Puppy: Training - Establishing Realistic Expectations

puppy playing with a toyDogs are a highly social species and in the wild will normally live in social groups, called packs. Each pack has a social structure that enables its members to live in harmony. When puppies enter our homes the family becomes the puppy’s social group and therefore all puppies need clear, consistent signals as to the group’s rules so that they can establish realistic expectations and learn to live within the family without tension. Inconsistent or unclear rules and boundaries can lead to a puppy becoming anxious or even scared as it will never knows what to expect.

When is the best time to begin training my puppy?

Traditionally, formal dog training is delayed until 6 months of age but actually, this juvenile stage is a poor time to begin training. At this age a dog is beginning to consolidate adult behavioural patterns and finds it very difficult to change those puppyhood behaviours, such as jumping up, that it has already learnt to be successful. In addition, a six month old puppy may be at the start of the hormonal changes associated with puberty and find it hard to concentrate. Therefore, it is best to begin teaching puppies from the moment that they are obtained. 

Is physical force necessary in order to gain control of my puppy?

Although there are many physical techniques that have been advocated for gaining control over dogs, these are not recommended. At best they are unnecessary and at worst they can induce fear and anxiety in the puppy which can seriously damage the relationship between dog and owner. It is not physical force that will determine whether or not the puppy will become a well-mannered and responsive individual but rather the interplay between the puppy’s own genetic tendencies and the effect of the owners’ attitudes, actions, and responses on the emotional state of the new puppy.

Some dog training literature may encourage the use of scruff shakes and rollover techniques to discipline puppies. Such interaction is unnecessary and potentially extremely harmful. While you may see a change in your puppy’s behaviour as a result of using these techniques, you need to be aware that they are threatening gestures which are likely to lead to fear and anxiety in your new companion. In addition, they instill a perception that you are a frightening person and therefore they run the risk of inducing defensive behaviour from your puppy which may take the form of aggression. It is much easier and more effective to teach your puppy what you want through the correct application of reward, rather than to signal what you do not want through the use of punishment. Reward based interaction makes a positive, learning environment for your puppy to grow up in. 

Teaching your puppy self control and good manners helps to create a dog that will function well in a social group with people. For example, a dog that sits quietly when he wants something rather than jumping up and being demanding is far more of a pleasure to live with and is more likely to be welcome in your friend’s houses or in the local pub.

How can I communicate successfully with my puppy without using physical force?

  • The best way to teach your puppy self-control is to show him that calm and relaxed behaviour is always rewarded. 
  • Begin with some basic obedience training, teaching your puppy to adopt calm and relaxed postures such as sit, stay and lie down for rewards. Practice during short training sessions, several times each day. 
  • It is also helpful to teach your puppy that this calm and controlled behaviour is the key to gaining access to valuable resources and enjoyable experiences. In order to achieve this you should require your puppy to “say please” by performing a simple obedience task such as "sit" or "stay" whenever he is to receive anything of value (affection, attention, food, play and walks).
  • Rewards of any sort (be that food, toys or attention) should not be given on demand. The idea is that rewards result from appropriate behaviour, so try to ensure that your puppy is always engaging in a behaviour that you would like to see repeated when you give him a reward.
  • Your puppy needs to learn that vocalisation, nipping, mouthing or overly rambunctious or demanding behaviours of any sort will never earn rewards. In fact, these behaviours should result in you ignoring your puppy and removing social interaction. However, as soon as your puppy begins to behave appropriately again, however briefly, he must be rewarded. Simply ignoring a young puppy will run the risk of either increasing anxiety and inducing a range of attention seeking and appeasement behaviours, or increasing frustration, with a range of possible behavioural consequences, including aggression.
  • In addition to rewarding your puppy for spontaneous relaxation and for calm and controlled behaviour during interaction with you, it can also be beneficial to teach him to relax and accept a level of handling and restraint. It is best to introduce low level restraint when your puppy is calm, such as after a nap, and remember to start with very gentle handling in order to avoid inducing any level of fear and struggling. Only force your puppy to be still for a few seconds in the beginning and gradually you can increase the time that you restrain him for. These sessions are the foundation for teaching your puppy to be still for activities like grooming, teeth brushing and veterinary examination.

What should I do if my puppy misbehaves?

  • The best approach is to prevent undesirable behaviour through the application of supervision and the use of confinement in a safe puppy proof area when supervision is not possible. It is important to remember that your puppy is learning all the time and when a behaviour is successful (in the eyes of the puppy) it is likely to be repeated. If jumping onto the couch results in your puppy finding a comfortable place to rest, or going into a restricted room results in him finding something novel to play with then he will be likely to repeat these behaviours in the future.
  • The way in which you respond to your puppy is very important in determining the lessons that he will learn and inconsistency (sometimes allowing something and sometimes not) can be confusing and cause him to become anxious. The aim of training is to establish realistic expectations and therefore you need to decide on your house rules and ensure that all family members are in agreement with them. If one family member allows your puppy to sleep on the sofa while another punishes him for doing so this will lead to serious problems for you and your puppy. On the one hand your puppy is being given a high expectation of being allowed on the sofa while on the other he is being given clear signals that his expectation does not match with reality. Such failure to achieve an expected outcome can lead to problems of frustration and result in behaviour which is commonly misinterpreted as challenge and confrontation from your puppy.

No puppy is perfect and there will be times when your new puppy misbehaves. The way in which you respond to these mistakes will influence your relationship with your dog and also the way in which he behaves in the future.

Young puppies are very impressionable and easily intimidated. The use of harsh physical reprimands is therefore inappropriate and potentially very damaging. They only serve to frighten your puppy. Animals can form long lasting negative associations as a result of a single episode if something is aversive enough and often the association is with the owner who delivered the unpleasant experience. We want young puppies to look toward a human hand as something pleasant that brings comfort, food and affection, not something to be scared of. 

"Young puppies are very impressionable and easily intimidated. The use of harsh physical reprimands is therefore inappropriate and potentially very damaging."

If your puppy does something that you do not like, the aim is to interrupt the behaviour, either by using a long line (discussed in the basics of training handout) or a distracting noise, and then immediately redirect your puppy into an acceptable behaviour which can be rewarded.

If you use vocal interruption the aim is to be instructive rather than punitive and use the command to direct your puppy into a suitable alternative behaviour. For example, the command "off" is preferable to "no" as a command when your dog jumps up. The tone may signal that your puppy has done wrong but the reprimand communicates what must be done to correct the problem (provided that you have previously taught your puppy the meaning of the word “off” through reward based training). 

Remember the importance of timing

  • If you catch your puppy in the act of misbehaving you could try to interrupt the behaviour by using a loud noise such as clapping your hands and follow this with an instructive reprimand if appropriate. Even when they are instructive the reprimands need to occur while the behaviour is happening, preferably just as it begins, and never after. Often puppies will be startled when they hear the noise and temporarily stop the behaviour. When this happens you need to redirect your puppy to an appropriate response which is immediately rewarded.
  • The most important thing that you can do to avoid undesirable behaviour is to supervise your puppy. Unsupervised puppies will chew and destroy objects as part of their natural curiosity and play. Rather than finding yourself with the need to reprimand your puppy, keep your puppy on a lead (or when you cannot supervise, in a puppy-proofed safe space) to avoid inappropriate behaviour and always provide suitable play objects designed to entertain your puppy. 
  • Most importantly, if you find something that your puppy has destroyed but you did not catch him in the act, just quietly clean up the mess and try to avoid the same problem in future. Do not get your puppy and bring it over to the mess, yell at or physically discipline him. Remember that once the behaviour has been performed your opportunity to influence learning has past. If you did not see your puppy chew or eliminate all you are doing is disciplining your puppy for being present beside a mess on the floor. Since that makes no sense to your puppy, your reprimands could create fear and anxiety leading to aggression, owner avoidance or other problems.

What can be done for the particularly excitable or headstrong puppy?

Puppies that are particularly excitable and headstrong will benefit from consistent application of house rules. Physical force and punishment are not necessary when dealing with these puppies and they are likely to induce fear rather than compliance.

If your puppy is prone to being highly aroused then it is important to avoid interaction which increases arousal. Rough wrestling style play should be avoided and you should concentrate on playing calm toy orientated games. Resist the temptation to play frantic chase games with your puppy and do not respond to boisterous interaction, however affectionate it appears to be.

What types of handling should I begin with when I start to train my puppy?

A.  Body Handling

A very important early lesson for your puppy is to learn to accept being handled. Throughout the life of your dog there will be times when you will need to handle various parts of the his body. You may need to wipe his feet, clean his ears, give medication or bandage a paw, and if you have never taught him to enjoy the experience of being handled and restrained these simple tasks could become impossible. You should gently handle your puppy on a daily basis. Pick a time when your puppy is calm, such as just after a nap. Do not try to start a body handling exercise when your puppy is excited, highly aroused or in the mood for play. 

  • Place your puppy in your lap and touch his feet, open his mouth, look in his ears and under his tail. During the exercise praise your puppy for being good and offer a few tasty food treats as a reward for compliance 
  • Be sure to keep initial sessions very short, since you want your puppy to relax and not struggle. If the session is too long you run the risk of your puppy struggling and getting free. This could send a message to your puppy that struggling results in termination of the handling session and therefore make him more likely that he will struggle next time.
  • Gradually increase the amount of time you restrain and handle your puppy.

If you are gentle and work in slow steps you should soon find that your puppy will allow and even enjoy these handling sessions.

  • It can be helpful to add a command into this handling situation, such as relax. By repeating the word in association with the act of being gently handled and restrained, your dog can learn what to expect when you need to handle him for some reason.
  • All family members should participate in the handling training but it is important for an adult to supervise young children in order to ensure that they are not too over enthusiastic in their restraint! 
  • If you see any hesitance or reluctance on the part of your puppy, you will want to repeat the exercise, until you can accomplish the handling without resistance. However, you will need to do the same exercise a little more gently or in a slightly different location in order to achieve some compliance that can be rewarded. You can then gradually progress to more difficult situations. 

Never force your puppy to accept any handling that induces signs of fear. If your puppy is frightened then you need to review the way in which you handling and restraining him. 

Over time your puppy should allow you to place gentle pressure on the back of its neck while it is in a down position, to roll him onto his side, to hold his muzzle and to be lifted (if he is small enough). These forms of handling should NEVER be used for punishment, they simply enable your dog to feel comfortable when moved around and manipulated in ways that people, such as a veterinary surgeon, may need to do.

dog laying downB.  Handling of resources, such as food and toys

Puppies need to learn that it is not threatening for their owners to touch food and toys which they consider to be of high value to them. In order to achieve this they need to be confident that owners are not going to steal these items from them and refuse to return them.

It is very important that you never take the food bowl away from your puppy while he is eating. The daily food ration is a vital and valuable resource and if your puppy learns that you are going to steal it from him it will be natural for him to respond with defensive behaviour.

The general rule is to leave dogs to eat in peace and not to interact with them unnecessarily when they are feeding. However, it can be helpful to teach young puppies that intrusions during the eating process are not threatening. This is so that they will not be startled and react aggressively should something unexpected happen when they are eating in the future.

In order to achieve this you want to teach your puppy that the presence of humans near to your food bowl increases the likelihood that more food, and perhaps even more valuable food, will be added.

  • Wait until your puppy is about to take his last mouthful of his meal and walk over to the bowl very quietly. Stand still, drop a tasty food treat into the bowl and then walk away.
  • Repeat this process over several meal times until you see your puppy look toward you as he gets to the end of his meal in expectation of delivery of the final treat.
  • Once your puppy has a positive expectation of you approaching the bowl as his meal is coming to an end you can start to approach with the food treat earlier in the meal, when there is more food present in the bowl.
  • After several repetitions of this exercise you can precede the delivery of the treat with the action of placing your hand on the side of the bowl. Once this has been accepted by your puppy you can progress to lifting the bowl briefly from the floor before adding the treat and replacing the bowl.
  • The golden rule is to establish a positive expectation for your puppy in association with people approaching and touching his food bowl.

If any growling should occur whilst you are practicing these exercises you should seek professional guidance immediately.

In addition to learning that people are not a threat around the food bowl it is also helpful to teach your puppy that it is not threatening for people to take toys or chew items away. This will help if you are ever in the position of needing to take something potentially dangerous away from your puppy, such as a small item that he could swallow or an item that is potentially poisonous.

  • Start the training by giving your puppy a low value toy and quietly and calmly place your hand on the toy, then ask your puppy "give" as you remove it from his mouth. As your puppy releases the low value toy give verbal praise and then give the toy back to him.
  • Repeat this training task multiple times daily in multiple locations.
  • Once your puppy has learnt that relinquishing an item results in it being returned, you can repeat the exercise but vary it by occasionally offering a higher value toy or a food reward in return for the low value item. This will teach your puppy that sometimes something better comes from relinquishing the object. 

You should be able to handle any of your puppy’s toys and once the concept of relinquishing has been established you should practice the above training sequence with items of increasing value. This sends the message to your puppy that it is okay for you to handle his possessions, however valuable they may be, and that you will either give them back or replace them with something just as interesting. As a result your puppy will trust you and then when you need to remove something from his mouth, he should accept your interference without conflict.

If your puppy shows any resistance to the removal of an object and wants to hang on to it when you take hold of the item:

  • Resist the temptation to engage in a tug of war game. This will not teach your puppy to relinquish items and it may even reward him for holding on.
  • Show your puppy another toy or a food treat and exchange one for the other as you ask him to “give”. With time when he hears the word “give” he will anticipate the exchange and let go. It is important to fade out the exchange with time so that he does not expect to see another treat before he will relinquish something.

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