One of the most desirable qualities in a Bichon is the beautiful temperament. To quote from the AKC Standard (word description of the ideal Bichon): “Gentle mannered, sensitive, playful and affectionate. A cheerful attitude is the hallmark of the breed and one should settle for nothing less.” The show breeder expects from birth for each pup to have the potential to be a big winner in the ring and works from the beginning to enhance the basic sound temperament bred into the pup. The pups are handled gently, kept warm, fed well and socialized beginning at a very young age. Unfortunately pups bred for profit may not have this kind of care because it takes time and effort to give this special attention.
Even with the best of care, some pups will have “soft” temperaments and may not have the enthusiastic attitude to make a good show prospect. This is one of the reasons for placing some beautiful Bichon pups in pet homes instead of show homes. Lucky the new owner who has gotten one of these lovable and playful puppies! They still make exceptional pets and have had the advantage of good early care by the breeder.
Why do some pups then become biters or seem to become very shy? Why do some pet shop Bichons turn into wonderful outgoing adults? What makes the difference? Obviously good temperament genes will overcome even careless handling. Unfortunately even good genes will not tolerate bad handling and well-mannered Bichons can become biters or become aggressive in other ways.
It is important to understand that there are degrees of shyness that can lead to various types of temperament problems. The mildly shy Bichon will not do well in the show ring but becomes a delightful pet. The very shy dog can become quite aggressive, to the point of biting, unless properly handled. This is called “fear aggression” and these dogs may also suffer “separation anxiety”, a totally different temperament problem.
To avoid fear aggression, the pup needs training in a puppy kindergarten class (a type of obedience training for puppies). This should be a class that uses positive reinforcement training methods. The basis for this training is that the pup is praised, possibly given a small treat and given positive attention for good behavior and punishment is never a part of the training. Pups benefit from socialization, which is simply exposing the puppy to many types of situations in a positive way. Read the article CREATING A PUPPY YOU CAN LIVE WITH for more information.
Suppose your puppy is already biting your hand or nipping at your clothes. This kind of behavior is not to be tolerated. A firm “NO” is called for and sometimes it helps to take the pup’s muzzle in your hand and to give the head a gentle shake while saying “NO”. Now do something to distract the puppy, such as giving him a toy to play with. Once the pup has behaved in a more desirable way, you can tell him what a “Good boy” he is. Most important is never to pick the pup up and cuddle him while he is behaving badly. This only says to him that his behavior is desirable and gets him attention – not a lesson that you are trying to teach. Some of this biting behavior may come from painful teething but you still must not tolerate it.
If your puppy has been well-behaved and starts to show signs of biting or other aggressive behavior, you must examine the way you are playing with the puppy (or that your children are playing with him). Teasing is the biggest cause of developing bad temperament. Roughhouse play; taking toys away as the pup is reaching for them or while he is playing; tug of war games; these are all examples of bad play habits that can have disastrous results. A puppy should never be disturbed while he is eating. In other words, look at what is happening in the puppy’s life that has created an angry puppy when he should have a “cheerful attitude”, as described in the Bichon standard.
If your pup has developed aggressive habits and you are not able to solve them, get him into an obedience class that uses positive reinforcement so that he can learn better behavior and so that you can learn how to handle him better!
Separation anxiety is the name of the problem that occurs when your dog absolutely cannot tolerate having no one at home with him. Any Bichon should be able to be alone for a few hours at a time, though many do not handle being alone all day long. The Bichon is bred to be a companion animal and expecting him to live alone is not recognizing this innate part of his nature.
The dog with true separation anxiety will not want to be alone for minutes, to say nothing of tolerating hours alone. This is the dog that needs special handling and possibly medication. Begin by training him to accept your absence for 2 minutes, then 5 minutes and work up to being away for ½ hour or an hour at a time. Give him something to play with and step outside the door for just seconds, working it up to longer periods of time each day. This is actually specialized conditioning and may best be done with the help of a trained obedience handler or behavioral expert. For the dog with true separation anxiety, discuss with your veterinarian whether he needs medication to improve his ability to handle your absence. The medication should be a part of a package that combines retraining along with the medication and should not be relied upon to be effective without proper conditioning (training).
Remember that it is the nature of this breed to be a wonderful and loving companion to his family and his basic instinct is to be your very best friend. If he is not acting in such a loving and trusting way, there is probably a good reason for it. Play detective and determine what has happened to him to change him from the sweet tempered little guy that he should be. Time and a little effort will help you both to rediscover that affectionate little puppy that every Bichon should be!