Tails From The Field: Baby Dog Whisperer

My clients were expecting a visit from their daughter and 18 month old granddaughter. They were concerned about how their golden retriever puppy would behave around the baby. Max was your typical gregarious and easily excitable puppy...which translates to jumping and mouthing that might scare or hurt a toddler. So, they hired me to help introduce the two youngsters.

The baby came into the house and took control right away. The puppy was bigger, stronger and more agile than the toddler but this little girl was surprisingly assertive and already wise to the use of tools. She was drawn immediately to the ex-pen which was full of dog toys. As she made a beeline towards the pen the puppy got in her path and tried to lick her face. The toddler used both hands and pushed the pup’s face away while turning her own face to the side and continued on her course towards the ex-pen. She went into the pen, claimed it for herself and kept the dog out. She used the “front door” (the hinged panel of the ex-pen) to block and nudge the puppy away. Once she got the puppy out of the way she closed herself in the pen and began “remodeling” by tossing some of the dog toys out of it. Boom! Space claimed, resource controlled, leadership established. This all happened within minutes of her arrival.

This was fascinating to observe. It was also interesting to see how the adults in the room were so eager to stop the child from doing what came naturally to her. They felt she was being too rough and told her, “Be gentle with the puppy.” This response is understandable and, in most cases, good advice. However, in this case, I felt the child had the right idea. I said, “Let’s allow this to play out for a second.” All went well with minimal adult interference.

Here’s the fascinating part of this story:

In my work I have to explain the importance of leadership to clients on a daily basis. No matter what behavior problems they are experiencing, lack of leadership (or a misunderstanding of what leadership means) is often at the root of it. Yet here’s a little baby, she can barely walk, and she’s instinctively implementing “the secrets of leadership” that literally pay my bills. That’s incredible! I dubbed her the “Baby Dog Whisperer.”

Let me explain leadership so you can fully appreciate this story.

A large part of leadership has to do with controlling resources. Most people think of controlling food by making the dog sit before feeding or do a trick before giving a treat. What few people think of is the controlling of space. No, not outer space, the space around your body or around your house. Space is an important resource.

Here are the four space related leadership exercises I teach on a daily basis:

  1. Playing Hard To Get: Don't share any affection without first inviting the dog into your personal space. Ignore any uninvited invasion of your space. If a nudge is needed, do so without engaging with the dog. That means don’t look at the dog, look somewhere else so the dog understands that you’re busy. This is what I call a “non-engaging correction.” Yes, you can share affection but on your terms.
  2. The Walk Through: Do not allow a dog to control the way you move through space. Many dogs will cut you off or jump on you when you’re walking around. Don’t play into this game. Just continue walking forward as if you don’t see them. Obviously, don’t soccer kick the dog and avoid stepping on their toes.
  3. No Go Zones: Keeping the dog out of certain rooms of the house, such as the kitchen, or keeping them off the furniture are examples of controlling the space in your house.
  4. Waiting At Doors: Controlling space also includes not allowing dogs to go through doors or gates without permission.

Let’s compare that to our baby dog whisperer.

She demanded respect for her personal space by ignoring the puppy while giving a “non-engaging” nudge with her hands as she continued walking with a sense of purpose. That’s two out of the four tips right there...Playing Hard To Get and The Walk Through.
Our little dog whisperer then proceeded without hesitation to take over the ex-pen and keep the puppy out via controlling the entrance gate. That’s the other two right there...No-Go Zones and Waiting At Doors.

Let’s compare that to the average adult.

Dog lovers simply can’t resist sharing affection with a puppy that approaches them. They allow puppies to invade their personal space without invitation AND they tend to do this while the puppy is in an overstimulated state. They let puppies jump on them and lick their face. They let them cuddle on the couch, sleep in their bed, hang out in the kitchen and barge through the doorways. When things get far enough out of control they will try to teach the puppy to stop by making eye contact and saying things like, “No, no bite, stop it, no bark, off, off, off…” Pretty much the opposite of the toddler.

Why would a toddler have better instincts than their parents?

I can’t say for sure but I have theories.

  1. Fairy Tales: From an early age we are entertained and lulled to sleep with stories of animals with human qualities. Not only can the animals understand human language, they can often talk themselves. Some can even sing, dance, drive cars, solve mysteries and fight crime! Sure, we know this is just make believe but I think the hypnotic effects of these stories on the developing human brain actually does diminish our instincts for communicating with animals correctly. The toddler had simply not yet been affected by these stories.
  2. Anthropomorphism: Whether it’s due to fairy tales or not, humans tend to see dogs as “babies” and not as the animals that they are. This is called anthropomorphism. The toddler simply saw the puppy as a peer or as competition for the play space which her human brain and opposable thumbs allowed her to control.
  3. Use Your Words: As children we are told to “use our words” to negotiate conflicts. This may be good advice for humans but the animal kingdom simply doesn’t work that way. Animals don’t have words...and neither did our baby dog whisperer. The communication was simple, primitive, instinctual and primarily physical...the opposite of how we are taught to be “civilized” human beings.

The Importance of Safety and Supervision:

Just to be clear, I am NOT suggesting that toddlers should be allowed to do whatever comes naturally to them around dogs. Young children should NEVER be left unsupervised around dogs. Children being rough or confrontational with dogs can be very dangerous. Clearly most dogs would win the battle if they decided to get confrontation in return. In the case of tiny puppies or toy dog breeds a child may frighten or injure the dog. However, the child in this story was unusually masterful in her assertiveness and relatively gentle use of force. Plus, the puppy was very friendly and I was supervising from an arm’s reach away.

“Tails From The Field” is a series of true stories from Chad Culp’s experience in the field of professional dog training. Some details, such as names and breeds, may have been changed for privacy protection. 

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-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2018