It’s a pup’s life — Training Advice for Puppy Owners

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02 March 2021
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Despite their sweet appearance, puppies can be hard work for the uninitiated!

Ownership of a cute little bundle of canine joy can be a steep learning curve and this is where vets can help by providing some gentle training advice.

Start as you mean to go on

All puppies are adorable — but they don’t come with an instruction manual! One of the biggest reasons pets end up being rehomed is because of behavioural issues that drive their human families up the wall, but things don't have to get this far.

Age-appropriate behaviour and training

Age-appropriate training throughout the early months can start owners on the road towards having well-adjusted, biddable adult dogs. Vets are in the ideal position to advise new owners on what to expect by way of normal puppy behaviour. And they can offer appropriate training advice that will see dogs and owners enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship for many years to come.

Land sharks! Puppies that bite

Many owners are reassured that this is not a sign of aggression but completely normal behaviour! Puppies, like babies and toddlers, have to learn about their mouths and teeth and a loud ‘Ow!’ will let them know they are applying too much pressure!

Puppies teeth, and at around 16 weeks their mouths can feel sore, so it is normal to go through an especially bitey period at this stage. Although it can be painful and annoying, puppies should never be punished. Any training techniques should focus on distraction and positive reinforcement, and, if you have children, it is wise to give over-tired puppies ‘time out’ and supply an appropriate toy, or even a carrot, for the puppy to chew on instead of a human body part!

The importance of creating a bond

Teenage times for puppies are between 9 – 18 months and once out of the other side of this often testing time, a dog will truly become man’s best friend. Owners should not stint on showing affection to their puppies — love, hugs, and telling your dog he is a good boy (or girl) will leave him wanting to please you to receive more of the same.

To encourage good behaviour, owners may be advised to make it easy for puppies to succeed. When toilet training, teaching recall, or working on your puppy learning to sit calmly in public places, the focus needs to be on ignoring the bad and rewarding the good, no matter how much of a baby step.

When you can't ignore bad behaviour

Rather than an owner risk losing their temper, providing a distraction or some form of ‘time out’ can work wonders in switching a puppy’s brain on to something different, such as concentrating on a chew or toy instead of eating the sofa!

It’s all in the body language

Owners can quickly learn to read their dog’s body language, just as we unconsciously observe it in our fellow humans for clues about how they are feeling. Turning the head away, lip-licking, or barking can all be signs of nervousness in dogs, and once owners can understand these signals they can scan the environment to work out what appropriate action to take. For young dogs, the outside world can be an exciting yet scary place where they have to learn the rules of socialising with other, bigger dogs and get used to traffic and other loud noises. Owners should be advised to encourage their dogs, but to allow them to take new experiences at their own pace, so they don’t become overwhelmed.

Take socialisation gently

We can all remember the nerves of our first day at school or making friends when shy, and so it is with puppies. A degree of fear is normal, and your puppy may seem confident in certain situations but not others. Remember that puppies look to their owners for help with something that feels overwhelming to them so having patience, providing reassurance, and turning a scary situation into a game are the best three pieces of advice to help puppies find their feet and feel more confident, as well as continue to have trust in you.

The importance of recall

The last thing you want is to let your puppy roam free on a walk only for him to run off into the distance. Puppies, like young children, have no road sense and can put themselves in danger without their pack leader to protect them, so the aim is to let them explore gradually while still keeping them close enough to step in if necessary. Even an adult dog can get into serious trouble when recall is a problem and the best way to encourage good recall is to start young and start at home.

Owners can be encouraged to call their puppy from one room to another and reward him with a treat, so the puppy associates running to the owner with something pleasurable. Calling them in from the garden or calling them to come for their tea can also be a way to develop recall. If the puppy doesn’t come, then shutting the door could provoke his/her interest and get them wanting to get back to you! It is important that owners do not shout at their puppy as this will instil fear and a lack of trust, which is the last thing you want. Puppies should always be praised for returning to their owners and never shouted at, grabbed at, or chased.

High-value treats

High-value treats such as cheese, chicken, or beef will encourage your puppy to perform the behaviours you want so he can get his tasty reward! Owners should not see this as cheating — It’s simply positive, reward-based training; we humans operate in a similar manner!

Think how your dog thinks

Owners can put themselves in their dogs’ shoes (or paws) especially when it comes to recall, for it is good recall that will help to keep your puppy safe in the big, wide world. Calling a dog back and rewarding him with a treat while gently putting a hand on his collar/harness helps him to feel safe and rewarded. Saying ‘playtime!’ or ‘go play!’ or a similar command will help encourage your dog to go and explore and after a short while you can call him back again. This call-back, reward, and release can be performed continually throughout walks, so that when puppy is put back on the lead, he realises the game is over until it is time for walkies again.

Being aware of surroundings

Owners need to be aware of the environment at all times and to keep their puppy on a lead if there is any sign of danger.

Praising puppies for doing nothing

It is essential to pat and tell your puppy he is a good boy even if he isn’t doing anything but lying in his bed as this will promote relaxation and further encourage good behaviour. 

Training never stops

Training may be more intensive during puppyhood and adolescence, but it never ends throughout the lifetime of a dog. The saying you can’t teach old dogs new tricks is simply not true! Never-ending training may sound exhausting and overwhelming, but it is something owners begin to do naturally all the time. Common expressions such as saying ‘let’s go’ when picking up a lead will reinforce the fact that it’s time to go for a walk. All these small daily interactions and habits will amount to a great deal of what becomes natural training and re-enforcement between you and your dog.

Revisiting the subject of ‘bad’ behaviour

Puppies do not make the conscious decision to be ‘bad’, although it may feel like that sometimes! They do things that have owners tearing their hair out because either there has been some kind of failure in training or the dog is unsure what is being asked of him. Owners need to gradually train puppies using positive methods that encourage and reward them for doing what their owners want them to do, while ignoring what they don’t want them to do.

But owners also need to remember that natural breed traits will win out over training, such as a Field Spaniel chasing pheasants. In this case, it is far more productive to spend time and energy working on the behaviour that can be achieved, such as recall using a whistle, before a chase has the chance to take place.

When training doesn’t work

And if training fails regarding a specific behavioural issue, then owners should be encouraged to contact an approved dog trainer for help, by contacting the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) or Institute of Modern Dog trainers (IMDT).