Too much of a Good Thing:
How Freedom Affects Your Puppy

by Lisa Kerley

A classic conversation that I have with new clients goes something like this:

Client: “Mitzy is SO smart. She’s only 12 weeks and she already knows how to sit.”
Lisa: “That’s great. Puppies’ brains are little learning magnets!”
Feeling encouraged by my response, the client continues: “She hasn’t had any more accidents in the house so she doesn’t need her crate anymore.”
Lisa: “Really? (Eyebrows are raised, at this point).
Client: “No. And at night she’s more settled out of it, so we just let her sleep on the bed.
That way we don’t need to get up at all!”
Lisa: Silence.

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So if a pup’s not having accidents or tearing the house apart, what’s the problem with giving them freedom? In the short term it may seem easier or kinder to just let a puppy have what they want. Whether the puppy has the maturity or skill to handle it, this approach of easy freedom early in a dog’s life takes away the opportunity to teach some very important skills – tolerance, impulse control and patience, along with developing confidence.

Consider a child that has always gotten whatever she wants, when she wants it. Experience has taught her to expect it this way, so the skills required to ask for things appropriately and deal with not getting them quickly enough have not been learned. Yikes – that’s a scary thought!

Dogs that get to decide how things happen – having free run of the house, choosing when they want your company or when they want to be alone, are in the same situation. They are used to getting immediate gratification, and as a result, have a hard time coping with not getting their way or being asked to follow through with things they don’t want to do. They will be intolerant of being denied what they want – responding with frustration, anger or stress. Not the best plan for developing patience and tolerance, is it? These are skills that must be learned, and are just as vital for our dogs as they are for our children.

But what’s too much freedom got to do with your puppy’s confidence? By leaving a pup to make choices with too many options, they are being put in situations beyond their learning or skill set. Without proper direction or support, they are forced to deal with things and face challenges on their own. Even in the safety of their own home, dogs with too much freedom often begin patrolling the environment. They will react to noises outside, people passing by, and even the mailman.

Although teaching impulse control, tolerance, and developing confidence takes time and effort, the benefits to your pup are huge. Dogs that possess these skills are typically calmer and more manageable even before any additional training takes place. As a bonus, you will also be teaching them to be comfortable in a crate, be on their own and walk politely on leash. How cool is that!

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Being Comfortable in a Crate

Many people don’t plan on including the crate as part of their adult dog’s routine. However, keeping your dog comfortable with it through regular use will equip you for many of life’s unforeseen situations – medical emergencies, transport, moving, renovating. These are all stressful to the dog – there’s no need to compound their anxiety by putting them in a crate for the first time in a year.

Having a secure, safe place for your dog that can go anywhere will also allow you more options and flexibility. Your dog will be welcome at more social engagements and facilities if they can be comfortably crated. This will allow you to take them more places and include them in more aspects of your life.

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Lessons: Many pups are happy to sleep in their crate at night. Some can even handle being in the crate for periods during the day, if the house is empty. Being willing to settle there when the house is more active, is a different matter however. Their first steps in this training need to be very easy so they can be successful. Ensure your pup always has something great to keep them busy for the duration of their crate time – a beef chew or Kong, for example. Make sure you provide something really special, that your puppy LOVES and save it for these crate sessions. Start with short sessions – even as little as 5 minutes and practice while the environment is calm. Gradually work your pup up to where they can calmly hang out in their crate while things are happening that are hard to resist – such as when you’re prepping meals, lounging nearby on the floor or the kids are playing.

Being on Their Own

Having a dog that cannot be left alone will affect almost every aspect of your life. It will restrict how long you can leave home, and can impact even the simplest daily activities. Many dogs intolerant of being left will be destructive. Finding safe solutions can be challenging and costly. For many, the only option is providing nearly continual care via babysitters, walkers or daycares. Going out for dinner won’t simply be a matter of getting restaurant reservations.

Lessons: Continual access to you while you’re at home won’t give your puppy the skills they need to be on their own. Having your puppy regularly spending time in their crate while you’re at home, will also be setting them up to spend time alone when you have to be away. No matter what your hectic day entails, you can create a basic routine that the little puppy can get used to – something that they can rely on. With this consistency, they will learn to accept periods on their own as positive and normal.
Some puppies will wander off to a quiet place on their own. This is not the same as crate time. The point is to help your pup become comfortable with being put away and being on their own when it is NOT their idea. All gentle examples of direction from you will help your puppy develop tolerance. Short, regular sessions in their crate throughout the day will help your puppy accept imposed down time.
Although we have used the crate as an example (because of its usefulness outside the home), these lessons can also be taught using a pen, containment area or tether. Even using a safety harness in the car counts! Finding as many opportunities to practice these foundation skills will improve your dog’s ability and make things easier in the long run.

Leash Skills

Having a dog that walks calmly and politely on leash is one of the joys of sharing our lives together. Developing good leash skills also has value to your dog’s well being. There is increasing evidence that a dog pulling while on a collar can be detrimental to their health. Additionally, poor leash skills result in unruly approaches, pass-bys and greetings. These in turn can develop into frustration behaviour, and escalate to leash aggression in maturing dogs. With many areas now requiring dogs be leashed, it is a must-have skill.

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Lessons: Dogs get into the habit of pulling because we allow it to work for them. As a result, any slow downs or impediments to reaching things of interest become a frustration. Instead, you can show your pup that displaying some patience and impulse control will get them what they want. When you approach something attractive, stop at a small distance away and wait for your puppy to settle. This delay can be frustrating to your pup, but you will be helping them develop tolerance and be able to reward calm behavior.
By consistently providing this space and pause, you will allow your pup to check out potentially worrisome things safely and comfortably. Following this protocol will help to prevent reactivity.

All these lessons are best started with a young puppy. This is much easier than changing game plans later on, when a lack of these skills requires more intense and time-consuming (and expensive!) remedial training to occur.

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By helping your pup develop these skills, you will be giving them the foundation that will make training much easier and allow them to progress faster than dogs without them. Instead of becoming over-excited, frustrated and unable to focus, they will be in a state where they are ready and able to learn. They will be in a ‘thinking brain’ rather than an excited, reactive state and they will be able to take direction from you more easily. All of these will ultimately help them to make good choices and decisions. Possession of these skills can help prevent many common behavior problems from developing. As an extra benefit (as if any more are needed!), you will also be giving your dog the skills and confidence to go almost anywhere, allowing you to share more of your life together.