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Book Review
Puppy Preschool
by John Ross & Barbara McKinney

Review by: Kate Connick, Jan. 2003

Many pet owners long for a primer that can help guide them through the frustrations of raising a puppy. John Ross and Barbara McKinney set out to provide such a guide in their book, Puppy Preschool.

The authors recommend that the ideal time to acquire a puppy is at 7 weeks of age and that the ideal time to begin formal obedience training is at 4 months of age. As puppy preschool, this book targets that time period between when one brings home their puppy and when one is able to begin formal training. During this period the authors focus on topics that include housebreaking, handling, socialization, chewing, mouthing, and basic obedience.

To their credit, the authors are excellent writers who present their information in a well organized, thorough, easy-to-understand way. They express themselves in a very readable, down-to-earth, practical manner. Just enough personal anecdotes and analogies are included to offer a conversational warmth.

The authors do offer some sound, sensible information. They explain how dogs are opportunistic, amoral, and "will always choose what is most agreeable - from their canine point of view." Thus, the foundation of training is rewarding desired behaviors and making undesired behaviors disagreeable to the dog via corrections. They discuss everything from toys and crates to developmental stages. The importance of having age-appropriate, realistic expectations is reiterated, as they remind the reader that "there's no book or training technique that will help you circumvent puppyhood. You've got to live through it." Throughout, they hammer home the ideas of supervision, consistency, timing, and repetition.

Although the authors do come across as great dog lovers, their approach will not appeal to every dog nor owner. They strive to "teach through a canine point of view," sometimes with an unintentionally comedic effect. The authors advocate, for example, use of a gutteral "Nhaa!" as opposed to a more traditional "no." The "Nhaa!" is referred to throughout as "growling" at one's dog. Fair enough. Conceptualizing the corrective vocalization in this manner gives the reader a clear idea of how it should sound. Should the simple growl not work, the owner is advised to escalate to a scruff shake, a snap, or actually biting the offending puppy on the muzzle. The most agile among us doesn't have the speed nor grace to use our jaws in the way that a dog does, and I'm not convinced that this is a desirable goal anyway. Frankly, Ross looks just plain silly in the photos where he is biting a spaniel puppy on the snout.

Much of the advice is sensible, but it's hard to swallow when the authors overstate the dogpack/dominance and canine-point-of-view themes. It's one thing to argue the benefits of leadership and use a wolf pack as a metaphor for a functional, hierarchical, canine family unit. It's quite another to encourage an owner to pretend to be a dog by literally snapping at or biting a puppy. And the logic often fails. In attempting to validate growling as a correction, the authors insist that it is "ridiculous" to correct a dog with words like bad dog, fooey, or the like. "Have you ever heard a dog tell another dog 'Fooey?'" they ask. No, but I've never heard a dog tell another one to retrieve a tennis ball, nor praise it with "good dog," nor attach a leash, nor offer it a bowl of food. So what? The authors simply aren't convincing that one needs to "be" a dog to be an effective owner.

The authors' approach is heavy in pack theory, something which I don't necessarily object to in terms of conveying the importance of being a fair authority figure to one's dog. Nonetheless, the authors seem to go overboard when interpreting behavior as dominance challenges. The book, after all, addresses the 2-4 month old puppy. I have a hard time believing that much of anything done by the average pet puppy during this stage of life is intended in a meaningfully challenging way. I'm not so sure that it's helpful to interpret everything a puppy does wrong as a political uprising.

For example, the authors ominously warn that mouthing is "simply a form of testing" and should not be interpreted as playing. They continue, "If you allow a puppy to mouth you, he will view you as an individual of lower standing in the pack. He will expect you to follow direction from him and will never become a truly obedient dog." They then propose that "many puppies who get away with mouthing do get nasty when they become adults. They grow up thinking that they are pack leader and can bite whenever they want to." I simply don't buy it. I've never seen a direct relationship between the degree of mouthing at this age and the level of aggression in an adult dog. Heck, some of the mouthiest young puppies are joyful Labradors and Goldens, and many "serious" breeds like the Chows that the authors dislike so much aren't especially mouthy as puppies. If we were discussing a wildly mouthy adolescent dog, that might be a different ball of wax, but I just don't find the gravity of their concerns about mouthing in young puppies to be believable. I'd be more concerned about an overzealous owner overcorrecting a puppy of this age than I would be about the puppy's mouthing, per se.

Sometimes their approach seems unnecessarily confrontational and corrective for very young puppies. The book seems more appropriately geared for an older puppy who can endure corrections, rather than for the real babies at which the book is aimed. In truth, the methods probably work well enough for the mainstream dog, but softer, more sensitive puppies and more independent or scrappy puppies might have a much harder time with an owner who did an excessive amount of growling at or scruff shaking them. One also runs the risk, of course, that if an owner is growling at his puppy all the time, the puppy may simply learn to tune him out. I could see how a novice owner could easily become a nag by continually growling at their puppy.

That being said, I'm certainly not opposed to fair discipline. The authors had me smiling when they "suggest you eradicate the sentence 'He doesn't like it' from your vocabulary when dealing with your puppy." Their section on handling sensibly includes the comment, "Your puppy doesn't have to like handling practice, he just has to accept it." In effect, they gently but firmly force themselves on the puppy, handling all parts of his body and not tolerating resistence. I do think that this is an important thing to do with a young puppy, and it is often overlooked.

There are some curious omissions in this otherwise comprehensive book. For example, the subjects of food bowl manners and food possessiveness are never addressed. I find that a noteworthy omission, given the importance of these issues and the problems that people often have in these areas.

It is interesting that the authors begin obedience training by physically placing the puppy into position (sit, down), in spite of acknowledging that inducive methods (luring with food, for example) may teach a dog far more rapidly. This appears to be something of a backlash in response to the popularity of positive-reinforcement-only training, "I've seen many older puppies who have gone through kindergarten puppy training programs that were based solely on inducive methods. At four months old these puppies had a good association with commands, but they had no respect for their owners." They contend, "Every time you physically compel your puppy to do a behavior, you are also psychologically saying, 'I'm pack leader.'" Whether or not one agrees with their conclusion, they have reasoned this out and the technique is consistent with their overall philosophy and approach to training.

With regard to obedience training itself, the primary difference between how the authors train adults and puppies is that the latter are not "tested" or corrected. The authors introduce sit, down, stays in those two positions, leash walking, and coming when called. Their method is demonstrated in a step-by-step way, often illustrated with photographs. Their instructions are quite clear and easy to follow, and the exercises appear gentle and humane in spite of being compulsion-based.

In summary, this book provides an overview of puppy rearing from the time one brings a puppy home at 7 or 8 weeks until they are ready to take it to a formal obedience class at 4 months. The authors write well and are entertaining to read. The approach could be characterized as rather traditional, heavily laden in pack theory and concerns about budding dominance. Although the authors never appear unkind, the compulsion approach to puppy obedience and heavy use of growly verbal corrections, scruff shakes, and muzzle bites will not appeal to many readers. Frankly, that's not my cup of tea, and yet I think there's enough information in the book to make it worth reading. The housetraining and bonding sections are nicely done. For the style of training that this book endorses, it is well done and could benefit the pet owner seeking to pursue training of this variety.

Puppy Preschool by John Ross & Barbara McKinney.
Published by St. Martin's Press, 1996. ISBN: 0312140290

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