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.

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.

Understanding Dog Body Language

Dogs use many signals to communicate and these are often used in combination. It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.

Illustrations of dog body language indicating stress.

Videos of dog body language: Part 1 ; Part 2

Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.

Closed mouth
Look away or turn away
Lip licking
Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
Shaking off as if wet
Yawning when not sleepy
Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
Scratching
Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
Sniffing

What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed? In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation.

In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families (2009) Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs.  In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals.  She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals.  She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.

Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting.  In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger.  Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene.  The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.

To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking.  They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning.  Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety.  Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours.  The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.

When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve.  Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.

Owners of over-reactive dogs or dog owners who want to prevent their dogs from becoming over-reactive (e.g. adolescent dogs) can contact me if they are interested in taking a class.