Who can forget the excitement of bringing a new puppy home for the first time? However, teaching that youngster the skills to grow in a happy, confident, and well-trained adult takes considerable time, dedication, and patience. This module aims to give you with a sound grasp of puppy training, and get you both off to a good start.
1.1 Reward based training
1.2 Crate training
1.3 Basic commands
1.4 Basic handling
1.7 Problem behaviour
1.8 Fun and games
1.1 Reward Based Training
Dog training has changed. The old ‘domination’ method where the owner proves he is boss by dominating the dog, has thankfully gone. In its place is a more reasoned approach where the dog learns by cause and effect: you reward a positive behaviour and the dog wants to repeat it.
Training a puppy is a game of consequences. Modern training methods use the knowledge of how a dog’s mind works, whereas traditional training relies on the outdated theory of pack dominance.
Dominate or Reward?
Before discussing reward-based training, let’s clear up a few things. Older training methods assume modern dogs are descended from a pack animal, the wolf, and therefore a dog is most obedient when answering to the pack leader (you!)
However, this idea is flawed. Firstly, most dogs are so far removed from their wolf ancestors that this analogy is equivalent to comparing humans to apes. Secondly, research has shown wolf packs behave much more like a family, than previously thought. They cooperate with one another, share resources, and work together rather than have a strict hierarchy.
In recent years it has become obvious that puppies (and indeed dogs) learn through a game of consequences, where an action followed by a good outcome, is more likely to be repeated.
How Puppies Learn
To understand reward-based training, it helps to understand a puppy’s mind at work.
A puppy learns about the world in order to understand which actions benefit him and which are potentially dangerous. In his mind, a puppy divides experiences into three groups:
Examples of what these actions are and the implication is shown in the table below.
|Good||Puppy urinates in the garden and gets a big fuss from his owner||The outcome was great so he works hard to repeat it and get a similar reward|
|Bad||Puppy disturbs a bee and gets stung on the nose||His life just got worse so he avoids disturbing bees in future|
|Indifferent||He barks during the night but no one came||He expended effort for no reward, so he doesn’t bother to bark when alone in future|
Now, there might be those who then assume that a punishment (the bee sting) is a good way of teaching a dog NOT to do something. Again, this idea is flawed for the following reasons.
Punishment doesn’t work because:
- It decreases the puppy’s desire to be near the owner
- Even when the punishment happens simultaneously with the bad behaviour, the dog does not link the punishment to the bad behavior, but to the punisher (you). In the above example, the punishment came direct from the bee, not an intermediary (e.g. Puppy disturbs a bee, you smack the puppy, puppy is fearful of you)
- Most punishments happen after the event, which confuses the puppy, who learns to fear the punisher
- The dog’s tolerance of punishment rises with each chastisement, so you end up with an escalating scale of punishment to achieve the same effect (and reinforce his wariness of you).
Influencing Future Behavior
To use reward-based training, let’s look some more at how dogs learn. In his quest to find what actions benefit him and which are unsafe, a dog learns through consequences. Depending on what the consequence is, he either repeats the action or forgets about it.
|Experience||Outcome in the Puppy’s Mind||Result|
|Puppy rewarded for urinating outside||Good||He repeats the action|
|Puppy barks in the night and is ignored||Bad (the behaviour went unnoticed)||There is no point repeating the action|
|Puppy is stung by a bee||Bad (it was painful)||He avoids repeating the action (by avoiding bees)|
This innocent looking table actually carries huge significance. It not only means that a puppy works hard to illicit a reward, but that an action unrewarded is less likely to be repeated.
Let’s look at examples of the wrong and right way to act.
A) The puppy jumps up at a stranger. You tell the puppy off. Right or wrong?
You have rewarded the puppy with your attention (even though you were cross). This means two possible outcomes
1) The puppy repeats the behaviour to get your attention, or
2) The puppy becomes wary of you. Either way, it’s not a great way to stop him jumping up
B) The puppy jumps up at a stranger. You ignore the puppy. Right or wrong?
As long as the stranger does not reward the puppy with a fuss, ignoring the behaviour means there is no advantage to the puppy. If this behaviour is repeatedly ignored he will eventually drop it as not worthwhile.
C) The puppy jumps up at a stranger. You ignore the puppy. Then you distract him and ask him to sit, and reward the sit with a treat. Right or wrong?
By replacing the bad behaviour with one you can reward (sitting) he sees there is benefit in sitting (not jumping up) when approached by a stranger.
Fine Tuning Reward Training
Key to the success of reward-based training are two things: finding the dog’s favourite reward and building unpredictability into how often he gets the reward.
Just as one person’s favourite snack is chocolate and another’s popcorn, dogs like different things. Indeed, some dogs are not food motivated but instead will do anything to chase a ball or be fussed over.
Most puppies under the age of 12 weeks crave attention, which gives you time to work out what else motivates him. Try out different foods such as chicken, liver cake, cheese, kibble – or anything you can think of that is safe for a dog to eat (no chocolate, grapes, or raisins – these are toxic to dogs). Also, watch his reaction to a game of tug, chase, or a fuss. You never know, he might prefer adoration to food!
First build the association between the treat and a behaviour. However, a reward given every time becomes undervalued. It’s too predictable, and he stops making the effort. Once he’s cottoned onto the link, do NOT give the reward every time – make him work for it.
If this sounds odd, consider how a wild dog does not give up hunting rabbits just because he failed the first time. The reward is worthwhile so he perseveres. The same with a puppy. Once he understands he gets a reward at some point the unpredictable nature of the reward makes him double his efforts to please.
1.2 Crate Training
For those unfamiliar with the concept of crate training a puppy, the crate is not a prison or to stop the puppy wrecking the house, but his place of safety equivalent to a den. In nature a puppy’s first den is where he is born and safe, even when Mum isn’t there, so a better term than crate training would be den-training.
Why Bother with Crate Training?
There is a right and wrong way to use dog crates. The wrong way is to treat the crate as a prison or a place to confine the dog, and a cop out from proper training. The right way is to use the crate to plumb into the dog’s basic instinct to have a lair, which associates with comfort and good things.
Of course the benefit for the puppy owner is that a crate helps with house training, and for those times when the puppy is left alone, there is the reassurance of knowing the puppy is out of harm’s way.
The Ideal Puppy Crate
The wrong sized crate, or a crate set up incorrectly, will hinder training, so here is what to look for in the ideal puppy crate.
- Size: Too big and the puppy will see it as a space, rather than a den, and soil in the area. Too small and the puppy will be uncomfortable. The correct size allows the puppy to stand up without banging his head, and lie down with his legs stretched out. You may need to think about two crates –a puppy, then adult size.
- Cozy cover: The puppy should not feel exposed, so cover one end with a towel, or provide a cardboard box on its side (it will get chewed!) so as to give the feel of a dark, enclosed area
- Bedding: When you bring puppy home for the first time, ask the breeder for a blanket his mother slept on. Putting this inside gives him a familiar scent and therefore security.
- Placement: If you put the crate in an area of high traffic, such as a lounge room, put it in a secluded spot where the puppy can rest without being disturbed. Alternatively, put the crate in a quieter room, where the puppy has greater privacy.
- Draughts: Make sure the crate is in an airy room, but free from draughts. Since he cannot leave the crate if he gets too hot, in summer make sure he’s not in direct sunlight.
Training Puppy to Like the Crate
Putting the puppy in, locking the door, and walking away is not crate training.
Instead, you need to motivate the puppy to go into the crate of his own free will. You do this by helping him associate the crate as a great place where nice things happen. To start with, keep puppy in one room with contains the crate, so he knows where the crate is and can get to it quickly.
Leave the crate door open. Feed him in the crate (with the door open at first). At other times hide treats in the crate so that he associates exploring the crate with a nice surprise.
As he learns that meals happen in the crate, shut the door for a short time as he eats. Gradually extend the amount of time the door is shut. Only open the door when he is quiet and settled (rewarding good behavior) and give him a big fuss. Ignore barking or crying (if you let him out now, he’s trained you to respond to his barking and will bark more in future).
This gradual process raises the question of what to do at night. You have two options.
1) The first few nights, put the puppy in a large cardboard box and let him sleep at your bedside. This enables you to get him used to the crate, in preparation for him overnighting there. However, this is a balancing act. Get him too used to being at your bedside and he’ll expect it every night.
2) Start as you mean to go on and put him in the crate the first night. Expect him to cry, but if you ignore him, eventually he will settle. Remember, only let him out of the crate when he is quiet (rewarding the good behavior!)
1.3 Basic Commands
Teaching a dog to obey commands is vital for his own safety. A dog running into the road is a danger to himself and motor vehicles. You are that dog’s eyes and ears when it comes to danger, and it’s essential when you issue a command, he obeys. Once you realize a puppy craves praise and is prepared to do anything to get it, training becomes much easier.
The two most vital skills to learn from an early age are ‘sit’ and ‘recall’.
Consistency is King
Decide on your command words and make sure all family members use them. A puppy is easily confused, inconsistent use of commands will slow his learning.
In the early stages, reward spontaneous actions such as sitting or urinating in the garden. For example, when the puppy approaches you for a fuss, use your command word, ‘here’, and give him a big fuss. Then try getting his attention with a treat and as he runs to you, use the command word ‘here’. At first this is just a happy coincidence but as he learns the ‘here’ means a treat; it triggers a chain of thought that makes him run to you. The same rules apply for ‘sit’.
A Word of Caution
Recall can be incredibly frustrating to teach. If the dog ignores the command by the time he wanders over, your patience may be stretched to breaking point. The natural reaction is to berate him for taking his time. However, from the dog’s eye view, he then associates ‘here’ with a telling off which makes him reluctant to approach you the next time.
The correct reaction is to bottle that frustration, and when he wanders over give him a huge fuss. Indeed, when out for a walk, avoid the temptation to click the leash on immediately he returns. This is akin to a punishment. Instead, make fun things happen first, such as a game of tug or a treat, and then put the leash on.
1.4 Basic Handling
Puppies are wonderfully equipped with the ability to encounter new experiences and accept them as normal. This wonderful time when the brain is open to being molded is called the socialization period. This precious opportunity is greatest up to 12 weeks of age, after that the speed of learning slows to 18 weeks, when the door closes.
The wise puppy owner takes advantage of this receptive period to get the puppy used to having all parts of his body handled and touched. This is invaluable later in life, should the dog be ill. A dog used to having his paws fondled is less stressed by a trip to the vet to have his sore pad sorted out. Likewise, it makes the dog safer around children, who may make a grab for ears or tails.
The aim is to get the dog comfortable with having all areas of his body touched, from nose to tail. The list includes: looking in ears, lifting his lip, picking up each foot, rubbing his belly, stroking his back, and lifting his tail.
In a young dog, simply all areas of his and reward his acceptance. Incorporate this into his daily grooming regime. If the dog is uncomfortable with an area, or growls, gently withdraw and don’t make a big thing of it. Next time distract him with a treat and lightly touch the area. With his mind focused on the treat he is likely to let you gently handle the area. Keep the contact brief and light, and always give a reward. Repeat this daily, whilst increasing the amount of time you touch the no-go zone before puppy gets his reward. Eventually, he associates your touch with something nice, and accepts handling.
Repeat this training frequently, certainly at least once every day, but be alert for accidental opportunities to reward good behavior, such as lifting his lip while he comes for a belly rub
The downside of the bundle of cuddles that is a puppy is their tendency to poo and piddle in the house. Correcting this and teaching a young puppy where the right place to toilet is, comes under the banner of housetraining.
Modern methods of housetraining make use of the puppy’s instinct not to soil his den and to wee where he’s wee’d before. However, you must remember that a young puppy, especially under 8 weeks of age has little conscious bladder control. Start training right away, but you are more likely to make headway once he reaches 8 weeks old.
Indeed, housetraining is considered in three phases.
|I||8 – 9 weeks old||Learn where the toilet is|
|II||9 – 12 weeks||Learn bladder control|
|III||3 – 6 months||Extend where the puppy is allowed to roam in the house|
A Warning about Punishment
Punishment doesn’t work. In fact, punishment sets back housetraining.
To be effective a punishment is only a deterrent if it happens at the exact moment of the bad deed. Unfortunately, tempting as it is to chastise a puppy caught in the act of squatting on the carpet, it doesn’t work.
The puppy associates the punishment with you, not the carpet, and learns you have an irrational dislike of his bodily functions. This makes him want to ‘hang on’ when you are about and when you put him out into the yard he’s going to be doing his level best not to wee in your presence. Thus, punishment sets training back, rather than helps.
Another drawback of punishment is the puppy learns to be sneaky. He is more likely to hide behind a sofa and wee, than do it in plain sight. This makes cleaning up afterwards much more difficult.
Training stage I
The aim is to teach a young puppy where the right place to toilet is. Give him plenty of opportunity to wee in the yard, which means taking him outside every 20 – 30 minutes. (Set an alarm to remind you.) When he does squat on the grass, a coincidence at first, give him praise or a treat.
If you take him out and he doesn’t go, take him outside every 10-15 minutes until the happy event occurs.
In between times, use his instinct not to soil his den and put him in the crate. If you let him out to play, at the first sign of sniffing scoop him up and whisk him outdoors.
At night, set the alarm for every 4 hours. Pick the puppy up and pop him outside, then put him back into the crate with a minimum of fuss. (You don’t want to give him the idea that night time toilets are also play time.)
Training stage II
The puppy hopefully now understands the right place to relieve himself is outdoors. As he develops the ability to control his bladder, start to stretch out the time between toilet trips. At night you can go for 6 hours between visits, extending by 15 minutes at a time.
When he goes outside and squats, start using a command phrase, such as ‘Toilet time’. This builds an association between his wees, and a verbal command followed by a treat.
Training stage III
As the puppy’s bladder control improves, you can start to let him explore the house. Keep him under close observation, so you can scoop him up if he starts to squat. Start in rooms with a washable floor (and not too far from the door to the yard) and as he proves he can be trusted, let him into carpeted rooms.
To reduce the chances of a puppy less than 6 months getting ‘caught short’, give him frequent toilet breaks. Pop him outside and use your command words.
Suggested times for a toilet break are:
- When he wakes up
- After play
- Before and after eating
- If it’s been a while since the last toilet break
Hopefully you did your homework and got a puppy from a rescue shelter or a breeder where he was well-socialized. But the job of making a confident, well-adjusted adult dog doesn’t stop when you bring him home. It is crucial to expose the puppy to as many sights, sounds, and experiences before that vital window opportunity starts to close between 16 – 18 weeks of age.
What is a socialization window?
To survive in the wild, a puppy must learn the difference between safe and dangerous. Mother Nature has equipped his brain with the plastic ability to encounter new experiences and label them as safe. As an adult, this helps him to react instantly which could possibly save his life. Unfortunately, this learning window tails off and closes by 18 weeks of age. After this time, any novel experiences are treated with caution or even fear.
The upshot is that it is vital in these early weeks to expose a puppy to wide variety of sights and sounds, so that he grows into a confident adult.
A puppy should be exposed to:
- Engines, motors, and machines
- Different places
- Different weather
- Other animals
But isn’t he too young to go out?
Going to different places and meeting new people means venturing outside the safety of the house. However, a puppy’s vaccines do not protect him against disease until 12 weeks at the earlier.
Until a puppy is protected you must not put him on the ground, BUT you can carry him in your arms. Take him to wait outside the school gates (to get used to children) but hold him, rather than put him on the sidewalk. Simple.
Here are some ideas about the who, what, why, and where of socializing your puppy.
The puppy must meet all types of people, across the age spectrum from children to the elderly. Also introduce the puppy to people with different physical appearances such as clean-shaven vs bearded men.
It is especially important for a puppy to be confident around children, since kids are least likely to know how to behave around a dog. A child’s erratic movements and propensity to pull ears or tails, means she is also more at risk of getting a nip from a nervous adult dog.
If you don’t have children or grandchild to meet your puppy, then enrolling in a puppy class (often run by your local vet clinic) is a great idea. Often children accompany the new family pet to the class, so you are achieving a double bonus – socializing with other children and other dogs.
Engines, motors, and machines
Vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, leaf-blowers, cars, and trash trucks can all seem scary to the uninitiated. The safe way to introduce a puppy is from a distance, so the sound is less of a challenge. Reward his calm behavior and move a bit closer.
Apart from other dogs, a puppy needs to encounter all manner of animals from cats up to cows and beyond.
Now is the time to get the puppy used to having his paws felt, lips lifted, and ears played with. If you handle every part of your puppy from a young age, then he won’t be stressed at the vet’s during a physical exam. The same goes for grooming. Start now.
A Change of Location
Going on trips is an excellent way to socialize a puppy, especially if it involves a short car journey (getting him used to the car). Great places to visit, with the added bonus of meeting people, are supermarkets (stand outside with the puppy, where he’ll get lots of fuss and attention), the pet shop, vet clinic, the train station, a town center or mall, and outside the school gates.
Go equipped with some puppy treats, and when strangers approach, encourage them to give the puppy at treat to reward his confident behavior
1.7 Problem Behaviour
From chewing soft-furnishings to barking excessively or guarding a food bowl there are many behaviors which can be a problem unless corrected. Crucial to a happy outcome is knowing how to respond and implementing a long term plan.
The Whiney Puppy
A puppy may cry or whine when the owner is out of his sight. If this problem becomes established, may lead to an adult dog that barks when left alone such that the neighbors complain.
The answer is to teach the puppy that good things happen when he is quiet. This is where clicker training is helpful. A clicker is a hand held device that makes a distinct clicking sound when the button is pressed. Once the puppy learns the link between click and reward, do not reward every click which makes him work harder.
To start with, pop the puppy in the crate. When he is quiet, click and reward. Head for the door, but stop whilst still in sight to click and reward. Build up the distance, always rewarding the silent behavior. If he cries, wait until he draws breath to click.
The next step is to leave the room. Once out of sight, but while he is still quiet, click, then return into the room to reward. Each time, build up the length of time before you click. If you leave it too long and he cries, wait until he is quiet to click, and next time cut down the length of time before the click.
The Destructive Puppy
The bad news is that chewing is entirely natural and something a teething puppy feels compelled to do. Because of this, it is sensible to remove temptation out of his way as much as possible, by tidying away objects that would distress you if he destroyed.
The good news is chewing is usually a phase that puppies grow out of by the age of 12 months or so. In the meantime the best coping strategy is threefold:
- Remove temptation where possible
- Provide an appropriate alternative to chew
- Place in a crate when it’s not possible to watch the puppy (e.g. at night)
Appropriate alternatives to chew on
The puppy is not deliberately destructive, but is cutting teeth which means he needs to chew. There are a wide range of dog chews available, but choose with care. Some nylon dog chews can cause a bowel obstruction if too small a size is given and the puppy swallows it whole. Likewise, some raw hide chews can fragment and cause a problem if swallowed.
The safest option as guaranteed chew proof (not breaking into small bits of rubber) is Kong’s. Chose the right size for the puppy and stuff the Kong with soft puppy food then pop it in the freezer. Offer the puppy the frozen Kong and it will satisfy his chewing needs for hours, with the added bonus that he is safe.
At night, or other times when he is left unsupervised, leaving him in the crate is the best way to avoid destructive behavior.
Some puppies develop an unfortunate habit of growling when you approach their food bowl. If this escalates to full-scale food guarding it can be potentially dangerous, especially if there are children in the house. Unfortunately, outdated advice was to dominate the dog and show who’s boss by removing the bowl. This has the opposite effect of teaching the dog he was right to be suspect his food was threatened, and whilst he may respect you, when a child blunders past the bowl he becomes aggressive.
Food guarding is a natural urge to make sure other puppies in the litter don’t steal his food. The solution is to teach the puppy that there is no need to protect the bowl. To do this split each meal in two. Put half in the bowl, and keep half to use as ‘treats’. As he eats, from a distance toss a treat into the bowl. Don’t worry if you miss. Move a little closer, and throw more treats.If he growls, next time restart the lesson standing slightly further away until he is happy.
Over time, get close enough to walk around him, throwing treats into the bowl as he eats. Then, you want to touch his rump, whilst dropping treats and he eats. Then touch his head, keep going with those treats. The ultimate aim is to touch the bowl as he eats, without the puppy objecting. By building an association between you and extra food, the puppy no longer views you as a threat and the food guarding is nipped in the bud.
1.8 Fun And Games
One of the joys of owning a puppy is playing with him. If you have children, playing with the puppy is something they look forward to – until it all goes horribly wrong. This easily happens when an energetic game of rough and tumble results in an over-excited puppy that bites and scratches. This is a case of dog and person speaking different languages, because squeals of pain are misunderstood by the puppy as excitement and an invitation to carry on.
When we look at how a puppy plays with an adult dog, the outcome is quite different. The dog will take part for as long as he wants, and when he’s had enough he simply stands up and stays still, as a signal the game is over. The puppy will attempt to re-engage his interest by barging at him, but when this fails the youngster gets the message and ambles off.
Thus, it is important to teach children to stand still and not react if play gets too much. Encourage them to fold their arms. This gives off negative body language and also conveniently tucks any dangling hands out of the way, which a puppy may feel obliged to chase.
However, always supervise children with a puppy. It’s all very well instructing them how to behave, but if they become frightened or upset they are likely to need a little help.
Tricks and training
A great way to involve children with the puppy is to get them to teach the puppy tricks. Use the positive reward method to encourage the desired behavior, such as high-five or rolling over. This engages the puppy mentally and gives the children a way of being involved.
A lot of puppies like to retrieve objects, such as a ball. Start out in a corridor and gently roll the ball away from the puppy. When he catches it, he will have to trot past you in the corridor to go anywhere, at which point get his attention with a treat and encourage him to sit. Make a big fuss of him but don’t attempt to get the ball from his mouth. When he releases the ball to eat the treat, make another big fuss of him.
Key to successful training is to stop while you are both still having fun. Even the best game of fetch can become tedious if it goes on for too long, and once puppy gets bored he stops learning.