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If you are getting a new puppy or know someone who is, here are our top tips to successful puppy training.
- Lower your expectations. Remember your puppy is just a baby: he doesn’t know he should toilet outside or know even his name. A human baby takes many months to learn to walk, talk and toilet training can take years. It is the same principle when you are training your puppy – these things take time, patience, practice and consistency.
- Prep for adolescence. Typically from around 6 months of age the puppy moves into adolescence (for giant breeds this is a little later). ‘Teens’ can get bored easily and have little or no self-control, they like action and speed! Dogs also like routines, rituals and patterns – set some boundaries if you haven’t already done so. Establish walking routines, feeding and play schedules, and consider factors such as whether your puppy is allowed upstairs/on the sofa etc? What one person allows but another doesn’t will only serve to confuse. Inconsistency can frustrate and then become problematic by the time they hit puberty.
- Avoid long training sessions. Your puppy’s ability to concentrate over long periods is poor, much like toddlers and you will need to help teach him self-control. Keep training short, fun and easy. NOTE: If your puppy appears distracted during your training session consider that he could be tired so needs a break, he may need to pee or poop, the training environment is too distracting / challenging for his current skill level, and review the rewards you are using (such as food or toys) as these may not be of high enough perceived value to your puppy compared to his immediate environment! Click here to watch my preference test video.
- Join a training class. Sign up to a training school that uses positive reinforcement training methods. Your dog’s first exposure to training may be at a puppy class whether that is virtually or in-person, so this should be a fun and positive experience. Make sure the trainer is certified and insured – and research the associations they are affiliated with so you are aware of their ethics and training philosophy (you’ll see why this is important further down in this article). Ask your potential trainer questions about how they train; if possible, pop along to watch a class before signing up or check out any online videos of their work. If you are in the local area, then find out more about our Puppy & Dog School in Hertfordshire which gives your puppy the opportunity to meet other young dogs in a safe, calm environment, or see our online options, so your puppy can learn core skills to set them and yourselves up for success.
- Have fun with your puppy. Play with your dog! This may sound obvious but often busy lives take over and soon our playful puppy may get himself into trouble due to frustration and or boredom. Playing with your dog teaches him to focus on you and it builds the association that you are fun to be with and what could be better than that? Play is so much more than simply throwing a ball. Check out the book ‘Playing With Your Dog’ by Hanne Grice for game and tricks ideas for beginners aimed at dogs of all ages.
- Socialisation and habituation. It is really important to introduce new experiences and environments to your puppy and repeated experiences. This includes; noises, machinery / objects, clothing, animals, transport and people – young, teenage, adult, and old. But do take a common-sense approach as these experiences should be positive ones. If the puppy is scared by something, move away in a calm manner to create space away from the stimulus and avoid making a big fuss. Instead use an upbeat tone of voice / act ‘jolly’ and distract your puppy’s attention onto you by playing a game or giving him some tasty tid-bits etc. Predict your puppy’s likely behaviour, give them space and allow them to watch the world go by. As trainer and behaviourist Rosie Bescoby discusses in her puppy tips series, we don’t go up and say hello to everyone we meet on the street so it would be unnatural for our puppy to meet and greet every person, dog and so on. Ultimately you want your puppy to become habituated to varied stimuli so, for example, when he sees another dog / horse / car it isn’t a big deal. Check out my Puppy Socialisation During COVID-19 Bingo Game card to help you.
- Never hit, shout or punish the puppy. There is a plethora of research highlighting the fall-out associated with aversive training methods, such as increased dog anxiety and aggression (Hiby et al. 2004; Blackwell et al. 2008). Consequently, Ziv (2017) reviewed 17 studies to investigate the effects of using various methods when training dogs. The data supported previous evidence that showed dogs trained using positive reinforcement training methods were more obedient and well-rounded characters than dogs trained with ‘traditional’ / punishment-based training methods. Such aversive methods may include but are not limited to: use of shock collar, sprays / shaking cans at the dog, leash corrections, prong collars and choke chains, hitting, shouting or pushing the dog’s nose into its own poop, and pushing the dog into position. The study illustrated how aversive training methods can jeopardize both the physical and mental health of dogs.
- Toilet training. Look for the key times the puppy will go: typically upon waking, when something exciting or scary happening such as a visitor arriving, after playing and eating. Pups may start to sniff and circle before eliminating, whine a little or act more distracted. So look out for these signs and encourage your puppy outside into the garden. As the puppy eliminates say a word like “be clean” / “hurry up” / “wee wees” as this builds an association of that word to that action. Overtime, you should be able to say the word and your dog eliminates ‘on cue’. Whilst you are toilet training always praise your puppy and give him a reward such as a tasty treat once he has finished his wee or poop. Avoid going inside the house straight after the puppy has been to the toilet, as the puppy may learn to hold on for longer as they want more time to explore the outside! If it’s raining – get your coat on, umbrella up and be prepared to wait it out with your puppy.
- Start grooming early. Teach your puppy that grooming is a pleasant experience from the get-go. Gently brush him when he is a little sleepy, gently touch his ears / teeth / paws to enable him to get used to being investigated in these areas. Calmly praise him as he accepts being brushed or touched and give him a treat for letting him do this. If being touched in this way causes your puppy to start chewing onto your clothes or hands, redirect this biting and chewing onto a stuffed Kong or lickee mat to promote calmness whilst being groomed. Training for such husbandry behaviours really helps when it comes to the times you have to take your dog to the vets or when you need to clip his claws / brush his teeth / dry him off from a walk. Check out this great snippet from trainer Ken Ramirez regarding daily practice for handling, and focusing on different body parts https://twitter.com/i/status/1289573165153230850
- Blackwell, E.J., Twells, C., Seawright, A., Casey, R.A. (2008) ‘The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs.’ Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 3(5) pp. 207–217.
- Hiby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004) ‘Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare.’ Animal Welfare (13) pp. 63–69.
- Ziv, G. (2017) ‘The Effects of Using Aversive Training Methods in Dogs – A Review.’ Journal of Veterinary Behavior Clinical Applications and Research (19). DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2017.02.004