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Animal Behavior

Practical Solutions for Common Puppy Behavior Problems

Learn what to do when your puppy barks at people at the door and bites at you.

By Dr. Katherine Albro Houpt, VMD, PhD, DACVB

Like most terriers, Yuki the Westie is a terror. She bites and barks and chews and tears around the house at top speed. Like most babies she is so angelic when she is asleep and so cute when she plays with her stuffed lizard that is as long as she is, but she can be a pest. She is only four months old, but her training began when she was two months old, the day she entered my house. It was really easy to teach her to sit. When a treat was held over her nose and moved slowly back her nose went up and her rump down. Viola! She was sitting and magically a piece of hot dog appeared in her mouth. Sitting comes so naturally to her now that she sits whenever I ask her to do something, in case that is what I wanted her to do. Yuki is very smart but she has a lot of trouble with English. I can be sympathetic because I find it very difficult to learn a new language – I failed French in sixth grade. Yuki learned Down very quickly in response to a hand signal. I held the piece of food in front of her nose and then lowered it to the floor. She throws herself on her elbows promptly, but if I say “Down” without lowering my hand to floor she just gazes at me and may sit. What I must do is pair the word ”Down” with her sinking to the floor a few hundred times and then she will know what the word means.

I tried to introduce Yuki to a hundred people in her first hundred days. I took her to exercise class, on the bike trail where she would see lots of both bikes and people and to the clinic where I see troubled pets and their owners. I made sure she met children including toddlers and men. Most of the men in my life are bearded so I went out of my way to find a few clean-shaven ones for her to meet. I felt I had done a good job of socializing her to people, but I forgot that people coming to the house are different from those met on neutral territory. In hindsight I should have ordered something every day from Amazon so she would be habituated to strange vehicles in the drive and strange people on the porch. The reason I was unaware of the problem was that dogs don’t really begin to bark until they are about three months old and one day I heard this very loud, very aggressive sound coming from my 10 pound puppy who was standing very tall with tail and ears stiff. I was horrified at my territorially aggressive dog. Of course you should not punish aggression because it will escalate and she would think that a strange car in the drive means shouts and swats from me. Instead, I taught her to go to her place. Her place is a chair around the corner and five feet from the door. At first, I would pat the chair where she likes to sit with me in the evenings and as she jumped into it I would say “Place” and give her a treat. Now all I have to do is point and say “Place” and she jumps into the chair. This is a work in progress because so few people come to visit, but she has also learned that many of the strangers come inside and entertain her by installing a dishwasher or building cabinets.

When she is over-tired she starts to grab at pant legs or even hands. Rather than discipline her I have her do a few commands like sit, touch my hand, and down. That seems to calm her down probably because she can control her environment. If she sits when I say “Sit’ a bit of salami may come her way. Then she is able to lie quietly on my lap with a chew toy while her owner watches mindless television.

By Dr. Katherine Albro Houpt, VMD, PhD, DACVB

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