Lately we have had a pile of puppy owners asking us how to prevent their pups from misbehaving. In exasperation, one day John replied “Don’t let him do that!” and the client looked at him completely baffled. One important part of our way of puppy raising is to let the puppies learn through experience what happens if they do certain things. In our house that means that puppies who pick up shoes get put in their crates. Puppies who jump up on me get put in their crates. Puppies who sit nicely get let out of their crates. Puppies who sit and stay get their dinner. Puppies who bark in their crates get to stay right where they are. Puppies who cry in the night get taken outside to pee. The list goes on and on and on as our puppies learn what happens when they do various things. There are some things however that our puppies don’t get the chance to do.
When clients ask us how to stop their pups from toileting in the house, we tell them, don’t let him do that! We don’t allow our puppies out of our sight in the house until they have shown us that they won’t toilet indoors over a long period of time. To start with, our puppies don’t get to explore the house unattended. We don’t let them toilet indoors by making sure that they have lots of chances to toilet outdoors, and we control when they eat so that we know when they will need to go. When they are outside of their crates, they are supervised, 100% of the time and if it looks like they need to go, we gently pick them up and take them out to toilet where we want them to go. We just don’t let them toilet indoors.
When we are asked how to stop puppies from jumping up on guests, we don’t let them do that either; when guests come to the house, we prepare by having our pups in their crates as the guests arrive, and then we bring them to the guests on leash. We know that pups need to learn what to do when meeting a guest, so we don’t just let our pups meet guests and hope for the best; we don’t let them do that. For clarity, what we usually do is to allow the guest in, and then get them seated. Then we bring the puppy in on leash and we work with the puppy, clicking and treating behaviours that he already knows. When he is calm and engaged with someone he knows then we introduce him to the guest, again using the clicker to mark behaviours we like, such as sitting for attention. And we don’t let the guest do our training for us either! We don’t ask our guests to treat the puppy for good behaviour; we know what we want the pup to learn and we don’t leave that to chance.
Often people will ask what to do about pulling on leash and again, we point out that we don’t let puppies pull on leash. Sometimes in training we have to do what is called a work around. In the case of pulling on leash, the work around we use is called the magic collar system; we have one collar that is magic; we only use it for training loose leash behaviour. The rest of the time we use a different collar, harness or head halter to differentiate what we are working on and we teach the pup that the rules are looser in that situation. We work around puppies pulling by teaching that one collar is magic and allows pulling and the other collar is a different kind of magic and doesn’t allow pulling!
How about getting into the garbage? Again, we just don’t let puppies do that! We keep garbage behind gates and doors so that pups cannot get into things. The same is true for almost everything that we do. Getting in the front seat of a moving vehicle? Don’t let your puppy do that by putting him in a crate in the vehicle when travelling. Harassing the older dog in the home? Keep them separate except for training time. Chewing up personal items? Put things away pre-emptively. The key is to think ahead about what behaviours you want your puppy to engage in and what behaviours you don’t want your puppy to engage in, and then preventing your pup from having the chance to do things you don’t want him to do.
The thing to remember about young dogs is that they come without experience. If you are going to expect a young dog to interact with something new in his life, and you don’t structure that interaction to begin with, you are training him to guess and often, being a young animal with an exuberant temperament, he is going to make the wrong choice. When your pup makes the wrong choice, you can do one of any number of things. You can be harsh and punitive and unpleasant and hope he doesn’t repeat the error. Not a good idea but something to think about. You can be gentle but interrupt the puppy; a better alternative, but still not ideal. You can remove the pup and allow him to try again; still better than the last alternative, but still not the best kind of training you can do for a puppy. The gold standard in training is to set your pup up to succeed in the first place by preventing the undesired behaviour from happening.
Perhaps the most confusing to students but common situation is what to do on the street when the puppy meets new people. Our clients usually don’t want their young puppies to learn to jump up to greet, but they also don’t want to not introduce their new addition to the neighbourhood. In this case, we can prevent our dogs from doing things we don’t want by controlling distance. When you are approaching a friend, regardless of if they have another dog or not, there is going to be a point at which your dog begins to get excited. That point, or threshold, is where you need to stop approaching and take a break. Doing this teaches young dogs that they cannot bounce around and be silly when they are meeting and greeting people. By only moving forward when your pup is calm, he learns that self control gets him what he wants.
The biggest error we see at puppy school is the puppy owner who gets a young dog and then allows her to roam free through the house from the first day on. Often things go well at first; for the first few days, while the puppy is novel, family members attend to the puppy and notice when he is getting into things and they intervene. Over time however, the puppy begins to become familiar with the home, and wanders away from supervision. When this happens, you cannot prevent problems and then you have to solve them; not an ideal situation. Next, the family wants to take the puppy out in the neighbourhood, and they start to run into even bigger problems because they don’t have any plans to avoid problems. The puppy learns to pull on leash, jump on people and grab trash and dropped items to play with or eat. In medicine, it is common to say that prevention is the best cure, and this is true of training as well. We need to prevent these problems from starting and start by teaching our pups what we want them to do. The best way to do that involves planning and supervision. It really isn’t difficult but it does mean being aware of what you are doing.
Good planning and supervision means that you know what you want your pup to learn and you set up situations where he can learn what we want him to learn, and then you supervise what is happening to make that happen. One of the best things you can do to make planning and supervision work for you is to join a good puppy class. In class you will likely get a list of behaviours to work on and that can serve as a good guideline to help you to determine what your pup should be doing and at what age. It also provides you with a support group to help you to make your plan work. We even take our own pups to puppy class!