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 new beginning.

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 to occur.

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 soon.

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:

1. Food.
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 marker.

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 training.

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 things.

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 pulling toward.

IN CONCLUSION:

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, grown-up dog.


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