03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Puppy Class Almost Ruined My Dad's New Cattledog

When we last left off, I'd dropped Lucy, the 8 week old Australian Cattledog with my parents after taking a week to train her through the puppy Learn to Earn program (See Creating the Perfect Pup in 7 Days) at my house. Before I brought her down, she seemed virtually perfect. She would automatically sit to be petted, to get her leash on, to go out the door, to have her toy tossed, and even when she greeted guests, including young toddlers. She could fetch and would chew on appropriate toys. And she could walk on leash in heel position and come when called even away from playing with other puppies.

Then I brought her to my Dad, with the hopes that if my parents could just continue to reward the behaviors I had just trained she'd be almost as well-behaved for them. It sounded so simple, until on day one at their house she immediately decided, they didn't exist. They were far too slow to deliver the treat while she was behaving or sitting and looking at them, so she'd immediately run off and do something else. And when they intuitively admonished "No" or "Psst" or tried to hold her on a short leash or just pulled her by the leash and collar--all the traditional techniques they had learned back in the 1970's and 80's with their other dogs--she got even wilder!

Luckily, the Puppy Learn to Earn program starts with the puppy on leash at all times when the owners are home but without the owners giving all kinds of mixed signals by trying to boss the pup or manipulate the leash. The leash just served to keep her near my dad thus giving him a better chance to reward calm, sit behavior. After a full day attached to him earning all of the kibble from her meal as rewards throughout the day, Lucy finally started sitting and looking at him. They finally started bonding. And it was a good thing since I would be unable to return to check their progress and give additional instruction for several weeks.

Hints of Lucy's Bad Behavior
In the weeks that I was away, it was clear my dad and Lucy were bonding. "Lucy licks me when I carry her," or "Lucy's doing better at sitting for us," he would report.
But then came the email reports from my mom when I was traveling to attend and lecture on behavior at veterinary conferences. "She's still pottying in the house, what should we do?" "Lucy is chewing on our arms, how come?" " She keeps grabbing her leash on walks. How do we stop that?" Now these seem like typical questions anyone might have, but that would be people who's did not already have a 35-page 100-photo book specifically detailing how their puppy had been trained and how they should continue training the puppy to avoid such problems. So my answers included statements, such as "Did you read and look at the photos on pages 1-8 on how to potty train Lucy, or p 19 on nipping? Or watch the instructional videos I sent on how to perform the exercises?"

The answer was generally, "No." Even though my dad doesn't like to read in English, I had hoped he would at least look at the photos. Yeah, right.

Anyway, based on their reports, when I finally visited them about two weeks after I'd last seen her I wasn't surprised by her bad behavior. On a positive note, my parents had walked her twice a day through the neighborhoods of San Francisco where she greeted many people and received treats for sitting. So she was very comfortable with new people and much more comfortable than 2 weeks ago around cars, buses, crowds of people, as well as fire engines, dump trucks and the other city sounds that and sights that could scare dogs who hadn't received such experiences before 12 weeks of age.

On the other hand two weeks ago we had a sweet puppy who sat for petting, treats, to be greeted, to get leash on and on walks whenever we stopped, now Lucy was a jumping maniac. That in itself wasn't that bad, nor was the fact that she was still an angel when I walked her on leash but a little monster when my dad tried. She would stop and grab leaves or lunge randomly in different directions or grab the leash and play tug. What was really bad was the things she learned in her puppy class. I saw them first hand when I went.

Lucy's Bad Puppy Class
Puppy socialization class starting as close to 8 weeks of age as possible is supposed to solve or prevent a number of problem issues from developing in puppies. Starting socialization well before puppy vaccines are complete often makes the difference between having a dog that integrates nicely into your daily routine both in the hosue and out in public and the dog that needs to be locked in the house or yard because it's fearful and even aggressive towards unfamiliar dogs, people or inanimate objects and sounds.

In class, owners should practice handling their puppies and teaching their puppies that remaining calm to have their feet, ears, tail, mouth examined is good. This is important for routine care as well as specialized veterinary care when needed. Puppies should also learn how to play nicely with other puppies and dogs, that humans in general are safe and friendly, and that even in the high excitement environment of a class with other puppies and people, they should be able to calm down and focus on their owners.

That's in theory what puppies are supposed to learn, but what Lucy learned was exactly the opposite. In the class, the instructor started with handling exercises. Lucy's breeder had started these during Lucy's first weeks, so Lucy had been good with me, all of my student volunteers, and my parents from day one. But during class, the problem was that she wanted to play with the puppies so she was struggling and my parents didn't know how to hold her to prevent this. You'd think I would jump in and help, but not wanting to miss the educational opportunity or to interfere in the instructor's class, I just videotaped the evidence as the bad behavior played out.

First Lucy just struggled in short bursts. But next thing she was growling. The room was fairly quiet with everyone sitting in a circle, so the growling sounded like it was through a megaphone to me. The instructor seemed oblivious. I asked her what she wanted my parents to do in this type of situation. Her answer told me she hadn't been watching. She started explaining how to reward Lucy for allowing her feet to be handled when the actual problem was that my parents had not been holding Lucy effectively. Note: I know this because I had spent the previous year producing a 1600 hundred photo-illustrated book and DVD called Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats. This involved videotaping and analyzing exactly what technicians, veterinarians and other animal healthcare staff were doing right and wrong when handling animals, And then photographing both correct techniques in a stepwise manner that people could follow as well as showing incorrect techniques so that animal professionals would know the common mistakes they were likely to make.

Not that the instructors instruction was wrong. My parents were actually doing the desensitization and counterconditioning incorrectly. They were randomly giving treats and handling her feet, rather than giving treat at the same time or within a split second of handing the feet so that Lucy could make the connection. The funny thing was that my parents looked so happy when they were performing the exercise incorrectly, even when Lucy was struggling and growling. So as I looked through the video camera lens in horror, they were just enjoying their new puppy.

I watched as the instructor patiently explained and demonstrated the correct method of feeling the feet and then rewarding for good behavior with a treat. The problem is that after the first few times, the instructor's technique changed. She would feel the feet and sometime take over 3 seconds to follow with a treat making it less clear to Lucy that the food was associated with the foot handling. Then, not surprisingly, as soon as the instructor walked away, my parents went back handling Lucy's feet or mouth or other body parts and randomly giving her treats, as they had been before. So they clearly hadn't understood what the instructor had told them. Mental note to self: Have hidden video of participants in my own dog classes to see how frequently this happens. Luckily in my classes I have one assistant per every 2-3 participants.

Next, it was time for puppy play session. The instructor had us let the puppies loose, all 8 at one time and now I understood why Lucy's behavior was so bad. In my puppy classes I tend to only let two or three puppies off leash at a time while dragging a leash, and I match the puppies based on personality and play style. Otherwise shy ones will be bowled over and learn that they were correct in being scared. Rambuctious ones will learn that all play, not matter how rough, is allowed. In my classes, puppies only get to play with other puppies after they can focus well on their owners when around the other puppies. This generally occurs during the first session. If they don't learn how to focus on the owners they will just learn during puppy play time that it's acceptable and rewarding to blow their owners off.

In fact, in this class, ignoring people is exactly what Lucy learned. She'd run and jump on a puppy and wrestle for up to 30 seconds and the run and jump on another. She didn't care if she was on the top of bottom when playing, so long as she was playing all the time. She raced back and forth as the other owners laughed, "Lucy's the fastest one." Personally, when everyone in the class is at a consensus that one puppy is the wildest one and that puppy's owners are also the oldest senior citizens in the class, it raises a huge red flag. These owners will need lots of one-on-one help if they plan to keep the puppy in their family for a long time or to raise a canine good citizen instead of doggie juvenile delinquent.

Next the instructor started the exercise called "Catch the puppy," where people would grab a puppy's collar and then give them a treat. The goal is that the puppy learns that it's good to be grabbed by the collar. The problem is that for puppies to make the connection for sure, it's best to grab their collar and follow with a a short string of treat and to practice this exercise 5-10 times in a row and in multiple sessions until the puppy actively looks to you for a treats whenever his collar is grabbed. What Lucy was learning was that she didn't like having her collar grabbed, it meant she wouldn't go to play. This learning was clear, later in the class when the instructor was stepping on the leash I'd put on Lucy so that she could observe Lucy better. A puppy owner went to grab Lucy's collar and Lucy turned, flashed her teeth, and growled. The instructor didn't notice. So much for observing her better. A handful of assistants would have been good given that it's difficult to supervise 8 wrestling puppies.

This collar grabbing technique became even less likely to effective when the instructor stated, "Now when you grab the puppy, have him sit, and then lie down and then stand." Now all of a sudden the room was filled with demands of "sit, sit, sit, sit..." Then when a puppy owner caught Lucy and Lucy was too interested in other dogs to pay attention to the treat, the instructor instructed, "First tell her to sit." By then Lucy, who knows to automatically sit when she can't get what she wants, was sitting. Regardless, the instructor repeated, "tell her to sit." So the puppy owner said, "sit" to Lucy who was already sitting, and then gave her a treat. Now, not only was Lucy learning that collar grab means cessation of play, but she was learning her cue to sit (or to not sit in cases where she was too distracted to sit) was "sit, sit, sit, sit, sit." Unfortunately, I didn't get this on tape.

The rest of the class Lucy's behavior continued to deteriorated. She became more and more aroused around the other puppies. She was happy to be the puppy on the bottom of the pile and play on her back, but she pounced on the puppies the way football player pounce on a fumbled football. She could not focus on me or my parents or hold still--especially since even when she was being held by her collar, other puppies might still be running around and jumping on her.

So, in just two puppy classes and a little over two weeks with my parents, Lucy had turned from a calm, sweet, polite puppy, to a puppy with impulse control issues and the start of aggression issues.

Needless to say, I took her out of the class and took her back home with me to work with her more. Once at my house, I was able to confirm that my worries were correct. Now when Jonesy, my Jack Russell Terrier, growled at Lucy to get her to back off, she would leap on him more excitedly instead of backing down. Several weeks ago she's quickly gotten the hint from Jonesy and backed down. This inappropriate behavior was repeated with two other test dogs similar in size. They grew tired of her repeated attempts to play roughly with them and when they voiced their opinions with growls, she escalated by growling and lunging more. In other words, she was learning, harass other dogs at will and then get into a fight when they growl at you. Sort of the drunken bar-fight mentality. So at 10 weeks of age she had turned into a little Kujo. On top of this, if there was a dog in the same room or within 15 feet of her she had to lunge to try to get at it whereas before she could easily focus on me and even come when called away from puppy play.

With all that had gone wrong in just over two weeks with my parents and with two puppy classes sessions, I wondered, now how long would it take to retrain the bad behavior out of her and reestablish the good behavior from that first week. Once that was established how long would I need to train her before the good behavior could become a habit?

To find out what happened, stay tuned for upcoming blogs.

I can say this, as a result of her bad behavior, I added about 150 more pages and hundreds more photos to the Lucy's training manual book.

For earlier articles on Lucy go to: