Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Puppies are undeniably cute. We love to coo and fuss over them, smother them with attention and embrace their comical, inquisitive natures. Raising a puppy isn’t easy, even if they are irresistibly adorable.
Puppies are hard work, they require a lot of time, energy and commitment. Sometimes we aren’t prepared for their testing ways and their less-than-desirable behaviours. We sometimes forget that the small, cute puppy will, at some point, grow into a larger, older adult dog whose ‘naughty’ puppy ways may be less forgivable.
How do we ensure we set our puppy, and ourselves, up for the best possible life together, and maintain harmony in the home even when their behaviours become testing or frustrating? It’s not easy but consistency is the magic word…
Prevention is key
Dogs do what works, they repeat behaviours which they find reinforcing and often that reinforcement comes from us, but it’s not always intentional.
If you wonder why your puppy repeatedly steals shoes and socks despite you telling him off or providing him with his own toys, look at your own behaviour. Your ‘telling off’ has probably been quite reinforcing for him, and now stealing items is a great way to get your attention, even if it is rather negative attention. Chasing him around the house shouting ‘NO … DROP IT … LEAVEEEE’ is actually really quite FUN for your puppy!!
It’s important to thoroughly puppy-proof your home before your new puppy (or adult dog) arrives. This saves unwanted behaviour being practiced and avoids any expensive mistakes, either financially or behaviourally! Put tempting items out of reach … high shelves or boxes for shoes, boxes for children’s toys, or cupboards for anything else tempting. You can use stair gates or closed doors to prevent your puppy having access to rooms when you’re not able to supervise, so he can’t sneak off and practice any unwanted behaviours.
By not practicing unwanted behaviours like stealing or chewing items which aren’t his, he won’t form habits or find reinforcement from them. If you can put management in place to prevent them from day one, you will have a puppy who is much easier to live with!
Reinforce Reinforce Reinforce
Sometimes we are hesitant to use a lot of food rewards with puppies because we worry they will become reliant on it or because it requires too much effort on our part.
However, behaviours and choices you reinforce will be repeated by your puppy so it pays to reinforce. Keep treats, or preferably your puppy’s own food, in sealed pots around the house so you can easily reinforce any good behaviours from him. You don’t need to ask him or cue him for anything, just keep an eye out for anything you like from him. It could be lying on his bed, in his crate or on the floor, it could be a good choice not to pick up a shoe or a child’s toy, or choosing to chew his own toy. Anything that you think is good and you would like him to repeat!
We can easily miss the good choices our dogs make, and focus only on the naughty or ‘bad’ ones. These often become the things we unintentionally reinforce. Think how many times you’ve battled with your dog to drop the sock he’s stolen, but how often do you go and reward him when he’s picked up his own toy and chewed on that? Start making note of the good things he does and focus on these, not the bad things!
Reinforcing his own good choices is a hugely important way for your puppy to learn, but you should still spend time actively teaching him good behaviours.
This could be working on ‘sit’, ‘down’, loose lead walking or any other fun or useful commands you can think of. Dogs love to learn and it’s a great bonding activity to engage them in learning and teaching. Enrolling in puppy classes can be really beneficial and give you good goals to aim for as well as working through the teaching process and any challenges you face.
Choose a class which uses force-free, reward-based methods and primarily focuses on building a good relationship between you and your puppy. If they also offer some socialisation/play time with the other class members, be sure that this is done in a safe, controlled way and that dogs are carefully matched to avoid any negative experiences.
Interrupt and Redirect
Puppies love to explore. They aren’t born knowing what is right or wrong to us so we have to teach them. When they make choices we don’t like, it’s important to gently interrupt and then redirect them onto a more desirable alternative.
It can be difficult to remain calm at times when your puppy is doing something really unacceptable to you … perhaps chewing your favourite shoes … but try to avoid getting angry or doing anything which may scare him. This will only serve to damage your relationship and won’t actually teach him anything productive. Instead, interrupt his behaviour in a happy, calm way and quickly get his attention onto something else.
For example, if you find him chewing your carpet, call his name and reward him when he stops the behaviour, then encourage him to do something else, perhaps play with his own toy or settle in his crate or bed. This approach will prevent the unwanted behaviour being practiced and avoids any conflict when you interrupt him. Always offer your puppy an alternative, it shouldn’t be a constant spiral of ‘no don’t do that’, ‘leave that!’, ‘NO NO NO!!’ … show him what you do want instead.
If you’re finding yourself constantly interrupting and redirecting him, think about what you could change to manage this better and limit his opportunities to make mistakes. Perhaps restrict his access to certain rooms, ensure you’re always supervising him or make use of a pen or crate to safely confine him when you’re able to keep him occupied.
Remember puppies need a lot of sleep (around 18 hours a day) so if his behaviour is becoming relentless, think about whether he’s getting enough rest time each day and start to make rest a central part of his day. Utilise quiet rooms away from the busy house, or a crate in a quiet location with a cover over it to ensure your puppy is getting plenty of rest time! Puppies often don't give themselves enough rest, so we must enforce rest time.
Remember that puppies are individuals and there is rarely one-method-fits-all, so if you are finding your puppy’s behaviour is challenging or you just don’t know what the right thing to do is, contact an experienced, force-free trainer who can help guide you and your puppy along. Growing up isn’t always easy and puppies rarely grow out of behaviours, so don’t wait for that to happen because it probably never will!
At Adolescent Dogs, we love working with puppies and we have years of experience with many different breeds, ages and homes, so get in touch and we can help and advise you.
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Written by Advanced Senior Trainer Naomi White
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