What did you do?!

naughty playful puppy dog after biting a pillow tired of hard work

Guys, I cannot tell you how important it is to teach puppies that “What do you have?” and “What did you do?” are the best phrases on earth.

From the first times my puppy is “naughty” — and let’s be honest, it’s a puppy, it’s going to get into things you thought you had safeguarded — I try very hard to teach them that bringing me stuff is the very best of all options. You found a sock? Fantastic! You stole a chicken breast a guest left on a low table? I’m so glad you showed me! Are you parading my underwear through the living room in front of my in-laws? Excellent!

Finding stuff does not get a puppy in trouble. Finding stuff means we either play with the item together (if it’s legal or not harmful) or we can trade for another, even better item.

Years ago, Laevatein stole a loaf of bread from somewhere? and carried it all the way upstairs to lie down beside me to chew the bag open. I thanked her for bringing it to me, took the bag, opened it and handed a bread slice directly to her, and then closed the bag again and put it in a safe place.

“But Laura! That sounds like rewarding bad behavior!”

Well, only sort of. The behavior of taking the bread from wherever it had been was long done by the time I knew about it. If I had punished any behavior at all, it would have been letting me see her with the bread. But this way, I had a dog who would actually climb stairs to show me what she had, so I could make a judgment call on what to do about it — and that’s so much better than a dog who has been trained to be sneaky. (And Laev once took apart a car to reach a squirrel, so it’s not like she couldn’t open the bread bag without my help.)

See, the real goal here is not to control the dog’s behavior where I know the environment, but to ensure the dog reports her behavior to me where I don’t know everything. (Which is a lot.)

(Humans err. See Alena’s example of a another forgetful moment saved by a well-trained dog.)

Today’s Example

So just now, Penny came running up to me, absolutely delighted to be entangled in one of my best sports bras. It was in her mouth and around two legs and I was pretty sure it was an ex-sports bra.

“What do you have?” I asked her, in my best play voice, and she looked at me and wiggled proudly.

I knew what had happened. I’ve just returned from New Zealand, where I went backpacking several days in Abel Tasman National Park (amazing!) and then was a guest at GeyserCon, the national science fiction and fantasy convention. On the way back there was a chance our equipment had been exposed to bedbugs, and in an abundance of caution I had spread a lot of gear out in the sun to bake while waiting its turn in the washing machine.

I’d forgotten the dogs, having already checked over and dismissed the bags, could now get to the soft stuff.

Penny, faced with sports bras and fluffy downy mummy bags and all the very best toy options, had selected one. Because the door was open, she then came inside and trotted up to me, wagging her tail.

Do I want to reward the dog for bringing me her find? Or do I want her to stay outside with a $200 sleeping bag full of fluff just like the stuffed toys she loves to disembowel?

The bra was fine, the sleeping bag was fine, everything was fine. But that all could have gone the other way, and it would have been 100% my fault for leaving it all gloriously scented with exotic foreign smells and within the dogs’ reach, and I’m just appreciative that Penny wanted to share her find with me.

As tempting as it is to gasp and run after that puppy with the hand towel, teach him instead to bring you his treasures for you to appreciate and reward.

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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One Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing the story. Knowing what to do in those situations (reward or ignore) can be a difficult decision at the time and just like the reaction to the dog is a muscle within us to train so we give our dog the proper, consistent response. Looking forward to reading more!

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