Sit Does Not Mean Sit: Giving Puppies a Voice with Mand Behaviors
Puppies are not tiny dogs. While they are subject to all the same rules of learning theory, they are neurologically wired differently than adult dogs, and also have different physical abilities (Fox, 1964; Gross et al., 2010; Mychasiuk et al., 2012). My use of the, word “different” is a considered one—it’s not that puppies are simply mentally and physically reduced versions of mature dogs, they are actually different, with different capabilities and capacities for different kinds of learning (Battaglia, 2009; Chien and Amsel, 1982; Morrow et al., 2015) For this reason, working with young puppies presents both unique opportunities and unique perils for their caregivers.
Unfortunately, these opportunities and perils are not as well understood as we might wish. As a dog breeder and professional dog trainer, I sit on the fence and see both sides of a story that few people have the opportunity to witness. In my breeding program, I learned best practice protocols for puppies under 12 weeks old and saw the results in my puppies as they grew into adulthood. Meanwhile, in my dog training practice, I came to realize that a good portion of the problems that drove my clients to seek my services were the result of errors or omissions in that very early portion of the dog’s life. This was very sad and frustrating to me, as I knew that those problems could have been so easily prevented with some simple protocols used at the right time. Clearly, the word on best practices during early puppy development was not getting out to the breeder and foster caretaker communities. And that’s where our early puppy development program, “Puppy Culture,” was born.
“Puppy Culture” is a five-hour film with a supporting workbook including scores of protocols, but our “manding” protocol is the one that resonates most with people who use the program and also generates the most questions from people who are not familiar with it. So let’s explore what manding is and why, in our observation, it confers huge benefits to puppies and their owners.
The “problem” proposition
Puppies have needs, and they express them through behaviors. They have tangible needs such as food, water, shelter, and access to toilet areas, and they also have complex social and emotional needs such as affection, play, and touch.
But you know the old song. The behaviors that puppies naturally use to express their needs are unpopular with humans. The “bad dog” litany of jumping, nipping, barking, and stealing is rolled out and the harried pet owner becomes focused on “stopping” the “problem” behaviors. They seek out professional advice and find two basic approaches:
- “Fix” the puppy. Correct and suppress. Often served with a dose of dominance theory. Very reinforcing for the owner as it requires little thought and appears to offer quick results, plus it gives them an origin story for their puppy’s bad behavior which justifies—no, sanctifies—the use of punishment.
- “Tough love positive.” Requires the puppy to perform an “acceptable” behavior before accessing any needs. Controls the conversation by managing all interactions and making the dog earn everything. Satisfies progressive ethical standards by steering clear of the P+ quadrant, while eliminating “problem” behaviors.
Either of these approaches will modify the immediate behaviors and, indeed, these are behaviors that do need to be addressed. However, I feel that both approaches are myopic in the sense that they modify that which is closest to them, but fail to favorably modify (and may in fact damage) the long-term emotional and behavioral picture. I believe, particularly with young puppies, that we have bigger fish to fry and we need a different hook.
It is my observation and belief that the ability to express needs and be heard is in itself an incredibly profound need for any social animal, and dogs are no exception. In many ways, it seems to me that the need to be heard can run deeper than the primary need itself—it’s not that dogs always have to get what they want, but they have to know that you’re listening. And that’s where teaching puppies a mand behavior comes in.
What is manding?
I borrowed the term “mand” from the human psychology lexicon. Mand training for nonverbal humans is a way of teaching them how to use gestures to ask for things, and that’s the simplest explanation—a mand behavior is a nonverbal way to ask for things and/or signal a need (Penn. Dept. of Ed., 2012). An example from the Autism Support Now website involves prompting a nonverbal child to use sign language to request a toy train be handed to them. The parent praises the child for requesting the toy by signing “train.” If the child takes the train without using the sign, additional attempts are made until the child is successful.
This kind of manding training has been demonstrated to have huge cognitive and behavioral benefits for humans. Destructive, stereotypical, and other problem behaviors can be dramatically reduced, and sociability is increased once mand training begins (Penn. Dept. of Ed., 2012). It’s thought that the reduction of destructive behaviors is due to the increased motivation to interact socially, which draws attention and motivation away from the more internal and solitary destructive behaviors (Autism Support Now, 2017). Manding teaches the person that they can control their environment, and increases the value of social interactions.
But, in the “manding for a toy train” example, ask yourself, what need is being met that brings such huge behavioral benefits? Is it the child’s need to have a toy train? I think not, since you could give the child a room full of toy trains and there would be no improvements to the child’s behavior or cognition. But the ability to ask for the train is the essence of mand training. It is the ability to communicate the desire, not the gratification of the desire itself, that carries such profound meaning for the subject.
And, in our experience, puppies are no different than humans in this regard.
So, what does “sit” mean?
We teach our puppies a manding behavior as soon as they display the appropriate behavioral markers that indicate the training will be successful (Puppy Culture, 2018). For our Bull Terrier litters, this is usually around 4.5 weeks old, but for some other breeds that can be as late as 6 or 8 weeks old. And we have found, both in our litters and in those we have observed, that teaching the puppies that they can communicate with us at a young age makes a profound and lifelong difference in their sociability and cognitive orientation. As with autistic humans, puppies that learn to mand seem to place increased value on social interaction and, in our observation, are less likely to engage in destructive behavior.
We use a sit behavior for manding. There is nothing “magic” about the sit behavior as a mand. You could just as easily teach a stand, a paw wave, a play bow, or (if you are insane) a bark. We use sit because it’s easy for humans to read and is a clear criterion to train for.
The choice of manding behavior really comes down to the convenience of the behavior and its readability by humans. If you taught a “stand” for manding, it would take a lot of explaining for people to understand that the puppy is in fact “doing” something. People would fail to acknowledge/reinforce the mand, and it would probably deteriorate, or the puppy would quickly learn that manding does not work on people other than you.
Same old, or something new?
The common reaction of breeders when manding is mentioned is, “Oh yes, we already do sit politely for patting.” But manding is something different, and that difference is the most important aspect of manding, which is often misunderstood:
Manding is the concept that it is possible to get something the puppy wants by performing a behavior.
It is not a rule that the puppy must offer an acceptable behavior in order to access desired social contact or other pleasurable things, like food.
This is a forward communication from the puppy to you, not a top down rule imposed by you on the puppy. That’s why we call it “Give Your Puppy A Voice” instead of “Teach Your Puppy Manners.” They are two completely different things.
Manding is about empowering the puppy and instilling the realization that they are heard. The behavioral benefits of manding spring from that well, not from a “good manners” skill set. Although the end result is a puppy that jumps and paws less, that is a byproduct of manding, not an end in and of itself.
Not throwing out the baby with the bathwater
I do believe in rules and consistency. I also believe that we should be the gatekeeper to all that is good for our dogs, and be kind and generous gatekeepers. But there is a trend toward treating very young puppies in a “nothing in life is free” manner, and that is dangerous. I do not believe that puppies under the age of about 5 months have the mental wherewithal to consistently remember rules and consequences. I do not believe they have the physical capacity to control themselves, their bladder, and their bowels before about 5 months, and for some dogs it can be much later.
What I do believe (and this is just a theory based on my observation) is that what we call the critical/sensitive socialization period is really just the puppy’s brain being wired preferentially for classical conditioning over operant conditioning. That is to say, the puppy learns emotionally almost in a manner akin to imprinting, and appears to be less able to learn complex operant behaviors. At the same time, the classical conditioning happens not only very easily (with as little as one exposure) but also appears to be very durable, even permanent, in a way that is not at all so in older puppies and adults.
This developmental sequence is important because it means that it will be difficult for young puppies to perform the complex “if/then” reasoning required to maintain rules, but at the same time they will be very sensitive to developing, almost imprinting, negative feelings if they are required to follow rules that are above their intellectual pay grade. A common example of this that I’ve seen often as professional dog trainer is owners that scrimmage with 12 week old puppies at the threshold of doors or crates because the puppy “can’t be allowed out until released.” It’s just not fair, a puppy can’t maintain this rule, and will smart under the injustice of it. Negative associations with the owner and going places in general will certainly follow.
In our observation, this begins to change fairly rapidly around 3 to 4 months old, and by 5 months old the balance has shifted and the puppy is less susceptible to classical conditioning and more ready for complex rules and learning. So, in some sense, this emergence of the ability to learn more complex operant behaviors appears to be the corollary to the socialization period. This is the time we begin to introduce more rules-based learning, although we look for appropriate behavioral markers that the puppy is ready rather than relying on a specific age. In our observation and experience the shift from classical to operant learning dominance can vary by weeks or months.
Why is this so significant to a discussion of manding? Well, going back to my comment about behavioral myopia, I am not reinventing the wheel in terms of behavior modification, but I am saying that the suppression and “tough love” approaches are shortsighted in the target behaviors they seek to modify. You are still working to reinforce desired behaviors when you teach manding, but not the obvious ones. Based on our experience, puppies that are taught to mand will enjoy the same behavioral benefits as autistic humans do. That means the behaviors of gazing, calmness, and sociability increase, and destructive behaviors decrease. These are the nuggets that are at the core of our bond with dogs (Nagasawa et al., 2009; 2015). They are the real “big-money” behaviors because they make that dog-human bond possible. And, as Dr. Terri Bright says in “Puppy Culture,” without that bond, every dog is at risk.
So I believe it’s important to teach manding, and teach it early, while the puppy’s world view is still forming. At this stage, puppies are more liable to understand that they matter and they are being heard. The behavioral bounty is indeed abundant, and yields manifold benefits down the line.
Manding is not a panacea, nor is it a magic bullet that will prevent future problems. But we have found that if a breeder can instill manding in the puppy, and then teach the owners how to understand it, the owners are far, far less likely to reach for those nagging relationship-breakers, punishment and suppression. An entire cycle of misunderstanding and damage to the human-animal bond can be avoided by opening up this tiny line of communication.
I also want to be clear that there can be situations where behavioral interventions are indicated, and those interventions might include “positive tough love” but, in my opinion, this should not be a first option for normal baby and young puppies.
But, can it hurt to start teaching young puppies the rules?
Yes, it can hurt, and you can get the exact opposite of what you had hoped for. You can (and probably will) wind up with unwanted behaviors that will be extremely difficult to get rid of.
Because the mand typically involves a seated position, people confuse it with “sitting politely for patting” which is a rule that a puppy will not be given attention until and unless he is sitting. This kind of rule is way beyond the scope of a 6- or 8- or even 16-week-old puppy to do reliably, and you are setting up both yourself and the puppy for failure if you try to enforce it.
When you are dealing with young puppies there will be many times when you have to ignore “rules” because of the “emergency” situations that crop up with puppies, e.g., a puppy that’s sick and needs to be picked up, a puppy that is being attacked by other puppies, a puppy that needs to go outside now, etc. For this reason, we recommend teaching puppies concepts, not rules, until they are about 5 months old. Only then do we feel that our puppies have the physical and mental wherewithal for us to maintain rules in a consistent fashion.
If you try to impose rules too early, at best you’ll be ineffective. At worst, you’ll create negative feelings about humans for puppies that just can’t consistently remember what the rules are. And, almost certainly, you’ll run into one of the aforementioned “emergencies” and wind up putting the undesirable behaviors on a variable schedule of reinforcement. This will create incredibly durable “bad” behaviors.
So, practically speaking, yes, we recommend that you try to manage interactions so that your puppies mand for attention, but there is no requirement that they do so. Focus on letting the puppy enjoy all interactions, especially with new people, as that is all that really matters for young puppies. If you’ve laid in a good foundation of skills and concepts, there’s plenty of time for rules later.
Running with the big dogs
Just a quick note on manding and older dogs. I have done a fair amount of rescue work and also brought in many adult show dogs that were raised with “balanced” training methods. In my experience, the biggest challenge with these dogs is that they operate on the rule that if they behave very little and behave out of sight of their caretakers, they will not get into trouble. They rarely make eye contact, and they shrink away when you lean into them. I’m not talking about dogs with severe behavioral problems. I’m talking about normal dogs—dogs that have learned that human contact means either a correction or being compelled to do something they don’t care for. In our experience, manding works wonders to break the dog off their parallel track and create an intersection with their caretakers. Eye contact and sociability increase, and placing or training these dogs becomes much easier. So, manding is a great first protocol for newly acquired adult dogs. It will take a longer and require more repetitions than it would with a 4-week-old puppy, but the behavioral benefits will be the same.
If you’re interested in learning more about manding and seeing more real-life examples, we hope you’ll join us on our Facebook “Puppy Culture Discussion Group.” We are a tightly moderated, 18,000-member group with high-quality content contributed by breeders, foster puppy raisers, and dog trainers who are striving for excellence in raising puppies. Our core values include respect for any individual who is interested in doing better with their puppies, and the discourse is always civil and supportive.
Nagasawa, M., Kikusui, T., Onaka, T., & Ohta, M. (2009) Dog’s gaze at its owner increases owner’s urinary oxytocin during social interaction. Hormones and Behavior 55:3, pp.434-441.
Jane Messineo Lindquist (Killion) is a dog breeder, professional dog trainer and the author and director of numerous books and films about dogs, most notably “Puppy Culture: The Powerful First Twelve Weeks That Can Shape Your Puppies’ Future” and “When Pigs Fly: Training Success With Impossible Dogs.” Jane has had Bull Terriers since 1982 and she and her husband, Mark Lindquist, breed Bull Terriers under the Madcap kennel name. She has presented seminars on dog breeding, puppy rearing, show handling and dog training in the United States, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.