In a beautiful book with drawings of dogs, the Dutch artist Rien Poortvliet (maybe you remember him for his illustrations of Gnomes) portrays himself and his wife struggling with some tea and a German Wirehaired Pointer puppy. You can see the artist holding up a dish with a cake, while the puppy scrambles trying to steal food. It is wonderful. A puppy that is free to act as a puppy, with no anxiety to contain his behavior within human rules, within schemes that basically prevent dog owners from present and future hassles.
ALTHOUGH THERE ARE THOSE WHO PUT MORE OR LESS EVERYTHING INSIDE THE TERM “EDUCATION”, THE MOST COMMON TRANSLATION OF THIS TERM IS A DOG THAT “BEHAVES WELL”.
The puppy learns to pee outside the house (or at home but on a paper), not to bite human parts (including dresses), to be alone (obviously without screaming ad without destroying things), not to ask for or steal food. A puppy learns to come back on your call, to walk on a leash, to socialize with any dog it meets, to be touched by strangers (“it’s so cute”), to play with his toys (which, at the end of the game, are locked in a drawer), not to play with slippers and shoes. A puppy learns to stay calm, because a calm dog is a polite dog and a dog that feels well.
A puppy that comes into my house enters into a state of pure anarchy. Even worse, a dictatorship where the puppy is the one that decides rhythms, events, rules and conditions.
At night, if the puppy cries I get up and go to reassure him. Thankfully, this lasts only a night or two, because a puppy that feels safe doesn’t need to cry to be reassured. If the puppy wakes up at seven in the morning and wants to eat and then play, we do it until he feels tired and happy to go back to sleep. If the puppy wants to play, he finds toys scattered around at home, in every shape, size and material. If he needs to pee, I wipe it off. If he bites my hands, I suffer in silence, and let him bite.
Since I don’t live on another planet, I need to reach a balance between the freedom I give to my dogs and the ability to manage them among our civil society. Given all expectations that our society has about the meaning of being an “educated” dog. And I don’t live with dogs that are out-of-control, unmanageable and afflicted by any behavioral problem.
TIME IS THE FIRST ELEMENT. WE CANNOT TRANSFORM A PUPPY INTO AN EDUCATED DOG WITHIN A DAY, A WEEK OR A MONTH.
To achieve a good balance while living together with your puppy, you have to consider it hard work for about 10 months. In between there is also the pure delirium of adolescence, which can waver any dog owner. However, eventually it ends. Do not rush; especially do not yield to the temptation of thinking that if today the puppy pees inside the house, tomorrow it will not be able to do it outside. That if today it chews your hands, tomorrow it will become a dangerous serial biter. Dogs change their behavior throughout their lives, and they are incredibly able to adapt to our lives.
THE SECOND ELEMENT IS TO SATISFY THE NEEDS. A PUPPY HAS VERY SIMPLE BUT FUNDAMENTAL NEEDS: THE SENSE OF SECURITY, ITS FAMILY, TO SLEEP, EAT, DRINK, PEE AND POO. TO VENT ITS PHYSICAL ENERGIES AND SATISFY THE NEED FOR MENTAL STIMULATION.
Different breeds and different individuals express these needs in different ways. Years ago, I read a comment about Border Collies, how much they need to move and how many stimuli they need while growing up. I thought, “that’s strange, because I have a Border Collie puppy and it doesn’t seem to me to be so demanding.” Then I observed him: Grisou was able to play from noon to 5 p.m., collapsing for half-hour and play again. My luck is a lawn that offers thousands of play opportunities for a puppy, and other family dogs that – not always willingly – act as dog sitters.
If my puppy needs to play, I give him some toys. I also leave them available for him, and not just for as long as he is a small puppy. I buy pig ears or dried meat to give the puppy something to gnaw on, when he is tired and when he is in his teething stage. I try to satisfy his needs. The sense of security is about the puppy’s ability to feel safe, to feel good. It is linked to the relationship with us, to spaces and to other relationships. I start with myself and in the living room. Then we move to the other familiar dogs, and to the other spaces in the house. The puppy stay in the garden only if I am there, or if the door is open and he can come back inside the house. I extend the sense of security to the car, to the Lakes, and to “aunts” and “uncles”. Creating the sense of security does not require more than that the puppy feels safe. If he screams desperately, if he tries to go out, he doesn’t feel safe.
THE THIRD ELEMENT IS THE INDIVIDUAL. FOR MANY PEOPLE A PUPPY IS A SOFT, FURRY AND ADORABLE PUMPKIN. I SEE TEN MONTHS OF HARD WORK.
I watch him. I never rush to change a dog. Maybe years ago, I felt a responsibility to form to puppy. Now I prefer to first understand what form he has, and then adjust myself to his form. I have learned what form is the better fit to me, which dog can be happy with me. I am the limit, not the dog. I look at him and I try to figure out what he likes. What he doesn’t like, what worries him and what scares him. I try to understand what makes him feel at ease, his strengths and his weaknesses. I know that Puma, when she is worried, she sniffs the ground. I know what troubles her.
TO KNOW IS NOT THE SAME AS OWNING, NOR IS IT THE SAME AS RESPONSABILITY, CARING OR LIVING TOGETHER.
Knowing is exploring. It is an unknown world to explore every day. To observe the puppy when he’s fine, happy, relaxed, when he’s full of food, of cuddle or games. To observe when he’s worried, he’s hungry, he has to pee, he wants to go out, he wants to be reassured, he wants to play. To observe the puppy in any environment, with every person, every day. Before you change someone, you should get to know and understand the person, this also applies to puppies. You should ask yourself whether his behavior, rather than being a problem, is not quite the expression of his dog nature and his personality, or a reflection of an unsuitable situation. Many dogs would not be a problem, if they could only live a life more appropriate to their needs, to the characteristics of the breed and individual.
I often read ironic comments, if not quite accusatory, against people who declare to feel love toward their dog. Still, what it can prevent us from reacting against a puppy when he makes something we don’t like, it’s exactly that being in love, which connect us to the puppy, from day one, despite all difficulties of comprehension, of management, of cohabitation. Being in love with your puppy is the basis for building a relationship of protection, sharing and caring.
Love is not enough, no. Indeed, sometimes it can become a mirror to reflect our own needs, forgetting the other. However, if when you come home dead tired, you don’t enjoy sitting down and playing with your puppy, why have you chosen to adopt a dog?
Text Alexa Capra
Photos Daniele Robotti
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