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— April 24, 2012 —

Coddle Monster
by L.M.

Bringing your puppy home is an exciting time and surely everyone involved is anticipating hour-long cuddle sessions and puppy kisses. Puppies can make even the most hardened tough guys swoon with their floppy ears, fumbling run and affinity for crawling into your lap for a nap. Puppies ignite an unavoidable maternal/paternal instinct in their new owners, which begins the process of bonding. It may seem absurd to have to remind folks that their puppy is indeed not their new human baby. However, the ample cases of fear aggression, separation anxiety and other intricate undesirable social disorders that trainers are presented with from dogs that have just developed past puppyhood really define the root of the issues: CODDLED MONSTERS.

Let’s talk about the word ‘coddle’ before we dive into the effects, since ‘coddling your dog’ can carry positive and negative connotations. It’s one thing to take exceptional care of your dog: impeccable grooming, brushing, baths, and extensive toy selections, but being a ‘helicopter parent’ is something different, and should be avoided. We’ve all witnessed the dog owners that cradle and bop their dog in their arms, hushing it as if it were a cooing baby. Usually, this tends to happen most often with small dogs since large breed puppies often grow quickly and are not as easy to scoop up off the ground, but helicopter parents still find ways to coddle large breed dogs, which create future consequences that are much harder to correct.

Naturally, we want to protect our puppy from potentially harmful situations like a serious injury, dog fight, poisoning, etc but there are times where we need to let dogs learn things on their own and find their ‘inner canine’ and make sure we protect them from something that can potentially cause emotional harm in a dog: anxiety and lack of confidence. In nature, mother wolves take their pups along on a hunt. The pups observe cautiously while stumbling along as their mother stalks prey, prepares to pounce and they practice with her towards the kill. These are what we can consider to be survival skills, on a very primitive level since hunting is a food source, thus vital for sustaining life. Domestic dogs have it easy, they’re fed in pretty bowls and sleep on silk beds, but there’s still a lot that a dog needs to learn that will help build confidence and social skills for the rest of their life and possibly to SAVE their life even when it seems that being a domestic dog means that they have been given any and everything they could ever want. But do they have everything they need that’s not tangible but rather instilled in their personalities during development?

There has to be a clear distinction between seeing your dog handle and overcome new situations, without running over and giving them the solution immediately and comforting them because we see this as our dog suffering and in need of our help. It’s ok to show your dog that they can crawl under the couch to retrieve their toy, but refrain from running over and fetching their toy without having them figure it out first because this is directly conditioning your dog to develop a codependency. This goes for a lot of things like; feeding, playing, reacting to a scary noise or object in the house, storms, other dogs and potentially people. If your dog finds him/herself being ‘unsure’ and runs to you instead of using their instinctual canine curiosity and rationale, you’re not doing your dog any favors but instead, reinforcing paranoia, fear and potentially bad behavior. Your dog will essentially not be able to live without your constant presence over him/her in order to feel safe, which means that the dog has not had the chance to develop their independence and self-assurance. The best way to cover some of the most common mistakes is to list well-intended human reactions to dog situations:

  • Dog barks or reacts to another dog while on leash and owner coos ‘Noooo’ into the dog’s ear gingerly while stroking them, or worse, picking them up and cradling. The owner is reinforcing the dog’s behavior by giving affection and speaking in a soothing voice, thus feeding the dog’s fear or anxiety towards the other dog.

  • Dog jumps on owner upon returning home after being away and owner encourages what they project to be the dog’s ‘excitement’ with high-pitched tones and affection. In reality, a dog that is jumping and yelping upon the owners return is actually having a mini panic attack. What may seem to be loving and ‘happy to see me’, is actually separation anxiety and showing affection to a dog that is jumping onto their owner, or other people, is also encouraging the anxiety and bad behavior. Double detriment.

  • While on a walk, dog is several feet in front of owner tugging on leash walking frantically on all sides of the sidewalk while owner jogs behind dog to keep up. The dog is lost and has no direction from his owner, but instead is leading his owner. This is causing the dog to become insecure and over stimulated which can potentially encourage leash aggression towards other dogs and humans.

  • Dog repeatedly displays bad behavior and owner corrects by screaming dog’s name and giving dog chew or toy as a ‘distraction’ to stop the bad behavior. The owner has just rewarded the dog for behaving badly by calling the dogs name and giving them a toy/treat. The dog will begin to associate behaving badly with reward.

  • Dog becomes scared of noise or object and runs to owner. Owner immediately crouches down and sooths dog with soft voice and hugging. This is the single most common and detrimental error. Showing a scared and anxious dog affection only intensifies their insecurities. The dog is looking to feed off of their owner’s strength but their owner is being weak, thus making the situation twice as stressful.

  • Small dog or puppy lunges, growls or aggressively approaches an unsuspecting person or dog –the owner scoops dog up and presses them to their chest and may or may not also give the dog a smack. The owner just showed affection and protected their dog from a non-threat but also at the same time smacked their dog causing confusion. Just because the dog is small or is a puppy doesn’t mean that this behavior is harmless. A dog that displays dominant and aggressive behavior has the propensity to bite, if not this time, maybe the next with more and more encouragement from their owner after displaying aggressive behavior.

  • Dog displays small injury or ailment such as limping after a small stumble or vomiting, owner runs to the dog and cowers and/or picks the dog up anxiously asking the dog if he/she is ok and holding the dog. Never pick up a vomiting dog! Dog’s bodies are created by nature to maintain a level of homeostasis. When a dog vomits it can be something as simple as a hair in their throat picked up off a toy on the ground. Picking up a vomiting dog can cause them to choke or damage their diaphragm. Also, a dog that is showered with attention and affection upon slipping, stumbling or falling can develop intense confidence issues and will be unable to explore the world around them without their owner helicoptering over them. This also includes hovering over the dog while he/she is eating. Soon, the dog will be unable to eat without his/her owner present. Will the dog starve to death if his/her owner ever needs to leave town and the dog stays with a relative or in boarding? This will also encourage unnecessary fears and anxiety.

  • Owner can’t help but bring puppy along everywhere they go to prevent having to leave the puppy home alone. Neglecting to give a dog his ‘alone time’ can develop not only into a strong codependency but also extreme separation anxiety. There will come a time that you cannot bring your dog with you and that’s when you will either become a prisoner in your own home for fear of your dog’s separation anxiety (whether it be destructive, self-mutilation, or a noise complaint from the neighbors) and putting your dog through a rollercoaster of anxiety when they are suddenly placed in a crate for several hours after never having to be crated previously.

  • Dog must be touching owner at all times while at home or outside of the home together. For small dogs, this means being a ‘lap dog’. While this is something others may find endearing, having a velcro dog is beyond loving your dog. The dog has not only established dominance over their owner by standing on them and requiring their owner to tote them along at all times, but also encourages needless possessive behaviors that may cause the owner to constantly compensate for their dog’s bad behavior, and find excuses to not correct it. This will lead to many issues down the line, including making the dog owner feel isolated and unable to control their dog’s behavior around friends and other family members and potentially a bite.
There are many more specific examples that all run along the lines of showing a dog affection (coddling) at inappropriate times. Humans feel the need to express their love in human ways to the dogs. That’s where a major disconnection is created between dog and owner. The key to giving your dog love is to find out what your dog loves, rather than just smothering them with hugs and kisses. Dogs enjoy learning, working, activity and most importantly- a challenge.

The realities of early developmental coddling can get ugly before your dog turns just a year old. What may look like to some as a very dedicated and caring dog owner being extra bonded and loving with their dog, can actually hinder their dog’s entire future—and the dog owner’s own sanity. So many dogs are dumped at shelters each year with claims of behavioral shortcomings. What people fail to realize is that dogs are not a pre-programmed product based on breed or size. What you put into our dog is what you will get out. Next week’s article will be an addendum that includes common dog owner excuses to rationalize their dog’s bad behavior. Excuses will only work for so long. Eventually, bad behavior will push a dog owner to seek help from a trainer or relinquish their pet because they seem to think the dog is ‘ruined’. It’s much easier to prevent dogs from ever developing bad behaviors instead of rewarding and rationalizing their inappropriate behaviors for years and then attempt to work backwards to ‘fix it’.