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Training a Puppy

Welcome to Part 4 of our series: Getting a Dog

Puppy training is a big part of owning a dog and can be a major challenge if you do not have the resources on hand to help you know what you should be teaching and which ways are the most effective.  Training a puppy takes time, patience, knowledge and enthusiasm. 

Understanding Commands

Puppies can be trained to interpret your words, actions or other signals as encouraging or discouraging to their behavior.  Many dog breeds are naturally thoughtful and eager to please their owners so listening to and obeying commands is a task that can eventually be mastered.  When training a puppy you should always be aware of how your actions are being perceived.  To make things easier on both you and the puppy, be sure to use the same word or signal when you see a desirable behavior, such as “good” or “yes” (a “Reward Marker”) and another word such as , “Bad” or “No” when you see an undesirable behavior (a “Punishment Marker”).   

There are also indications that you can teach your puppy to understand when they are exhibiting a desired behavior but are not quite there yet (a “Keep-On Signal”).  Conversely, when your puppy is not doing what you wish him or her to be doing then you can throw a signal that says that he or she need to keep trying to do what you’re looking for.  This type of signal is referred to as a ‘non reward marker’ and often handlers use the word ‘Ooops’ to send the message.  

Rewards and Punishments in Puppy Training

According to the principles of operant conditioning, there are ways in which to promote positive behavior as well as curb negative behavior.  Encouraging good behavior is called reinforcing, while discouraging bad behavior is called punishing.  A positive reinforcement is one in which you give something (like a treat) to reward a desirable behavior.  A negative reinforcement is one in which you take something away (like a painful or annoying stimulus) to reward a desirable behavior.  A positive punishment is when you give something (like a pinch) in exchange for a bad behavior.  And lastly, a negative punishment is when you take something away (like a favoured toy) to address an undesirable behavior.   

Most dog trainers prefer to use methods of training that do not instill fear, pain, anxiety or aggression in the young puppy.  Punishments can have these effects, especially if your puppy has a more fearful or sensitive demeanor.  A reward based system of learning has duel purposes; it promotes good behaviors and strengthens the bonds between the owner and pet.  Training a puppy can be a challenge but when the owner or handler is consistent and always gives a reward when the puppy accomplishes the desired goal then associations begin to take effect and the puppy will be learning.  Unfortunately most puppies do not take what they have learned in one situation and apply it to another.  If your puppy behaves one way inside your house and you wish him or her to continue the behavior outdoors then you must be sure to teach the lesson again.  It is a good idea to carry healthy and delicious treats with you at all times so that you can catch the good behaviors and reward them.  Positive reinforcements do not always have to be treats either, they can be praise and attention as well. 

One problem that people encounter when training a puppy is that not all dogs listen.  Different breeds of dogs have greater or lesser attention spans, activity levels, independent streaks, and eagerness to please their owners, so teaching can be more difficult with some dogs.  It is best to do some research on your puppy breed and to observe how sensitive he or she is in different situations to know what the best course of actions are in puppy training.  Punishment, if used at all, should be reserved only for times when your puppy is endangering himself or others and is not listening to commands.

Obedience Training

Obedience training can be fun and engaging for your puppy.  It is important that your puppy knows who the leader is in your relationship and gives you respect by obeying your commands.  In the same regard you, as the owner and leader, should give your puppy respect by not asking too much of him or her and refraining from using painful punishment that will likely lead to a build-up of fear, anxiety and aggression in your puppy. 

There are a few helpful hints about obedience training that many handlers utilize frequently.  Find out what gets your puppy motivated to listen to you and try to use this knowledge in your training.  Some rewards are better than others and the treats that your puppy values the most will give you the greatest endurance in the training exercises. 

The first lessons in puppy training are learning the commands:  sit, heel, come, stay, and lay down (or just ‘down’).  Learning these basic commands is a crucial part of bringing up an obedient dog and keeping him or her safe.  To teach these commands you must be consistent and have short, enthusiastic lessons.  Repeat the command until he performs the task and then praise him profusely for it.  When your puppy is not listening to your command you can say “no” but do not physically punish your puppy.  Be sure the keep your puppy in the chosen position until you give the word that he can move. Say “release” or “ok” as an indication that he can stand up or relax.

House Breaking a Puppy

There are a few methods known and used when housebreaking a puppy.  Some owners prefer to paper train their puppy, others use the crate method and still others use neither.  Regardless of the method you choose to implement when training your puppy one thing is constant – the more time you spend with your puppy and guidance and praise you give him or her, the more quickly he or she will learn and with fewer mistakes.  Puppies are still growing and, like babies, it takes months for them to be able to control their bowels and bladder.  Accidents will occur but that doesn’t mean that your puppy is not learning.  It is expected that puppies will not be able to reliably hold their urine until after six months of age. 

Paper Training a Puppy

The principles of the paper training method when housebreaking a puppy are simple.  Encourage the puppy to pee on paper or special pads that you have laid out in conspicuous places and then slowly weaning them off of them.  As with any housebreaking training, this can be achieved with a great deal of patience.  First thing you would do is to pick a location in your home that is both safe and warm for your puppy and nearby so that you can keep an eye on him or her.  This will be the location that your puppy will spend the majority of his or her time in and it should be small enough that your puppy can’t roam around too far.  Place paper along the entire floor.  At first you will find that there is no real pattern to where your puppy chooses to go to the bathroom but soon this will change.  Check in frequently and change the paper every day. 

As your puppy grows he or she will begin to pee in roughly the same spot.  Start decreasing the area in which you cover the floor, being careful that you don’t decrease it too much and the puppy still pees on the paper.  Over time your puppy will learn that the place he or she is supposed to pee is on the paper and you can begin to move the paper toward the door (only a couple of inches at a time).  If the puppy is peeing in areas other than the paper or special pads then it is likely that you are moving too quickly.  Do not be discouraged if you have to go back to square one and re-paper the whole floor.  Eventually you can place the paper or pads outdoors and your puppy will know that there is no where indoors that he or she can pee. 

As a special noteit is important to know that you cannot punish your young puppy for accidents on the floor after they have happened.  The best way to learn is if your puppy is consistently rewarded for peeing outside where you want him to and if caught peeing indoors, is reprimanded by words only.  If you see your pup walking in circles or sniffing the floor then you should be aware that this is an indication that he or she probably needs to go to the bathroom.  Simply pick up the puppy and take him or her to a designated spot outside.  Be sure to use the command you have chosen to signal that you want him or her to pee.  Get to know your puppy’s schedule.  Usually a puppy will need to go to the bathroom once he or she wakes up (from naps or overnight) and again about thirty to forty minutes after eating or drinking.  Anticipate this need and take your puppy outside to the designated area and wait until he pees.  Give him lots of praise, a treat and then take him back inside. 

Crate Training a Puppy

If you are one of the dog owners who decides you would like to use the crate training method when housebreaking your puppy then here are a few tips that can help you out.  Crate training is based on the observations that puppies instinctually are averse to sleeping or laying in their own filth.  If you place your puppy in a crate that is only big enough for him to lie down in and nothing else then you will notice that your puppy can hold his pee for a very long time.  The mechanism involved is that if your puppy is essentially ‘made’ to hold his pee instead of just relieving himself the moment he feels the urge, then he will learn that he does not ‘have to’ go to the bathroom the moment he feels it.  This is an important revelation for the little puppy because it can be applied to other areas of the house.  As your puppy grows he will need a large and larger cage.  Instead of purchasing a number or crates or cages, simply buy one that can be used in adulthood and then get a divider that can be used to make the cage smaller and then larger as the puppy ages.  It should be mentioned, however, that a puppy should not spend long periods of time in a crate unless someone is around to take the pup out for an afternoon walk. 

Tools for Training a Puppy

Tools can come in handy when you are in the middle of puppy training.  Some handlers find using clickers to be helpful when teaching good behavior because it is simple to decipher and consistent.  Some people forget which word they have chosen to use for a specific task and this can be confusing to the puppy.  Also, sometimes it takes a moment or two to reward the dog after he or she has exhibited the desirable behavior which can possibly confuse the puppy as to what he or she is being rewarded for.  Using a clicker during training helps the puppy form a connection between the good behavior and the reward. When the puppy demonstrates a good behavior the clicker should be sounded.  This unique sound will signal to the dog that he or she did something right is going to be getting a treat.  It acts as an ‘event marker’ to bridge the gap between the action and the response.

Collars can be useful when you are teaching a puppy a number of different things.  There are many types of collars as well.  Slip chain collars, also called “choke chain” collars, are used by some dog trainers when the puppy is pulling too hard on their leash.  The point of a choke chain collar is to minimize the pulling by making the action more difficult.  The discomfort of the collar during the undesirable behavior is the positive punishment and once the behavior stops and the collar becomes loose, a negative reinforcement is present which encourages the dog not to pull.  Not all trainers agree with using this tool for teaching proper dog walking.

Another type of collar commonly used for training is the electronic collar.  Electronic Collars, or ‘e collars’, can produce a variety of stimuli once the dog exhibits a specific action.  Sometimes the collar will sound a tone, give a vibration or administer a shock of varying lengths of time and strengths.  Sometimes referred to as a ‘shock collar’, this tool can be used as a form of positive punishment or negative reinforcement depending on the trainer’s preferences. 

Controlling Bad Habits

Controlling bad habits comes with time, patience, confidence and puppy training.  In order to make sure that your puppy is not chewing up the furniture when you are gone or biting people at the door you must make a valiant effort to teach your dog manners and what you expect from him or her.  If your puppy is not housetrained, digs up the yard, constantly barks while you’re away, whines, chews on your belongings, jumps up or bites people, steals food or rummages through the garbage, runs away, pulls on his leash while you’re walking him, or suffers from separation anxiety then you will want to read further.

If you are not training a puppy from the beginning then this may be more of a challenge for you but is still attainable.  First, decide which bad behavior you wish to work on and start there.  Keep lessons brief and to the point so that your puppy does not become distracted and miss what you are teaching.  As usual, keep highly valued treats in your pocket so that you are ready to reward a good behavior when you see it. 

Puppy Training Classes

There are a number of puppy training classes throughout all provinces in Canada.  If you live in Ontario, B.C., Alberta or Quebec then there are a variety of dog obedience schools you can attend with your puppy.  There are schools available in all provinces, or you can enroll your puppy in specific classes if there are certain behaviors you wish to target.  Think about sending your puppy to puppy obedience school when he is just younger than six months of age.  The prime time for your puppy to be learning obedience is at this age, between six or seven weeks and eighteen weeks.  When looking for a reliable obedience school or puppy trainer, get information from someone you know who has had experience with these things before.  Ask your veterinarian or other pet owners (with obedient dogs).  Look for puppy training classes that are designed to allow your puppy to meet with other dogs and owners and can begin the socialization process along with their obedience lessons.  Find a puppy training school that uses a reward based system of learning instead of punishment.  Choke chains and hitting may seem effective in getting your dog’s attention at first but it can have lasting damage on their mental soundness later on.  Fostering fear and anxiety is not what you’re looking for in a puppy training class.

Puppy Socialization

It is important to socialize your puppy at a very young age.  Some breeds have tendencies to be more aggressive toward other animals, even people while other breeds have tendencies toward being fearful, and may attempt to defend themselves when they are afraid by using aggression.  By becoming familiar with other dogs and new situations your puppy can learn to be a confident adult dog that knows how to behave in different situations.  Start by introducing your puppy to interesting objects, people and other animals.  The more variety you can use the better off your puppy is.  For example, show your puppy objects that make noise, are coloured brightly or have a funny shape or smell.  Hair blowers, vacuum cleaners, bikes, telephones, elevators, stairs, automatic doors, bouquets of flowers or flowering plants, big balloons, blender, etc.  Introduce them to people with glasses, beards, big hair, are tall or heavy set, wear perfume, smoke a pipe or cigarettes, wear leather jackets or big boots, etc. until you get the sense that your puppy is becoming more relaxed and inquisitive with new experiences.  Take your puppy to dog parks where they can visit with dogs of different breeds and ages.  Be sure to supervise their interactions at all times but try not to interfere.

As with any type of training, keep a small store of little treats in your pockets so that you are ready to offer a reward and praise when you observe your puppy exhibiting a good behavior.  A healthy dose of confidence can go a long way and will ensure that your puppy will learn to investigate something new instead of simply becoming fearful of or protective against everything.  Encourage him to face the fear and try not to swoop in and ‘rescue’ him each time without first offering a chance to overcome the fear.   The older a puppy gets the more solidly infused these fears can become so it is vital that socialization occurs within the first several weeks of their life.  If this is not possible then there are ways to socialize your adult dog but this may require more effort and patience.

Special Puppy Training

If you are adopting a puppy for a specific role you want him to fulfill then you may want to consider professional puppy training school.  Some dogs are used in police and detection work, search and rescue, assistance to blind or deaf people, as security for the home or business or for sport and show.  Professional dog trainers can be located throughout Canada.  It is wise to ask a friend or associate who has had a positive experience with a puppy specialized training school or find out from your veterinarian who he or she recommends.  Puppy training schools are not cheap so you should do some research and make plans in your budget.

Getting a Dog