THE PERFECT PUPPY
by Deborah Jones, Ph.D. 2001
*First published in Clean
Run Magazine, 2002
A new puppy. A tabula rasa. A blank slate. A
Raising a new puppy is the ultimate experience
in having a fresh start. A new puppy is endless possibility without
any negative baggage. The optimistic owner believes that this
time she will do everything right; this time the perfect puppy
will be carefully nurtured, shaped and molded into the perfect
dog. The new puppy is a chance to avoid any previous mistakes
that were made with other dogs. These high expectations usually
become more realistic as time goes by. The puppy may have some
personality quirks that were unanticipated. Perhaps the puppy
is inadvertently exposed to something fearful that traumatizes
him. Maybe the owner finds that her usual training techniques
just aren’t working with this particular dog.
While we know logically that there is no absolutely
perfect puppy or dog, it’s nice to have the dream for a
while. There are, however, things that can be done to insure that
the new kid gets the best possible start. Whether you are raising
your puppy as a family pet and companion, a possible breed champion,
or you intend to participate in performance sports such as agility
and obedience, it pays to give careful thought to your puppy’s
early training and experiences. In this article I’ll talk
about some ways to start your puppy on the right track.
These suggestions can work with a dog of any
age. Adolescent dogs, even adult rescues, can benefit from these
techniques and ideas. However, puppies are more open to influence
as they don’t have any previous learning to undo or bad
habits to change.
First, a few guiding concepts. I try to keep
these in mind whenever I am interacting with my dogs.
1. Be proactive, not reactive.
Take positive action to avoid problems before they appear. Letting
things be at the mercy of chance and hoping for the best is a
poor idea. Anticipating problems and taking steps to avoid them
is the smart move. Planning and management are the keys.
For example, don’t allow your puppy the
opportunity to have housetraining accidents. Crate train from
the start, and resolve to always have the puppy within your sight
when he’s loose in the house. Make sure to take him outside
very regularly. Instead of reacting to a bad habit that has already
developed, you are anticipating and avoiding a potential problem.
2. Reinforce what you like.
Always be on the lookout for desirable behaviors and nurture them.
It’s easy to ignore the good and pay attention to the bad,
but it’s a big mistake. Continually tell your puppy when
he’s doing the right thing and the wrong ones are less likely
For example, there is a strong temptation to
heave a sigh of relief and be very quiet when your puppy finally
settles into a down at your feet. However, this is the time to
reinforce that behavior so it will increase in the future. Reach
down and very calmly pet your pup and tell him what a good dog
he is. Sure, he might jump up full of excitement, but just ignore
him until he settles again. Soon he’ll discover that lying
quietly gains attention and approval.
3. Take baby steps. Keep your
expectations reasonable. Physically and mentally, your puppy is
a baby. He needs lots of repetition and positive instruction in
order to learn. Be patient and don’t expect too much too
For example, in one training session you may
find that your puppy sits very quickly for a food treat. You are
thrilled at how quickly he’s catching on. However, when
you try to show a friend, your pup just looks at you blankly and
wanders away. This is completely normal. Go back to kindergarten
and make it easier so that your puppy can succeed. Then slowly
increase your expectations.
4. Make it fun. Your puppy
should believe that training is playing. Serious drilling and
strict control are the best ways to kill your puppy’s natural
excitement and enthusiasm for training and learning. Your puppy
can learn many things, but only if it is enjoyable.
For example, when out in public don’t
expect your pup to ignore distractions and to sit and stay constantly.
Allow him to sniff and explore, then ask for a 2 second sit that
is reinforced with a game. Or wait for him to look at you before
you let him interact with another friendly dog. You are laying
the foundation for future obedience and attention by using rewards
in a real-world setting.
5. Observe and learn. Learn
about your puppy by watching him. Discover his favorite activities
(to use as rewards). Watch how he solves simple problems like
getting a toy that is stuck under the sofa. Observe how he interacts
with people and other animals. Is he bold and confident or a bit
tentative? Don’t get so caught up in being the teacher that
you forget to learn from your dog.
For example, set up situations in which your
puppy is exposed to new and unusual stimuli. Take a trip to your
local grocery store and hang out a short distance from the entrance.
The rattling carts, rushing people, and automatic doors are probably
all new to your puppy. Keep enough distance so that he doesn’t
get frightened or startled and simply observe his behavior and
reactions. Move closer as he seems comfortable, but don’t
overwhelm your puppy. Mentally file away the information on how
your puppy adjusts/responds in this type of situation. It will
probably carry over into other novel situations as well.
Now, for the specifics:
Use your puppy’s food as a way to form a bond and to imprint
on your puppy how important you are as a food source. For the
first few weeks feed your puppy all his food from your hand. You
can use hand feeding to teach your puppy his name, to teach him
to pay attention to you, and to teach him the meaning of a behavioral
First, teach name recognition by simply saying
your pup’s name before you give him each bit of food. You
can repeat this about 10 times at the beginning of each meal.
Next, say your pup’s name, but wait until he looks at you
before you give him the food. Don’t expect much duration
at first, just a second or two of attention. The purpose of this
exercise is not to gain intense attention. The purpose is to get
your pup in the habit of looking at you as much as possible. Seeing
you as the source of all good things is important, especially
for future performance dogs.
2. Behavioral marker.
A behavioral marker is a signal that you establish to tell your
dog when he is correct. It can be any word or sound that is unique
and will be used only for that purpose. Many people use a clicker
as a behavioral marker. During your hand-feeding sessions you
can condition your pup to the sound of your marker by using it
right before you give him a piece of food. Just click, feed, click,
feed, …. If you are using a word as a marker simply substitute
that word for the clicker. Be sure to say the word in the same
way every time (tone, volume, inflection) and not to use it in
any other context. It makes sense to condition your pup to both
a clicker and a verbal marker (in separate training sessions at
first). That way you have two tools to work with in your training.
Once your pup understands the connection between
the marker and treats (this often only takes about 10 pairings)
start using the marker whenever your pup exhibits desirable behaviors.
You’ll need to pay close attention to your puppy and catch
him doing something right. When he does, click and treat. The
timing of the click is important, it needs to occur as close in
time to the behavior as possible. The treat should come quickly,
but there can be a short time delay if necessary. For example,
if your puppy sits and looks up at you, catch that behavior, mark
it, and reinforce it with a goodie. The behavior is then likely
to occur more often.
3. Toys and play.
Most puppies enjoy toys and playing. They naturally like to chase
and tug and chew and shred. It pays to encourage these behaviors
with appropriate objects, particularly if your puppy is slated
for a performance sport. Dogs who are toy-motivated are much easier
to train than those who aren’t. Play and toys are powerful
reinforcers for some dogs.
First, you can use toys as distractors. When
your puppy is ‘looking for trouble’ you can bring
out a toy to give him an appropriate outlet for his behavior.
Stuffing a Kong toy with goodies (peanut butter, cheese, kibble,
soft treats, etc.) gives your pup something to focus on and a
positive way to use his energy. In our puppy classes we would
have owners bring a stuffed Kong to class. At the end of the evening
when we wanted some quiet time to talk about behavior and problem
solving, the puppies would get their Kongs and would all lay down
for a chewing session while we talked.
Keeping chew toys such as Nylabones handy allows
you to substitute them for inappropriate objects such as your
slippers or the sofa cushions.
Encouraging your puppy to chase moving objects
(and eventually retrieve them) can be very important for dogs
who will participate in activities such as obedience, agility,
flyball, etc. Chasing and retrieving are also good exercise for
almost any dog. You may have to experiment to find a toy that
arouses your puppy’s interest and excitement. Some dogs
will naturally chase any moving object; while others see no point
in the whole activity.
For a dog who doesn’t seem to have much
desire or drive to chase objects you can play the ‘two treats’
game first. For puppies we use Kix cereal and for bigger dogs
we use Planter’s Cheese Balls (any treat that rolls well
and is easy to see will work). Show your pup a treat and get his
interest, then toss it a short distance away so that it rolls,
encouraging him to “get it!” As soon as he eats the
treat and turns back to you show him another treat, get his interest,
and throw it in another direction, again encouraging him to “get
it!” Repeat this often. Your pup should start to anticipate
the game and show an enthusiastic response to the “get it!”
cue. Then you can start to incorporate toys into the game.
Many negative things have been said about playing
tug with dogs. In the past, it has been discouraged, especially
with puppies who would potentially be large and strong. However,
if certain guidelines are followed, tug can be an enjoyable activity
to share with your dog. It is also an excellent way to reinforce
desired behaviors. It is very important to teach an enthusiastic
tugger to ‘out’ on cue. When your dog is tugging,
simply place a treat on his nose. When he opens his mouth to take
it use your verbal marker and give him the treat. Once he will
reliably release the toy for the treat add the ‘out’
cue right before you put the treat on his nose. After a few play
sessions your pup should release the toy on the cue, then you
can mark and reinforce the behavior.
Toys and games make wonderful reinforcers. After
a click or a verbal marker, you can present a favorite object
or engage in an enjoyable activity rather than giving a food treat.
Start varying the type of reinforcer you use very early in your
pup’s life. You want to have a variety of possible rewards
at your disposal. If you use a toy or game as a reinforcer it
should be presented and removed fairly quickly. For example, if
your dog lies down on cue you could click and pull out a rope
toy for a 15 second game of tug. Then put the toy away and continue
4. Environment & Socialization.
One of the most important things an owner can do is to provide
her puppy with an enriched environment. In a very well-known research
study young rats were placed either in an enriched or a deprived
environment. The enriched environment included a variety of toys
that were rotated regularly, along with other rat playmates and
human attention. The deprived environment consisted of being housed
in an individual cage without any attention, company, or activity.
The brains of the rats from the two different environments were
compared at the end of the study. Rats in the enriched environment
had brains that were larger and heavier. They had made more connections
between neurons (brain cells). These connections allow information
to be processed faster.
To provide an enriched environment for your
puppy you want to expose him to many different sights, sounds,
smells, tastes, experiences, and activities. However, use common
sense. Don’t overwhelm the pup or frighten him. One or two
new experiences each day is good. Just make sure to vary the experiences
as much as possible.
Socialization with other animals and with people
is also crucial for puppies. Learning how to get along with other
living creatures is an extremely important lesson. If this lesson
is not learned young, it might never be learned at all. Unfortunately,
some trainers have advised puppy owners to keep their puppies
away from other dogs and people in order to have the puppy bond
and focus only on the owner. If this advice is strictly followed,
certain pups will develop either fearful or aggressive responses
to other animals and people. Instead, limited, supervised exposure
should be part of the puppy’s education. Find friendly dogs
of all ages, shapes, sizes, and types and allow your pup to meet
them. In general, older female dogs are very good at letting a
pup know, without actually hurting him, when he is getting too
pushy and obnoxious. Again, use your good sense in determining
when to allow interaction and when to restrict it. Also, find
a variety of people for your puppy to meet and interact with while
young. This is also a good opportunity to teach your puppy appropriate
ways to greet humans.
5. Basic training.
All dogs should know a few basic obedience behaviors. Those who
will participate in specific dogs sports will need a much larger
foundation of behaviors that are on cue. The following behaviors
are those most commonly taught and used.
Attention. Before you can do any other training,
you need your dog’s attention. For most purposes you simply
want a general awareness of your presence and your want your pup
to orient to you very quickly when asked. Concentrated, focused
attention for higher level training can be taught when the puppy
is older and more mature.
The easiest way to get attention is to simply require it before
you give your puppy anything that he wants. If he wants to go
outside, wait until he looks at you before you open the door.
If he wants out of his crate, wait until he makes eye contact
before you release him. If he wants to play, wait until he focuses
on you first. It’s very easy to tie this requirement into
every activity with your pup. Slowly, increase the time your dog
must look at you before you give him what he wants. Always acknowledge
your puppy’s attention on you in some way. Either click
and treat, give a verbal marker and play, or allow your dog access
to some desired activity. For example, imagine that your puppy
desperately wants to greet one of his doggie friends. Simply wait
and require attention to you, even a glance, before you allow
the interaction. For your puppy, attention is the key to all good
Recall. After attention, a recall is probably
the most important thing you can teach. To have a solid, reliable
recall you need to start young and be very consistent in your
training. We start puppies with an ‘in your face’
recall. The purpose of this initial training step is to teach
puppies that the recall cue is a very good thing to hear and that
it is worth paying attention to. Start with a clicker and a supply
of small, soft, tasty treats. Get your pup’s attention first
(either tap him on the shoulder or show him your treats), then
say his name, your recall cue, click, and give him a treat. Your
puppy doesn’t need to do anything other than take the treat.
You’re not asking him to move toward you yet. In the initial
stages of this exercise you are right in front of your dog. Repeat
in every room of your house at least 50 times (in a number of
short sessions). There should be no distractions in the early
stages of training. Then repeat in a number of locations outside
your house. This groundwork will make your dog’s response
to recall cues much faster and stronger.
Basic position changes (sit, down, stand). These
basic position changes are most easily taught using a food lure
that is quickly faded. Simply use a very desirable treat to ‘lead
your pup by the nose’. When he moves into position either
click or use your verbal marker, and let him have the treat. If
he isn’t moving into the desired position it is typically
because of your hand position. Experiment with your hand position
until you are successful.
For a sit put the treat on your pup’s
nose, then move it slightly up and back (between his eyes). In
following the treat with his nose his head will come up and his
rear end will go down into a sit.
The down should be practiced from both a sitting
and a standing position. These are actually two very different
movements for your puppy. They should have different cues. For
example, one can be ‘down’ and the other ‘drop’.
From a sit you can move the treat from the pup’s nose straight
down to the floor and then out slightly in front of the pup’s
feet (L-shaped movement). From a stand you will move the treat
slightly under the dog’s chin and towards his chest (a backward
push). The down from the stand is often called a sphinx or accordian
down and is very useful in both obedience and agility.
One of the most overlooked, but most useful
obedience exercises is the stand. A stand is useful for grooming
and for veterinary examinations, and is required for certain competition
obedience exercises. You can lure the pup into a stand from either
a sit or a down. Your hand should move straight out from the puppy’s
nose, parallel to the ground. If your hand is too high the puppy
will sit, too low the puppy will stand.
Once your puppy is quickly and enthusiastically
following the food lure it’s time to ‘fade’
the lure. Instead of having the food in your hand and using it
to get the behavior, you will use the food as a reinforcer after
the behavior has been completed. To begin fading, simply pretend
to have the food in your hand. Use the exact same hand motion
that you used when you had the lure. Most likely, your puppy will
follow the motion. Then you can use your behavioral marker and
take a treat from a pocket, fanny pack, or container for your
pup. Mix these ‘empty hand’ trials with food lures
for a few sessions, slowly decreasing the number of trials with
food in your hand.
Stay/wait. Most puppies don’t have the
self-control and concentration necessary for long stays. It’s
best to start with a short ‘wait’ first, and leave
the more formal stays for later training. You can begin teaching
your dog to wait once he has learned the position changes. Simply
ask for a position and then delay your behavioral marker by a
second or two. Then give the marker and the treat. Slowly increase
the time your dog must wait for the marker and treat. If your
puppy moves out of position simply start again with a shorter
duration for the wait.
Leash walking. One of the hardest bad habits
to break in a dog is leash pulling. Once learned, it is a very
strong behavior that is resistant to change. Ideally, the dog
should never learn to pull, but many do. One way to avoid this
problem is to decide that you will never, ever move forward when
the leash it tight. This is a resolution that requires determination
and constant monitoring. However, if you keep this resolution,
you will avoid a major pitfall in training.
We start puppies with ‘loose leash standing’.
Simply stand still with the puppy on a leash and click (or use
your verbal marker) and treat whenever the leash is loose. It
doesn’t matter what else your puppy is doing; a loose leash
is the target behavior you’re paying attention to. Sadly,
many people in our puppy classes are already having problems with
this! Before you move on to taking a step forward your pup needs
to learn to stay close to you voluntarily when on leash.
When you do begin moving forward with your puppy
on leash be sure to reinforce a loose leash and stop and/or move
backwards when the leash is tight. A tight leash should mean that
your puppy either stays put or moves away from whatever he’s
I’ve only touched on some of the issues
to consider when training a new puppy. If it sounds overwhelming,
just break it down into smaller parts. Focus on what is important
for you and your pup at any given time. There’s a lot for
a new kid to learn. You may want to sit down and set some goals
for your puppy’s training progress.
Also, remember that every interaction you have
with your puppy is a training opportunity. You don’t have
to schedule specific training sessions, incorporate them into
everything that you do with your pup. Finally, don’t forget
to enjoy your puppy! Take plenty of pictures to remind you of
this time. It goes so fast. Pretty soon he’ll be a trained,
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