A new pup can be fun but also a daunting experience. Is puppy training even possible?! Just how do you teach them to behave the way you would like them to?! Here is the lowdown on how pups learn and how to train your dog…
Learning about Life
Your new puppy is learning about life. Every minute of the day they pick up cues from their environment and learn the best way to cope with each new experience, object or living creature that they encounter. Just think what they have learnt so far…
- How to get enough food, when all the rest of their brothers and sisters want to eat too
- How to get mum’s attention and as much attention as possible from every dog and human who is in the vicinity
- How to back off when mum has had enough of playtime
- How to use those sharp, little teeth
- That people and other puppies mean fun, fun, fun.
Teaching your new puppy is easy, as long as you are motivated. Your puppy wants to learn so there is no better time to teach them than when they are young.
How do pups learn?
Puppies are like humans when it comes to learning. They use their eyes and ears to observe and listen to the world around them. They tend to react instinctively to any situation they encounter. A loud noise may have them cowering or barking to alert you. An approach from a strange dog may make them hide behind your legs. These instinctive behaviours are often beneficial for their survival.
Puppies learn from the environment around them and from your reactions. They often adopt a trial and error approach to dealing with new situations. A pup who wants your attention, for example, may try sitting quietly beside you to get attention or he may try jumping up on you. Whichever gets the most attention, he will do again and again.
Like human children, your pup’s mind and body are open to learning. It is not impossible to teach older dogs, just more difficult, so the younger you teach your pup the way you would like him to behave the better. You must decide which behaviours you would like your puppy to do and which you want to discourage.
There are several styles of teaching and learning:
A positive approach
Positive, reward-based training is fun for all concerned. Your pup gets rewarded for all the good behaviours they performs and you are rewarded by having a motivated canine companion who wants to please you and work with you.
Encouraging your puppy to obey your commands is easy when you have a reward on offer. Decide on the behaviour you want to encourage, then reward your puppy when they perform this behaviour. If you wish your pup to sit quietly with you, then you must reward them for this behaviour.
Rewards can take many forms. Commonly used reward include:
- Verbal rewards, including praise such as “Good Boy”, “Good Girl”.
- Physical rewards such as a pat or a stroke
- A food treat such as dry kibble, dog treats or small pieces of cheese
- A toy, given for a short time for him to play with or for you to interact with him
Some dogs are more motivated by toys than food. Working dogs often enjoy a ball and terriers a squeaky toy. If your puppy only has access to this toy when you are training them, then they will soon want to work to please you – and get their toy.
When they are very young most pups can be trained to obey commands with a few kind words of praise or a pat. Their desire to please is very strong and their minds and bodies receptive to our wishes. We just have to be clear on what we wish them to do and to communicate effectively with our puppy.
You may have a preference for the type of reward that you would rather give your pup for good behaviour and for obeying your commands. Some owners, for example, are against giving food treats and others know that these motivate their pup the most. Do whatever you are comfortable with. If you are unsure which motivator to use, observe your pup’s willingness to achieve the desired reward by trying out all of the above reward suggestions.
This type of training, using rewards for desired behaviour, is known as positive reinforcement and will be the kindest and probably the most efficient at getting your pup to perform the behaviour you wish them to.
Some unwanted behaviours may stop when we punish our dogs. Barking may stop when we yell. Pushing them away may stop your puppy from biting you. Punishment, however, may not work at all, especially if your dog has not yet learned what your actions mean. In fact, your puppy may believe that shouting or pushing him away are you giving them attention. Physically or verbally reprimanding them may actually encourage your pup to do the same behaviour again. So, while we believe we are stopping our pup from doing the wrong thing, he is actually learning to repeat the unwanted behaviour!For pups that are sensitive to the world, dealing out punishment may have them cowering, quivering or displaying submissive behaviours to pacify you. They understand they have annoyed you and are trying to rectify the situation. Often, however, their reaction is not associated with their wrongdoing, merely with your reaction. You have taught them little, except to fear you.Punishment can teach some dogs but it never builds the bond between owner and dog.
Keep pups positive
Since your pup is eager to learn and keen to please you, it is best at this stage of life, and indeed, at any stage, to stay positive. Keep rewarding your pup for the behaviours you want to see them perform. Be consistent and clear in your communication with your puppy and ensure you set some rules and boundaries so that you are all clear in your desire for good behaviour.
Setting rules and boundaries
All puppies benefit by having rules and boundaries in place within their household. They are learning every moment of their day and will attempt to make order and sense of their lives in their own fashion. It is up to you, as their owner, to teach them how you would like them to behave.
This is a matter for the whole family. If each of you has differing ideas of how your pup should behave, their will be trouble farther down the track. If mum, for instance thinks that it is good that pup sleeps on the bed and dad hates that idea, then their will be many nights of anguish and annoyance ahead.
Unfortunately, many owners are quite relaxed in their rules and boundaries when the puppy first comes to live in their new home. It is understandable that you feel sorry for them when they have to spend their first night away from mum and their litter mates and so he is given priveledges, such as sleeping next to his human family, that later you wish to revoke. By that time, he considers it his right, his habit and his world – to sleep next to you.
So, preferably before you even get your new puppy home, have a discussion with all members of your household and set your rules and boundaries. Even if you live alone it is worthwhile considering your life with your new dog well in advance of co-habiting. Some suggestions for topics you might like to debate include:
- Where will our dog sleep – outdoors in a kennel; indoors in a laundry, in a bedroom, beside the bed, on the bed?
- How will we respond when our dog whines or cries during the night – ignore her, go to her?
- Where and when will we feed our dog and will we give her titbits?
- Who will be responsible for feeding, walking, playing with our dog and for picking up poo?
- Do we want to train our dog and should we book into puppy classes and/or obedience school and who will be responsible for training at home?
- Will our dog be allowed to sit on the furniture? Will he be allowed indoors at all?
- What do we do about house training “accidents”?
Many dog owners realise that canine obedience school will help teach their dog to be a better behaved companion. And that is true. It is not always necessary, however, to attend a formal obedience class. Most will not accept puppies until they are at least 6 months old. That is too long to wait when your pup is learning now.Keep in mind the variety of obedience classes that are available for later but, for now, you need to begin training your pup at home.
- Socialise their puppies with a variety of dogs and humans
- Learn about canine care and training
It is worthwhile booking your puppy into a set of classes. They normally run once a week for four weeks and the whole family can go along. This has the advantage that dogs who are not living with certain categories of people – children, elderly or men for instance, can still meet and greet those types of people and therefore accept them later in life.
It is essential that you feel comfortable taking your puppy to these classes. Your puppy’s interactions with other dogs and people should be supervised at all times. Even some puppies are bullies! They can make your young puppy feel intimidated, as can too much or too rough human handling, so be aware of your pup’s needs. Don’t be too concerned, however, if your pup shows a little anxiety at times. This is normal and the best way to handle this is to ignore your pup’s anxious behaviour. If you react by picking your pup up too often or petting him whenever he runs anxiously to you, you will reinforce his anxiety.
While at puppy classes, as an owner, you will learn a great deal about dogs and their care. It will also give you a chance to ask questions and to try out some basic training techniques. You will also meet people from your local neighbourhood who have pups of similar ages to yours and some lifelong canine and human friendships have been formed this way.