Passing the puppy

Autumn is my time of year for clearing up and sorting out, the wet weather has driven me inside and a box of old training material is in front of me. After 20 years of learning about dogs and their behaviour there is plenty to sort and it is always interesting to look back. Looking back to material, reminisce, reflect and sometimes wince.

Today is a wince because I've come across the old material on 'pass the puppy' a staple of 'puppy parties' back in the day.

You are probably younger than I, have no idea what passing the puppy is, and for you lucky folk, here is a brief description. At some point during a puppy class we would ask all the participants to sit in a circle, on the floor or chairs and following a signal, pass their pups clockwise around the circle, an early form of speed dating for dogs!

As with many historic training protocols, good intention was at the root and this is important to remember. 'Socialisation, socialisation, socialisation' was our mantra, we believed that many of the behaviour problems of the day were due to lack of socialisation, and our education was skewed towards increasing exposure to novelty - new sights, smells, sounds, people, dogs and environments.

Pass the puppy, was designed to give the dog greatest exposure to a small group of people in a short space of time, effective and efficient, so we thought....

With experience and hindsight we were encouraging people to hand their new dogs over to non-qualified, inexperienced strangers just at the point where they needed to know that their owner represented safety and security. At this stage young dogs need to learn how to tolerate handling by owners and professionals for their future health and wellbeing, being grabbed, held or restrained by a novice or their children will not accomplish this.

Passing the puppy was too much all at once - the sights, sounds and smells of the classroom plus the other dogs, people, children, the training team can trigger anxiety in many youngsters. On top of this your own stress levels may be raised, you are in a new environment, learning new things and your pup has picked up on this. Then on top of this the pup gets handed over to strangers, turning an exercise that was designed to encourage approach, confidence and tolerance into one that teaches new people are to be avoided and your owner is not to be trusted.

Different pups show signs of stress in a variety of ways, these are often missed or misinterpreted:

  • Puppy appears to be joining in, but periodically stops to yawn, scratch, shake

  • Puppy freezes, sits still, lies under the chair or behind legs

  • Puppy bites or fights

  • Puppy struggles, twists or flips onto back

All of these are designed to create space, allow the pup to get away. Leads, well meaning people and a small space can all work to make the dog feel even more trapped, leading to an increase in anxiety.

Other owners are not experts, they have come to class to learn. Young dogs are vulnerable and need a positive experience with handling to learn how to tolerate it, and who knows, some may even come to relish it. It is possible to teach a dog to be examined, groomed, vaccinated etc without fighting, biting or needing sedation. It is always easier to teach this positively from the beginning rather than unpicking negative experiences later on. To avoid as many negative experiences as possible we now teach:

  • Handling of own dogs, moving around the body carefully, taking on board any stress responses and adjusting our training.

  • Exploring different ways to use hands on the dogs, vary the type of touch, pressure, speed, whole hand or finger tips?

  • A breeds grooming needs, coat type, appropriate brushes, combs or scissors.

  • Standing with stillness - whilst sit might seem a good position for control, most vets groomers and owners need a dog to be standing still.

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