Who can fathom the mind of a puppy? Squirrels drive them crazy, garbage is their favorite snack and immediately after chewing your one-of-a-kind, handmade leather jacket into confetti, they can give you a look of such innocent love and adoration that you forget all about it. This kind of behavior can baffle and frustrate even the most conscientious of dog owners. When you bring a puppy home, she becomes part of your family; you need to be able to trust her with your home, your belongings and even your children. Managing your puppy’s behavior is the key to having a peaceful and loving relationship with her.
To have a dog that makes a good, dependable companion, you’re going to have to spend time training them. There’s no other way for your puppy to know that chewing on an old knotted sock is acceptable, for example, while chewing on the sofa is not. She needs to be taught appropriate behavior calmly, gently, and--most important--consistently. As soon as you get your pup, you can start teaching her how to listen to you, how to act around people and other dogs, and generally to be the best-behaved dog ever.
The Alpha Owner
Though we’ll never know exactly what your pooch is thinking when she chases her tail until she gets dizzy, we do have some insight into how dogs think about relationships. Wild dogs live and hunt in packs. This is an important model, because in every pack there are structured power relationships between members. The alpha dog is the provider for the pack. In a pack, nothing is given to a dog without performing a task. If a dog learns that they can jump up on the couch when they want, drag you down the street on the leash and get treats when they beg for them, they may decide that they are running the show. Puppies who are given everything for “free” will start to demand things and this can lead to aggression issues. They may start ignoring commands, jumping up where they’re not supposed to jump, and protecting their food or their "territory" with growls. In extreme cases, they can begin biting.
In order to have a peaceful, manageable relationship with your dog, it’s important that you establish the position that all humans are higher up in the hierarchy than them in the beginning. Do not use physical intimidation to establish human hierarchy. Physical intimidation can leave a dog feeling threatened and defensive, and may even provoke an attack. You don’t need to raise your voice either; shouting can also make dogs nervous and provoke aggression.
Aggressive displays of dominance aren’t necessary. Most dogs are perfectly happy submitting to a leader; they actually gain confidence and a sense of security from having someone to follow. A good pack leader projects a sense of strength by using a steady voice and reacts calmly to situations that make the dog nervous. The successful pack leader also provides food, shelter, and attention to the dog when she behaves appropriately. Having her repeatedly follow your commands (sit, stay and lie down) reinforces your position above her in the hierarchy. If you’re still having a hard time, ask your veterinarian about special exercises designed to establish your position in the hierarchy.
One of the main ways to develop your position in the hierarchy is to start the “nothing in life is free” training. This means that once a dog has mastered a skill (like sitting or lying down) they must perform that skill to get something she wants. For example if your dog wants to go for a walk she must sit before you put her leash on. If your dog wants to be fed she must sit and stay until the bowl is put down and you have given her permission to go to the bowl is another example. Making your dog work for all of the things that she wants will help teach her that you are the leader and that listening to you will lead to rewards. It is very important that the dog has mastered the skill and knows what you want before you start the “nothing in life is free” training.
The Social Life
Socializing is one of the most important things you can do to train your young dog. Puppies are like sponges--ready to absorb all kinds of information about their world. In the first months of their lives, it’s your job as a pet owner to teach them to bond with people and with other dogs and to be comfortable in unfamiliar situations. This is one of the most important things you can do for your fuzzy friend. The less afraid your puppy is of strange people and animals, the less likely she is to act defensively and attack another dog or even a child.
The socialization of puppies begins between three and four weeks of age (before most people bring their new pets home). This means that some of the work is left up to the puppy’s mother. If your puppy has been raised by a careless owner or breeder, you may have an uphill battle to fight when you get her home. Luckily, your puppy will continue the socialization process until she is about 12 weeks old, so you have plenty of time to give her good experiences. First of all, make sure she bonds with you and your family. Show her that she can depend on you for affection, food and gentle leadership. Between the age of 8 and 12 weeks is the perfect time to enroll your puppy into puppy classes. Puppy preschool will help socialize your pup with other puppies in a safe environment. Most puppy classes will require that your puppy has their first set of vaccines.
Once your pup feels safe with you and she’s had all her vaccinations, you can introduce her to the big, wide world. Take her to lots of new and exciting places--the park, a friend’s house or dog-friendly stores. Make sure she has plenty of chances to meet kind people and play with well-socialized dogs. Try to make trips to the veterinarian fun, with plenty of petting from you and the friendly veterinarian and technicians. It may be wise to withhold food for a couple of hours prior to a visit to the veterinarian so that they will be hungry and will want to eat treats given by both you and the veterinary staff. Introduce her to children, in a well-supervised environment. Show the kids how to speak calmly to her and pet her gently.
If your puppy acting nervous in a new situation or starting to bristle at a strange dog, try not to scold her. Raising your voice will only make her tenser. Trying to comfort her will backfire too. If she gets a lot of petting, cooing and attention every time she’s scared or aggressive, she’ll learn that reacting this way is a good thing. Instead, remain call and talk to her in a steady voice that is reassuring but not coddling. Try to focus her attention on something else. Toss a ball or a chew toy to her, or start playing her favorite game. When she gets absorbed in the game and starts ignoring the people or the dog that scared her, give her lots of praise. It is important to take your time and don’t push your puppy into situations where they are scared. Be patient, it may take several tries before she is fully ready to take on the scary situation. Baby steps will move you slowly to your goal. Soon she’ll associate the scary situation with fun and playtime, and she’ll become a canine socialite.
When most dog owners think about training their dog, they think in negatives. They want their puppy not to chew the furniture, not to piddle on the carpet and not to jump up on guests. This can get a little confusing from the puppy’s point of view. Imagine you were a puppy home alone and you spent most of your day chewing on some loafers and spreading garbage around the kitchen. Then you nap for an hour and meet your family at the door when they come home. Suddenly they greet you with lots of yelling of "No!" What did you do wrong? Was it the chewing or meeting the family at the door? What were you supposed to do instead?
The key to keeping your puppy from doing what you don’t want her to do is giving her a positive alternative--teaching her what you do want her to do. It is much easier to teach everything she can do rather than try to teach her everything she cannot do. For example, if you see your puppy dancing anxiously around the living room like she needs to go out, quickly let her outside. Stay near her the whole time she’s out, and reward her with praise and a treat as soon as she relieves herself. This teaches her that going outside is a good thing. If you catch your puppy having an accident on the rug it is important to get her attention and take her outside immediately. Praise her when she goes potty outside. If you catch your puppy chewing on something you don’t want her to chew on, distract her with one of her "good" chew toys. Whenever you catch her chewing on one of her toys, reward her. The key to effective training--try to catch your puppy doing something good, like sitting still instead of jumping up or sleeping on the floor instead of the bed. Make a point of noticing these behaviors and rewarding them with attention, praise or treats.
Training is a gradual process and it can be a difficult road to walk alone. It’s vital that your entire family agrees and commits to a training plan that you all respond the same way when your dog misbehaves as well as when she behaves perfectly. Remember to be persistent and above all, patient. Your puppy’s going to make a lot of mistakes and may destroy a few of your belongings. However, she is eager to please you. She needs your love, attention and guidance to be the good dog you know she can be.