Anthropomorphising animals isn’t a good idea and usually gets us into all kinds of trouble. Dogs are not furry babies. They are their own species, with a totally different set of day to day priorities & communication signals. However spending time with nieces, nephews and god-children over the years, I’m amazed that the toddler stage in kids has so many similarities with puppy development. Both in terms of how puppies explore the world and how we deal with the frustrations such interaction may bring, puppies and toddlers aren’t all that different at all.
Walking anywhere takes forever!
If you’ve tried rushing somewhere with a toddler, you’ll know it’s impossible not to investigate and question every single leaf, anthill and cloud. They bumble along exploring the world with surprising interest as you try to encourage, cajoul and sometimes carry them onward. Now how many new puppy owners find they get no-where on a walk? Pups will sit down, refuse to move, sniff, sniff some more, chase a leaf, spook at, then check out an unusual object. For both kids and young dogs, with distractions aplenty, everything needs to be investigated, in case it’s not safe, in case it tastes good, in case it gives feedback. Despite what owners often tell me, there is nothing wrong with your puppy and you need to give them time to learn about the world. Don’t plan your walks from A to B. Plan your walks according to what your pup is learning. Interact, have fun, encourage and explore together. Give them a chance to learn about the world, not just march through it at adult human pace because you’ve only left 10 mins to get yourself home again. Allow them to step on, step in, put feet up (inanimate objects only obviously), sniff, grab, live.
‘I absolutely must not miss out on the action.’
Every parent knows that toddlers need quality sleep to recharge and that quality sleep means a quiet space, ideally dark and cosy, without external stimulus. When toddlers are over tired and over stimulated, they get cranky, which means they can’t settle down and are less likely to get quality sleep. Guess what puppy owners? Your dog is no different. If there is even the least exciting amount of activity going on, your puppy will not have the maturity to take himself off for a sleep, unless he’s totally exhausted. If you overstimulate him (post-play, post-walk, post-visitor, post-kids-coming-in-from-school), and you don’t then allow him to recharge, this is likely to result in biting, racing around as if his brain is on fire and generally being a looney. Most owners report this behaviour early evening, when puppy should be in bed, asleep, but in fact it goes on throughout the day also. Make opportunities for quality sleep time. Put him away somewhere dark, warm, cosy and boring so he can catch up on sleep and avoid becoming cranky & over tired. Most pups needs at least 14hrs sleep a day. Make sure he has the chance to get it!
Everything is potentially dangerous.
My friends husband told me in despair one day that being a parent to a toddler was really just about making sure they don’t kill themselves. If something can be climbed on, fallen off or tripped over then it’s likely your toddler has done so. A puppy’s ability to get into (dangerous) mischief is also phenomenally high. The number of puppies I’ve known who have quite seriously injured themselves by throwing themselves from a height is huge. Such injury can affect a dog for its entire life and cause all kinds of problems. Leave a well fitting harness on your pup (except when left alone) as they explore. Plenty of material there to grab to help them up, help them down, guide them under & ultimately prevent injury. Supervise, supervise, supervise and when you can’t supervise, use a crate or puppy safe area.
Show, don’t tell.
Dogs don’t speak English. So no matter how many times you tell them something (even in the loud, firm voice someone in the park told you to use), they may not necessarily understand what it is you’re trying to communicate. If your toddler had climbed on the table, you would tell them to get off, then take their hand and guide them to safety. It’s known as guided learning and pups can learn in exactly the same way. Rather than waste your breath repeating things over and over, tell them, then show them. For example, using a lightweight nylon leash, I might say ‘leave it’ to my pup, then gently move them away from the bin, rewarding them with a tasty treat when they come with me. They learn ‘Leave it’ means, come away from that and you’ll get rewarded. Yes, you’ll have to repeat it but all training is about putting patterns of behaviour into your dog’s mind. At least your pup is learning what you intend him to learn, and not something else entirely. No-one is being shouted at. Owners aren’t frustrated and pups aren’t being scared or wound-up by the learning process.
‘That looks tasty.’
Parents know that toddlers put everything into their mouth. It’s called ‘oral fixation’ and it’s a developmental stage, usually associated with teething, soothing and exploring the world through their mouth. Have you ever stopped to think that pups are going through exactly the same stage of development? They just have sharper teeth, and more access to chewable stuff than the average toddler. Providing safe outlets for puppy chewing needs (stuffed frozen Kongs, antlers, Nylabones) and removing the dangers from puppy’s reach can help. Additionally, training a reliable ‘drop’ or swap for times when puppy has something dangerous in his mouth is invaluable. It will help avoid vet visits to have swallowed items surgically removed. It will avoid emergency room visits to treat a bite from a reluctant dog refusing to give up a stolen item. Win, win for all!
So the next time you’re getting frustrated when your puppy refuses to walk, or flings himself around in excitement, take a step back. Try to think how you’d manage things if he was an 18 month old child with limited verbal communication skills, huge potential to injure himself and a crazy interest in a world we see as mundane. Dogs aren’t furry humans, but as pups, they have more in common with toddlers than most puppy owners have ever considered.