Why, When, and How To Train Your Pup

Jason Cook

apl-smAs soon as you bring your new pup home, he begins to form behavioral habits.  Your pup can either learn to be polite, happy, and well-behaved, or he can learn to be naughty.  It is up to you to instill good behavior in your pup right from the start.  Believe it or not, every time you interact with your pup, you are teaching him something.  The easiest way to train your pup is to develop good habits as soon as you bring him home.

Training using positive methods is a wonderful way to bond with your new pup.  It should be a fun process for both your pup and you.  As you train, you will be learning good habits as well.  Instead of unconsciously rewarding undesirable behaviors, you will become aware of the ways in which your own behavior influences that of your pup.  Training your pup is all about establishing consistent guidelines, and communicating them by rewarding desired behaviors and removing rewards for undesired behaviors.

Dog training has come a long way in the last several decades.  Previously, training was mainly force-based.  We used choke chains or prong collars to yank our dogs when they didn’t behave as we wanted them to.  The prevailing attitude was that our dogs knew exactly what to do, and that they were simply being willful or stubborn if they weren’t behaving appropriately.

Today, good dog training is based on science and learning theory.  Now, we focus on rewarding desirable behaviors and removing rewards for undesirable behaviors because that is the basis of all learning.  Dogs (and people, too) do what works for them.  If barking gets a dog his dinner, then he will continue to bark when he is hungry.  If, however, his owner ignores him when he barks and only feeds him when he is quiet, the noisy behavior will fade away and quiet will prevail.

Another thing that has changed is the age at which we begin to train and socialize our puppies.  While some veterinarians still advise owners to wait until their puppy has had all his shots before they socialize him, most professionals now know that puppies need to begin this training by at least eight weeks of age.  When a puppy is eight weeks old, he is primed for learning and for embracing new people, places, and things.  If you wait too long to socialize your puppy, he may become fearful of new things.  Fearful dogs sometimes defend themselves by barking, growling, or biting.  We have learned that the benefits of early socialization far outweigh the risk that your puppy may catch an infectious disease.  A puppy who is not socialized is much more likely to become defensively aggressive than to become infected while being socialized.  So, don’t wait to give your puppy positive experiences with new people, places, and things.

Start your puppy or dog off right by enrolling him in a positive socialization or family dog training class.  Be sure to ask in advance about the methods used for training.  If possible, observe a class before you sign up.  Look for a trainer who recommends clicker training, or who is dedicated to positive reinforcement methods of training.  Avoid trainers who tell you that you must use a choke chain or prong collar to train your dog properly.  These types of collars are especially inappropriate for young puppies.  Not only can they cause physical damage and pain, they can cause a puppy to become fearful and unreceptive to training.

To train your puppy or dog to be a polite member of the family, focus on three things:

(1) Control the environment.  If your puppy doesn’t have the opportunity to practice unwanted behaviors, such as chewing shoes or raiding the trash, these behaviors will not develop into bad habits.  Keep your shoes in the closet and be sure that your dog cannot get into the trashcan.

(2) Remove reinforcers for unwanted behaviors.  Do not give your pup attention, treats, or play when he is behaving inappropriately.

(3) Reward only desirable behaviors instead.  Only give your pup attention, treats, or play when he is behaving appropriately.  Teach him to sit for everything he wants, and he will become a polite pup in no time.

Remember that training should be a fun experience that promotes bonding between you and your new best friend.  It is up to you to help your pup learn how to behave properly in the human world.  Many of the things that humans consider undesirable are simply natural doggie behaviors.  They have worked for dogs in the past, and they will persist if your dog continues to get what he wants by doing them.  So, begin to shape your pup into a welcome member of the family as soon as you bring him home.  Set clear guidelines and stick to them.  Be as consistent and patient as possible, and your pup will soon learn to behave as you want him to.

For more information, see our handout “The Learn to Earn Program for Puppies and Dogs: Becoming Your Pup’s Leader.”