Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Perils of Puppyhood

Our breeder has a Facebook page for her clients, and some of the newest puppy parents shared a quandry. When you have smaller children and the puppy does not want to play nicely but wants to chew, jump on, and nip, what are some good tactics for dealing with this?

Puppies dont like this! (Masha at 13 yrs)
I'm not an expert, but I am an experienced dog owner. My parents got our first dog when I was about seven. Over the past 35 years, I've only not had a dog when I've been mourning the loss of one and during the four semesters I lived in a dorm. Shortly after I moved into my own first apartment, I adopted a dog of my own. Dogs are a different kind of responsibility than cats. When I worked, I had to head home immediately after work every day to take care of Masha. I jokingly called her my "test run for children" but the comparison is not far off. No, I don't think of my kids as dogs...everybody calm down. But if you look at the first year or two of a dog's life in terms of a human childhood, there are plenty of parallels. When you have human kids as well as canine kids, paying attention to your puppy's stage of childhood can save everyone a lot of pain and frustration.

Most of the breeders and shelters I'm familiar with will only adopt puppies out to families with children older than four or five, so I'm going to assume you have children who are old enough to reason. Puppies require a tremendous amount of work and patience; if you are thinking of adopting a puppy and you still have young preschoolers around, I recommend waiting. The first few months with a puppy will remind you why sleep deprivation is such an effective form of torture. Plus, once children are old enough to pour their own bowls of cereal or come find you when the doorbell rings, they can help care for the puppy and understand its behavior.

CAVEAT: The strategies below worked for me, but there is more than one way to raise a puppy alongside children. Talk to your breeder or your shelter. Talk to your vet. Talk to your Puppy Kindergarten teacher. Take the kids to Puppy Kindergarten with you. It's also helpful to have a training book as reference at home. Check the pet store, the book store, and the library. Choose a recent publication but don't necessarily go for the biggest name out there. Personally, I like Brian Kilcommons' books; I find his attitude reasonable and his advice common-sense based. Above all, remember that you've welcomed another species into your home. It's your job as the human adult to stay in control of your temper and emotions and do all of the problem solving.

First night home. (Maisie at 2 mos)
First things first: puppy-proof before you bring Junior home. Start reminding your kids NOW to keep their toys in the playroom. My first dog, Ginger, ate the head off a Greedo figure. Although my siblings and I took it in stride and he became Headless Greedo (thanks to that altercation with Han Solo...), not every story will end so well. Some toys are irreplaceable and you definitely don't want a trip to the emergency vet. Get down on all fours and crawl around. What looks like fun? Choose an area you can gate off and install the gates. Consider the cleanability of the floor in the puppy's space. I used segments from one of those six-sided stand-alone play areas to block off most of my open-concept kitchen. It wasn't perfect, but it was easy to reconfigure as our confinement needs changed. As Junior grows up and becomes more trustworthy, he can have access to more of the home.

It's important to make sure the kids understand that two-month-old Junior is like a toddler; by the time he is twelve months old, he will be like a teenager. You'll have to reiterate that often over the next year. Do your best to give the kids the puppy's approximate human age. "Junior bites everything right now, just like you did when you were one and two. ...Junior thinks all the toys are his right now, just like your 4-year-old cousin always wants to play with whatever you have. ...Junior is teething right now. Remember when your back molars came in? It hurt to chew hard things and you got kinda grumpy sometimes. Please give Junior a fresh teething toy." It helps when kids can put their expectations in perspective.

When Junior is bitey, separate him from the kids. If he is VERY bitey it's okay to put him in the crate for a while, but don't forget to run through the Dead Chicken List first. You remember that from when your kids were babies: What is NOT wrong? Is Junior hungry? Thirsty? Tired and/or overstimulated? In need of a potty break? Do his teeth hurt? Did his toy roll under the couch? I found that Maisie got very bitey when she was either exhausted or in dire need of a potty break. If she was bitey and her bladder was empty, I put her in her crate and she was usually asleep within minutes.

On her crate. (Maisie at 3 mos)
Regarding the crate: it's crucial to make sure you don't use it as punishment. Even though you're technically giving him a Time Out, when you put Junior in the crate do so kindly but matter-of-factly.  "Junior needs some quiet time. Junior, in your crate." (Pick him up and put him in with a blanket and a toy or two. Shut the door securely.) "Good Junior! Good boy! Junior's crate! Good crate!" Yes, you'll sound like an idiot, but keeping your sentences short makes it easier for Junior to puzzle out the important words. The crate is supposed to be Junior's Safe Zone, and when he's in there, the kids should leave him alone. Eventually, he'll go in on his own when he wants some peace and quiet.

When the kids want to play with Junior, you sit down and play, too. I know: not helpful when you need to make dinner. Still, the best way for kids to learn how to interact with a puppy is to watch you and imitate you. Puppies don't really play with kids any more than toddlers play with other toddlers, though; they also don't like to let go of the ball they just fetched. You'll want to encourage side-by-side play until the puppy is closer to 12 months. "Just sit next to Junior and let him chew his teether/squeaky frog/rope bone while you read your book/watch your show/play video games."

Playtime! (Maisie at 9 mos)
Often, puppies have a huge burst of frenetic activity for 5 or 10 minutes, then konk out. It's okay to let the kids race around with them, but if Junior gets too bitey and jumpy, have the kids go do something else in the next room (or on the other side of the play gate) until he wears himself out. To a puppy, high-pitched squeals, flailing hands, and running mean "This is totally awesome! Let's do it some more!" ...which is essentially the opposite of what your kid means when she screams and climbs on a chair to escape the biting, jumping puppy. "Tug" is NOT the game to play with any dog, though. Somebody has to win, and if it's not the human, that becomes a problem. The same goes for staring contests. Any "challenge" games are a Bad Idea.

Maisie was most bitey when she was teething. Get two or three puppy teethers--the kind you can wet and put in the freezer over and over. Rawhide is too hard for a teething puppy; save it for closer to Junior's first birthday. Rope bones and anything else from the puppy section of the dog aisle is fine, but keep an eye on Junior's progress with his toys. When he disembowels a stuffie, distract him with a more interesting treat long enough for you to take the toy and extricate the squeaker. Baby carrots have never failed me when I've needed to barter with Maisie. Junior will destroy just about everything he can fit in his mouth until he is between one and two years old. The larger the breed, the longer the Destructive Chewing Phase tends to last. 

Not bored anymore! (Maisie at 9 mos)
Maisie ate the arm and leg of my daughter's most cherished stuffed animal. It's the favorite shoes, favorite toys, favorite blankets--and all the dirty underwear--that get chewed to bits most often because these are the items that smell the most like us. Bitter Apple (and similar products) worked very well for me with both Masha and Maisie. If you have a puppy who actually likes the taste, try plain white vinegar or lemon juice. Always test your deterrent on a small or inconspicuous area first. If it doesn't discolor the fabric or wood, then spritz away. I put it on everything: door frames, coffee table legs, the skirt on your couch, lamp can even spray it on your clothing or your skin.

I know it's tough for younger kids to find out that the squirmy bundle of adorableness is more than a living plushie. My daughters were seven when we brought Maisie home and it was still difficult for them. Puppies play just as hard and rough as human kids, but they have sharp claws and sharper teeth. Keep reminding your kids that just like they're growing up and learning more each day/week/month/year about how to behave, so is Junior. When Junior does make progress, be sure to point it out to your kids. "Hey! Junior was bitey because he really, really needed to pee. And guess what? He held it until we figured it out! No puddles on the floor! He's growing up! Yay, Junior!" Make sure you heap the praise on Junior, too. After puddles on the floor!

"Staying" for more frosting. (Maisie at 10 mos)
If your kids are old enough, have them do obedience drills with Junior as soon as you start Puppy Kindergarten. Whatever the family has learned in class your kids can do as homework with Junior. My daughters put Maisie through the wringer every time she wanted a treat: "Maisie, sit. Good Sit! Maisie, down. Good Down! Maisie, stay. Staaaaay. Staaaaaay. Good Stay! Maisie, come!" Obeying kid-given commands helps the puppy realize that they're above him in the pack hierarchy.

Your kids can also scoop out the appropriate amounts of food and refresh the puppy's water every day at breakfast and dinner. Once he's learned how, Junior should sit and stay before the food bowl goes down. Before that, you may have to hold him back or crate him while they deal with the bowls. Will you have to remind them to feed their dog? Of course. But, you didn't get really a dog because you believed the kids when they said they would do all the work without ever being reminded, did you?

A Good Dog at the Beagle Bash 2011.
(Maisie at 1 yr, 10 mos)
The best part about raising a puppy is that you don't have to wait very long to see positive results. By the time Junior is about two, he'll be able to tell which toys are his and which are not (most of the time). He'll be better (kind-of) at not jumping up. He'll sit next to the messiest person in the family and wait for rice and carrots and bits of chicken to fall (because they will). He'll Sit-and-Stay beside your bowl of double-chocolate-fudge-brownie ice cream while you get a glass of water and it will (for real) still be there when you get back. He'll (finally) climb on your lap when you're upset and lick away all your tears with his butt-breath tongue. Then you'll cry all the harder because he's such a Good Dog.


  1. What a great post. Almost makes me want a puppy! What a cutie Maisie is. May she bring you and your family many many (more) years of happiness

  2. Great blog, and so very true about dogs. Also Maisie is a beautiful beagle!

  3. Thanks for dropping by, Pam and Rona. Pets definitely give as good as they get, but they're work no matter the species.