Teach Puppies before Training them

Make it easy for puppies to do the right thing

Published: July 08, 2019
Photo courtesy of Depositphotos

Some dogs are happy about going to the vet or groomer (such as your basic Golden retriever who believes the world exists to love him) whereas others are not. Some would probably surrender all their toys before agreeing to go to the vet for a vaccine or open-heart surgery; to them, one may not be worse than the other. Some dogs don’t like the smell or associate it with discomfort. For whatever reason, some dogs get kind of grouchy, and sometimes grouchy moves right along to bitey.

Long gone are the days when I worked in an ER. Like a lot of busy practices, deciding whether or not a patient might require muzzling was a daily occurrence. Deciding to muzzle a patient is sometimes necessary not only to protect staff, but also to expedite life-saving diagnostic tests and treatments for patients with critical issues. It is also not without regret as some patients will not only struggle to prevent it, but will use their front feet to try to remove it. Sometimes they do get it off, and then they are usually even more frustrated with everything going on around them, making them even more grouchy.

What do a disapproving Dalmatian and a perturbed Pembroke Welsh corgi have in common? The possibility of needing a muzzle before they plop one paw into a veterinary hospital. Even with some of the most obedient and well-adjusted dogs, bites can still happen. Maybe it’s because they’re in pain and they’ve been living with pain for a while or they desperately want to be back home warning the letter carrier that death by barking awaits. Bitey patients are a predicament, but one certainty is that muzzling a potential Cujo keeps the staff safe.

Bites are the main occupational safety hazard of the small animal veterinary profession; there’s also getting icky diseases, but bites are the number one concern. By biting, dogs and cats can easily relay their innermost feelings about having their owie handled. This scenario is to be avoided at all costs. Staff and owner alike can be injured; mangled fingers can destroy a veterinarian’s ability to perform surgery.

We forget that animals harm people.

Sometimes wild animals injure or even kill people (e.g., a predatory shark swimming too close to the beach) and it’s our responsibility to stay out of their way! Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray, and recently there was an unfortunate fatal cassowary attack. (Trivia contest folks: Considered the world’s most dangerous bird, a cassowary is an Australian ostrich-sized bird with a 4-inch dagger-like claw on each foot, and it can run up to 30 mph. Oh yeah, did I mention it can jump almost 7 feet up?) Then there’s the folks who get mangled trying to take a selfie with a crocodile or grizzly bear; if you’d like to avoid winning a Darwin Award – which you wouldn’t even know you’d won, so no bragging rights – consider using Photoshop for this stuff.

Wild animals don’t have to follow any rules, but pets do and it’s their owners who are responsible for teaching them.

In the optimal setting, there’s a lot of positive interaction. During the training period, both the puppy and the people learn. A pet owner learns how their pup is easiest to engage, discovers favorite activities and likes and dislikes, which not only strengthens their bond but allows for a relationship in which you understand each other better. Have you ever noticed how your dog sometimes stares at you quietly, and you wondered what they were thinking? They’re trying to communicate something, usually “Play time!?!,” “Can I go out?” or “The room is spinning and turning dark so it must be time to EAT.”

To me, it’s obvious that dogs have more than simple thought patterns, which probably include elements of emotion and decision making. That’s why I believe that dogs can mimic their owners’ behavior: we communicate with them. Within that communication is the foundation for how we teach them to become well-adapted pets.

Contrast a well-adapted, well-trained, and obedient dog to one that has received little to no training and is not well adapted to living with people. This ‘untrained dog’ generally has fewer skills for dealing with life experiences. Does lack of training and proper care translate to a pet with fewer coping skills? Might that one be more likely to react with aggression when placed in an unfamiliar or stressful situation? I think so. Dogs that display aggressive behaviors and that have not been worked with or properly trained are unpredictable and could harm a person or pet.

To put it simply, you are responsible for everything in your dog’s behavior, presuming the dog isn’t physically or mentally ill.

You have to control your dog while at the clinic. “You mean I can’t let Hulk get to the end of the retractable leash or go without one?”  No, because that allows a dog, Yorkie or mastiff, to come into contact with every cat in a carrier and the just-picked-up street dog who was brought in and really, really, really would prefer to be outside.

For future vet visits, start teaching your pup to allow being held and restrained before you start training him to sit and stay. If your pup does not like to be held, start with short sessions first and eventually progress to carrying him around the house for a full minute or two. Eventually, the large-breed pups will get so large that that you can’t carry them any more, and that’s okay as long as they’ve been taught how to restrain themselves. Make sure that your pup is comfortable with being touched on different areas of their body without invoking a negative response.

Plan a successful experience and outcome raising a puppy in your home.

  1. Get an appropriate dog for you and your family’s lifestyle.
  2. Desensitize your new pup to new experiences to help reinforce good behaviors, establish trust, and build confidence.
  3. Never skip an opportunity to teach a new skill.

If you’re still undecided, don’t rush it.

When you do bring that puppy home, desensitize him to things he might think are scary, thus making him a more confident, solid canine citizen that your friends don’t avoid. Desensitization is exposing your dog to different stimuli and new experiences over time, in combination with positive reinforcement, to prevent unwanted behaviors such as fear responses and overreaction. Go slow and ensure that your pup has successfully shown that they have become desensitized to a new stimulus before moving on to new challenges.

Start training early – the earlier the better. I don’t think there is only one right way to train a dog. Using positive reinforcement is my preferred way to teach new skills because it instills confidence over time. Be consistent. Most importantly, be extra gentle when reprimanding your pup. Spanking and even yelling create a fearful response and damage the relationship; although people do it, it's the wrong way to raise a pup. Established trust can be easily broken.

Make it easy to do the right thing. Each "No!" needs to come with an alternative for which the dog will be rewarded. For instance, when you tell the puppy not to get on the couch, then have a treat ready for a nice sit behavior on the floor as the alternate and approved behavior.

A small treat can reward your pet for good behaviors or completing a training session. Following up with a treat tells your dog that he’s been a good boy and performing similarly in the future means MORE TREATS! MORE FOOD! MORE TREATS! MORE FOOD! Giving your pup lots of praise for good behavior while learning new skills accomplishes the same goal.

Eventually you should be able to easily teach basic commands such as sit, stay, come, and drop. These are common, important skills. Training a new puppy should start right away but keep in mind that your pup needs to first become acclimated and be comfortable before any advanced training. It is best to start slow and not overwhelm them. For the first couple of days after your pup first comes home, other than showing them where they need to go to potty, etc., just let your pup relax and sniff the premises. Your pup will be stressed at this time and we don’t want to add to it.

While dog training can occasionally seem like an exercise in futility, it is more often successful than not. Teaching and training just require a lot of patience, consistency, dedication, and last but not least, love. 

1 Comment

July 12, 2019

Awesome information. This article both confirms and enriches my body of puppy and dog training knowledge and skills. My delivery of puppy school training sessions just got better! Thank you so much.

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