puppy school of hard knocks

It isn’t that uncommon to hear people, especially at dog parks, express the feelings and/or sentiments of ‘letting older dogs’ put their puppy in it’s place. Usually it’s the high energy, performance, working line puppies that are often the brunt of this philosophy. Maybe, just maybe, if another dog really scares them enough, they will settle down.

I know in our community it is a statement uttered freely, and because of this I think there is a level of being desensitized to it. Isn’t that how it works? If enough people say it, and enough people hear it, than maybe there is some truth to it?

SOoooooo imagine if you will, a Mother with a young son getting out of their car and walking hand in hand to the play ground. The mother notices a group of slightly older kids that are playing rough and are pretty bully like, four letter words, hard stares, sneering, and snickering. Nothing friendly about them. But the Mom thinks, hmmm this might be good for Johnny to go and play with these kids, they will put him in his place. Even though Little Johnny is scared and is pulling away on his Mom’s hand to go back to the car, the Mom drags him to the play ground, and makes him be with these kids. Johnny’s Mom stands there and watches calmly as Johnny gets harassed, pushed, punched, knocked down, and made fun of. When she feels he has had enough she calls him to get going. “Wasn’t that fun? Now maybe you’ll go to bed when I ask you too”


It would be hard to really imagine this, I personally have never seen this scenario with humans, most mothers I know would never, NEVER do this to their child, me included. While there might be some, we’ve all read the head lines, it would be in the definite minority, because those are the Mom’s who go to jail. I would bet there are more nurturing Mom’s out there that choose safe environments, watch their young children carefully, and would not stand there and watch their child get harassed, beat up, and bullied in the name of ‘school of hard knocks’.

BUT, this is very real and it happens everyday all of the time to our puppies! Replace Johnny with new puppy, and playground bullies with older dogs. Puppies that have been on the planet just weeks, WEEKS, are often subjected to this type of purposeful pummeling, arranged by their owners. Surely if they are rolled onto their backs, growled at, bitten a little, chased, and snarked at, they will learn to be perfect, be put in their place, and it will ALL BE GOOD?! I’m really not sure where the correlation has come from, I don’t see it, but it is alive and well.

And to add insult to injury, it is most often family pet owners who are really looking to raise a nice, neutral, easy going, all around dog that do this to their puppies. Not all of them, but many. And this is actually the first step in creating a a nice array of behavioral problems that most family pet owners are not equipped to deal with. Conflict, reactivity, fear, barking, and lack of trust in their owner/person, are usually just the starting line up.

Baby Story 2

Most all of my friends that are dog sport competitors would never put their puppy in that situation or condone ‘the school of hard knocks’. Most competitors want to train and work with their dogs, they don’t want to modify behavioral problems that could have easily been avoided with thoughtful choices. They vehemently, intensely, fervidly, passionately,  guard their puppies safety. And these are folks WHO have the skills to work through behavioral problems, but choose safety, well matched play friends, and appropriate environments first and foremost.

Puppies, like any young living being on the planet, depend on a nurturing and safe environment so they can thrive. Puppies, when they leave their Mom and litter mates, come into a home and really have no idea why they are there, they just end up there and have to figure it all out. Just imagine how strange that would be. YOU know you are getting a puppy and bringing him home, the puppy has not a clue. You become their source for food, water, shelter, and safety. Imagine how much trust a puppy has to have when they arrive in your home?

Then life lessons, life skills, teaching positions, and socializing all start. You are in fact framing how they will see their world with you. Everything you expose them too, interact with, and do together starts to create a bond. You start socializing to people, places, things, events and other well socialized dogs on a daily basis. Wouldn’t it make sense to do all of this learning and teaching in safe environments, create a positive emotional response to life with you, and a relationship worth trusting?

I don’t believe puppies need to go to the ‘school of hard knocks’, no animal for that matter. It is up to the owner to always look out for their little beings safety.

Cheers to puppies! I love everything new about them, all of their antics, playfulness, snuggling, hissing, and spitting. They make me smile and laugh, and remind me love  comes in all forms.


23 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark Clemons says:

    Great post Nancy. Great teaching points for all pet owners.

  2. Nancy Bonner says:

    While I do see your point, I also think that it’s important for dogs to be educated in proper dog socialization. My dogs are frequently approached by dogs who have no concept of this, who will bound up and lick and pounce on and bat around my dogs despite every appropriate signal my guys give asking for their space. When I protest this rudeness the owners, who are just as clueless as the dogs, get huffy and give the classic “he’s only being friendly” excuse. Some of this is breed predilection, but most of it is inadequate education. These dogs have no concept of what the signals mean or how to respond to them, and they just bound around like idiots until I take my dogs away. I would make the argument that it is possible to protect a dog too much and now allow them to learn the socially acceptable limits to their behavior. My older dog, Badger, is very good at teaching puppies, and has taught all of the puppies I have had since him (including Lass and Pike’s litter of 6 raucous border collie babies!). He gives all the appropriate signals when a puppy is being rude, and if they don’t quit he spanks them. Just a quick reprimand, not bullying or a sustained attack. He’ll tolerate rude behavior from tiny pups, but when they start getting bigger he starts enforcing social rules. This seems perfectly natural to me, and I’ve never worried that a puppy is in any kind of danger from Badger (or from Pike and Jim as they’ve gotten older under Badger’s tutelage). Through interaction with an appropriate, balanced, socially correct older dog my puppies have learned to recognize the signals that mean they are behaving incorrectly and how to be mannerly with other dogs. It’s a matter of using properly socialized and appropriate dogs in controlled settings I think.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      I totally agree. You are comign from this, I don’t feel as an argument, so much as educated in animal behavior. Your dogs are very approrpaite, and like you mentioned, wouldn’t hurt a dog they were teaching social skills too. It is the puppies that walk into my class with punctures in their muzzle because their owner wanted a dog at the dog park to teach them a lesson. That is what I am referring too. Appropriate dogs teaching appropriate puppies, with good woners who understand animal behavior is somethign totally different.

      1. Lynne says:

        I would love for you to do a post (or maybe link me to a previous post) about working with animals like the ones described by NB. Animals who actually do like other dogs, and are friendly with them once they’ve met, but who have no social graces when saying hello.
        Thanks for the great post.

  3. I totally agree that the early interactions with older dogs should be in a controlled, managed setting. The dog park is NOT the place. I do not recommend taking puppies to dog parks. I often bring Max (my 3 1/2 yr. old St. Bernard/Lab cross) to the puppy classes I teach because he is very tolerant of the puppy antics. He will move away from a puppy if he has had enough and has never reacted badly. He teaches them with negative punishment. It is really fun to watch the smallest breeds try to climb on his head or back while he is lying down – he gets up slowly and they slide off then he walks away and shakes off the stress.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      yay Max. All puppies need this kind of teacher, I bet he is the ‘Uncle’ to a whole generation in your area!. Story was very much like this when he was younger too.

  4. derrycats says:

    People toss cats who don’t know each other together too rather than introducing them properly to each other. A nightmare for cats, who are incredibly territorial, and that introduction can create havoc between cats for an entire lifetime. It is a shame when any of us neglects to take the time to learn doggie and kitty behavior clues that could help us help them so much!

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      I don’t know cats well but I have heard this over and over from our cat people, and I have heard that it can disrupt the litter box situation, fights, stalking, everything.

      1. derrycats says:

        It does all that, and can make lifelong enemies of two cats as well.

  5. Sherron says:

    Oh my! I have such a hard time with this! One of my dogs, Ginny, does not like puppies. I learned this the hard way when I fostered a couple of 8 wk old shepherd mixes. Ginny’s a Lab/Golden something-or-other and is a pretty good-sized dog at 60 lbs. When we go to the park, the puppies seem to make a beeline to her, poor thing. I let her “talk” to them, but I watch her very, very carefully. Usually, all I have to do is call her away after she gives her “go away” signal, but sometimes, I have to body-block her to get her to move on. Almost without exception, I have been told, “Oh, that’s okay. She can stay. My puppy needs to learn.” It’s SO frustrating! Listen, I don’t want YOUR dog being snarky to mine, so I’m not about to let MY dog be snarky to yours!! Anyway…I’m glad you wrote this post. Puppies are precious and innocent (and clueless, to be sure), and we should help them get along in the world, not put them in harm’s way so they can learn a lesson.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Sherron, there are some lovely adult dogs that frankly think puppies suck 😉 In all of our puppy classes we tell our clients “always ask, is your dog OK with puppies” the majority of the time they say no and thank them for asking. And I agree with you, even when someone tells you it is OK, it most of the time is not. Hope Ginny gets a vacation soon!

  6. nutsfortreasure says:

    You hit the Nail on it’s HEAD!

    I can not tell you how many times I have walked JT out into the Ocean to avoid a large bully dog but did the owner call their HUGE dog away from the TINY BC puppy nope kept yacking to her friend till I screamed take care of your dog or I shall. lol So many just dump their puppies into dog parks and assume they are so much fun.

    Thanks for writing your post now if only we could get the world to READ IT!

  7. dayphoto says:

    I so agree. So I’m sending your post to lots of my friends who believe throwing the kids in pool teaches them to swim and letting older dogs teach the young ones….well, you said it best!


    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Ha 😉 I was the kid who was thrown into the lake. Tell your friends it’s not a fun experience and not to be recommended! Thank you for passing this along.

      Sometimes my heart just breaks when I see a puppies muzzle punctured and someone telling me ‘they learned their lesson’. Oh man they are so new to the planet, they need guidance and tender loving care.

  8. Jean Strong says:

    Seriously, people who do that sort of thing are ignorant to put nicely. Most of my dog friends are fellow agility people, and you are right, we protect our puppies with everything we have. When I want my dogs to learn how to interact with dogs other than my own, I go to dog people whom I trust to let them approach different sizes, ages and temperaments of dogs. We let them progress at their own pace but we also watch them very closely for the signs of “okay, I’m done here.” That also helps us teach puppies what another dog’s body language means. I used to have a huge black lab who adored babies of any species, and he taught Junebug so well, she was one of the happiest and friendliest dogs anyone could care to meet. She was incredibly skilled at sizing up other dogs and responding in an appropriate manner. She put shy, fearful dogs at ease and got them to play. Her attitude toward aggressive dogs often was the dog equivalent of an eye roll and “When you’re done being stupid we’ll play.” Some of my friends called her a dog therapy dog. 🙂 Had I allowed her to be “taught a lesson” what would have happened to my sunny, happy dog? The Rainbow Bridge is a better place with her there, following her beautiful nature and greeting my friends’ dogs who join her and telling them. “It’s okay, I’ve got your back until your human gets here.”

  9. Sharon says:

    God made few older dogs that will tolerate a puppy, (esp. one like mine)!!lol
    Nancy you are so right that we are their protectors and it is our responsibility to be sure they are always safe; even if it means the pup doesn’t get to play. (with that dog)
    I don’t think most puppies will read the signs from an older dog who is saying no. When that develops I’m still waiting!

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      HA! I love your dog. But totally get why some older dogs would feel overwhelmed. She will settle in time, but I would enjoy her ‘verve’ for life right now. It is so awesome and so fun to work with. Say I have been looking for your carving stand, where are you this summer?

      1. Sharon says:

        I love her too!! I haven’t set up yet, other things taking priority, but I am planning on it after my trip to Wa mid-month. Will see you then.

  10. Ramona Stirling says:

    Just as kids don’t learn social skills from other kids puppies don’t learn social cues from other puppies. Neither have the skills to teach another what they need to learn.
    As a long time special ed teacher of some very bright but socially challenged children they learn social skills in many places including the playground when someone is there to help them identify issues and problem solve. This is usually an adult hence the need for supervision.
    Puppies learn these skills best from an older wiser temperamentally sound dog. In my opinion ideally a member of the family pack but realize this is not always possible. Again there is a need for supervision.
    I spent hours last spring watching my 7 puppies follow “Uncle Tang” around the yard when they were 6 weeks old. Then added the toy poodle who hates being bounced, tolerates a little less but would not hurt and is not big enough to hurt until by the time they went to new homes at 8 weeks old, they spoke dog and all settled easily in new homes. I could not raise such well adjusted puppies by socializing them with each other. My pack is an integral part of this process and they continued their vital role with the puppies I kept.

    1. Nancy Tanner says:

      Hi Ramona, I think the key is ‘temperamentally sound’ as you mentioned. Most people don’t have that opportunity, and use dog parks, which breaks my heart.

      I hope all is well for you up in Canada! We have snow and sun in Montana, so life is good! Nancy

  11. CK Bales says:

    My Max is one who isn’t thrilled with puppies, but also is excellent at teaching them about older dogs who don’t want to play. He gives wonderful body language from a head turn to a lip lift to a soft grumble and finally to moving away when it’s a pushy pup. I try to step in before the grumble, shut sometimes it can happen in seconds. With older pups who have lost their license he does a near cheek nose nudge and walks away. No biting, bullying or fear making, just clear language that he isn’t a good playmate. As much as puppies need older playmates to teach good play behavior, the need Max’s in their lives that let them know some dogs don’t want to play, but do so in a way that doesn’t frighten the puppy while he is learning.

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