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  • Taryn Blyth

If a mother dog snaps at her pups, why can’t we use “corrections” to train?


A video that I saw a while ago is doing the rounds again on social media. I often just try and ignore these things, as the points made are so utterly stupid that I hope most people will see through them easily. However, this one is cropping up a bit too much, so I thought I better take the time to address it.

In the video a Golden Retriever Bitch is shown “interacting” with her puppies. She exhibits calming signals (lip licking) before entering the room where her pups are kept and proceeds to freeze when her pups approach to suckle and then snap repeatedly at them. The puppies scatter. They exhibit calming (stress) signals e.g. turning away, lying down, sitting, yawning, licking lips, rolling over, avoidance etc. Some even appear to hide behind a chair, while others cower. They are clearly confused. Some attempt to approach cautiously again and the mother once again freezes and snaps. Even when two pups sniff her tail from behind, she turns around snarling at them. See!!! All the balanced trainers shout. If mother’s can do that to their pups, why can’t we do that to dogs? It is normal!

Let me make this very clear, as a behaviour practitioner with 20 years’ experience, as someone who has worked at a shelter and seen many litters with their mums, as someone who has witnessed every detail of a mother-pup relationship from birth and knows and talks to many breeders (some of whom are also behaviour and veterinary colleagues): This is NOT normal!!

The behaviour of this mother indicates extreme stress. Freezing is one of the 5F survival behaviours (flight, fight, freeze, fiddle about or faint) that occurs when a dog is faced with a threat. A competent mother dog does not see her puppies as a threat. This poor dog is obviously incredibly stressed and is NOT coping with her puppies at all. The puppies are highly stressed and confused by her behaviour. I would be seriously concerned as to how these interactions would affect their social and emotional development and would, as a matter of urgency, seek to make changes to that environment and to how the mom and pups are cared for, to prevent further interactions of this nature.

Mother-pup interactions are extremely important for social and emotional development. The weaning process is how pups learn to tolerate frustration and develop social skills: initially milk is supplied on demand, but as pups mature, mom will start to allow suckling less frequently and will walk away from “rude” attempts to suckle and instead reinforce pro-social behaviours with access to the “milk bar”. Note that I said, “walk away”, not threaten and terrify the living daylights out of their pups. Not use violence and pain to “correct” behaviour. So essentially mothers use negative punishment (no access to milk bar) and positive reinforcement (access to milk bar) to shape their pups’ behaviour, so that they develop into socially competent dogs. Does this mean a mother dog will never snap at her pups? Just as with all dog-dog interactions, there might occasionally be a miscommunication and a mother might be pushed to sufficient annoyance that she does warn a pup to back off. Socially and emotionally healthy mothers will seldom need to do this and will give the pup the opportunity to respond to more subtle warnings, before snapping. Emotionally healthy mothers will certainly never bite their puppies or harm them in any way.

So, the first thing to do is remember that anyone who shares the video in question as an example of normal mother-pup interactions knows ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about dog behaviour. Anything they may have to say on how to train dogs or change behaviour is based on ignorance and should be ignored. I know these are strong words, but it really is time that we stopped entertaining such nonsense and giving people who are not qualified to give an opinion a platform to spout it from.

The second thing to remember is that WE ARE NOT DOGS! We are human beings with the ability to weigh up research and evidence and to come up with the kindest and most effective training methods that are good for both dogs and people. Surely, we owe it to our dogs and to ourselves to do just that?

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Kommetjie Canine College

Kommetjie

Cape Town

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