How Your Small Dog Thinks

Dogs learn how to be dogs from each other, a process that begins with their mother and littermates. Within the litter, personality differences emerge — the pushiest one at feeding time, the one that always came out on top in a puppy wrestling match, the submissive one that the others pushed around, or the lazy one that would rather nap than play. Its mother and littermates formed the puppy's first pack, and now it needs to learn how to act in your human pack.

If yours was a dominant pup with its littermates, it may be just as pushy with you. If it was shy and submissive, it may initially act that way in your house too. The little newcomer will be experimenting and testing to figure out just where it fits into this new pack. It's all about rank, and your actions and reactions will teach the pup where it stands in the pecking order.

When you give your dog a firm correction, you are establishing your higher rank. Over time, similar incidents are likely to occur with every member of its new human pack. The response of each family member to the puppy's actions will determine its ultimate ranking. To understand how your pup thinks, it helps if you learn to think like it does.

Within the litter, the mother dog set the limits. When her demanding pups want to nurse on demand, she rebuffs their efforts if she isn't ready. Nipping and biting are also curtailed by Mom, and the siblings too. Her way of admonishing is to scruff the misbehaving offspring and remove it from the fray, while a littermate might howl in pain and withdraw from the play fighting, calling a halt to the fun. Such checks and balances help teach a pup what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Similarly, when your mouthy little pup gives you a nip, give a forceful “No!” and curtail the activity at once.

Hitting a pup to curtail biting behavior is not only inhumane, it often has the opposite effect. Your hand becomes a target, encouraging the dog to grab hold and play rough, just like it did with its littermates. Habitually hitting a dog will also cause it to bite to defend itself.

Dogs have an innate desire to please their pack leader. They also take any kind of attention as a reward, so put a stop to objectionable behavior and remove the dog from the situation. Waving your arms, yelling, and pushing it away might be interpreted as an invitation to continue this fun game. The only way to train your pup is to understand that it is an animal and to think like an animal yourself, setting limits and establishing your role as its undisputed leader.

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