The two secrets of puppy training and the one big mistake
I’ve been wanting to write about this long before isopuppy became a hashtag. The sensationalistic title I chose as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek mockery. What I am going to share with you are not training methods, tips and tricks (although I will talk about them) but something without which no fool-proof, 100% guaranteed or get your money back puppy program will ever bring new furbaby parents the results they are after.
The two secrets: commitment and consistency.
Let’s talk about commitment. Before I get into describing what kind of commitment will lead to success, let’s talk about what your puppy needs to learn, in short: everything! Here’s a list that’s definitely not exhaustive.
How to interact with people. All kinds of them: young and old, in uniform, on wheels, wearing hats or sunglasses, loud and excited, etc. How to greet them – out and about or visitors coming to the house or puppy visiting another house.
How to interact with dogs. Appropriately. How to greet, how to play with as well as be calm around them, and when to leave them alone.
How to behave around other animals. Other pets in the home, livestock and wildlife.
How to behave indoors. Staying off furniture, being settled, no zoomies inside, no raiding the garbage bin, no chewing shoes (or the kids’ toys, your sock and underwear or whatever your puppy fancies), etc.
How to calmly spend time away from you. When you are not at home but equally important when you are at home your dog needs to learn to have some alone time. Be that in your backyard, in a playpen or in a crate.
How to exercise impulse control. No grabbing toys or food from your hand, no mouthing, no running out the open front door, no jumping out the car as soon as the door opens, no barking at the neighbour, the neighbour’s dog or cat, no chasing insects, bunnies, birds or other animals, staying on the dog bed when asked, etc.
How to be confident and calm when handled. When clipping the lead on, getting a bath, being groomed, for vet checks, etc.
How to release whatever is in puppy’s mouth. A toy, a treat, food or dead animals found on a walk, etc.
How to nicely walk on lead.
How to come when called. Reliably.
Read it again: the above list is by no means complete! Sit, down, toilet training, sit for your food and sit at the curb didn’t even make the list. To get back to the question what kind of commitment is required to succeed, to end up with a well-adjusted adult dog? It’s a 24/7, 365 days a year kind of commitment.
What do you feel right now after reading the last sentence? Disbelief? Shock? Amusement? Unease? Opposition? Discouragement? Agreement?
Puppies are the sweetest. They are adorable and so cute. How they follow you around and puppy eyes just melt your heart! And isn’t it just the perfect addition to every family, a fur friend for the kids?
When asked if there was anything he wished he knew before getting his puppy that he hadn’t found in his extensive research before deciding to get her, a first-time puppy dad said, “I had no idea how tough the first few weeks were going to be while integrating her into the house. A lot of broken sleep to try and toilet train her properly. And constant supervision to make sure she doesn’t chew on the wrong things, and to teach the behaviours that I want her to have instead. That was a bit of an eye opener and while I did read about it, until I was actually doing it, I just didn’t fully understand or appreciate exactly how demanding it was going to be.”
24/7 and 365 days a year
“But we took her to puppy school!” I often hear from frustrated dog parents, their dog typically between 6 and 18 months old when they contact me for help. Or, “We practice every day. He sits at the curb and he knows how to shake and roll over, and he waits for his food! He’s really good. But he still jumps up on the kids and he doesn’t come when called. Oh, and he also drags me when we are out on a walk, he has become so strong!” And I also get a lot of romanticized memories of people’s previous dogs such as, “My old dog never used to do that!” Of course, every puppy is different. But my sense with statements like these is that people simply have forgotten what it was like to raise a puppy. They are more in touch with the senior years of their dogs when they were settled and calm and way less energetic. Also, people themselves were younger, perhaps single or without children then.
A puppy learns all the time. Because this is so important, let me repeat it: a puppy learns all the time. So, practicing 5 or 10 minutes here and there or taking your dog to puppy school is not enough. Every moment is a learning opportunity. Whether that’s about what not to do but more importantly reinforcing all the behaviours that are positive and wanted. Looking at the list above you see how every moment of every day is a puppy teaching chance!
What about when you are out – at work, shopping, etc.? What about while you sleep? Yes, puppy also learns during those times. And what they learn then is entirely up to you. What areas does puppy have access to without supervision? How have you prepared puppy to be on their own?
I hope it’s clear at this point that I am not kidding when I say 24/7. What about the 365 days a year? Surely, I am joking there?!
How long does it take to train my puppy?
This is a question every dog trainer hears a lot. It’s a good question and those who ask it are ahead of the crowd that assumes taking their puppy to puppy school is all the learning needed. It’s not the teaching that is the hard part. If given half a chance and taught in a way that’s understandable for them, puppies learn quickly. The hard and challenging part is to keep practicing so that behaviours become reliable. Hence the 365 days a year. Your puppy knows how to sit at home. Can she do it when the cat walks in too? Out on a walk? On the beach? When she’d rather play with the other dogs at the park? When someone rides past? And what about down? And come? And stay? And all the things on the list above?
It’s a lifelong process. It’s a lot in the first year. Then things get easier. Then something changes, perhaps a new family member is added, you’re moving house, a relationship breakup, an injury or a sickness which affects your dog’s behaviour and more learning is needed.
In response to the question of what keeps him motivated, the above mentioned new puppy dad said, “Like any father (fur father in this case) you want your kids to grow up to be well behaved and responsible and that’s my goal!” When asked what he has learned he responded, “To be more patient and understanding. Sometimes my puppy would do something perfectly one day and then not listen at all the next which was very frustrating initially. I’ve had to learn to accept that she’s just a young puppy and that she isn’t going to be able to live up to my unrealistic expectations of doing things right all the time. And, that it’s okay to just walk away and take a break and try again at another time if we are struggling.”
Now that it’s clear what kind of commitment is needed for successfully training your puppy, let’s look at the second puppy training secret, consistency.
Any time you go to an off-lead dog area you’ll be able to witness the following scenario. A dog is playing with other dogs, her human decides it’s time to go and he calls, “Bell – aaaaaaaah!” No response. “Bell – aaaaaaaah, Bella, Bella!” Bella turns her head towards her human and then turns away to continue playing with her doggy mates. “Bella! What’s this?” often she falls for that trick! Not this time though. “Bella” now sounding a bit stern, his voice deeper, “Bella, come!” Bella keeps playing. Her human is starting to feel a bit embarrassed and decides to give Bella a bit more play time since she is having such a good time, “Let her be a dog!” he thinks generously. The dogs Bella has been playing with are leaving. Her human calls her again, “Bella!” feeling sure she’ll respond now and come. But Bella still has better things to do, some tantalizing scent has just caught her nose and she must investigate, her human doesn’t mind waiting after all. “Bella! Let’s go!! Come on!!! Bella, come!” and he claps his hands and whistles too. Once she is done sniffing, she starts to casually walk over to her human. He clips on the lead and they finally can go home.
And here’s another scenario. Every night at dinner time Buddy’s human asks him to sit which he does promptly. She puts his bowl down and he’ll wait and hold his sit until she says, “OK.” He does it perfectly, even waiting for longer times if requested.
Why? What’s at work in scenario one? What’s at work in scenario two? The same principle or lack thereof: consistency.
Let’s look a bit more closely at scenario one, describing lack of consistency. Bella’s human calls her differently each time, using just her name or adding other words, even saying her name differently – short or drawn out, changing the pitch of his voice and the mood of his tone (excited, frustrated, pleading, impatient, etc.). How is Bella to know that all these different utterings from her human are supposed to mean the same thing? Let alone that it actually asks her to come? She gets to keep doing what she is doing, so in her books that means what she is doing is ok. It’s ok if sometimes she comes the first time she hears her human call and other times only responds after several calls, when she’s got nothing better to do. And Bella gets to rehearse this behaviour every day. That’s why she’s so good at it!
Scenario two under examination reveals the magic of reliable wanted behaviour comes from your consistency. Dinner is roughly at the same time every day, happening in the same spot, you go through the same motions, everything is clear, predictable and also well rehearsed (daily). And the biggest sprinkle of magic is that it is reinforced in a meaningful way – dinner!
Sure, a reliable recall could be considered the pinnacle of dog training. And sitting for such a big reinforcement as a meal might seem such a simple and easy thing to teach in comparison. But what I just unveiled still holds true. What you teach your dog c o n s i s t e n t l y they get better at and if you persist, they succeed. Besides inconsistency, asking too much too soon is one of the reasons your puppy training isn’t bringing the results you’re after. In the case of recall that means if your dog doesn’t come back in your own backyard reliably, letting them off-lead at the park or on your big acreage is setting yourself and your puppy up to fail. You moved to a more difficult situation too soon and your puppy is learning all the wrong things such as when I am off-lead in a big space my human can’t get me.
But my puppy needs to run! I often hear people of adolescent dogs say. There are misconceptions about dogs’ exercising needs, especially among dog parents of herding or gun dogs, these energetic breeds. And it is true that part of a dog’s happiness comes from exercising. Equally important but often neglected they need mental stimulation to feel content and be able to settle. What kind? Whatever your dog is naturally drawn to, or you are interested in and teach them. Find it! is one fun game to play.
There are other ways to exercise your dog besides letting them run free before you have accomplished effective off-lead control. On-lead walks and a game of fetch in your own yard are the two simplest ways to meet your dog’s exercising requirements. It’s worth the effort and time to establish a reliable recall. It takes months but once that skill is acquired you have many years to enjoy giving your dog appropriate off-lead freedom. It’s fun and safe for everyone, not just you and your dog. No matter how friendly your puppy is, keep him on-lead until you know he’ll come when called even if there is another dog that he’s dying to say hello to. If in doubt, keep the lead on!!! This is called responsible dog ownership. But also, it’s the only way to succeed in developing a reliable recall.
Now that the cat is out of the bag and you are aware of the two secrets, commitment and consistency, let’s look at the one big mistake people make in puppy training. I’ve actually already given it away above.
Your puppy training starts immediately
As soon as that puppy arrives at your home, learning starts. To start off the best possible way your preparation begins ahead of time by setting up your home as the ideal puppy learning environment. Some things to consider before your furbaby’s arrival are
Where will puppy sleep? One of the best places for a puppy to sleep is a crate. Here’s why.
Where will puppy be during the day when you can’t supervise? Giving your puppy run of the house is a recipe for disaster – they can chew up things they are not supposed to and toilet wherever suits them best.
If possible, arrange to take time off work for at least a week to help your puppy settle in.
Think about and write down the rules you’d like your puppy to follow such as no jumping up, etc. and research how to help your puppy to understand these rules.
If you have children, speak with them about their behaviour around the new puppy. Puppies need a safe place to retreat where no children are allowed and puppies need a lot of calm interactions or they turn into either very anxious or over-excited dogs.
This list is not complete but gives some very important considerations. Many new puppy parents make the mistake of first allowing their puppy free reign as a means of settling them in. After a few weeks or months when that has resulted into unwanted behaviours that are no longer cute but annoying, painful or dangerous they call a dog trainer, sign up for dog obedience school or in way too many cases dump their dog at the pound. It’s so much easier and way less of a hassle to start teaching your puppy from the very beginning. It’s easier but it still is a lot of work!
In the words of our new puppy dad, “It’s almost like another full time job in itself, so it’s tough work! Even my girlfriend said there is no way she’d have the patience or energy to put in the amount of time and effort that I have. But it’s the same as having kids in a sense. If you can’t handle that responsibility I guess you should probably think twice about getting one!”
What training method is best?
Basically, there are two approaches to dog training. Do as I say or else and positive reinforcement. The first has been used for decades to teach dogs obedience, to listen to commands and uses punishment for misbehaviour. Punishment comes in all shapes and sizes: the classic smack on the nose with the rolled-up newspaper, saying no, a jerk on the collar or any other action functioning as an aversive with the aim that the dog wants to avoid punishment in the future and does as he’s told. It’s training through coercion and intimidation. It works well in many cases yet it comes at a cost.
The second approach to dog training, positive reinforcement, is based on Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), the science of learning and behaviour. It’s about marking desirable behaviours and rewarding them. It’s on the trainer to creatively set up and adjust the learning environment so the learner succeeds. It acknowledges animal intelligence, it builds trust and is a humane way of training. Some people who try it dismiss it as not working. In my experience they arrive at this conclusion because of misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge and appropriate support. There is an art to this way of teaching that takes a little bit of practice and knowing how to practically manage in the meantime.
I will go much more into detail about the different training methods in another blog article soon. Picking which approach to use with your puppy, take some time to research. Don’t just go to the closest dog club because it’s convenient or where your best friend goes with their puppy or do what you saw your parents do. This is an important decision. It will shape the future of you and above all your puppy. It’s a huge part of putting you either onto the path of happily ever after or on the road of 10-15 years of struggle. It seems people give more thought to which mobile phone to purchase next – which they will replace within a year or two! – than to what training method to choose for their puppy.
Why most puppy schools are a waste of your time, money and worse
When dog parents call me to inquire about training with me and I ask them about their training history, 99 % of them say they did puppy school. When I ask them what they learned, they respond that their dog knows how to sit, for a moment anyways, when she’s got nothing better to do and if they have a treat in their hand. Considering the preciousness of the critical learning period for puppies that is such an incredible waste of potential.
The first 16 weeks of your puppy’s life is called critical learning period. The input and exposure your puppy receives during this time is shaping the rest of their life. Make this time count and you’ll enjoy a delightful family companion ever after. The list at the start of this article gives you an idea of some of the things your puppy should be learning.
Most puppy schools are very cheap. Convenient too, just at your nearest vet or pet store. And how cute are all the other puppies there! When your puppy graduates, she still jumps and mouths you, pulls on the lead like a freight train and has no idea how to appropriately say hello to another dog or play with them. To some puppies, unfortunately, puppy school is traumatizing. It’s often the shy and unsure puppies that get terrorized by the more bolder and confident ones during socializing time. Or, equally tragic, some people and their puppies get banned from coming to puppy school because their puppy is a real handful and disruptive to class.
Compared to puppy school, taking private in-home lessons with a dog trainer is expensive. Looking at the bigger picture though this type of expense is actually an investment. One that usually will pay off very well if you did your research and you chose the right trainer for you, and your commitment and consistency are strong so you follow through and keep putting into practice what you learn.
For some people hiring a private dog trainer is simply beyond their budget. On-line programs can offer a more cost-effective solution, however, you lack the personal feedback. Some on-line programs come with a private group on social media as an additional resource for staying motivated and getting answers to some questions and possibly feedback on videos you post.
American-based trainer Emily Larlham offers a free puppy training channel on YouTube. It’s comprehensive and covers a wide range of information such as what to train first (many new puppy parents feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start) and what NOT to do in front of your puppy. You’ll need a couple of hours to watch it all. And then re-watch the ones you are working on when you need to. I am not affiliated with her and don’t receive a kickback for recommending her. I like her training style and she provides information in a clear and structured way with good video examples usually including trouble shooting advice too. If you are on a budget but feel a bit out of your depth and unfamiliar, you could look for a private trainer providing you with an introduction to positive reinforcement training, familiarizing you with the method and helping you with your timing and then follow along Emily’s videos.
There are many options to help you guide your puppy into becoming a pawsome dog. Whatever you choose, you must remember the two secrets, commitment and consistency. And now that you know which mistake(s) to avoid you’re all set up for success. Your puppy’s education is as important as your children’s – both should aim at equipping the learner with skills for living a fulfilling life. Dogs like humans are social creatures, they wither being locked away and forgotten in the backyard.
Even though we call them our furbabies, let’s remember that dogs are not humans and belong to a different species. We do have much in common but it helps to remember that they literally see the world differently than we do, their sense of smell and hearing comes before sight. Consider how their specific sensory input shapes perception and priorities. Also, words are foreign to dogs as they communicate through body language and telepathy. I believe these considerations can help you to stay patient, understanding and kind when teaching your puppy.
There is much for you to think about and mull over. If you find you’ve already made some of the mistakes I mentioned and are bearing the consequences, don’t despair. Change now. Look for the help you need. It’s hardly ever too late to turn things around and bring them to a more positive place. You are just not there … yet. Dog training is a personal development journey. Dogs have the potential to make you a better version of yourself if you allow for that to happen – rather than blame your dog and call them names for not magically being the dog of your dreams.