Puppy backtalk will happen eventually.  It's one of those milestones along the way to maturity. How you answer it, however, will decide the direction it takes.

Pop Quiz: What age group of kids are MOST likely to challenge authority?

Too easy??

The answer, of course, is teenagers. 

Questioning, resisting, backtalking – it's all a normal part of kids growing up, testing limits, and discovering their independence. Puppy backtalk happens for the same reasons.

If you're a dog aficionado like me, then there's no need to remind you that puppies, too are teenagers for a while. That three-month-old baby who happily did your bidding morphs behind your back into a six-month-old adolescent whose favorite reply is “not-gonna-don't-hafta”. 

Six-month-old Radar showed me his true teenage colors today. Anyone who's raised a puppy will recognize the inevitable moment when your puppy takes a stand. 

The point I want to make, though, is not about the puppy challenging authority, but rather about the way you prepare for puppy backtalk and how you manage it when it happens.

They may act tough, but adolescent puppies are fragile souls, as are adolescent humans. Every challenge, every resistance is a question. What looks like stubbornness is actually confusion. Your teenager is depending on you to have good answers.  It's a big job – and we do our best.

So here's how Radar asked his question today…and how I answered him. He was due for his routine nail trim.  Like lots of dogs, he's not fond of having his feet handled. I've worked on making it a pleasant experience, associating it with rewards, silly chatter, and gentle handling. 

Previous nail trims were a breeze, but today it was Radar's turn to take a stand.  I got the message loud and clear: “What will happen if I act like I'm going to bite you?”  

Radar's asked the question with some bravado, but not with much confidence – testing the idea to see if it would fly. 

Before I share the right answer, let me caution you about two risky mistakes.  One big mistake would be to take the dog's question personally, letting your feelings replace your good judgment. Your puppy needs leadership but if you allow yourself to become a victim instead of a trusted guide, you lose the opportunity to lead. 

The second mistake is to believe that the dog is trying to be “dominant”. The concept of dominance in dogs comes from an outdated and incorrect assumption about the social behavior of dogs. If you make that assumption, you'll be wrong.

The right answer to my puppy's teenage question comes from science and a problem-solving mindset. How can I help this puppy grow in confidence by helping him define his boundaries? 

How can I show him that he can use what he already knows to make his choice?

Radar already knows the Give & Take Game.  “If you give me what I want, then I'll give you what you want.”

He's also already learned an On/Off Switch. “You can stop___ now because we're all done with that.”

My strategy was to guide my puppy to make a choice instead of squashing his desire to learn. So to answer his question about acting as if he would bite, I used his Off Switch – “We're all done with that.” He's learned that changing his mind can make good things happen.  And so I followed it up with the Give & Take Game – First you accept a nail trim, then I give you your favorite chicken and duck canned food on a spoon.  Yum Yum!

If you've ever doubted the benefits of simple foundation training games let me assure you that the payoff is well worth the small investment of your time. The games are effective with dogs of any age because they take advantage of things that dogs naturally do.  And besides, learning with games is a whole lot more fun!

To find out how you can teach games like these to your dog have a look at my jump-start program,

At Home With Dogs 1.0

It includes:

  • Step by step lesson plans for 5 games
  • Instructions for using the games
  • Demo videos featuring Radar learning the games


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