How do puppies learn?
Puppies, like all animals, learn by doing what works for them. They will do what is effective, from their point of view. Puppies will repeat behaviors that have a good result. If it leads to a treat, attention, a toy, a desired interaction, the ability to explore, sniff, or run, the puppy will do it again in the future. In general, teaching puppies what to do through praise and rewards (positive reinforcement) is the best practice. Setting puppies up for success using management, supervision, and positive reinforcement training plans is effective and safe. Waiting until the puppy does something you don’t want and then trying to punish the behavior can lead to problems such as avoidance, fear, and confusion.
First, learn what your puppy likes then make sure she receives something she likes any time she does something you like! It’s a simple concept but can be tricky to implement. Remember, a reward or reinforcement should always be from the puppy’s point of view.
Example: What if my puppy likes attention and petting? My puppy jumps up on me and I bend to put my hands on him, pushing him off my legs while saying “off.” He jumps again, and we repeat the process.
Think about this from the puppy’s perspective: I am ignoring the puppy > puppy jumps up > I touch the puppy and talk to him. Guess what, it worked! Puppies do not act out to upset us or compete with us. They just do what works, from their point of view.
What should I teach my puppy?
In general, the best approach is to consider what you want your puppy to do; what is the desired course of action in a situation or in response to a cue? Some examples include:
- When the puppy sees a person
- When the puppy hears her name
- When the puppy sees another animal
- When the puppy hears the doorbell
- Where the puppy should rest or sleep
- How to get his leash and/or harness on
- How to respond to grooming, brushing, and veterinary care
Once you have a clear picture of how you wish your puppy to behave, then you can begin teaching him baby steps toward the goal. For example, when your puppy hears his name, you want him to come to the person who called him and wait near that person. This response can be trained using a combination of luring, capturing, and shaping. We will follow this example throughout.
INVEST IN THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to be your dog’s trainer. But you do have to start with the right stuff. Your dog training toolkit should include:
A short leash. Training on a short leash (four feet or less) to instill polite behavior while walking your dog will make both of your lives a lot easier. After you master the basics, you can move on to more advanced training on a longer leash.
Small, healthy dog treats. These can be anything from a cheese stick cut into small pieces to cereal-sized snacks designed for training. Remember, your goal is to use small, easily digestible treats that won’t fill your dog up or make them sluggish before you are done with your obedience training sessions.
At least one active/engagement reward. A game of tug-of-war, a few rounds of fetch, or a chew toy filled with peanut butter are all activity-based rewards you can give your dog after a good training session.
BEGIN WITH BASIC COMMANDS
While you may be eager to show off just how smart your best buddy is, save the fancy stuff for later. “Come,” “Sit,” “Heel,” and “Stay” are four of the most basic commands for training your dog to obey. These terms are great building blocks for a common language that both you and your dog can understand.
The “Come” command is a perfect starting place, for two reasons. Once your dog understands how to come to you on demand, playing outside and spending time off-leash becomes so much safer for your dog. Second, your dog probably comes up to greet you naturally lots of times during the span of a day, so he or she might not need too much convincing.
Next time your dog comes bounding up to you, act like it was your idea. Say their name, wait a beat, and say the word “Come!” Give your pup a treat for “responding,” take a step backward, and repeat the command to see if they will repeat the behavior. Most likely, it won’t take long for your dog to realize that obedience equals reward. Focus on mastering one command at a time to prevent confusion.
Once your dog understands the concept of obedience, teaching additional commands will get a lot easier! To begin to teach your dog to “sit,” say the command before you physically maneuver your dog into a sitting position. Give them a treat for their “obedience,” and try to see if you can get them to repeat the behavior.
To teach your pup (or mature dog) to heel, use small treats as an enticement to follow close by your side. Move from one side of a small room to the other with your dog following by your hand, repeating the “Heel!” command followed by your dog’s name. When you reach your destination, ask your dog to “Sit!” and let them have that tasty treat. Repeat the process until your dog gets the message.