Monday, February 27, 2017

Puppy training

When it became clear that we might be moving to Houston, my husband made two promises to our kids, one (relatively) reasonable and one utterly inexplicable, coming from him: he promised them a house with a pool, and he promised them a dog.

The pool is beautiful! We love having it. And last week, much to my husband's chagrin, the kids held him to Promise #2, and we now have a 9-week-old puppy from the Houston SPCA.

I grew up around dogs and have wanted one for years. I didn't press the point, however, because my husband doesn't even like dogs (that's the inexplicable part). I insisted on a puppy because I wanted the best shot at getting said husband to like the dog, and because I hoped thereby not to "inherit" a bunch of behaviors we might not be up to curbing; after all, though I've shared a house with ten or eleven dogs over the years, I have never had the primary responsibility of training one. And Chili is adorable. She's less than five pounds at the moment, part terrier and part something else, possibly German shepherd. Things are going really well so far, we think; she is happy in her crate at night and when we go out, and while she still has about one accident a day, it's when, for example, Roomba is rumbling around and I am not paying sufficient attention to her state of mind. She's doing well walking around the block with us.

So my dilemma is this: I am using what I can of Cesar Millan's methods, all that "calm assertive energy" stuff, and to curb her puppy-biting, doing the thing where you use your hand like a mouth to hold her firmly but not harshly to the floor and put pressure on her shoulder and chest until she relaxes. It's all working beautifully. She is happy to see us, plays with all of us, and is learning fast, including things like sitting at the door and waiting to be invited in or out. But... now I read that Cesar's Way is not uniformly smiled upon by dog trainers, some of whom at least prefer to use what they call "positive reinforcement" and view Millan's pack-psych methods as instilling hopelessness rather than relaxation (or, as Cesar himself calls it, "submission").

This is one of those times when I feel I have to go with my gut. This puppy is a dog, not a child. She cannot make complex associations. I cannot reason with her. Her genetic background is in a pack, not a human family. Yes, she's the product of extensive domestication and purposeful breeding, but she is still a dog, with a likely mix of den-hunting and herding reflexes. And, she's in a human household, filled with things she must respect and people to whom she must respond, and she's going to be living in a world that is not at all under her control and is only partly in our control. It simply rings true with me that this tiny puppy needs to feel confident that we know what we're doing and that we understand that she needs to know where she stands. People (many of them) thrive on personal freedom; wolves thrive on the comfort of structure provided by the pack - not just the alpha - and heavily bred dogs like terriers and shepherds thrive on knowing their job and the comfort of structure provided by a human director. As Cesar Millan points out, the "pack leader" role is not defined by aggression, but about "dominance" in his terminology; I would use the word "confidence" instead, because frankly I think some of his detractors are among those who, consciously or not, want dogs to be children and see "dominance" and "submission" as negative because a modern Good Parent doesn't want to dominate her children.

I want this cute little puppy of ours to feel confident in our confidence. It will never be her job to decide what is or isn't a threatening situation; she should always look to us for that determination. Even when she's a grownup dog, she will not ever be equal to the humans in this house - she's not our child nor our toy, she's an animal we have chosen to share our space and to whom we have a heavy obligation, as the ones responsible for caring for her. And so I'm going with Cesar. The "professor of dog psychology from the Harvard Extension School" here seems deliberately to misread Millan's TV show as demonstrating punitive training methods instead of using what seems to be very effective dog psychology to work on rehabilitating dogs with serious behavior issues. I'm trying to train a puppy not ever to have serious behavior issues, and, as I used the most natural methods I could find and that our life could accommodate, such as babywearing, long breastfeeding, co-sleeping in a side crib, child-led weaning and toileting, when training - yes, training - our children from infancy through the age of three or so, when reasoning could take the upper hand, I think that this puppy will benefit from my acting more like a mother dog and less like a doting human parent.

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