How pups learn, how to train them, when to start, is puppy pre-school important and more...
Learning about Life
Your new puppy is learning about life. Every minute of the day he picks up cues from his environment and learns the best way to cope with each new experience, object or living creature that he encounters. Just think what he has learnt so far…
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 him than when he is 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 he 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 he performs this behaviour. If you wish your pup to sit quietly with you, then you must reward him for this behaviour.
Rewards can take many forms. Commonly used reward include:
Many dogs are motivated by food, sometimes more than anything else in life. It is easy to train these dogs with treats. If you are concerned about feeding your dog too many treats, then you can use some of his normal diet, such a dry dog kibble, and cut down on his normal meal portions. Sometimes, however, dogs need something really tasty or smelly to be motivated enough to perform some behaviours. Coming when called, for example, often needs a particularly motivating treat, such as roast chicken or cheese, to be more enticing than alternative pursuits in the park.
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 him he will soon want to work to please you – and get his 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 him to.
Punishing your pup
Some unwanted behaviours may stop when we punish our dogs. Barking may stop when we yell. Pushing him 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 him attention. Physically or verbally reprimanding him may actually encourage him 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.
A negative occasion
Puppies can also learn by what is termed negative reinforcement. While positive reinforcement gives them a reward for performing a desired behaviour, negative reinforcement rewards them by removing a negative experience. That may sound a little complicated but it’s simple really… imagine a dog pulling on a leash. When he stops pulling, he is rewarded by the absence of the negative event - the straining of the leash against his neck.
This type of training can produce results but with a young pup there is little need for it. Stay positive and your dog will too.
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 him 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 him when he has to spend his first night away from his mum and 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:
Like anyone who has a set of rules to obey, your puppy will feel more secure in knowing that he is doing the right thing and that this is reinforced by every human member of his family.
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.
Puppy pre-school is now a recognised event and takes place around the country in various locations, including many veterinary surgeries. Here there is a relatively hygienic and controlled environment where pups can be brought with their human families to:
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.