Soft, gentle kisses are one of the greatest joys of puppy ownership. But don’t be fooled. Without proper and effective training, that tiny, pink-bellied pile of love can become a wild, selfish scalawag who will do anything to get to your dinner casserole cooling on the countertop.
Before that pup has a chance to turn to the dark side, heed the advice of three respected Midlands dog trainers: Kim Parkman of Pocotaligo Kennel, Teoti Anderson of Pawsitive Results and Robert Varney of Dog Training in Your Home. Their experience — 69 years, combined — has shown them that oftentimes the biggest misbehaver in the dog-owner relationship isn’t the one wallowing in the mud gnawing on a pinecone. It’s the humans. Here’s why.
The Honeymoon Phase
A puppy can be a wonderful addition to a family. According to the American Pet Products Association, an estimated 40 percent of all United States households include a dog. Some families are Labrador retriever families while others are more miniature Dachshund. What’s certain is that any family that chooses to add a puppy is making a big commitment that has sweet and sometimes quite slobbery rewards.
Life with a puppy can be a sharp dose of reality. “Puppies have no attention spans. They are easily distracted, often by things you would really rather they avoid!” laughs Teoti. A professional dog trainer for more than 20 years, Teoti has written seven books on training and is a columnist for Modern Dog magazine.
Kim Parkman, a Boykin spaniel specialist trainer with more than 30 years of canine training expertise, believes any family ready to grow should be well prepared in advance. That means having the right equipment on-hand when your puppy arrives at your home. “You need to have a crate, leash, collar and quality dog food ready to go,” says Kim. “I also recommend a good supply of chew items. Chew items need to be easily digestible; they shouldn’t splinter. For younger puppies I like good-quality rawhides. Older dogs can safely enjoy different objects like deer or elk antlers.”
Robert Varney, head of the four-member training team at Dog Training in Your Home, has trained companion animals and K-9 dogs for more than 19 years. He says that some puppy behaviors are explained by the dog breed alone. “Any breed that has ‘retriever’ in its name is going to be a chewer, jumper and play biter and may be best suited for a family with an active lifestyle,” he says. “Terrier breeds are naturally going to dig in yards and are sometimes barkers. They are often wary of strangers so socialization is important. Guardian livestock or herding breeds such as Great Pyrenees and Komondors are fairly inactive but best suited for families without children for they are very protective of their space. Other herding breeds such as Australian shepherds and German shepherds will naturally exhibit herding behaviors such as nipping at feet or ankles.”
A puppy’s earliest days in the home are often full of special memories. Unfortunately, that’s also when bad behavior begins to take root. Robert says the first days and weeks are pivotal. “You can’t allow any behavior like play biting or jumping by your pup, even if it’s cute,” he cautions. “Especially if, later on, you won’t want that behavior.”
Teoti agrees. “If a behavior won’t be acceptable when your puppy is full grown, don’t allow it when they’re a puppy,” she says.
Not My Tory Burch Flats!
If there’s a golden rule to puppy training, it’s in these words from Kim: “A tired puppy is a good puppy.” An appropriate amount of exercise is vital. Another point all three trainers echo is that puppies shouldn’t have time to misbehave.
“People don’t really understand how much supervision a puppy needs,” explains Teoti. “You can’t leave a puppy unsupervised while you take a shower, or even take a phone call. In that time span, a puppy can chew an electrical cord, go to the bathroom on your rug, get into your clothes basket and commit all sorts of mischief. He can also ingest things that will hurt him.”
Robert suggests thinking ahead about behaviors that will be acceptable — or not — as your puppy matures. Discuss them as a family so the rules can be enforced across the board, or be prepared to share your couch and favorite recliner with a snoring canine companion. “If you allow larger-breed puppies on furniture when they are small, it will be difficult to stop them from doing it later when they’re fully grown,” he says. It will also explain why your new couch is decorated with muddy paw prints and billowy pillows of undercoat fur.
However, puppies are puppies. Expect misbehavior. Puppies don’t come programmed with your expectations and rules. They have to be taught. But how?
Dogs Learn What You Teach
Robert says many well-intentioned puppy owners make three critical mistakes early on. “They don’t set ground rules or follow a housebreaking schedule,” he says. “Then they give the puppy too much freedom too fast.”
Kim also notes that behavior correction is vital as dogs learn from repetition. “If your puppy gets by with something, he’ll repeat the behavior unless it’s corrected,” says Kim. “When you laugh at a behavior, your dog thinks it isn’t bad. When you laugh and don’t correct the behavior, he’s learning that his behavior is acceptable.”
One of the best ways to get puppy behavior on track is a training or obedience program. By the time your puppy is 8 weeks old, about the age a puppy is ready to live independently, he is already a willing student.
Robert’s philosophy on correcting bad behavior is to do it as the behavior occurs and then reinforce the desired behavior with praise or treats. “It’s going to yield a quicker result,” he says. “Every dog is different, and the technique and level of correction may vary depending on the dog or breed.” For example, he cautions against overcorrecting a shy dog which can make an undesired behavior worse.
In Kim’s experience, you have to do whatever works for the dog. “Sometimes we use treats, for others we use verbal praise. Sometimes, it’s a combination,” she says. “We do try to get away from the treats as quickly as we can. You want your dog to be trained, not bribed.”
Learning Looks Good on Dogs
Teoti believes training a puppy is one of the best strategies to preventing misbehaviors. “Teach him what you want him to do instead of complaining about things he’s doing that you don’t like,” she says. “If you don’t like him jumping up on you, teach him to sit instead. If a puppy is chewing on something he shouldn’t, redirect him to something you approve.”
Kim says there are a few commands that every dog must know and follow. “Dogs not ‘coming’ when they are called is a common problem I see,” she says. “If you’re a dog owner, your dog should properly respond to the commands ‘no’ and ‘here.’ How they react could save their life one day.”
Responsibility with Rewards
There are ground rules for successfully bringing a four-legged family member into your home. The daily grind of following and enforcing said rules falls squarely on the two-legged beings.
Robert stresses that it’s never too late — even for a wayward Weimaraner. “It’s certainly best to address bad behaviors early, but we’ve successfully trained dogs as old as 10 years.”
Just remember there’s a payback for every midnight bathroom break, scheduled meal and long walk in the rain. A tiny pup often blooms into an important branch in your family tree and is a treasured companion for many years. So just as a dog is man’s best friend, man must repay the favor by being a reliable, responsible owner. Even at 3 a.m.
A Puppy Primer
• Hide power cords or run them through chew-proof PVC piping.
• Secure cabinets that can be easily opened.
• Keep shampoos and soaps out of reach or keep bathroom doors closed.
• Stash trash cans in a cabinet or closet, or invest in a can with a locking lid.
• Place clothing in a hamper and shoes in a closed closet — out of reach.
• Clean up small electronics, eye glasses, books and just about anything ingestible.
• When not under your direct supervision, keep the puppy contained in his specified pen or area of the house.
For many owners, crate training is an invaluable tool for housebreaking. Used properly, the crate also can be a safe haven for your dog when the family is away from home or too busy to supervise a nosy puppy. While in a crate, the puppy will quickly find it preferable to wait to use the bathroom until taken out.
Make sure to always pick the puppy up out of the crate and carry him straight outside so that the grass is the first ground his feet touch. The dog will then learn that this is the only acceptable place to use the bathroom. Just keep in mind that puppies cannot be left in the crate longer than their physical bladder capacity. Even when crate training, expect accidents. Just keep some club soda on hand. If you see your dog start to tinkle while playing in the den, don’t fuss at him; just say “No!” firmly and pick him up immediately, hopefully in the act, and carry him outside.
After your dog accepts the crate, you can leave it open and freely accessible. Don’t be surprised to find that your dog will often choose their cozy crate for a quiet nap.
Decide the type of behavior you’d prefer from your dog as opposed to what currently happens. Have a jumper or barker? Train the dog to do a quiet sit-stay. Don’t open the door until your dog is sitting peacefully. Here’s how to get there:
• First, train “sit” without distractions throughout your house. When that’s mastered, add distractions and then turn “sit” into a “sit-stay.”
• Gradually increase the stay time up to two minutes.
• When your dog has achieved a controlled sit-stay, ask your dog to sit-stay at the front door before going outside for a walk. Do not open the door if your dog is jumping or squirming. If the dog releases from stay as you open the door, shut the door and direct the dog back into stay. Say “stay,” wait and then attempt to open the door again.
Puppies will chew — it’s just important they understand what’s chewable and what’s not. Here are three different strategies for teaching your puppy bite inhibition. When pup bites …
• Squeeze the pup’s nozzle and say “NO,” then provide a chewable toy.
• Remove your attention immediately. The consequence is losing his playmate.
• React with a strong yelp and turn away as a fellow littermate would.
Exercise and Fitness
Regular exercise has two big benefits. First, it’s good for a dog’s health, agility and digestion. Second, and possibly most important, it can curb poor behaviors that stem from anxiety or boredom. While each dog is different, some breeds naturally require more exercise.
• Herding and Sporting Dogs: Spaniels, setters, pointers and retrievers require the most exercise. Aim for 60 to 90 minutes of higher intensity daily exercise, twice a day.
• Terriers: Schnauzers and terriers, including Russell and West Highland, were bred for active lives. Aim for a brisk 15-minute walk and at least 10 minutes of active play in the morning and again in the evening.
• Toy Breeds: Smaller breeds like Pekingese and Maltese are satisfied with less exercise in smaller bursts of time. A 15-minute walk, twice a day, can suffice for low-energy, obesity-prone dogs.