Dog Blog

Training Puppies

The three most important things your puppy needs to learn are:

  1. The world is a safe place.
  2. It’s okay to be alone sometimes.
  3. Where the potty area is and how to hold it.

These are in order of importance.

Teaching a puppy that its world is a safe place is top priority because there is a short window of opportunity to teach this. Before the age of 12 to 16 weeks, a puppy is more accepting of new experiences and the sights, sounds, smells that come a long with each experience. After 16 weeks, a dog becomes less accepting of new things and will be cautious and uncertain at first. Sometimes this can go really wrong and cause severe behaviours through adolescence and into adulthood.

Separation anxiety (and the unwanted behaviours that come along with it) is a complex problem that is very difficult to change once it becomes moderate to severe. Puppies are not designed to enjoy being alone, but it is a skill they will need (sometimes very quickly upon arriving to a new home). The unwanted behaviours associated with separation anxiety are in the top reasons why dogs are surrendered to dog rescues and animal shelters.

Housetraining is also one of the top reasons people give up their dogs. Training this successfully is a lot of work at the beginning but it’s worth it because it saves you a lot of work later. Going potty is a “self-reinforcing” behaviour (it feels good to the puppy to relieve the discomfort of a full bladder or full bowels), so it’s essential that you start early to teach a puppy that it’s more reinforcing to potty in the right area.

There is much more to training a puppy, but the three listed are the most important for raising a happy, confident, well-mannered puppy.

Enrichment Tip: Bringing Nature Inside

Why not bring a little bit of Mother Nature home to your dog?

When you are outside, pick up a few “souvenirs” that your dog might find interesting to smell later. You can put items in containers with holes in the lid if you don’t want your dog to touch the item or mouth it.  If you want to preserve the scent for a week to a few months, place each souvenir in its own clean container or plastic bag and place in the freezer until you need it. When the winter is long or when the weather is very poor, setting out the souvenirs for your dog to investigate can be a nice indoor activity for your dog. Be sure that the items you collect are safe for your dog to sniff and that you are not violating any laws by removing the items from the area.

This activity takes very little effort if you collect items while on a regularly scheduled dog walk.

Ideas for souvenirs:

  • small rocks
  • sticks
  • leaves
  • a clean paper towel or napkin rubbed on a tree trunk or light post
  • a glove you wore while petting a friend’s healthy pet
  • pine cones
  • a sprig of a plant that is dog safe (herb, weed, garden vegetable, flower)

Training Tip: My Dog Won’t Walk Nicely Unless Wearing a Prong/Pinch Collar

NOTE: In no way is this article promoting the use of the prong/pinch collar. The purpose of this article is to help dog owners (and perhaps even some dog trainers) transition away from using a prong/pinch collar. There are very good reasons why not to use a prong/pinch collar, but that topic will be addressed in a separate article. 

A prong/pinch collar is promoted as a “training” collar to reduce pulling on the leash, but a common problem is that many dogs require the continued use of the collar in order to maintain the behaviour (almost like a person who still requires “training wheels” in order to remain upright while pedalling a bicycle).*  The dog that seems to require the continued use of the prong/pinch collar has learned A) to show enough impulse control to the point where the discomfort from the prong/pinch collar is tolerable, and B) that “pulling works” when not wearing the prong/pinch collar.

Quitting the Prong/Pinch Collar “Cold Turkey”

Switch to a comfortable harness (to take pressure of the dog’s neck) and train your dog that “pulling doesn’t work” and that good things happen when your dog maintains a loose leash.  Some harnesses (e.g. Ruffwear Vest Harness) have a leash attachment at the chest, which can help give you more control if the dog is a strong puller (the dog’s pulling force causes his/her body to turn to the side and eventually towards you when he pulls hard enough).

Weaning your dog from requiring the prong/pinch collar

You will need a comfortable harness or a flat collar in addition to your dog’s current prong/pinch collar.  The harness or flat collar should not be designed to squeeze the dog when the dog pulls; you are trying to move away from using coercion to stop a behaviour.

Put the harness or flat collar on the dog and the prong/pinch collar. Instead of clipping the leash to the prong/pinch collar, clip it to the flat collar or the harness.

Does your dog walk the same way he/she would if the leash were clipped to the prong/pinch collar?

If so, then try going for walks several more times this way (with the prong/pinch collar on the dog but the leash attached to the harness or the flat collar). Be sure to loosen the prong/pinch collar gradually each day so there is no pressure from this collar at all.

In addition to this, you will want to teach your dog that “pulling doesn’t work.” Begin teaching this inside the house and then in the yard before trying it in an exciting environment. When your dog is consistently “walking nicely” for a week or so without you having to attach the leash to the prong/pinch collar, you can try a walk with just the harness or flat collar.

You will also want to build a very positive emotional response to the harness or flat collar by pairing it with lots of fun, food, play, etc. — to develop a positive emotional response to help compete with the negative emotional response that the dog may have towards the prong/pinch collar. If the positive emotional response to the harness or flat collar is stronger than the negative emotional response to the prong/pinch collar, it can help change your dog’s emotional state while wearing the prong/pinch collar and the harness or flat collar together.

Does your dog pulls the same way he/she would without the prong/pinch collar?

You could try quitting the pinch collar “cold turkey”, but if you don’t want to (for various reasons), you can modify the instructions for Teaching a Dog that Pulling Doesn’t Work. You could continue to use the prong/pinch collar, but pay very close attention to even a minor bit of pressure the dog puts on the leash. Teach your dog that even the barest bit of tension makes you stop. Combine this with training your dog to walk beside you using food, which you would start in the house and yard off leash first. You may also want to address the underlying emotional causes of why your dog is pulling. Your dog may be distressed, frustrated, or overstimulated by the outside environment. Addressing these emotions can do wonders for improving behaviours. But that is a topic for another day.

*Except in this analogy, the training wheels would have prongs that poke into the rider’s body to reduce the wobbling behaviour, in effect coercing the rider to stay upright to avoid the discomfort. 

 

Dog Training Tip: What is a Reinforcement

To successfully train a dog, it’s essential that you understand what a reinforcement is and how to effectively use it to train a behaviour.
A REINFORCEMENT causes a behaviour to be more likely to happen again in the future.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT is when you add something and this causes a behaviour to be more likely to be repeated. For example, you praise and treat when your dog is walking beside you. Your dog learns that his behaviour can make good things happen. (NOTE: NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT is when you remove something and this causes a behaviour to be more likely to be repeated. For example, you remove the pressure on the pinch collar when the dog is walking beside you.  Your dog learns that his behaviour can make bad things stop. A force-free trainer focuses on using positive reinforcement.)
The dog decides what is a reinforcer in that situation, not you. You may enjoy patting your dog on the head when he comes to you when you call, but dogs generally don’t like this, so if you do this, you will actually be punishing the behaviour you are trying to reinforce. Maybe your dog sometimes enjoys petting, but in some situations, the dog may not like it. 
The reinforcer needs to be delivered immediately after the behaviour (e.g within 2 to 3 seconds), otherwise the dog will not understand what behaviour you are trying to reinforce. For example, if you call your dog to you and she comes to you, but then you ask for a sit before you give the dog the treat, she will likely understand that the treat was for the sit and not for coming when called. Later, you can add sit into the mix as part of the routine you want to train, but for early training, give a treat for the recall. You can give a second treat for the sit.
Using a marker signal can help signal to your dog that the behaviour was correct and that a reinforcement is coming. This is helpful if your dog is working at a distance or if there will be another reason for a delay in delivering the reinforcer.  This signal can be a word (e.g. “Yes!”) or a sound (e.g a click) or even a visual cue.
Beware of unintentionally punishing a behaviour. Petting the dog in a way that the dog doesn’t like is a common example. Another is getting angry at your dog for coming to you: perhaps you called several times before your dog came to you; perhaps you are upset because your dog ran out the door or across the busy street; in these cases, if you scold your dog after he comes to you, then you are making it less likely he will come to you in the future. Another way people accidentally punish the recall cue is calling your dog for something the dog isn’t going to like such as a nail trim, perhaps, or the end of the fun such as leaving the dog park or coming inside the house. Practice calling your dog in a fun situation, give the dog a little treat, and immediately send your dog back out to enjoy the fun. This way, when it’s time to leave the dog park or come inside the house, your dog will be more likely to come when called because “come” won’t always mean that the fun will end.

Your Dog’s Emotions Drive Behaviours

In any dog training situation — whether in a formal dog class or on a walk in your neighbourhood — it is essential to assess your dog’s emotional state. Is your dog finding the experience pleasant, and is your dog under threshold? If not, your dog will begin to show more “unwanted behaviours” and your dog will find it difficult to learn.

Many (I would argue most) unwanted behaviours are a product of stress —distress and/or eustress (e.g. happy excitement). If your responses to your dog’s behaviours add to his/her stress, it’s unlikely that your dog’s behaviours will improve and they are likely to become worse.

Emotions drive behaviours. If you suppress the behaviours, the emotions still need to go somewhere (often resulting in worsening of behaviours or new unwanted behaviours). Avoid using training methods that are designed to suppress behaviours; instead address the underlying causes of the unwanted behaviours (e.g. distress or extreme eustress).

This often involves controlling your dog’s access to the environment, rather than trying to control your dog. Don’t force your dog to “get over his/her fears” but instead use gentle exposures; don’t let your dog move into a new area or closer to the “object of interest” unless your dog’s arousal levels are below threshold.

To effectively read your dog’s emotional state, you must become fluent in canine body language, especially the signals your dog prefers to use. If you can become aware of the very subtle signals your dog uses when stress levels are relatively low, you can help your dog before he/she begins to show the unwanted behaviours.

My Dog Can Behave in Class But Not at Home

“My dog can do it in dog class but won’t do it on a walk.”

“My dog is okay around other dogs in dog class, but my dog is out of control when I walk my dog in the neighbourhood.”

“Dog class is too stimulating for my dog; the minute he sees the building he is out of control.”

These are common complaints, and they are valid. A lot of dog training is about “proofing” skills (increasing the level of difficulty of the skill by increasing the duration, distraction, and distance you are from your dog), and part of this involves generalizing the skill to new locations. Just because a dog knows how to walk on a leash beside you in the dog training facility, doesn’t mean that dog can do it in the neighbourhood. Traditional indoor dog classes often fail to help dogs transfer skills to the real world.

Don’t get me wrong — indoor dog classes have their benefits. They are sheltered from poor weather and some distractions, and in the case of dogs with less than robust immune systems (e.g. puppies that do not have their full set of vaccinations yet), quality classes can reduce the risks of infection/disease/parasites if the facility operators implement a robust cleaning regime and restrict participation to dogs meeting specific health requirements.

But traditional indoor dog classes have their limits in “real-life” training. Unless the dog owner wants to participate in dog sports and shows, many traditional indoor dog classes are not serving the average dog owner who wants the dog to have manners at home, in the car, and on a walk.

The best places to BEGIN the training are in a low-distraction environments, such as the dog’s home, yard, or very familiar and somewhat “boring” places in the dog’s neighbourhood. (Think of areas with minimal wildlife and plant material/greenery that would contain wonderfully distracting scents.) After the skill is learned at a beginner level of competency, the best places to proof the skills are where dog owners want their dogs to perform the skill (in the car, at the pet supply store, at the park).  Traditional indoor dog classes are good for proofing the dog’s skills — skills the dog already knows — but these classes are generally only useful if the dog will be expected to behave in an indoor environment around other dogs. For the average dog owner, a traditional indoor dog class is not very helpful.

Here are my top 5 picks of the best places to train dogs in Regina (after the dog has learned the skills in a low-distraction environment such at at home):

  1. Neighbourhood Park (the one you will use the most often)
  2. School Yards (not during school hours)
  3. Wascana Park (when it’s not too busy. Start easy and work up to more difficulty)
  4. Pet Supply Store (this is a HUGE challenge, so work on the skills well before trying them in this location, especially Leave It).
  5. Outside the dog park (far enough away that the dogs in the park are a bit of a distraction but not too much)