From the moment you pick your puppy up, your puppy will be learning how to fit into your family. If you take care to ensure that you understand what your puppy wants and needs and how your puppy learns and begin training your puppy as early as possible, then you will be able to raise a happy, well-adjusted and well behaved puppy.
How Dogs Learn
Dogs and puppies are very simple creatures really! There is no ‘right or wrong’ in their minds, there is just ‘safe’ and ‘not safe’ and learning how to best get what they want or need and how to avoid what they don’t want.
It can be quite hard for us humans not to want to attribute motivations to our puppy’s behavior that are outside of the safe/not safe, want/don’t want mind set, especially when we are frustrated when a puppy isn’t behaving how we want it to behave. However, every time your puppy does something you wish it didn’t, ask yourself:
- What does he want?
- What does she need?
- Has my puppy accidentally learnt doing what I want isn’t safe?
Once you have the answers you can apply them to finding a solution. Here are some common issues that new puppy owners encounter with their puppy and what can be done to alleviate this.
Chewing is a very natural instinct (or need) for all dogs. Puppies are teething up until 6 months of age, which we all know is a painful process, chewing can alleviate this pain. Chewing can also provide an outlet for a dog that has not gotten the exercise or mental stimulation it needs. So armed with this and your knowledge of how dogs learn, you can work on ways to give your puppy a safe outlet for its chewing needs and wants:
- Provide your puppy with lots of chews, from day one. Make them interesting, pack them with some of your puppy’s daily food rations, treats like dried liver or chub so that your puppy will want to chew them and learn that chew toys are safe.
- Soak rope toys in water and freeze them. The icey rope will alleviate the discomfort your puppy has from teething, so your puppy learns that chewing these ropes you offer gives them much needed pain relief.
- Ensure your puppy has adequate exercise that it needs so that he or she isn’t bored and finding other things to chew.
- Stuff kongs with some treats that will not easily be extracted, working on getting them out will provide your puppy with the mental stimulation that your puppy both wants and needs. You can also do this by ensuring you have a variety of chew toys and that you don’t use the same ones all the time. We buy Webbox Chub (probably not the most nutritional treat) and put that into kongs with some dried food and freeze it.
- Stag Bars are also brilliant chews for puppies. They are safe (they do not easily splinter) and very long lasting.
Many objects around the home are not safe for your puppy to chew, these include electrical wires, carpet and chair legs and so on. Ensuring that your puppy has the chew toys it needs and not giving it access to things that aren’t safe is one of the best ways to ensure that your puppy will learn to chew only on the things that are safe and good for it. Until your puppy has learnt that the best thing to chew is the chews you provide it with, try to remove any objects from your puppy’s reach that it may feel are ‘suitable alternatives’. If you do find your puppy exploring its chewing needs on something you do not want it to, immediately redirect your puppy to a freshly stuffed chew. Try not to chastise your puppy and ask yourself what your puppy needed or wanted at that time and see if you can use this to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Never give your puppy anything to chew that may resemble something you don’t want it to chew. Many people have given their puppy old slippers to chew, but unfortunately no puppy can tell the difference between your designer shoes and an old slipper! Only give your puppy safe chew toys like Kongs which have been purpose built to withstand heavy duty chewing and do ensure that they are not old or starting to break up so your puppy doesn’t swallow parts of it.
If you are worried that all these treats will make your puppy fat, then why not weigh out your puppy’s daily food ration of kibble and use all of it to stuff chew toys for them?
Again play biting is a very natural behaviour, puppies explore via their mouths in the same way that human babies love to pick things up with their hands. Biting is a natural instinct to dogs that is used both in play, hunting and defence.
When you watch puppies and dogs play, you can see the play bite in action as they mouth each other during play fights. This play fighting teaches them the behaviors that they need in their adult life. Occasionally when one mouths too hard, you will hear a yelp from the other puppy or dog and play will often cease for a while. The puppy who bit too hard learns to soften that bite else they don’t have the happy play they want.
Puppies also naturally mouth humans as exploration and when they are excited. At first this doesn’t tend to hurt so much, as puppy bites are not as strong as an adult’s, however as they get older this bite will hurt more and more and could result in serious problems. So from day one, teach no biting humans, ever. Again to do this, leverage your knowledge on how puppies learn:
- Puppies want and need to play. During play time with your puppy, if your puppy’s teeth make contact with your skin, immediately say either ‘uh-uh’, ‘no’, or ‘too bad’ and get up and walk away from your puppy, ignoring it for between 1 and 2 minutes. Then return to play. Repeat each time your puppy mouths you. Your puppy will learn that in order to get what it wants, it must not bite you.
- Do give your puppy toys that it can bite and chew on, such as rope toys, squeaky toys and chews. Play with your puppy with these toys, so that he or she learns that play continues when they bite the toy, but stops when they bite you.
Many trainers say that you should teach a dog to soften its bite before you teach it to not bite, which will ensure that your dog will not cause damage if it is ever in a situation where it feels the need to bite. Whilst this argument has merit, attempting to teach a dog to gradually lower the pressure of its bite is not an easy task. Ambiguity in training this type of bite inhibition will cause more problems than it solves, and could leave you with a confused puppy that does not receive the message that biting humans is unacceptable. So if you would like to teach your dog a soft bite before phasing out biting entirely, discuss this with a qualified trainer. Teaching your puppy not to bite humans at all, ever, is a clear message to your puppy that will be easily understood by following the methods above.
Why would dogs feel the need to bite in adult life? Normally this will be out of fear and the best way to ensure that your puppy will not grow to be a fearful dog and therefore reduce the likelihood it will feel the need to bite, is to socialise them very well as a puppy.
Toilet Training can be easy if you have puppy that has already begun training with its breeder. However, don’t despair if this isn’t the case, start a new leaf. Remember your puppy needs to go to the toilet and until you show him where you want him or her to go, they will think the whole world is an acceptable toilet!
Toilet training is easier if you confine your puppy to a single room or area at first. In this area, you should have a puppy bed (or crate if they are crate trained) a ‘toiletting area’ and the puppy’s food and water bowls. Position the toileting area away from your puppy’s bed and bowls, it is a natural instinct for a puppy to toilet away from its sleeping and eating area. The toileting area should be the surface that you want your puppy to toilet on outside, for example turf, or shingle in a litter box. If your puppy has been using puppy pads so far, then why not put some grass and soil on the pad so that they puppy begins to connect the two? Have a toilet area in your garden too, an area that you specifically take your dog for toileting, this area should be as quiet and distraction free as you can make it.
During the day time whilst you are at home:
- Take out your puppy to the outside toilet area within 20 minutes after it eats, drinks or wakes up.
- Take out your puppy to the outside toilet area within 5 minutes after vigorous play.
- Take out your puppy to the outside toilet area every, 1-2 hours for puppies up to 12 weeks old, 3-4 hours for puppies up to 16 weeks old, 4-5 hours for puppies older than 16 weeks.
Take your puppy out on a lead, do not simply let your puppy out into the garden to go on its own, you may not know if it has gone or not! Jog to the toileting area with your puppy, the movement should stimulate the bladder and bowels. Stand still and let your puppy have a mooch around until it goes. Wait for no less than 3 minutes, at which time if nothing has happened, you can go back inside, but try again in 20-30 minutes. When your puppy does go outside, praise it, make a big fuss of it, give it a treat and play a game outside with it for a little while if possible. Not only will your puppy be rewarded for toileting outside, it wants to toilet outside as quickly as possible as that is when the fun begins! Beware not to only take your puppy outside for toileting then straight back into the house after, you may end up with a puppy that learns to drag out toileting as long as possible as it wants to see more of the outside!
If outside of these times you notice your puppy circling with its nose to the ground, take it outside to the toilet area asap! In time and with a little observation you will notice the impending signs of your puppy needing the loo, when it happens, rush outside with your puppy. If you see your puppy toileting inside and not on its toileting area, quickly and quietly pick it up and take it to its outside toilet area (if possible or inside toilet area if not) and praise it, if and when it goes on there too – apply the 3 minute wait rule and go back inside if nothing happens by then. Accidents do happen, even with the most vigilant of toilet training. Do not stress, try to work out if you can improve your timing next time, but if not chalk it up as an accident and move on. Do not ever punish your puppy for toileting in the wrong place, it will only learn that humans are not safe when it toilets indoors, not that it shouldn’t toilet indoors. Make sure you clean and disinfect the area the accident happened in to remove the scent of the accident which could draw your puppy to toilet there again.
If you are not able to take your puppy outside in the time frames outlined above, or are not going to be home for a long period, or are going to bed for the night, this is when the indoor toilet area comes into its own. By confining your puppy to a single room or small area, you give your puppy a lower margin of error. Puppies do not want to toilet close to their bed or food, so place the toilet on the opposite end of the confinement area, but do ensure that this area is not too big, else they may chose other spaces within the area.
By positively reinforcing your dog with a treat and a good outside play session after outdoor toileting, you will teach your dog that toileting outside is safe and fun and it will want to toilet outside. As your puppy grows older it will be able to hold its bladder for longer and longer periods, from 20 weeks a puppy should be able to hold its bladder for 5-6 hours. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should only take your dog out 4 or 5 times every day, just that in a pinch it can hold its bladder for that long!
In Conclusion on How Puppies Learn
Puppies learn quickly and easily what is safe and not safe and what gets them what they want fastest. Whenever you give them a treat, cuddle, food or a play, ask yourself, what am I teaching? Are you playing with your puppy because it’s been barking and you found it annoying? You’ll be teaching your puppy to bark for attention. Do you only give your puppy its dinner when it is sat quietly looking at you? Then you’ll be teaching your puppy that they get dinner when they are sat calmly, not jumping up at you, howling, or racing around!
Remember to always reward the good, ignore the bad!
This article is an excerpt from a leaflet written by qualified dog trainer Corrine Lisle IMDT. Corrine issues this leaflet to all perspective and new puppy owners who book a puppy training consultation with her. If you would like her professional and friendly advice on training your puppy, visit her website for more information and details on how to contact her.