp or shriek (similar to the noise his littermates made when he bit them too hard) and ignoring him for a second are usually enough to let the puppy know that he hurt you. Start by first yelping for the harder bites, and as he begins to bite softer, yelp for the softer bites too. Eventually you will be yelping whenever he even puts his teeth on your skin. Before long you will have instilled bite inhibition in your puppy, and he will be a safer adult dog.

Enjoy your little bundle of joy now because he is going to grow up fast. Remember, the effort you put into socializing Rudy now will go a long way toward making him a wonderful companion for years to come.


Kelley Bollen, the MSPCA’s shelter animal behavior consultant, can offer advice that’ll help both you and your pet feel better. Write to CaseNotes, Animals, 350 South Huntington Ave., Boston, MA 02130. Fax us at (617) 522-4885 or e-mail

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