How To Train A Puppy
When planning training for your puppy it is important to remember their age, the younger your puppy the more important it is to teach social skills and general manners, as your puppy gets older you can focus on obedience skills and impulse control as they have a greater ability to pay attention and follow more complex skills. There isn’t any absolute formula for all puppies, however a rough guide is 8-16 weeks socialisation in various environments, life-skills to prepare for the experiences they will have later on and preventing problem behaviours like jumping and mouthing from developing; then between 4-6 months you can work on their obedience skills like walking on a loose lead, coming when called and focusing around minor distractions; from 6 months onwards work on more complex skills and increasing distraction levels.
So you have a new puppy, what do we mean by socialisation, life-skills and general manners?
At this age your puppy is like a giant sponge and will soak up whatever information you give them, it is up to you to ensure that the information they soak up matches what you want them to know.
Socialisation and life-skills with everything your puppy comes into contact with, we are going to talk broadly here and include living and non-living items under the one banner to make it easier.
All interactions must be positive for your puppy, they must feel safe and secure and have the ability to explore to sit and watch as they want. You want to ensure you help your new puppy to have the time to meet people and pets without fear, go on trips in the car, experience time on your boat, relax in a tent, learn that vacuums and lawnmowers aren’t big noisy monsters; anything you know your puppy will have to cope with throughout their life with you.
As for preventing problem behaviours, we all know the saying “prevention is better than cure” and this is definitely true when it comes to animals. Imagine if you can teach your puppy in the first week not to jump up, not to mouth or bite, what they can and can’t chew, how easy would that puppy stage be?
But how do you do this? Remember that it is impossible for your puppy to jump and sit at the same time, the two behaviours aren’t compatible, also if your puppy’s head comes up their bottom automatically goes down at this age, they don’t have the control to look up without dipping their back end. To begin teaching your puppy not to jump as you know they are coming up to you move your hand up over their head (if you have a small treat in your hand they will be unable to resist watching your hand), as their bottom touches the ground tell them “good” and give them the treat. If your puppy does manage to jump up do not reward this by talking to them, touching them or squealing (something many children do when puppies jump up). Instead just take a small step forward, into your puppy, and invade their personal space, this will push them off balance and ensure their feet go back to the ground. If they keep their feet on the ground tell them “good” and reward with a pat or a treat.
Mouthing and biting puppies need to learn bite inhibition and self-control, the best way to teach this is to help them understand the consequences of their behaviour. If your puppy bites your hand rather than growling at them why not give them what they want. You want the hand, here take it; place your finger down your puppy’s throat until their gag reflex kicks in, your puppy won’t like this and will quickly move his/her head away. With consistency your puppy will learn that every time his/her teeth touch your skin there will be gagging involved and will stop biting you. Another important point to remember is that your puppy is going to go through teething and will need to chew on something, to prevent your hands from turning into that chew toy give your puppy something suitable to chew. After your puppy has refrained from chewing your hand give him or her a toy and play a game.
Your puppy is an adolescent with all the joys associated with this age. Your puppy already knows some basic self-control, doesn’t have behavioural issues to resolve and is confident and outgoing in simple commands without distractions, like when you are at home is the best way to start. You then slowly add in distractions and make it easy for your dog to follow your commands and earn their rewards. Remember, when you move locations or add in greater distractions you need to take a step back in your expectations and increase the rewards for your dog. As the training becomes harder for your puppy you need to increase the reward level so that they have a greater motivation to perform and learn quicker what is expected of them. You can also have different levels of reward in the type of food used, cheese, sausage, chicken, cabanossi for great work and effort, lower value food for average effort. Your puppy will work harder for the higher value food and as their competency grows so do your expectations of them. If your puppy is struggling to understand a command or sequence it is best to break it down into smaller, easily accomplished steps for them, they will work through the steps quickly and learn the entire command/sequence much sooner than if you continue to expect them to go from A straight to Z.
At this age it is great to set up each training or learning session to avoid errors or confusion. If you can train your puppy with “errorless learning” (where they don’t make mistakes) it can speed up the learning process and help you avoid obedience pitfalls. Show your puppy what you want so they understand your expectations and make training fun, with this your puppy will love training with you and will fly through adolescence with ease.
Ensure that when your puppy understands a command and knows the action expected you take the food away and give it as a reward rather than using it to guide your puppy into position. The longer you use the food to get your puppy to work for you the harder you are making your life. Food treats should be a reward for good behaviour rather than a bribe to listen to you.
Your puppy has made it through their first 6 months of life, so much has been learnt, they have grown a huge amount, now have great control of their bodies (unless they are a giant breed where they may still be somewhat uncoordinated) and have the confidence to step out on their own and explore the world at large. So where do we go with training from here?
We’ve taught our puppy what the different commands mean, taught them that the command and action remains the same no matter the environment, now we proof their training in all environments and with greater distraction levels.
We now allow our puppies to understand the consequences of their behaviour, let them start to make some mistakes, just ensure that those mistakes aren’t going to cost them their lives, no off-lead recalls around busy roads if you don’t know your puppy will listen to you and ignore the distractions around them.
When your puppy chooses to assert his or her independence, they all do at some point, and they choose to ignore what you ask them to do now is the time to add in corrections. The level of correction depends on the temperament of your individual dog, the seriousness of the behaviour and what your dog dislikes. Now before some of you get upset and say that training should only be positive for your dog, if you withhold an expected treat, ignore your dog, use a harsh tone, act pained by their actions you are punishing your dog just as much as if you growl, hit or give them a time out. The effectiveness of the punishment depends on what your dog hates most. You all know of Morfah through his musings, if I growl at him, hit him, banish him from my sight it does nothing, in fact I remember a particular event we were at, he had a dog bark and show mild aggression towards him and went to mouth off at the dog, due to the event we were at his effective punishment options would have been frowned upon. Instead having him standing between my legs I held his muzzle, looked him directly in the eye (we were only about 3 inches apart) and told him exactly what I thought of that behaviour. All this was being watched by an obedience judge who kindly informed me that Morfah was wagging his tail happily the entire time. To say this “punishment” wasn’t effective would be a massive understatement. Now on the other hand Marty, one of the dogs I owned when Morfah arrived in my household freaked out and ran away at the mere thought of me blowing in his face for inappropriate behaviour, if I even thought of treating him the same as Morfah I would have had a blubbering mess in the backyard that would never trust me, or in his case, any human, again. Marty just couldn’t handle any harsh or firm treatment, even if it was directed at another dog not him.
If your puppy struggles with his or her newfound freedom, or thinks about ignoring you and decides to follow your instructions you MUST reward them heavily and with heartfelt congratulations when they choose to do as asked. By rewarding the behaviour you want and correcting the behaviour you don’t want you are giving your puppy the power to control his or her own world, a powerful motivator in any living creature’s life.
As you work with your puppy to teach them to follow commands and ignore distractions also work on improving the quality of their work, quicker sits, straighter heeling, lightning fast and direct recalls.
Now is also the best time to increase your reward options, broaden rewards from food to play. Use food whenever you need your puppy to think clearly without excitement clouding his or her judgement, once they understand the command play and toys add to the reward experience but also make it harder for your puppy to follow the commands. The excitement of play and prevent them from thinking clearly so it is important to wait until they figure out how to get you to throw their toy or play tug-o-war by following the command.
Having a puppy is so much fun, and they bring joy and companionship to our lives, but only if they are well behaved and relaxed. Untrained, anxious or over-excited dogs can be a nightmare to own or be around and can cause a rift in families. If you commit to owning a puppy you should commit to the time to train them, a few months commitment when they arrive can avoid a lifetime of regret. The average life expectancy of dogs in only 2-3 years old. Why .. hit by cars when they don’t listen to their owner, dumped in rescues and unable to be rehomed, injuring a person and having to be destroyed, the reasons are endless. Don’t let your puppy become one of these statistics, instead let them become elderly companions for your family.
Finally please remember, just like we wouldn’t put a 7 year old human in charge of driving a car through the city we shouldn’t expect an adolescent puppy to be able to behave and perform like an adult dog. Mentally they are not ready yet, even if they are do look fully grown. Give them the time to become mentally mature before you expect them to act that way.
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