Puppy training can be a daunting task. I’m here to empower you, and tell you that YOU can do this! If you’ve been working on potty training and general manners at home, you’ve already learned the important training fundamentals: consistency and positivity. And I’ll add one more: patience. Remember to be patient with your puppy, but also patient with yourself. You and your puppy are learning how to communicate, and you are learning to teach, essentially in a different language.
First and foremost: create a setting for success. As you get to know your puppy, you’ll be able to tell when he’s ready to focus. There are certain points of the day that Skipper just wants to terrorize Lily and others where he’s wandering around the house needing to occupy his mind. Take advantage of those moments when you can, and try to minimize distractions. Separate your training session from other dogs in the house, and work in an area with good traction and minimal background noises.
There are countless YouTube videos, books, puppy classes, and training services that demonstrate how to teach each individual command. Always be sure to select only positive reinforcement training programs; avoid punishing or forceful techniques, as these have no place in puppy training. Dr. Sophia Yin’s material is a wonderful resource. She has countless online videos and has written many books, including How to Behave so Your Dog Behaves and Perfect Puppy in 7 Days.
Keep your sessions short and simple, as puppy attention span is quite brief. Depending on your individual puppy, 5-10 minutes may be his maximum. When he starts to show signs of disinterest, quickly wrap things up on a good note, i.e. one more good sit with a treat, praise all around, and then break for play. I like to introduce a command during a training session, and then reinforce the command sporadically throughout the day. For example, Skipper and I will spend 5-10 minutes at lunchtime learning something like “sit.” Then, at random points during the rest of the day, I’ll ask for a sit and reward him for remembering. During training, you’ll want to maximize the chance of success by minimizing the possibility of failure (like potty training!), so make sure to pick your battles wisely. I don’t ask for a “sit” command in the middle of an intense tug of war session or while he’s running around the yard like a gazelle. The chances my kibble and praise are worth stopping the fun are pretty slim, and it’s important to get the behavior I requested each and every time, or he’ll learn to get away with “forgetting.”
Prepare the treats! Using a handful of puppy kibble is usually sufficient. Dogs don’t particularly care what you’re offering, just that you gave them something! Speaking from experience; be careful offering a bunch of rich food as rewards, as you may find yourself punished by the flatulence later. It’s also a good idea to save the “high value” treats for things like the vet’s office, bath time, and nail trims. We like to spoil your puppy and bribe away their love so next time they’ll come bounding through the hospital doors ready for more! As a veterinary behaviorist once explained it: if you were offered $20 to go to the dentist, you may be inclined to find something else to do that afternoon; if you were offered $20,000 to go to the dentist, you’d be there every Tuesday! For Skipper, the $20 kibble is quite sufficient to learn sit, down, roll over, etc. The $20,000 liquid gold (aka squeeze cheese from the can) has been deemed a fair price for nail trims, vaccines, and ear exams at the clinic.
Be consistent with the terms, hand signals, and the manner in which a command is given to the puppy. All members of the household will need to use the same terms and process in order to avoid confusion. And, more importantly, make sure puppy gets praise and/or a treat each time, to keep him interested in learning and doing the right things!
So, Skipper has been home for some time; we’ve been working on developing some manners, potty training, and crate training. We’ve also been introducing socialization adventures. Socialization is a time for your puppy to develop basic life skills, like interacting with his environment, playing with other dogs, and meeting new humans. This is Puppy Kindergarten, and you are the puppy’s teacher. The optimal socialization window for puppies is between 4-14 weeks, so it’s important to get started relatively soon after bringing a puppy into your home.
Because puppies begin to experience fear about 8 weeks of age, with a peak at around 14 weeks, it is critically important that experiences are only positive. Traumatic experiences at this age can have lasting effects on behavior for years to come. Make sure to use praise in a high/encouraging tone, and give LOTS of treats when introducing something new. Watch for signs of fear in your puppy, like freezing, whining when looking towards a stimulus, or avoiding something altogether. If these occur, take a step back and offer lots of praise and tasty encouragement. Contrary to popular belief, consoling a dog when he is anxious or scared of something does NOT reinforce anxious behaviors. Gradually re-approach or allow the stimulus to approach only if/when the puppy is still eating treats and relaxed. You may have to table an experience for another day, and that is ok!
Skipper wasn’t quite sure what to think when the Roomba (we call her Betty) reported for duty one morning. So we spent some time playing tug and eating snacks on the floor in the next room over, protected by the great brown wall (aka the couch). After some time listening to the noise, Skipper decided Betty wasn’t worth his concern. We repeated this with the hairdryer. With the hair dryer on low, Skipper and I played a few feet away. Whenever he was comfortable and not paying attention to the wind machine, I turned up the speed, level by level, until it was on high. By introducing possibly scary things in a steady manner, we allow the puppy to feel confident and safe. You can apply this same process to plenty of other things, too!
We also like to take Skipper with us on outings, when possible, to get him used to lots of different sounds, sights, and people. Always pack treats and toys to help make the experience fun!
Here are some basic rules of socialization outings for you to consider:
Positivity, NOT punishment. Socialization experiences should be fun for you both! Reward him frequently with treats and praise; punishment is not conducive to socialization.
Realistic expectations. Pick excursions your puppy is likely to encounter as an adult and make absolutely sure you are both set up for success and positivity! I doubt Skipper will ever have to go onto a subway or board a helicopter, but I would like him to tolerate trips to Home Depot, wineries, and the occasional Virginia Tech Tailgate (Go Hokies!), so we aim for similar locations during less busy shopping times.
Observe and absorb. The puppy doesn’t have to participate or do anything at all for the experience to be valuable. He can simply observe quietly and eat lots of treats. If he knows any obedience commands, performing them in a new setting is extra credit, but certainly not required.
Puppy does not have to be friends with everyone. Ideally, we introduce the puppy to all types of people, such as officers in uniform, and tiny humans. Your puppy may not enjoy being petted by everyone. As your puppy’s steward and guardian, it is ok to ask someone to refrain from petting if he looks uncomfortable, has a tight/drawn facial expression, or is avoiding eye contact/touch. Carry treats which you can allow strangers can offer as a reward/positive experience.
Socialization ≠ The objective is to teach the puppy to tolerate another dog, person, etc., being nearby. Your puppy may not want to play with other dogs; likewise, not all other dogs like to be played with by the puppy. Always bring a few toys for distraction/interaction.
Safety is key! Use extreme caution when introducing puppy to other dogs, as a negative experience could not only be formative and scary but also life-threatening. Ensure that your puppy is exposed to only well vaccinated, friendly dogs, under close supervision, to minimize the risk of disease and injury. The staff at Aldie Vet is here to help you set a vaccine schedule based on your pup’s lifestyle, and help identify safe interactions for him.
No guarantees. Proper socialization experiences can set the puppy up for success, but they do not ensure he will grow up to be free of behavior issues. Genetics, individual temperament, and his life experiences all contribute to adult behavior. Two pups may interpret the same experience differently; it can be fun for one and terrifying for the other. Poor responses may indicate your puppy could have behavioral difficulties as an adult and needs early intervention from a veterinarian or behaviorist to manage/modify the behavior. Always remember Aldie Veterinary Hospital here to help with tips/tricks, or trainer suggestions if needed.