I can’t help but return to my roots a bit in this post by talking about horses. My dad and I had quarter horses when I was growing up and we saw them do some stupid things. We made mistakes and some horses got hurt. We did everything right and some horses got hurt. When it comes to horses, you literally never know what could happen. So you take things as they come and enjoy every minute of quiet connection as well as the moments of insanity.
The best thing you can do with a horse is to help them become bulletproof. This means the horse will go almost anywhere and do almost anything with a calm mind. To acquire this kind of quiet demeanor, a colt will be hazed by a series of tarps rubbed all over and around his body, dogs barking and running around his legs, plastic bags shaken around his head, ears tugged at, water sprayed on him, etc. As the animal becomes more comfortable with all this craziness they understand that not everything is trying to kill them. The more comfortable he is with the “scary stuff” the less dangerous he is to himself and his rider. Horses can and will become dangerous when something scares them…not because they are mean, but because their sheer weight and strength can overpower you as they flee from what they perceive as danger.
Dogs AREN’T Horses…but similar rules apply
So what does this have to do with your GSP? You want him to become bulletproof. As your dog grows and gets stronger he will be harder to control, so the best time to start the hazing process is when he is small and his mind isn’t bogged down with things he perceives to be “scary”. The flight response isn’t as strong in dogs as it is in horses, which means they are more likely to fight what they’re afraid of. This fear can quickly turn into aggression which is something nobody wants to deal with. You want to enjoy your buddy! You don’t want to feel nervous about seeing someone as you walk down the street because you aren’t sure what your dog will do.
Now the question is: how do I create a bullet-proof, predictable animal? First of all, you start young. This way you aren’t trying to re-wire your dog’s former frames of reference. When you get a dog with a history that you’re unsure about, he may have learned some very bad habits and fears. These fears aren’t impossible to reverse, but it can be difficult and takes a lot of consistency as well as commitment. With a pup, yes, you have to potty-train and get through that phase of chewing when they lose their baby teeth. Once you know how to deal with those “issues”, they are a cake-walk compared to the baggage an older dog will possibly come with.
How do I Make my Pup “Bulletproof”?
So you’ve got your soon-to-be-bulletproof puppy and want to know what to do next? The answer is everything! In those first few weeks your puppy still needs some shots and can’t go everywhere dogs like to go. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start exposing him to new things! Repetition and reinforcement of good behavior are KEY in training any animal, so here are a few ideas of things you can do over and over again:
- Touch your pup all over and if there’s a spot he doesn’t like being touched focus on those. Focus on feet and ears because when you’re out in the bush, they are likely to get hurt. You want your pup to be very comfortable with you examining his ears and paws.
- Get a cardboard box and put treats and toys inside so he gets used to walking on a strange surface. Tip the box up and put him inside so he learns that confined, dark spaces aren’t scary. Flip the box bottom-up and put puppy on top.
- Create a small barrier that he has to jump over to get where he wants to go. Be prepared to jump over this with him and to have fun in the process!
- Get a human buddy and some hot dogs. Both of you stand on opposite ends of a room (closer or farther as needed) and alternate who calls your puppy’s name. When he comes to you, reward him with a slice of hot dog and verbal praise. Do this a LOT and your pup gain a desire to come when he is called.
- Fill up the bathtub or turn on the hose and show him how much fun water can be.
- Find some kids and have them roll around on the floor with him.
- Go to Cabela’s (they allow dogs) with your pup in a box or bag in the cart. Let as many people pet him as possible. (This gives me something to do as my husband ogles at guns and ammo for an hour).
There are so many things you can do in the first few weeks of having a new pup. After all those shots are up to date, get him running! Dog parks, back fields, the woods, up playgrounds and down slides…I suggest keeping a long rope or a shock collar on him so you can always get him to come back to you. A shock collar allows him to run freely as well as gives you control over your dog. Especially when they are young and possibly testing their boundaries and finding independence. Take your young dog on a leash into stores like Cabela’s, Bass Pro, Home Depot and Lowe’s. You may want to call first, but many locations will allow you to bring your dog in. Get your pup in rivers, streams and lakes. The more exposure you can give him, the happier everyone will be.
And let’s be honest…if you live in the Coeur d’Alene/Spokane area, then you always have some new outdoor adventure to take your pup on!
What if I Freak Out?
One thing is a universal truth with horses…they mirror our emotions. Horses can teach us things we didn’t notice about ourselves. In fact, they are used in emotional healing because they pick up on our fears, joys, insecurities, anger, etc. Dogs are very similar. They will feel when you are nervous, frustrated or proud. So as you put yourself and your pup into new situations, try to maintain an overall feeling of calm.
For example: When you are walking your pup up the road and you pass a yard with 3 huge german shepherds. They rush to the fence snarling. You get to keep your head high and completely ignore them with total calmness. Your pup may jump and pull away, but you will stay calm. Maybe give him an encouragingly firm tug on his leash to get him and keep on walking. In fact…after you pass the fence…you may even turn around and do it again! If you stayed calm the first time, your pup will pick up on your mental state and begin to exhibit the same inner peace (like Po in Kung Fu Panda).
Sometimes, I intentionally seek out yards with crazy dogs just so I can practice my own inner peace as well as my dog’s. (I can hear Jack Black’s voice in my head like a mantra as I do this: “Inner Peeeeace.”)
You are the main contributor to a successful future with your pup. You have the power to create a dog that is insecure, timid and aggressive. Or you can use your power to create a dog that is confident, independent and receptive to new situations. So the question is this: What kind of dog do you want to create??