Puppies and the “Dog Whisperer”

Joker, the soon to be service dog in training

Joker, the soon to be service dog in training

This is Joker, the new Dane puppy of my friend, Roni. Joker is also intended to become a service dog, just like Kenai.  What a cutie! That face just begs to be smooched.

There was a comment that got me thinking about a page I should write: how to modify the principles of the “Dog Whisperer”, Cesar Milan, for young puppies. If you follow Cesar’s mantra of exercise, discipline, and affection, as I do, you will find that puppies are not the same as adults! They need exercise, discipline, and affection too, but how you go about it needs some modifications.

Puppy capacities are different than an adult dog, just as human children can’t be approached and treated as if they were adults. Cesar’s work isn’t really “training” so much as creating an emotionally balanced pack. Puppies need a stable environment, but they also need training because they haven’t learned the doggie ettiquitte that an adult already knows.

Personally, I have found that a combination of Cesar’s method and positive reward training is the most effective way to teach a puppy how to live happily in my “pack”. Combining Cesar’s approach, which stabilizes the pup’s learning environment, with positive training for sits, socializing, and play will produce a happy and well mannered puppy.

Exercise is obvious in how it applies to puppies. Puppies are energetic, and need lots of frequent exercise to burn some of it off so they can behave well for you. Interactive exercise is the most beneficial for puppies that are learning the rules and dynamics of pack life: dominance, submission, what kind of play is allowed and what isn’t, and how to turn their playfulness on and off at appropriate times.

Fetch is the easiest of the “tire the puppy and teach” at the same time games. You can toss a ball in the back yard, have them swim down a floatie toy and bring it back to you… whatever. The going to get something, then bringing it back and surrendering it to you is a submissive behavior. Dominance and submission aren’t always “serious”: they can be, and often are best absorbed by pups, during play time.

Another interactive exercise that teaches while it tires is recall practice. Puppies investigate, so while they sniff the petunias, you start walking the other direction and call them to come, with lots of excitement. They run to you, to see what is so very fun, recieve affection or a treat, and get to go check something else out. You’ve also taught them a command that can save their life.

Coming when called, to me, is the absolute most important obedience command, and should be taught to every single puppy. If you teach a puppy no other commands, like sit or down or stay, you still need to teach them to come when called! If a pup learns this, they can stop dead and rocket back to you instead of out in the street.

With Great Dane puppies, I am cautious about what kind of exercise they get. Too much heavy duty running, jumping for toys, leaping off perches and the like are the most common culprits in bone and joint injuries. You can walk till you drop and not do any harm to a healthy puppy. But I never, ever, allow or encourage a Great Dane puppy (under 12 months old) to jump.

Discipline has the biggest changes between how an adult dog is treated and how a puppy is treated. You need to teach a puppy not only what you don’t want, but what you do want.  Redirecting after correction, and encouraging are the best ways to teach your pack rules to the little ones.

For instance, a young pup doesn’t know your socks aren’t a toy, because everything is a toy until they learn what isn’t. So when the puppy goes for the socks, a mild verbal correction followed immediately by returning their attention to the fuzzy squeaky toy and a few moments of play will teach both what is and what isn’t acceptable. That is redirecting after correction.

For correcting a puppy, it doesn’t usually take much. A frowning “no”, and maybe a firm poke will often be enough. If the pup doesn’t back away or tries to snatch the sock, they need to learn that that sock is YOURS, and you meant that “no”. So claiming the sock, as Cesar does will get your point across.

Claiming is a preventative sort of correction, because once the pup understands that you own everything, then as pack leader in their minds, you have the right to decide what is played with and what isn’t. It’s easy to do, and can prevent alot of chewed up books or turned over trashcans! The attitude you do it with will determine whether or not the pup “gets” the idea: calm, patient, but definite. 

To claim the sock the pup won’t let alone, you stand up, step on the sock, and stand over it like you own it (because you do). At the same time, you can use your fingers in a claw position to finger bite the puppy that hasn’t backed away. They should back away on their own, not be shoved back, which is willingly surrendering the sock to your posession.

It’s the same with any object or space: the toy, the garage they aren’t allowed in, the cat, the good couch in the front room, the 2 or 3 foot area around the door they aren’t allowed to charge into. Claim anything the puppy is interested in that you don’t want them to mess with.

Once the pup has backed away, then the incident is over, and your attitude returns to fun so you can redirect them to what can be played with. And make the toy more fun than the sock! Swish it around, run off with it, play tuggie (be sure you win!), or any thing else the puppy enjoys. A few moments of this will suffice to make the toy or bone better to play with than the sleeping cat on the footstool!

You don’t need to be angry, frustrated, or irritable with a young puppy. They are persistant little creatures by nature. The wolf that gives up too quick will go hungry, so persistance is instinctive. Patience is more than a virtue. They just have to learn what you want and don’t want, and if you really are going to enforce the rules of the pack.

It takes as long as it takes, and most puppies will need several firm reminders that the dishtowels are permanently off limits. As the puppy gets older, the intensity of your correction and attitude might need to be stronger, but patience is the name of the game. Older pups will often test you about what they know is out of bounds, just to see what they can pull off.

Encouraging behaviors you want is just idiotproof with young puppies! It’s so easy. Rare is the ball of fur that doesn’t care about your attention or treats. First, you have to decide what you want your puppy to become as an adult. If you want a calm and quiet companion, then recognize and reward any calm behavior they offer you.

Not barking or returning to their bone when the neighbor’s dog starts, deserves a reward. Laying down at your feet earns a treat and some affection. Enjoying a nice puppy massage or tummy rubs encourages a puppy to quiet down at your touch or soft voice. Sitting while you prepare their food, or before getting attention is a wonderful habit to reward.

If what you want is an active, competition dog, then look for behaviors that mimic the training. Burrowing under the blankets and coming out the other side gets lots of love if you want an agility dog to run through tunnels. A pup intended for tracking that follows the scent trail of a favorite chew toy you’ve hidden, needs some “good boy, find, good girl” (and maybe some help) until they find it. A pup that watches you move but stays still needs rewards if you want an obedience trial dog.

Affection is the tool that encourages the pup to repeat their actions. So if you’re giving the pup affection, even if they are ripping apart your purse or nipping your ankles, you will have more ripping and nipping. If you give affection for peeing outside or fetching your slippers, you will get more peeing outside and fetching. You will get the adult dog behavior you rewarded (or didn’t correct) in a puppy.

Once you know what you want from your pup, you can shape their behavior by giving overt affection only when they do what you want. We humans tend to believe that loving a puppy is kisses, hugs, and petting. Those things are affection and affection is a behavior, love is an emotion. Dogs feel our love without overt affection. They are keenly aware of what we are feeling, so all you have to do to let the pup know you love them, is to feel it when they are near.

Puppies really need lots of affection and reward. If their little world is happy and fun, you will likely have a happy and fun dog. A puppy that doesn’t get much affection or encouragement, just a bunch of corrections, will often be unsure of themselves as adults. That’s the benefit of positive reward training: you find yourself looking for things to praise and reward, thereby finding your focus is on how good your puppy is instead of how often they misbehave.

One last thought, is that shaping your puppy’s behavior with exersice, discipline, and affection doesn’t change the puppy’s personality. You may have gotten a puppy with the intention of having them become a search and rescue dog. But as they live with you  and grow, you may find they simply doesn’t like that activity, or don’t have the natural tendencies to succeed in S&R.

Accepting the puppy for who they are, not just what you want from them, is part of loving them. You can shape behavoir, but trying to change the puppy’s basic nature will only be emotionally damaging. If the pup won’t cut it in search and rescue, or doesn’t want to be a working dog, then we need to respect them enough not to force the job on them.

With Kenai, the first puppy I’ve gotten with a specific purpose in mind, I have times when I question if I’m asking him to become something that he just doesn’t want to be. He isn’t naturally given to being attentive, and that is a trait I am having to work against. So I encourage attentiveness with affection and reward as much as I can.

But if a day comes that adult Kenai looks at me, with his harness, his pack, his vest, and his eyes say “I don’t want this, Mom”,…if I cannot return the fun and enjoyment to his service with encouragement and reward, then I have to relenquish that. Dogs are living creatures, with emotions and desires. They should be respected as such, and loved for no other reason than they love us.

Leave a comment


  1. This was a wonderful article. Thanks.

  2. I just love dogs lol.


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