What does "let a puppy be a puppy" really mean?
What do people mean when they say “let a puppy be a puppy”? I think, like many phrases we hear, there is a great variance in what this might mean, to each of us. So often, someone new comes on and asks questions about their puppy, common response is let the puppy be a puppy. Well, I don’t think that’s particularly helpful. To some, it might sound like let the puppy do whatever it wants for now, just play, have fun, no training, no discipline. To many of us we have learned, BALANCE is key to everything, from day one. Yes, puppies should be puppies. Every day should be fun and learning and developing that bond with their humans. The first couple of weeks especially, pup arrives at completely new, strange home, leaves its littermates and dam, let the pup bond, build trust and relationship with its new people. But I don’t think it is a free-for-all or excuse for doing nothing either. Puppies are sponges, that first 4 months especially, is so key to their later development. They can learn so much in this initial period, both good and bad. I like the term “shaping” myself, at this stage. Teaching the basic stuff like sit, here, heel, their name, all easily done with treats and games. No correction, just teach and reward, shape the behavior. This is really the easy stuff, the fun stuff. No need to push the pup, don’t fall into the trap of a timeline or having to have the fastest, smartest pup that knows it all by 12 weeks. This is a shaping period where they are learning to learn. If they sit for a treat now, learn to sit and stay until released for their food dish, learn their name and that running to their human when called means a great treat and getting loved up, that is a very solid base for what comes later. There’s no need to smack a pup into a sit or correct when the obedience isn’t super sharp. This is learning and shaping the good behavior, something most of us do as a matter of course.
But what about the bad, the undesired behavior? How many threads on noise alone? How about jumping, biting, scratching, chewing? This is a critical time in puppy development to NOT let the bad start in the first place. Play biting, noise, anything undesired like jumping, all can be, usually, discouraged from the start, by not rewarding, and if pup is persistent, by a deterrent such as a lip pinch, spray bottle, rattle stick, etc. Puppy is chewing table leg, distract pup and give appropriate toy/chew. Pup continues to be persistent in pursuing undesirable objects, teaching, then enforcing, the “leave it” command will pay big dividends for the pup’s life in all sorts of ways. Pup is a whiner/barker, learns to bark for attention, interrupt meals, sleep, well, to me, that’s one of the biggest no-no’s and certainly carries over to all other aspects of training. I have zero guilt about teaching a puppy to be quiet, then enforcing that if and when needed. Same with play biting. People seem to think it funny to show their hands and arms covered with marks from puppy teeth. Me, not so much. Then there’s the field stuff, the marks, mark, mark, mark, get them pumped and crazy and throw more marks, bigger marks, no matter what pup is doing at the line or on the way to the line or in the holding blind. We’ll fix that later. Can take the drive out but not put it back in, which seems to be carte blanche for young dogs to be allowed to scream, dance, jump, snatch birds, chew birds, drag their owners, whatever, who cares, as long as they are doing those big marks, whew boy, we’ll fix the rest later. How fair is that? Balance, always, balance. Desire and marks, of course, but in balance, use that retrieving desire to train and reward the dog vs letting the desire turn the pup into a monster. Why should a barking, whining, noisy pup EVER be released on a mark? Why should a pup who isn’t returning reliably at least to the area of the handler be continued on mark after mark, without instilling a decent recall? What exactly is being taught that puppy? That noise and running away with the bumper/bird is good, rewarded behavior.
Am I ruining their puppyhood with teaching and expecting some basic appropriate behavior? I don’t think anyone who has seen my dogs at training or events thinks they are abused, or even act like particularly well-trained robots, for that matter. They live in the house, are probably overly coddled in many ways, but basic manners to live here together in a pack, without destroying my house and my sanity, are a must. I find it far fairer to the pup to start out with some basic expectations, appropriate to age/developmental stage, and continue them vs letting a pup run wild, damaging things and people, raising a ruckus, then start with the smackdown later, or worse, having a lifelong battle with steadiness issues, line manners, vocalness, not coming on recall, can’t be trusted loose in the house around food or furnishings. Teaching and expecting a certain level from the start is fundamentally fairer to a puppy than thinking one is going to “fix” that undesired behavior later. I don’t think a well-bred field retriever is going to be ruined by instilling some basic manners early on.
I think, as a society, we have become overly conditioned to giving our dogs many human emotions that they just don’t have, that puppies are babies to be coddled. I love puppies. It’s what I have chosen to do with my life full-time. I live dog, the biggest high of my life is running my dogs. I’ve had to learn the hard way that I have done my earlier dogs a huge disservice by not teaching and enforcing certain standards of behavior starting as puppies. Dogs WANT to be part of a functioning pack, it is in their DNA, they want boundaries and guidelines and rules and the less they have, the worse they act. A puppy with appropriate boundaries and obedience is a well-adjusted puppy, confident in its place in the world. A puppy that’s just running wild because it’s being allowed to “be a puppy” is usually going to be a neurotic adult with behavioral issues, in and out of the field, and is just as unfair as expecting too much from a puppy. That’s what allowing a puppy to be a puppy means to me, teaching a puppy both desired and undesired behaviors fairly, maintaining balance for that particular puppy, building a confident dog that is my companion in the home and field.