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Teaching puppies to teach themselves

Stress and anxiety are some of the most common issues that we see in the canine behaviour world. If we exclude factors such as pain and illness, we often find that the main problem is due to inappropriate interactions with human beings (ie. we’re often the problem!). Nature is wise. Most of the behaviour that a puppy learns is through intermittent reinforcement. For example, think of a puppy trying to ‘hunt’ for something (searching for it, chasing it, grabbing it etc.). It’s likely they won’t succeed every time and will have to try a variety of behaviours in their attempt. This begins the process of strengthening the puppy’s capacity to manage frustration. They learn they won’t always be able to get the thing they want. Through this self-learning process, they develop a natural ability to tolerate frustration.

When humans lead the learning process, they often default to continuous reinforcement to try and build a new behaviour in the dog. This can actually be a counterproductive approach, especially during puppyhood and adolescence when the development and construction of the brain is so sensitive to influence. A puppy’s relationship with its owner has a big impact on its early development, particularly in regard to how they deal with things like frustration and loneliness. If we create a reality that is quite unnatural from a canine perspective, it can have very negative effects.

Negative emotions like stress and anxiety are a risk factor to the development of healthy brains. As owners we can provide the best possible start in life for puppies by:

  • Promoting positive emotional experiences

  • Providing choices and appropriate levels of autonomy

  • Helping puppies to develop strong coping abilities and resilience

Experiences early in life can impact the architecture of the brain. Owners can facilitate positive experiences by allowing puppies to try new things, be curious, get things wrong and achieve things on their own. Like us, puppies and dogs are in a continuous process of learning - any time is good to teach, any time is good to learn and any experience can be used to build meaningful learning.

Trial and error allows puppies to experience what the world is really like. As owners we need to provide and guide them through appropriate experiences and be knowledgeable and empathetic about their current stage of development. Interfering less allows us to be their ‘best human’. Being a puppy’s ‘best human’ is all about being in the background, allowing freedom and choices, but always being ready to intervene if things become too overwhelming or difficult for the puppy.

Another crucial consideration in learning is individuality - puppies grow up according to their unique characteristics. Like people they can be more or less timid, more or less curious, more or less athletic etc. We need to accept these individual differences and avoid trying to constantly modify who they are.

So what’s an example of this approach playing out?

Our puppy Tuska is playing with one of her favourite toys and it ends up under the sofa. She starts making an effort to try and reach it.

There’s a few options about how we might respond as humans, and different consequences for each:

a) Get up from the sofa and retrieve the toy every time it goes out of reach.

b) Allow Tuska to try and retrieve the toy. If she doesn’t succeed then from time to time (and always once Tuska has accepted she can’t reach the toy and moved on to something else) retrieve it and give it back to her. With option a) we’re not really helping Tuska to learn that she may not always be able to get what she wants. She may also start to prompt us to get the toy by barking and whining at us, as this is the behaviour we have inadvertently reinforced. In doing this we risk encouraging dependent behaviour and an inability to deal with frustration, which can then lead to stress.

Option b) provides an opportunity for us to be the puppy’s ‘best human’ as we can sometimes produce toys like magic! We’re respecting the puppy’s individuality, circumstances and ability to learn and manage daily events. They already have so much intelligence within them, and watching the self learning process can be hugely rewarding.

Inés Jiménez Álvarez is a trainer and behaviourist working in Spain.

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