Train Them Young
Puppies have a way of pulling on our heartstrings and pulling on our common sense. Their cuteness overrides logic and we bring into our homes an animal that leaks, whines, chews, and generally turns our lives upside down. And in the chaos that ensues, we maintain our sanity by clinging to the knowledge that it won’t always be like this. Eventually, our pups will learn manners and good behavior and we can enjoy loving them and having them in our lives.
Pups don’t just “outgrow” most of their more challenging behaviors. The skills required for living with people don’t come naturally to them. Housebreaking, leash walking, and spending periods of the day alone are not abilities that the pup develops naturally over time. They must be taught. And even behaviors that do come naturally, such as respecting a leader, must be shaped with training to ensure they are developed to work in the context of a life shared with humans.
Training a pup is challenging. Training takes time and is not a linear process. There will be times when your pup responds like a genius and the very next day will look at you like you’ve never said “sit” before. And to make matters worse, puppies are master manipulators. It can be very difficult to say “NO” to those adorable bundles of love. If they look scared or stressed, our gut reaction is to soothe them. If they act goofy and stupid we have to fight not to laugh.
I can assure you, your dog is not stupid. And while at times he may actually be scared or stressed, your gut reaction to soothe him will do more harm than good. And as for stubborn? Well, yes. Most pups go through a stubborn phase. That’s why we train.
But if we allow our hearts (or our exasperation) to overrule our common sense, if we do not mark and correct the problematic behaviors, the problems will simply continue. Correction: The problems will grow. Exponentially.
So steel yourself to resist the big eyes and the heartrending whine and begin training your pup to be a well-behaved member of your family. Without training, he will continue and develop behaviors that make him a problem that is always stressed and causing stress. You will spend less time with him because he is difficult to control. With training, he will become a happy, integrated part of your family. You will spend more time with him because he is well behaved and easy to be around.
Unless your pup came to you with a foundation in crate training, the first 48-72 hours may be pure hell for you. Yes, your puppy may scream and put up a big fuss the first few times he is left alone in a crate. If you are patient and consistent, he will come to recognize that being left alone to rest is not a life-threatening situation. Learning to tolerate alone time is beneficial in avoiding separation anxiety as well. However, it is mainly for safety’s sake that it is imperative that pups learn to spend time in a crate.
Before you contain your puppy, make sure he has had adequate exercise and opportunity to eliminate. The amount of time he can comfortably remain contained before he needs to go out again depends on his age and development. If you know that you have met his needs and he still whines when you put him in his crate, let him whine it out. If you release him from the crate every time he cries or barks for attention, he will realize that is how the door gets opened and will never learn to rest comfortably in his crate. Worse, he will learn that whining and barking get him what he wants—and that is not a lesson you want him carrying into his adult years.
Puppies don’t instinctively understand leash walking, so you need to introduce it as early as possible. Initially allow your pup to drag a short leash around the house, until he is used to the weight of it. After a day or so, when your pup is accustomed to the feel of the collar and leash, pick up the end of the leash and walk toward something the pup likes, such as a treat you have cleverly pre-positioned on the ground.
Walking is vitally important to a dog’s development and health. When your pup becomes an adult dog, leash walking will most likely be his primary form of exercise. It may seem adorable now that he jumps at every leaf blowing past or rolls on his back in hopes you will pick him up and carry him. However, these antics lose their charm over time. If your pup is a large breed, his lack of leash manners will definitely become a danger as he grows. But even small breed dogs can jerk the leash out of your hand or wrap the leash around your legs if they have not learned to walk properly. If you do not teach your pup to walk on a leash now you will be setting yourself up for a lifetime of frustrating—and potentially perilous–outings.
Young pups love to put their mouths on things. Not only are they teething, but they also use their mouths to investigate—what does it feel like? How does it move? Is it heavy? Can I control it? If you allow your pup to use his mouth indiscriminately, he will continue to do so as he grows. And if you think those sharp little puppy teeth are unpleasant on your hand—imagine what full-grown teeth with adult bite force will feel like.
When your pup grabs at your hand, do not pull it away. Pulling away signals a game that he will want to continue. Instead, although it feels counterintuitive, push your hand toward him while it is in his mouth. He will find this unpleasant and release your hand. Give him some safe chew toys that he can use for his need to chew and correct any unapproved uses of his mouth.
Why Train a Well Behaved Pup?
If your puppy or new dog seems well behaved, you may imagine that you really don’t need to do much training. However, a dog with a quiet temperament or who is mostly well behaved is not trained. The difference between well behaved and well trained becomes vitally important as your dog grows into an adult.
Even a puppy or dog with a good temperament will eventually test the limits to see what he can get away with. Without training, the acceptable behavior that was a lucky result of temperament will give way to unacceptable behavior that is the predictable result of lack of training and leadership.
Circumstances aren’t always ideal. Normally quiet dogs can behave uncharacteristically when they encounter unfamiliar situations or people, when they are tempted by food, when they encounter other dogs, or when they see something they want to chase. If your dog is not trained, you will not be able to control his actions and keep him safe and secure.
Few dogs are well-behaved in all aspects of their lives. A dog that is quiet may nonetheless steal food, crowd visitors, or demand attention at inconvenient times. An untrained dog, no matter how quiet, can find all kinds of ways to get into trouble—usually when you are least expecting it.
A quiet dog is not necessarily a cooperative dog. Unless you want to be late for many appointments, frequently change your plans at the last minute, and let your entire life revolve around catering to your dog on his terms. . . your dog needs to learn to listen and obey.
When a young dog comes into class, I can tell if this dog has ever been told “no” and if the dog actually believed the “no.” There are some puppies that are so stubborn that they want to control their owners. This dog is usually barking and jumping at other dogs and people in the class. This dog looks like a hyperactive pup and everyone usually gets a big laugh out of it. Then, when the owner finally has had enough and tries to settle him down, the dog will mouth at the hand of the owner or the leash. If corrected with the collar and leash the dog will throw himself to the ground, and grab the leash or even better, stand on its hind legs and wrap his front paws around the leash. It can be exhausting and exasperating. If the person gives up, the dog learns that these strategies are successful and will repeat them. If the person stays consistent and corrects, the dog eventually (and yes, it may be a long eventually) realizes that he is out of options and will have to respect the person as his leader.
Puppies do not just grow out of being stubborn. They must be taught that stubbornness does not get them what they want. As exhausting as it is, their behavior must be addressed as it occurs. Otherwise, it will continue into their adulthood and you will be doomed to a lifetime of constant battling with your dog for control.
One of the reason I often hear for people not wanting to correct their pups is that they don’t want to stress the pup. Stress is one of the paradoxes of training. A pup who never experiences stress in a controlled environment is doomed to a life of stress. Mother dogs know this. They introduce stress into their pups’ lives early. They correct them for overly rambunctious behavior. They clean them roughly. They leave them alone for periods of time. And when the pups whine at this perceived mistreatment, the mother dog ignores their distress. She instinctively knows what we as people who share our lives with dogs would do well to learn: “Good stress” teaches your dog that the world isn’t ending if he doesn’t get his own way. It makes your dog more resilient and confident. Correcting misbehavior is good stress. It’s a brief moment of unpleasantness when your dog must control his impulse or be corrected. Either way, your dog lives through it and he sees that life goes on. Even better, it’s completely predictable. If you are consistent with your corrections, your dog learns that he can avoid an unpleasant correction by avoiding the behavior that caused it. His world makes sense. The use of “good stress” reduces his overall stress of being uncertain how things will turn out.
Dogs trained from a young age require fewer corrections and are more responsive to commands because they want to avoid corrections. And, even better, they learn how to handle a correction and that those corrections are not the end of the world or painful.
So as counterintuitive as it may seem, providing the “good stress” of training at a young age, especially in a class situation, makes your dog more confident and less fearful.
With their big eyes, floppy bodies, and goofy antics, puppies have the edge over us emotionally from Day One. We just want to love them. But when we get past the emotional reaction and listen to our common sense, we know that the best way to love them is to prepare them to live in a way that allows us to spend more time with them, to yell at them less, and to keep them safe. So even when they act scared, or stressed; even if our pup is stubborn, we must override our softer side. Mother dogs who put teeth on pups to correct them know this. We know it. We just need to follow through on it and give our pups the training and tools they need for a happy, healthy future.