From the book: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova — All Rights Reserved
Myth 28: Commands are the most important thing my puppy will ever learn.
The truth is, the most important things your puppy will ever learn are impulse control and bite inhibition. We’ve invented all these myths about dogs being wolves and wolves (thus dogs) living in a kind of fascist system, in which everyone has to do what the higher-up says, and in particular what the creature at the apex of the pyramid says. Others have drawn whirls and swirls and criss-cross lines, still basically drawing a system of bullying (see Myth 15). Having read this far, you now know that dogs are not wolves but dogs, and that they live in complex, highly flexible, self-organising systems, without a central authority, and that their systems are based on building predictability and trust. These dog social systems preserve peace by finding mutually acceptable balances for all participants (see Myth 11). It’s not a dictatorship or a bully system, but a complex web of mutually chosen compromises, arrived at one-on-one between all present.
In order to participate in this dog system, a puppy has to learn a number of things. He has to learn to be reticent about using aggression. He has to learn that social peace and companionship are resources to be valued, which he can lose if he impulsively goes for the purely material stuff in life. He has to learn the rules dogs live by (no real aggression, don’t approach without permission, and respect each other’s preferences where possible). In Myth 12, we saw that dogs’ body language is all about expressing and exchanging information about dogs’ inner states, so they can take each other’s feelings into account as they interact. In Myth 13, we explained how even ‘fights’ are (normally) actually about trust-building between dogs.
Impulse control is the first, main cornerstone of how the whole thing works. This means that a dog learns not to just follow any old impulse he has, but that he first runs it past the parts of his brain that dampen the impulse and conceive a socially appropriate and acceptable plan of action. This means taking that nanosecond to consider the consequences of an action, and to adjust it accordingly before your muscles even have time to move.
Without impulse control, there is no bite inhibition. And a dog that doesn’t (or can’t) inhibit his bite can’t take part in any canine social system. He’s just too dangerous for the others present, too likely to destroy the system by destroying its participants. A dog also needs impulse control to take part in the back-and-forth of signals by which dogs arrive at trust, compromise and social stability. A back- and-forth can only take place, after all, if you’re willing to stop and listen to what the other says before doing anything. He needs impulse control as he moves on a field (or any space) where other dogs are, keeping an eye on the individual personal zone each other dog needs to feel okay. You can whizz by within three inches of Patch, but Prince needs three feet, and when Rover has a ball the whizzing dog had better give him three times as much space as when he doesn’t. If the whizzer does bump Rover when Rover has a ball, both of them need bite inhibition (thus impulse control) to work out the argument without hurting each other or their relationship. It’s impulse control that is behind wanting the ball Rover has, but trying to wheedle it out of him rather than just take it, and behind deciding the friendship is worth more than the ball after all.
You don’t have to worry about how to teach your puppy these things, because they are part of learning how to be a dog. Only dogs can teach a pup how to be a dog. So it is of essential importance that you allow your puppy not only to play with other puppies, but also with socially skilled adult dogs. It’s essential that you allow the adult dogs to do parenting behaviour with your puppy, which means sometimes giving him a symbolic whacking (see Myth 6). Now, don’t go thinking, ‘That’s all well and good, but those are things he’ll need with other dogs. For life with me, the commands are the most important.’ Because impulse control and bite inhibition are essential doggy characteristics that make it possible for a dog to live with us. No matter what other obnoxious things you won’t mind your dog doing, if he doesn’t learn to control his impulses and inhibit his bite, your life with him won’t be safe, either. Not all of his behaviour will be dangerous. He’ll bounce around the room, reacting to whatever stimuli come in and the impulses they arouse in him. Much of this will be harmless, though annoying. The trouble is, if a conflict arises, he may well impulsively lash out — unable to consider the consequences, unable to wait and watch your own signals first. When he lashes out (even if you just step on his toe on accident), he’ll bite too hard — not because he necessarily wants to, but just because he never learned to control it. Even giving him a treat can be dangerous to your fingers and hands.
The third most important thing your puppy will ever learn is trust in human beings. This is something only humans can teach him.
When dogs threaten, they are telling the other party that they feel unsure of his or her intentions. If your pup learns to trust humans — and that means that you and everyone else you allow near him have to behave in a trustworthy way — he won’t feel the need to threaten when a person approaches him. Behaving in a trustworthy way means respecting the dog rules. It means not approaching without signalling somehow that you have good intentions, and stopping in your tracks to reassure him if you see your approach is worrying him. It means not taking things away from him and not using violence with him. In a nutshell, it means allowing your pup to feel safe with you and other humans.
A dog who has learned the things I name in this myth will not bite you too hard because you step on his toe by accident. He won’t grab your food off your plate and then bite you for objecting. He will incline to be tolerant of various mistakes you make or things you do that bother him. This dog will be looking to preserve the relationship with you and the social peace, keeping the little social system the two of you occupy together stable and safe, and he will be willing to compromise (i.e. sacrifice much) to do so. If for some reason a human does make him very worried about what’s coming next, he will use all the warnings he knows to give the human a chance to avoid a direct confrontation. If he lashes out, he will do it reticently, controlled, dosing it exactly according to his estimation of the danger the human presents.
Though it’s important to his safety that he eventually learn to come when you call him, and though it’s convenient if you can ask him to sit or lie down somewhere and even to stay that way for a while, these things are trivial by comparison.
Fact: What it comes down to is that the most important thing your pup will ever learn is to be a dog according to the rules dogs follow, and that humans will follow these reasonable and peaceful rules, too. The cornerstones are impulse control, bite inhibition and trust in us. Aside from making sure he learns these essential things, you can also teach him a command or two.