Congrats on your new puppy! I am sure you are very excited to have a companion that will love you unconditionally. And I bet you have lots of questions about raising a puppy to have good manners.
Will your puppy always do everything you want? Nope!
Dogs are sentient beings – they have their own preferences and desires! But that doesn’t mean they can’t live successfully in a human world. They just need a little guidance from you in order to know how to meet your expectations.
And you might need a little help to communicate those same expectations. After all, dogs and humans don’t speak the same language at first. It takes a little training – of both species – to get on the same page.
As your puppy grows and matures you are going to want to teach your puppy to have good manners, good listening skills and follow the rules of your home. It’s tempting to jump right into the training with a round of “sit” or “shake” and feel like you’re on your way.
But there are a few things you should know before you get started. Keep reading and you can learn the 10 mistakes puppy owners make when training, and how to prevent them.
Mistake # 1. Speaking Before Teaching
It is easy for us to forget that puppies do not speak our language! So it takes them a while to understand what our words mean and what they should do when they hear them. If we overuse a word before our puppy fully understands it, we can inadvertently teach a puppy to ignore us.
That’s why it is so important to make sure your puppy knows what you expect of him/her before attaching a word to it. We do this by starting out with hand signals and using a consistent reward system.
Only after your puppy understands the desired behavior and hand signal should you attach a name, like “sit” or “stay” to that behavior!
We have a visual exercise we use with students enrolled in our online course. We tell them to think of the command word they’ll use, like “come” or “stay”.
Then visualize putting it in a glass jar and putting it way up on a shelf. Keep it there until you can promise me that your dog will do the skill 10 times in a row with just your hand signal. Then, and only then, should you introduce the word!
That sounds excessive doesn’t it?! I have a lot of experience with this so trust me when I say: keep that word tucked away until your pup is ready for it. You’ll be glad you did!
This is especially important with words that you really need them to follow every time, like “come”. Don’t use it until you’ve taught it!
Mistake # 2: Using One Cue for Multiple Behaviors
Another way we confuse puppies is by using the same word for more than one behavior. An example of this would be using the cue “down” to mean both lie down and get off of something.
Instead, we need to create a unique word for every behavior we teach. I usually advise my students to use “down” when we want the puppy to move from a sitting position to a lying position. I like to use the word “off” to ask my dog to get off of me or the furniture. This is especially helpful to use when your puppy is jumping.
There’s a lot more to shaping the jumping behavior that needs to be addressed, such as teaching your puppy what you want him or her to do instead, but you can use “off” as a first step for the action of 4 paws on the floor. Then you can instruct him or her to do something you DO want as a way to address this behavior long term.
If you’re thinking that there’s a lot more to training than you realized, you are probably right! That’s why you are in the right spot to get good advice from a certified trainer with more than 20 years of experience.
Mistake #3: Under-Exposing Your Puppy
A critical development period for puppies is between 8 and 16 weeks old. Try to get in the habit of positively exposing your puppy to novel experiences every day. These experiences can include, but are not limited to:
- Walking on different types of flooring
- Being around other dogs
- Experiencing different types of people
- Being exposed to new sounds and smells
- Experiencing new equipment like grooming tools or a new collar or harness
- Enjoying new experiences like car rides
Many puppy owners make the mistake of keeping their puppy home and avoiding exposure to environments outside the home while waiting for the vaccinations to be complete. Some people even report that vets recommend this.
If that’s your vet, think about getting another vet! Proper and positive socialization and exposure to the settings you want your puppy to be comfortable in help our puppy to grow into a well adjusted dog and have lasting impacts on the rest of your dog’s life.
The consequences of under socializing your puppy far outweigh the risks of safely getting out into the world before they are fully vaccinated. Not enough exposure during this critical period may lead to a reserved, shy or fearful dog later in life.
Be sure to make these experiences positive and fun for your puppy. We want to build up his or her confidence by creating pleasant associations.
If you notice fear or over-stimulation or anxiety, it’s time to take a step back and go a little slower with your exposure training.
Mistake #4: Not Addressing a Hoarder or Resource Guarder
Resource guarding is a behavior that puppies can develop when they believe their valued resources are going to always be taken away. These resources can include your puppy’s toys or food or even items they should not have.
Teach your puppy to willingly drop any item by trading them with something of equal, or higher, value! Make trade-offs a game so your puppy eagerly wants to give you their favorite toys and bones.
You might have heard some advice to stick your hand in your dog’s food to desensitize him and prevent resource guarding during mealtimes. Please don’t do this!
There are much better ways to address any guarding that might be taking place. No one wants a hand in their food – not human’s nor canine’s!
Respect your pup’s mealtime and teach all members of the household to do the same. I like to suggest that you act more like a waiter at Olive Garden: drop off good things (treats!) during mealtime to teach your dog that humans approaching is a positive thing.
This is a much better way to help your pup learn to tolerate interruptions during a meal.
Mistake #5: Ignoring the Good and Rewarding the Bad
Sometimes we forget to tell our puppy what a great job he or she is doing. And maybe we are quick to tell them “no” when they are getting into trouble. But puppies don’t speak English and they definitely don’t understand “no”.
It’s much better to teach your puppy what you want him or her to do instead and then reward like crazy when it happens!
On the other hand, it's easy to accidentally reward our puppy for unwanted behavior without even knowing it. A good example of this is a puppy who jumps on guests to say “hi”. When this happens, it’s human nature to reach down and pet the pup, making eye contact and talking to him or her.
What you may not realize is that attention — any attention — is a reward to a puppy. So those pets, eye contact, and talking… or even scolding… mean that your pup is getting rewarded for unwanted behavior.
Ideally, you want your puppy to politely approach someone and sit to say “hi”. Then you can give all the praise and rewards you want.
I like to challenge my students to do the 50 Kibble Challenge. Take 50 pieces of kibble out of your dog’s normal daily allotment of food. Use it throughout the day to reward him or her every single time you see them doing something that you like!
This could be sitting nicely while you eat, or laying down and resting on the doggie bed, or going into the crate to settle down for a nap. The more positive reinforcement you give for the good stuff you see, the more your puppy will do it!
Dogs don’t have complicated brains. They thrive on consistency and routine and simple associations like rewards. But that doesn’t mean that our more complex brains understand them.
Following a training program that incorporates animal science and behavior will really help guide you as you build your relationships with your dog.
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