PUPPY MENTALITY - A Trait for Life?

By George Hobson

Copyright 2002 revised 2005

Per kind permission George Hobson.

Mentally, puppies are like a sponge in that they soak up everything,  and if they've been properly raised will approach almost anything without a preconceived attitude.  As they mature, some of this predisposition to  "I wonder what that is,  it might be interesting"  attitude wears off, and the concept of  "you can't teach an old dog new tricks"  leads most owners to treat the dog in just that manner.  To keep or develop the puppy-like interest in life, we need to change the owner attitude about the dog's mental development.  Doing both can contribute to the enjoyment and productivity of the companionship enjoyed by the dog, and the owner.

Some training approaches seek to erase the puppy traits for a number of reasons.  It seems that this is most commonly done because it overtly demonstrates a human dominance over the dog,  and/or  from a different semantic description, the dog is  "well behaved".  Maintaining a puppy mentality is not in conflict with having an obedient and mannerly dog.  For pointing breeds I like to train them while maintaining a lot of the puppy mentality where possible.  It is more difficult to accomplish this with family pets because the owners don't generally have a clear image of what their dog's job is, or what the dog will become as it gets older.

First time owners seem to be particularly clue less,  and that's why they seek a quite  (intimidated?),  obedient  (submissive?) dog  (possession?),  that is only in their lives  (little to no daily effort?)  when it's convenient to them  (quality time?).  They are often especially naive that the cute puppy can/will turn into a grouch,  and that an older grouch with ailments may become actively antisocial.  A puppy mentality is part of preventing this.

Admittedly,  I'm a spoiled dog trainer.  Primarily training pointing breeds for hunting,  I get less of the problems faced by other trainers.  And importantly,  the owners generally understand what the dog's job is - or are very likely to accept my definition of it.  By asking,  "Is there any reason you wouldn't want a dog that's fun to be with at home as well as when you're hunting?"  I can get a positive lead into the following points about the desirability for a state of puppy mentality in their dog.  Here's what I want to have in a dog's attitude:

  1. Thinking every new thing I want to do will be interesting for all its life: training is good.
  2. A happy personality:  mentally calm and confident.
  3. Trusting of everyone and every other dog:  thoroughly socialized.
  4. Never getting tired of looking for "something new": a mentally alert and positive attitude.
  5. Complete trust in me and every other human not to intentionally hurt it: the dog has chosen me as its leader.
  6. Know when it's time for business and when it's time for fun:obedience and manners.

There are of course jobs that dogs have which make all or some of my above desires unacceptable  (e.g. guard dogs, herding work),  and then my approach may be inappropriate.  I guess that's why I love the hunting dog and pet work best.

I don't see rapid and correct obedience to commands of mannerly control  (here,  sit,  down,  off,  heel,  etc.)  to be in conflict with  business/hunting  and  training/maintaining  for the 6 items above.  I require proper deportment in the appropriate settings.  (Children may race around the house at home, but know darn well not to do it when visiting.)  Correcting a dog that intentionally disobeys a trained command does not bring resentment if the correction is appropriate in the dog's mind.  Training that is demanding and challenging, and high standards are not punishment.

From the viewpoint of a pointing dog trainer, here are some thoughts on how to accomplish my six points of puppy mentality in work and play.

1.   Training.
    a. Keep the training of required tasks interesting when possible, and take a break in long sessions of repetitive drills.
   b. Find new, interesting things to do as a part of training sessions. Always quit on a success.
2.   Read the dog.
   a. Read the dog during training, and don't train a "down" dog.
   b. Play is training, and should be fun but not a license to misbehave. It should have a training goal, and be careful not to inadvertently teach undesirable behaviors
3.   Build a trusting relationship.
   a. Give the dog things to do within its capabilities which require it to be trusting of you:  teeter board, high board walk, jump off a dock into water-- be imaginative, and from the dog's point of view look to every dog for what challenges it with a safe and positive outcome.
   b. Don't allow aggressive behavior in your dog, and don't be around dogs that are aggressive.
4. Mental stimulation is important for the dog's lifetime. Find something that "looks interesting", and be interested while encouraging the dog to do so. I take my personal dogs on walks around the farm, and will sometimes stop at a mouse hole and encourage them to help me "find it". Their tails get to moving at warp speed and we all dig and scuff about trying to find it. They know this is a "permissive" behavior and isn't appropriate when business (hunting) is being conducted.
5. Be your dog's chosen leader. In the canine world leaders don't have to threaten their subordinates, like the best human leaders they lead by a charismatic presence. Leaders are in charge, and don't let their subordinates get hurt or threatened. That means you don't hurt your dog, and you don't permit others to be hostile to it. I've got acquaintances that are just not dog people, and I don't let them around my dogs. Their manner of petting and other actions just scream to the dog "I don't really like dogs and you are a pain in the @#$. If I liked dogs I'd have one and I don't!" Remember that dogs read even subtle body language VERY well. If you want a people friendly dog, then people need to be friendly to the dog.
6. Teach the dog commands for start and stop, and business versus play. Dogs live most happily in a world where everything is black and white. The better the leader the more effectively he creates the dog's life in terms of black and white for the dog.
   a. I never just turn out my dogs from the truck when hunting. They get out, are put at sit while I put the beeper collars on, and then are put at down until I'm ready. Then I give them a "go pee" (I'm not too socially sensitive in my language except around ladies), and recall them to heel before leaving the truck. They are released to hunt by whistle. The start work whistle has blown - it's black and white.
   b. Field training is done from standing, and water work done from sitting: it's black and white.
   c. Play is initiated with "OK, lets do some stuff!" It is stopped with "Enough" and a command to heel to clearly bring an end to the activity.

I also spit into my dogs mouths: a very senior-to-subordinate action in the canine world.  Puppies and subordinate dogs are always licking the muzzles of socially senior pack members.  Spitting into a dog's mouth is not to be done if you can't read a dog's willingness to be voluntarily subordinate: you can get badly hurt. Spit serves me as a top reward to the dogs for doing something very well, or as a reassurance. Unlike treats, I've always got my voice, my hands, and spit with me for the appropriate level of reward. My dogs actually seek for me to do this. Try it with your own dog, or perhaps one that isn't, and be prepared for one of three general reactions:  First  -- Dog doesn't reject the action, may be a bit puzzled at first or immediately ask for more. In any case, the dog will readily continue to accept the action.  Second -- Dog acts offended and retreats, but does not become unfriendly.  Will return if called, but clearly indicates it is unsure of its status.  Third   -- Dog rejects the action, hackles may rise, and you need a new nose and lots of stitches.  The first reaction is the most indicative of existing puppy mentality.  Always be cautious and prepared for the third.

Any one that believes money can't buy happiness has never bought a puppy. Perhaps we can keep some of that for the life of our dogs.

First published in the Safe Hands Journal, International Association of Canine Professionals, Volume 3, Issue 4, Winter 2002/3. Revised January 2005.

Eastwood Kennel
George K. Hobson
4801 Ben Williams Rd
Columbia, MO 65201

George Hobson is a professional dog trainer, and the owner of Eastwood Kennel in Columbia, Missouri.  He is the senior trainer at Eastwood, which features lakes and several hundred acres for upland and versatile field dog training.  A specially designed pond for puppies and young dogs ensures their successful start in water work on their way to becoming a partner in the field or duck blind.  Boarding for training and private lessons for dogs of all ages, in obedience and manners required for being a lifetime companion, are part of the training regimen offered where every dog is under his personal supervision.

Eastwood's philosophy is that a well mannered dog is the one that will always be a pleasure to own, and that it will be as welcome in a hotel as at home or in the field.  George is a member of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association,  a Professional Member of the International Association of Canine Professionals,  and has over 30 years experience in dog training.  You can contact Eastwood Kennel by telephone at 1-573-442-1929, or e-mail him:

Read more of George's Articles at:

Rational Dog Training.

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