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The 10 puppy commandments

puppy on lead

Get your puppy's training off to a flying start with these top tips from trainer Carol Price...

I sympathise with anyone trying to raise a puppy today, as there is so much differing advice around. However, I believe that common sense should prevail. Puppies need kindness and affection but they also need the security of routine and consistently enforced rules. Without distinct limits set on their behaviour during their earliest and most formative months, plus constant correction whenever they do the wrong thing, and consistent praise and rewards whenever they get things right, puppies cannot be expected to magically emerge into brilliantly behaved adult dogs.

Too many people do not set distinct behavioural goals for themselves and their puppies or start the process too late, after they have already had months of learning the joys of doing their own thing and ignoring their owners. It is very easy for a dog to learn the wrong lessons in life, simply through never having his behaviour suitably challenged, corrected or changed in the right way and at the right time.

Different owners may have different priorities about what they would most like their young dogs to learn. However, the following commandments feature in all my puppies' education.

1 "When a person/owner talks to me I should pay attention and listen"

If you can't hold your young dog's attention on command, how can you teach him anything?

The best way to teach your puppy to focus on you, on command, is to ask him to watch you whilst you hold up a treat, a toy, or his food dish. Keep your puppy on the lead initially, so that if he ignores you or walks away you can keep moving in front of him and persist until you finally get his attention. Maintain a calm and inviting manner and approach. It you are too harsh or hostile your puppy may get anxious, switch off or avoid eye contact.

As soon as your puppy watches you for around five seconds, say 'Watch me' and instantly reward him with a toy, treat or his meal and much praise. Increase the time he watched to 10, then 20 seconds. Get into the habit of doing this every time he gets a toy, treat, meal or walk. Your puppy will soon discover that sustaining focus on you when asked is always highly rewarding.

Too many owners reward puppies too quickly. This merely encourages a short attention span, and loss of interest if they do not get rewarded immediately.

2 “There is stuff you can trash, and stuff you can’t”

It is not a good idea to allow puppies free access to all parts of your home and garden from day one, enabling them to compete for, or trash, anything they want to. Puppies soon learn the value of items through the level of your reaction when they steal or damage them. This can lead to non-stop power struggles over certain things and puppies possessively, or aggressively, holding on to what they have stolen. When puppies persistently steal or trash valuable things, or foul in the wrong place, this can also lead to anger and frustration on an owner’s part, which can cause anxiety or potentially defensive patterns of behaviour.

It is far better to initially limit your puppy’s territory to a small area — such as the kitchen and garden, but fence off any areas or plants that you do not want damaged.

3 “Always toilet outside”

Most puppies — barring the odd accident — can be toilet trained by around 12 – 14 weeks. What usually slows this process down is the level of timing and persistence applied by the owners. They either fail to anticipate when a puppy needs to relieve himself — and the younger he is, the more frequently this is — or they just boot the puppy outside and expect him to know what to do.

Tedious and unpleasant as it may be, you must go outside with your puppy at every opportunity (especially after an exciting game, sleep or meal) and wait for him to perform. The instant he begins to go, give him a treat, put a command to this action, such as ‘Be clean!’, and praise him well.

By contrast, the more often a puppy is allowed to go in the wrong place, the longer it will take him to realise where he should be going. Never, ever punish a puppy for going in the wrong place. It can lead to increasingly devious behaviour, such as fouling in more secret/secluded parts of the home, or developing an unwillingness to go to the toilet in the owner’s presence.

4 “Thou shalt not steal”

Puppies must learn the rewards of leaving things, or handing them back when asked. Always keep a stock of tasty treats handy, and any time your puppy picks up some item or toy in his mouth, immediately offer a tasty treat in return for giving this to you. As he lets go to eat the treat, say ‘Give’. Then return the item and praise him well. If the toy isn’t his to keep, still reward him with a treat for giving this to you, then replace it with an appropriate toy and praise him.

If your puppy starts destroying any furniture or fittings, immediately correct him with a loud, firm noise like ‘Uh-huh!’ to interrupt him, then place him in his bed or indoor kennel with a tasty chew. As he begins chewing this, praise him well. Only when your puppy will reliably leave things or hand items back on command can you begin inviting him for short periods into the rest of your house. However, the moment he shows undesirable behaviour, or will not stop chewing something when asked, return him to his own quarters. This way your puppy learns respect for your territory and things.

5 “Thou shalt not shout thy mouth off at passers-by or in the car”

Noisy behaviour in the car should be nipped in the bud, as it is not only annoying, but can also be highly dangerous. Young puppies travel best in cars below window level, to stop them being carsick or getting into the habit of reacting to everything they see. When puppies are very young and new to car travel — under 10 – 12 weeks — they may whine/yap because they are anxious. It is best to totally ignore this behaviour rather than reinforce their fear through giving it attention.

Once puppies get more used to car travel, whining is usually due to excitement. If so, get into the habit of stopping the car immediately (or as soon as you can safely do so) whenever your puppy whines and don’t continue until he is quiet. The same is true of puppies who bark at other dogs/people when out. This must be corrected at once. Interrupt any yapping with a firm and instant ‘Uh-huh!’ and stand in front of your puppy when others pass and keep his attention on you with a ‘Watch me’ command. Each time he complies, praise and reward him well.

6 “Recall means come back NOW”

The origins of a good recall begin when a puppy is very small. Every time you offer a toy, game, meal or treat, say ‘Come!’ in an excited tone and your puppy will quickly associate this with imminent rewards.

When you first go out with your puppy, keep him on a long line and regularly give your recall command, with much praise and treats for returning. Keep special toys that he only ever gets when he is out and quickly returns on command. If your puppy doesn’t come immediately, reel him back to you on the line in an exited manner. Make recall highly exciting; call your puppy then quickly run off, so he has to chase you to get his treats or toy and have a brilliant game. Only let your puppy off the line once his recall is reliable.

7 “Stay means stay”

A common reason why owners can’t get their puppies to stay still in one place on command is that they confuse them. If, for instance, you return to a dog who is lying still and give him a treat just as he is getting up, you are training him to move when you approach. Only reward your puppy when he remains in the exact position and place where you originally left him. If your puppy keeps moving forwards each time you ask him to stay in one place, relentlessly put him back where you first left him.

To further prevent confusion distinguish the difference between wait and stay commands. ‘Wait’ means remain where you are until I ask you to do something else, such as recall or retrieve. ‘Stay’ means remain exactly where you are until I come back to release you. I give the wait command always with the puppy sitting next to me, and for the stay command I stand in front of the puppy, so he knows exactly what I am asking him to do.

8 “Don’t whine or yap the minute you feel frustrated or don’t get your own way”

Puppies, like toddlers, lack any kind of emotional self-control. What holds them back is owners inadvertently reinforcing their whingey, yappy behaviour through consistently rewarding it, either through too much attention, or letting the puppy have what he desires to shut him up.

As soon as your puppy starts whining and you are sure this isn’t due to some clear form of discomfort or distress, you can try to instantly correct him or interrupt the behaviour by making eye contact and giving him a firm ‘Uh-huh!’ When he stops, immediately say ‘Good quiet puppy’ and praise him. If he still persists, ignore him, however agonising this may be, until he is quiet again. As soon as he is quiet, immediately return attention and praise and reinforce this behaviour.

Consistently praise your puppy and make a fuss of him any time he is quiet and settled. Too many owners are quick to give a noisy puppy attention but take better behaviour for granted.

9 “The purpose of a lead is not to pull your owner”

Lead training is one of those battles many owners lose early on through lack of patience and persistence. If your puppy pulls forwards on the lead, and you keep pulling him back, he will continue to pull harder to escape the pressure on his neck. Similarly, if pulling keeps him moving forward to where he wants to go, he will keep doing it.

The best way to lead train a puppy is to start with a nice loose lead. As soon as your puppy walks ahead, making the lead tighten, give a firm ‘Uh-huh!’ correction sound and stop dead. Then make your puppy walk back and sit next to you. Conversely, every time he walks next to you, keeping the lead loose, praise him and regularly offer treats to reinforce this behaviour.

Early lead training can be extremely tedious, but still worth it to avoid a dog that tows you down the road, while simultaneously incurring potentially serious damage to his windpipe, neck and spine.

10 “In the main, co-operation brings far more good stuff in life than rebellion”

To my mind, the art of raising puppies is to make them believe that what you want is what they’d happily choose to do as well, through clever manipulation of disincentives and rewards. Puppies should not be intimidated and bludgeoned into blind obedience, which simply crushes their spirit and confidence.

They should be allowed to test you, and experiment with rebellion, as this is all a vital part of growing up. But if you consistently teach your puppy that co-operating with you is always the most rewarding and exciting option in life, build his confidence with continual praise for good or clever behaviour, and earn his respect through being fi rm and persistent, but never unkind, you will lay the foundations for a truly wonderful adult dog.

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