Bernese Mountain Dogs - Breed Information & Education for Puppy Buyers, Owners and Breeders

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You Talkin' to Me? You Want Me to Do What?!

By Helen Hollander

puppy in tunnelThey're adorable. They trip all over themselves. They are little clowns in fur costumes. They melt your heart. They stop strangers with a single glance. Puppies! Are they great or what? Months go by. What happened? Puppy is now a teen.

Their behavior is not so adorable. They are not clumsy but rather nimble. They are no longer funny, and instead of melting your heart, they are ripping out your heart. They no longer stop strangers with a single glance but, rather, bark and charge at them faster than a speeding bullet!

Ahhhhh, 9 months old. What a great age!

Many dogs that have been worked with consistently from day one wake up one morning seeming to have eaten stupid pills for dinner the night before. Everything they knew the day before seems to have gone with wind. This is the age when compliant dogs reach that "Excuse me, I'm sorry, you said what? Ohhhh, I don't think so" stage. Suddenly, you begin to hear a little talking back (or a lot of talking back) and-oh, yes, let's not forget-many dogs become selectively deaf to their owner's requests.

The good news is that they pass through this phase as quickly as it surfaced, if the owners lay some ground rules in a positive, dog friendly way. Positive, however, does not mean permissive!

Berner pup with shoeUp until now, puppies were more comfortable sticking close to home while still exploring the great big world. They were eager and happy to comply with their caretaker's requests. Many continue behaving like a goody two shoes, and continue to amuse their owners with puppy antics.

However, 9 months seems to be a magic number. They are now teenagers. Lord help us! Some teens are so full of themselves (or think they are)! They may totally disregard you or challenge what you say or ask of them. They continually test to see how far they can go to get what they want, when they want it, using their rules. Many owners complain that their dog is dominant. Is this dominance? I don't think so. You have a teenager "asserting" himself.

Is it possible that you slacked off a little on obedience training?

Perhaps you may have been inadvertently reinforcing inappropriate behaviors. The result is that those undesirable behaviors are being repeated and unknowingly reinforced. Berner pillow playPerhaps new ones are appearing daily. Many owners get flustered, throw up their arms, and give up. Guess what? Score one for the dog. Now is the time to crack down and set new boundaries. Now is the time to remind your pooch that you are relevant.

As a trainer and behavior counselor, I see these behaviors in young dogs daily. I experienced the terrible teens with my own four male dogs, and I am living proof that you can and will live through it! What I usually suggest for new puppy owners and owners of testy teens is a behavior protocol for deference called NILIF (nothing in life is free). In this program, your puppy/dog must learn to defer to you. This is a most wonderful, dog-friendly approach to your gaining relevance. Your puppy/dog will learn that he must say "please."

Simply put, your puppy/dog must sit or perform another easily done obedience request (for around 3 seconds) before he receives anything. Anything, such as food, a pat on the back, a belly rub, water, putting on a leash, being groomed, going in/out the door, getting a cookie, being permitted to hop up on the bed, chair or sofa-anything and everything! He will therefore be asking permission by sitting first.

In addition to NILIF, I suggest that owners start hand feeding their puppy/dog. Toss the food bowl for a while. Right now you mean zip, zero, zilch to your dog. Sorry, but it is true. You must reverse roles starting yesterday. You are the one who will be making the decisions, and puppy/dog will happily comply.

Truthfully, dogs need and want direction. They need and want default behaviors for various situations. And when they are taught what to do in a dog friendly manner, as opposed to being "put in his place," they are happy, calm, and very compliant.

Berner carrying toy?An owner/dog relationship should never be one of "who puts whom in his place." There shouldn't be a contest of who is more dominant. (I hate that word.) Nobody should be "put in his place." These terrible teenagers are in their place, behaving like dogs. It is now your job, as your dog's owner and teacher, to show him what you want, and reward him when he does what you want.

Dogs have to be taught how to live with their human in a human world, not the human in the dog's world.

Solid relationships are based on mutual respect and trust and a sense of feeling safe. Your dog relies on you to meet his needs: food, water, shelter, companionship (they are social animals), and a sense of knowing you will keep him safe. Not much to ask of you, considering what you get in return! The one-on-one time you spend in this relationship is priceless!

One of the best ways you achieve this relationship is by giving your dog a structured environment, a routine, and by giving your dog default behaviors. This is easily done by patiently showing your dog what you want. Positively reward him when he does what you want, and he will eagerly repeat those behaviors.

News Flash! Dogs really do not want to be the ones making the decisions. Why? Because, typically, they choose the wrong behavior and are then punished. What do you have then? A very confused, anxious dog who will offer all sorts of behaviors (usually undesirable ones) in hope of eventually hitting the right one. Very nerve wracking indeed.

If you give your dog direction in a positive, dog-friendly way (using lure and reward training), your dog will begin to come around. Remember: being positive does not mean being permissive.
This is the time when you must go back to training with your dog. Testy teens need structured brush-up work in obedience. The sooner, the better. If you feel you cannot tackle it alone and need to find help fast, my suggestion is to contact a professional. You can train privately or in a group class. Go to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website Click on Trainer Search (or call). I am sure you will find a trainer in your area or close by. Even if you have to travel a bit, do it.

In the meantime, many wonderful books are available. One of my favorite references is Patricia McConnell's booklet, "How To Be The Leader Of The Pack-your dog will love you for it." Another goody is Trish King's "Parenting Your Dog". You can buy these books from or other book providers.

Folks, take off the boxing gloves and start setting ground rules in a gentle way. Get lots of yummy treats and get to work. Your dog will love you for it. Remember: your relationship with your dog should be one that is built on and consists of only good things!

Helen Hollander, CPDT
The Educated Pup, LLC
Lawrence, L I, NY
Nationally Certified Member Certification Council of Pet Dog Trainers