3 Steps to Puppy Training

It’s no secret puppies are adorable. They are soft, cuddly and their clumsy play is just too much cuteness! On the flip side, they’re a LOT of work and can be exhausting. They require consistent guidance and constant monitoring.

Puppies are also extremely impressionable, which means their exposure to the external environment in the early months is crucial. It’s important to have a plan to limit your puppy’s exposure to things that distract from learning good behaviour and/or things that may scare him.

Step by step plans are great in theory, however, puppies typically have their own agenda, so the plan needs to be fluid with some serious flexibility.

Setting priorities is key. The following 3 steps is a good starting point:

  1. Socialization and confidence building.
  2. Management. Prevent bad habits by planning your pup’s environment and experiences.
  3. Willing response to obedience cues.

Socialization

It’s important to provide good experiences for your puppy so she’s not fearful or aggressive later in life. Introduce your puppy to people, animals, sounds, objects, places, etc. at a level or pace your puppy can handle and link it with good things. If you’ve heard of Pavlov you know the bell was presented at a level the dogs noticed but didn’t react to and paired with something they really liked. The result? Loving the bell and happily anticipating what came next.

Management

Be vigilant about planning situations your puppy is exposed to. Sometimes it’s best to leave pup at home or in the crate if you’re headed somewhere busy. Puppies are constantly aware and learning what works in their world – not just the things we want them to learn! Ensure they don’t learn the wrong associations or undesirable habits in the first place. You are your puppy’s advocate.

Obedience

Puppies are little sponges for learning and can get a pretty amazing head start on some obedience skills even before 12 weeks of age! Positive reinforcement methods work – they are fast, effective and feel good. Punishment is never needed. Positive doesn’t mean you have to be permissive when “bad” behaviour happens. It simply means you need to redirect your pup and go back to focusing on #1 or #2 until you’re back on track with what TO do and make that worthwhile. Notice and “pay” the good behaviour and gradually build reliability.

While it is our job to manage what and where our puppy learns, they still need to be a puppy. They need to investigate, chew, dig, test, test again, win, lose, play, hump, snap and be snapped at – enough to learn a lesson, but not with toothy contact or too often.

And how do we teach them the things that we WANT them to learn?

DO make time for activities that are fun to do together, but don’t give her too much free time to explore on her own. Go the the edge of the forest with a long line and discover sticks and smells together and then provide better sticks and smells with bonus edibles!

DO put your puppy in situations where she doesn’t get what she wants and let her deal with it. She’s with her people, she’s warm, comfortable and well-fed. It is just a time where your pup can’t have free reign and she’ll survive. Use a tether, gate or ex-pen to limit access and freedom. Your puppy will thrive with this type of discipline!

DO look for opportunities to practice some of the obedience skills that you have been working on, but only when you are sure she will, in that moment, readily play the training game with you. Have something up your sleeve to surprise and reward her with that will reinforce the behaviour that you just got! Don’t ask for something from her that she can’t or won’t readily do. Find situations where she will happily do things and then make it worth her while to have done them and do them again!

Your only agenda should be to have a good experience TOGETHER. It is about finding or making moments to engage. Choose the environment. Choose the distractions and how long to hang out. Set it up so your dog can make some good choices herself.

Sure pup, go ahead and pick up that coffee cup. When you get bored of it, or maybe a split second before, I will ask you to drop it, you will, and ta da – luscious liver!
Sure pup go ahead and explore and forget about the human you were with (remember you did choose her environment). When you lifted your nose and I wasn’t there you suddenly realized that you wanted me and were so relieved when you heard the word come! You were rewarded with a valuable treat very appropriate in that moment!

The cue becomes a reward in itself!

What can you specifically work on right away?

Seize learning opportunities as much as you can rather than having a training agenda. If you have a zoomy puppy, play recall games! If you have a relaxed puppy, try down and stay. If there are birds in the distance, run away from your pup and produce a fluffy toy to play with together. If you just passed a perfect stick while out walking, practice the hand target and fetch. If you’re at the edge of the grassy field, ask for eye contact for 1-2-3 and run with me!

And when the environment gets beyond your puppy’s level, even moments before, have a management plan. Have that tether spot in the entrance way for when guests come. Have that ex-pen set up for when you really need to finish that soufflé and can’t watch her. Have that extra enticing chopped liver pate handy to get her back into her senses and away from whatever it is that’s putting her over the edge.

It’s important to ensure your pup is also progressing. Once they’ve reached a certain level of training, push them to sit and stay longer and then add distance between you. Ideally a training session will be successful 90% of the time. Push it just a bit, just often enough to take it to the next level but still a level your puppy wants to keep in the game. Think of it as Dr. Seuss training. Can you do it on a box? Can you do it with a fox? Can you do it here or there? Can you do it anywhere?  When your pup makes a “mistake” it provides you information to make the next request easier so that she remains a keen partner in learning.

Your pup won’t be able to perform “X-behaviour” anywhere, anytime, for a very long time. Learning is a process and management is an important part of learning for puppies and mature dogs alike. But don’t let them practice doing undesirable behaviours in contexts that you don’t want in the future.

Let them be a puppy. Let them be a dog. Let them do it safely, at their own pace, and make it easy to make what you want to be the right choices.

Every moment is a learning moment. Be your dog’s partner in learning. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. Enjoy the dance together!