Sophia Yin, DVM April 13, 2009
When the Obamas announced in November that they would be getting a puppy for Sasha and Malia the whole world breathed a collective “aww” and envisioned the presidential kids carrying the young pup around like a doll. Well, the Obamas have officially announced the big reveal. Their new four-legged family member is a male Portuguese Water Dog named Bo. Bo is 6 months old rather than being under 16 weeks. He’s already too big to be carried around by Sasha and Malia, but he’s just the right size to be cuddled by everyone in the family.
Some people might be puzzled as to why the Obamas would want to miss out on the wonderful early puppy months. As a veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist, I think, wow, another smart move by the president and his family. Let me tell you why.
The Headaches They Have Probably Avoided
Potty Training Problems
While young puppies provide many precious moments, they, like infants and toddlers, require an extraordinary amount of time, planning and energy—usually much more than one predicts. It starts with the potty training. Some people think that potty training is as easy as just keeping the pup on a regular eating, drinking and potty-outing schedule where he is taken out every several hours. Or they think that the pup will be completely house-trained in just a week or two. For some precocial (meaning they are born relatively mature and independent) pups this might be so. Most pups taken through such a lax, abbreviated potty protocol remain only partially house-trained. They learn that outside is a good place to go but don’t understand that inside is off-bounds. In fact they may even come inside after an extensive play or exercise period and then relieve themselves on your expensive carpet.
The Full Potty Training Protocol for Young Pups
Here’s what’s really required for fool-proof potty training—it’s not an easy task. When the pup wakes up, let him out of his pooch-palace, a travel kennel just big enough for him to sleep in but not large enough for a bed plus bathroom. Immediately carry or run him out on leash to the preferred potty spot outside and stand there stationary and silent until he’s done both #1 and #2. As he’s about to potty you can say the cue word “potty” just once so he comes to associate the word with the action. Then you can reward him as he’s finishing. Otherwise you’re silent so you don’t distract him from doing his duty. If he’s done both then he can come in and have a meal and play session. If he has not, then he goes back into his pooch palace for 15 minutes after which time you try again. Repeat this process until he’s done both #1 and #2 or he’ll potty inside as soon as you’ve taken a break and strayed from the plan.
Next, once he’s earned a free-time session, you can let him loose in a small area if you can keep your eyes glued to him. As soon as you take your eyes off him, he’s sure to have an accident just as sure as your pasta water will boil over as soon as your attention is diverted elsewhere. Watch for signs, such as sniffing the ground, that he’s ready to go potty again and run him outside if you’re unsure. Next, 15-20 minutes after he’s eaten or drunk water, and every time he wakes up from resting or has been playing and slows down, take him out to go potty. During the rest of the day he should spend bouts sleeping in his crate and you can regularly go through the same potty process you went through first thing in the morning. You may need to go through the process 4-6 times a day.
Once he’s relieved himself outside during the day, he can have a play session or be attached to you on leash so you’re more likely to catch the signs he wants to potty. The goal is that every time he goes outside he sees this as his opportunity to potty and he does #1 or #2, and when he’s inside he does not have an opportunity to make a mistake. This is the quickest way for him to develop an outdoor potty habit and to learn that indoors is not a normal potty place.
Usually after a week you get a pup who goes potty outside on cue but who may still have accidents inside. This rigid routine must be carried out consistently for several months and without accidents for several weeks before it’s set. Even the most diligent owners should expect accidents and avoid getting upset. Just startle the pup if you catch him in the act so that you can hopefully get him to stop and then rush him outside to finish. Beware that if you punish him or cause him to be scared, he may just learn to potty in the house out of your sight. So just chalk accidents up to your mistake and resume following the plan.
If this potty training process sounds like a drag, you’re right. The only thing more inconvenient than following this plan is having to randomly clean up after your dog in the house for the dog’s entire life.
Potty Training Refresher in a New House
Hopefully Bo, the presidential bowser, has gotten a good start on potty training in his previous home. Regardless of whether he was perfect there, he’ll still need to go through the potty training routine in his new spacious home for several weeks to months. Luckily he’s older and should have better bowel and bladder control. Note that adult dogs frequently need to be retrained somewhat in every new home they visit so they understand where the new bathrooms are. This training may only require a day.
On Play-dates and Outings That Help Make a Pooch Presidential
A presidential pooch has to be friendly to all people, confident in new environments, and polite in public—both around people and dogs. These are characteristics that need to be cultivated starting well before 12 weeks of age. Puppies go through a sensitive period for socialization where they are primed to learn that unfamiliar people, environments, objects, and animals are safe and where they can most easily learn how to interact with other animals politely. Those puppies whose owners do not make enough of a daily effort to get them completely comfortable with these things often end up with a dog whose default setting is to be fearful of new things.
In fact, the typical dog that people assume must have been abused because he’s afraid of men, umbrellas, people wearing hats, that odd object lying on the sidewalk, or the normal sounds of the city streets, has usually just been poorly socialized. Maybe he was born on a farm and never saw many cars or bikes, or heard loud noises. Or, maybe he lived in a kennel for his first 5 months and, while friendly with the other kenneled dogs whom he knows, doesn’t know how to greet foreign dogs or for that matter, people. And if being fearful weren’t enough, a large percentage of these dogs learn that the best way to protect themselves is to bark, lunge, and even bite before the danger has a chance to strike, which is why the number one problem seen by veterinary behaviorists and Ph.D. behaviorists is fear aggression in dogs.
To prevent the default setting of fear from being set, puppies need ample positive experiences with other pets, unfamiliar people, and new environments. This means appropriate supervised play with other puppies and adult dogs, and meeting new people who give treats or kibble for sitting politely. It also involves regular visits to new locations to see different sights and sounds, including getting used to elevators, traffic, sirens, and even helicopters. This is so important that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has issued a position statement recommending that all puppies start puppy socialization classes as close to 8 weeks as possible and well before the vaccine series has been completed. Socialization must occur on a daily basis.
The Presidential Family Still Has Some Work to Do
Socialization Must Continue for a Year or More
Hopefully Bo’s last family has diligently gotten the socialization process started. And since he’ll need to be trimmed and groomed, he hopefully also has learned that these and other medical or husbandry procedures are fun. (Watch “Toenail Trim on an Aggressive Dog” to see how toenail trims can be trained even in a dog who already hates it.
Even so, the first family will have to continue the process. Some dogs go through a fear period between 6 months and 1.5 years of life where they become sensitized to becoming fearful. One day they seem relaxed in public and literally a week later they are barking, backing away, or baring their teeth at several people, sounds or objects several times a day, in the same environment where they were comfortable before. By continuing to give the pup positive experiences such as treats, kibble, a toy, or pat on the head (assuming he shows signs that he finds these rewarding), the Obamas can help prevent later fears from developing.
The Obamas and All of Bo’s Caretakers Will Have to Learn the Rules
As the First Dog, of course Bo will need to know how to be on his best behavior. And apparently he’s getting private tutoring from the trainer of Senator Ted Kennedy’s dogs. The Obamas and all of Bo’s caretakers will need to continue his lessons.
Realize that it’s easy for dogs to learn sit, down, come, and heel. These things can often all be taught in just 15 minutes. For these behaviors to become a habit in Bo’s daily life when they are needed, the people in his life must all band together to deliver the same message—that good behavior earns rewards and bad behaviors do not get reinforced. Dogs catch on quickly because they only need to do whatever gains them rewards. It’s the people who take months and sometimes years to learn, because they have to recognize everything they do that effectively rewards good behavior and accidentally rewards undesirable behaviors. That way they can behave appropriately around Bo every time they interact with him rather than inadvertently rewarding the wrong things. This is one reason why dog owners need to continue taking their dogs to dog class for the first year or more.
It’s also important which approach the Obamas take regarding the lessons. As a president who focuses on listening rather than conquering both allies and foes, he’ll want to use an equally nuanced approach to dealing with Bo. No choke chain, pinch collar, electronic collars, alpha rolls, or other methods that focus on punishing bad behaviors and dominating the dog. Such corrections – even when done in a quiet, assertive, calm manner – are still inappropriate, especially in public, and are similar to spanking a child. They send the wrong message, and are not easy for youngsters at Sasha and Malia’s age to perform. Additionally, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (http://www.AVSABonline.org) has cautioned against their inappropriate use in their position statements on Dominance and on Punishment.
While Bo will need rules and guidelines for behavior, his training will need to focus on a kinder, more scientific approach. His family will need to realize that every interaction they have with him is a training session and that they must communicate the rules by rewarding him as he performs the desirable behaviors, and removing or preventing rewards for bad behavior. Then they’ll need to stick to their plan until good behavior is a habit for Bo.
Is it Starting to Sound as Complicated Foreign Policy?
No doubt, the Presidential family has a lot of work to do with the First Dog, Bo. Given their track records of making calculated and thoughtful decisions, I’m betting they’ll do all the right things for Bo and he’ll be one of the best First Dog’s ever. And, of course, a great friend to Sasha and Malia.