How Raising a Puppy is Like Parenting

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was studying to become a teacher, a particular study stuck in my mind. It was about the 30 million word gap.

By the time children started school some had heard 30 million more words than others. They had been spoken to more often, heard a wider variety of words and much more praise than discouragement. These children started school with a strong ability to communicate and their progress at school was quick.

The children who had heard 30 million less words had been spoken to less often, from a more limited vocabulary and heard much more discouragement than praise. Their ability to communicate was more limited and although they made progress at school, it was much harder for them than the others.

However, there is more to an enriched environment than language. Having now done some work in preschools I can tell you their curriculum is incredible. Before formal education starts children need to build skills FOR learning. They are given opportunities to develop and use their imagination, logic, physical and social skills.

Simple contracts, clear expectations and explicit teaching develop independence, self management, team work and conflict resolution. The children also strengthen motor skills like run, jump, climb, hop, skip, balance. As well as gross motor skills, there are fine motor skills to be learnt – use a pencil/ paintbrush/screwdriver/scissors etc.  Children also need cross body activities. (Did you know that girls tend to do more cross body activities than boys and this helps with reading?) This link discusses what they are and why the brain needs them. Language adds to all of these experiences, encouraging the children's efforts and helping them learn to communicate their thinking, feelings and choices.

What does this have to do with dog ownership?
Childhood shapes a child’s brain. Puppy-hood shapes a puppy’s brain. The brain grows when it makes connections and experiences build connections.

Give your puppy the opportunity to have lots of positive experiences - going places, doing things, meeting other people and animals. Even little things like walking on different surfaces, traveling in different vehicles and eating out of different bowls provides variety. See this link for suggestions.

TRAIN your puppy in short focused sessions, so the puppy learns to manage his/ her own behavior and to respond to you. This is an ideal time to teach the puppy to think for him/ herself in shaping sessions. These pups then become keen learners who look for opportunities to experiment with the environment and interact with you.

Clearly teach the puppy what certain words and signals mean. Build the pup's ability to understand you and learn to understand what your puppy is trying to tell you. Study body language and sounds dogs make, then use what you've learned to recognize the feedback your pup is giving you. The mistakes the pup makes will give you information. Some possibilities are: overlong sessions; pup unable to understand what you mean; you're unable to understand what the pup means; too many distractions; pup too tired, anxious or overexcited; reinforcers too low or high value etc.

When you aren’t consciously training, the pup is still learning, so tire the pup with a game and/or short training session (mind work is tiring!), then confine him/ her with enrichment toys when you can’t supervise.

In a safe and sensible way give your puppy the opportunity to develop strength and co-ordination - run/ jump/ climb/ paddle/ swim  (in situations that a young growing body can manage safely.)  Don’t forget the fine motor skills – balance/ take treats softly/ target objects with nose or paw etc.

Look for any little way you can enrich your puppy’s life AND teach what you want him/her to learn. Prevent mistakes which could be risky or annoying (chewing the wrong thing/ running away in public places) but allow useful investigation and errors in a safe environment.

Like a child, your pup’s early experiences are the foundation of their future. You are literally BUILDING your puppy’s brain. Do it thoughtfully, but also patiently and lightheartedly. Remember this is a baby, not a miniature adult. Find silly, fun things for your baby dog to do. Go at the puppy’s emotional and physical pace and keep experiences safe and positive. Above all - enjoy the journey!

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Positively Expert: Diana Bird

Diana lives in NZ. She is intensely interested in behaviour, teaching, learning, and self development. She strives to generalise positive reinforcement ideas to her life and relationships with other people.


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