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animal instincts

Too Much Puppy Love

A dog that’s aggressive, fearful, or clingy needs a steady hand

I know a breeder of cocker spaniels—dogs that rank high in national bite ratings—who never had a problem with any of her pups until they were adopted. “He growls and snaps at us,” the new owners would complain, and back the pup would come. At the breeder’s once more, the pup would spring to attention and be on its best behavior. “Funny,” my friend would say, “he’s fine with me.”

What the breeder knew that the owners didn’t is that it is possible to show a dog too much love. My tough-minded friend—call her Attila the Breeder—was in the business of raising pups for sale or show and wasn’t about to take grief from them. If they tried to get their own way, she would insist they first obey a command, or would ignore them until she was good and ready to respond. Doting new owners, though, would immediately and unconditionally respond to their pup’s demands for affection, attention, and treats.

Such heart-on-sleeve affection is fine in the human world. But in the dog world, it is perceived as a sign of weakness; certain strong-minded pups take advantage of compliant owners, edging above them in the pack order. Out-of-control pups will resort to barking at, mouthing, and biting their owners to get what they want. Though genetics can push a dog toward such “yuppy puppy” behavior, it is the well-meaning, overly empathetic owners who facilitate it, and it is they who need to be educated. At the first sign of pushiness, owners should set limits of acceptable behavior and stick to them.

It’s a similar story with fears. Though some dogs are fearful by nature and others by nurture, an owner’s attitude can fan or dampen the flames of that fear. One dog with thunderstorm phobia sat shaking next to its doting owner at the sound of a thunderstorm recording being played in a behavior clinic. The owner was asked to leave the room, and the recording was replayed. The dog sat stoically, seemingly unaffected.

This is not to say that storm-phobic dogs cannot panic in their owner’s absence, but it does illustrate the owner’s influence on the underlying condition. The bottom line: obvious sympathy from a loving owner can sometimes make things a lot worse. It’s proper direction these dogs need, not sympathy.

Separation anxiety is another controllable condition. The seeds of separation anxiety, which affects some 12 million of the nation’s 80 million dogs, are sown early on. But whether it gets worse or better seems to depend on an owner’s attitude. Again, unconstrained love and empathy sends the wrong message. When a dog fears that being alone is going to be tough, there’s nothing like an owner’s billing and cooing on departure to worsen his anxiety. It’s as if the dog thinks, “If they’re that concerned, I should really be worried.”

I always tell owners of dogs with separation anxiety to chill: Teach independence, not codependence. Teach him to stand on his own four feet. Make leaving a fun time by feeding him and putting out tasty treats and toys as you leave. Keep greetings low key. I call the strategy “distancing”—putting a layer of insulation between the erstwhile doting owner and a Velcro dog whose fear is being fed by a surfeit of affection.

I am not saying that dog owners shouldn’t love their dogs—of course they should. But owners also need to lead. Good dog owners are like good parents; they enjoy the good times with their charge but know how and when to set limits of acceptable behavior. Children grow up to benefit from such lessons, but dogs are Peter Pans that need strong leaders all their lives.

One of the world’s most noted animal behaviorists, NICHOLAS DODMAN directs the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts and is the author of four bestsellers in the field. His most recent book, If Only They Could Speak (W.W. Norton & Co.), was recently released as a trade paperback. He is a pet expert for Time Inc. and writes a monthly advice column for Life magazine.
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