By Lisa Benshoff, CPDT-KA, Talbot TTouch llc
If you just got a puppy and are stressing about all the typical problems you didn’t anticipate (or forgot about, like me), don’t despair. Like having a really cute but exhausting toddler, your life is consumed by potty training, tantrums, and trying to keep them from hurting themselves—and you. But there’s no need to resort to discipline, wait for training classes, or just hope the puppy will eventually “grow out of it.” There’s a lot you can do now to bring some quick relief—and more important, lay the foundation for a fantastic dog and a wonderful relationship.
House Training When we got our Goldendoodle, Torre, in late October at age 9 weeks, my first priority was house-training. Nature predictably calls on puppies after waking, eating, and playing. For the first month or so, I went out with her every time, giving enthusiastic praise and treats when she finished her business. (Presenting a cookie back in the house is too late and too distant.) Constant vigilance and rewards have paid off. We’re averaging two accidents a week—and just had a full week of zero accidents, despite a long road trip and three hotel stays. Woo-hoo!
Chewing When I first caught her chewing on books and electrical cords, I blocked her access to them with pillows and furniture, which seems to have nipped that activity in the bud. Then she turned to off-duty shoes, so they all get put away in the closet and we have to remember to keep that door shut. Other temptations must be kept out of sight and out of reach, so that counter-surfing doesn’t become a habit. Because puppies (and older dogs too) really need to chew, every room she visits has toys and a Himalayan chew, and she gets a couple of hard chew treats after dinner. When she does manage to get hold of our stuff, I ask her to Drop It (trained by trading for a treat or toy) and redirect her to her stuff. Nothing has been destroyed so far.
Nipping and Scratching Those teeth and nails are tiny but really sharp! The first few weeks, Torre thought it was great fun to launch herself at my legs from behind, using all her pointy weapons to latch onto my pants. Yelping and detaching her only amped her up. She would hurl her little self at me again, harder. Boy, was that annoying! I found three ways to deal with it. 1. Stop moving and grab a stick for her to redirect her jaws onto. 2. Presenting my hand for a nose bump (hand targeting) would also change her focus and get her off my leg. 3. She had also quickly learned to Sit and look up at me as her default (by being rewarded every time she offered it), so turning around to face her (silently) prompted her to do her default. Providing her with three good alternatives ended the surprise “attacks.”
Enough Energy to Power a Small City Like other healthy puppies, Torre has an astonishing and enviable amount of energy. Instead of using it for evil, as most bored young dogs do, she spends much of it racing, chasing, and wrestling with our very tolerant seven-year-old Doodle, Scout. She also gets daily TTouch for calming and bonding, 3-4 short training sessions (with Scout assisting), some toy play, two long walks, plus car rides and socialization opportunities when I go shopping. Good thing I had planned to stay home these past two months. The more time you can spend with your puppy during this stage, the better.
Management She eats her meals from food toys in a crate, to make that her happy place and to keep her from interrupting Scout’s meal. She sleeps in a crate in the bedroom to prevent any wandering during the night. A baby gate and closed doors keep her in my sight most of the time. She won’t get access to the whole house until she’s completely reliable, a few months from now.
No. 1 Tip: Arm Yourself! Having survived age 2-4 months, I feel a lot more empathy for other puppy parents. I’m also qualified to offer some advice that can discourage the usual bad habits from taking root, like weeds.
At all times, carry a handful of small, tasty treats (note: wearing a treat bag is cleaner than using pockets) or stashed around the home in little plastic containers with lids. Be ready to reinforce every good behavior with a bit of food your puppy loves. Some people still think that praise alone should be sufficient. At this stage, it just isn’t enough of an incentive. Learning with food rewards is far more effective. Second, instead of thinking, How can I make him stop doing that?, ask yourself, What do I want him to do instead?
Get SMART In her book Plenty in Life is Free, Kathy Sdao, a brilliant trainer, behaviorist, and teacher, proposes replacing the old NILIF approach (nothing in life is free) with a method she calls see, mark, and reward training: SMART. This is a wonderful way to cultivate good behaviors by capturing them when they happen. Each day, you count out 50 pieces of food (treats and/or kibble) and then catch your dog doing the right thing throughout the day. A clicker is the best kind of marker, but verbal markers work too. As a clicker trainer and puppy parent, I can promise you that it’s much easier to install good habits than to try to undo bad habits later on. And capturing is really the easiest training method, reducing the need for constant “commands” and the stress that causes for dogs.
Thanks to SMART, here’s what little Torre is doing reliably at age 4 months:
So here are Five Golden Rules for low-stress puppy raising (the younger it starts, the better it works).
1. Prevent the start of bad habits
2. Reward for calm behaviors. Sitting or lying quietly is something even puppies will do without being told. Don’t take those precious moments for granted! When you award treats for settling down, you are teaching your puppy that being calm and relaxed pays off. And you will get more of that.
3. Redirect, redirect, redirect. Biting is what puppies do, just like baby humans put everything in their mouth. Show her what IS okay to put her teeth on, because you cannot “correct” nipping hands or clothing without turning it into a conflict. Outside, puppies usually find moving sticks and pine cones pretty exciting. Inside, have a variety of toys within reach, with different textures. Offer braided rope toys for playing tug, and toys that move or squeak, like a flirt pole.
4. Handle with care. Petting that’s rough, fast, or prolonged leads to nipping. So does holding tightly. Instead of patting, use slow, light strokes down the body and tail. If that’s not tolerated, try using the back of your hand. Stop after 3 seconds and see how your puppy responds. If he remains with you, wiggles closer, sighs, stretches out, or blinks slowly, those are all good signs. Handling that causes your dog to look away, turn away, move away, or lick lips are signs that he is uncomfortable. Experiment with different pressure, speed, and locations, so you can use touch to strengthen your bond and help your puppy relax. Don’t let anyone make a “game” of pushing or wrestling with your puppy.
5. Notice and reward for good manners. You have dozens of opportunities every day to reward for voluntary attention, calmness, and cooperation—instead of trying to stop all the undesirable things your puppy could be doing.
Puppies have a big job figuring out how to live in our world and learn our language and rules. It’s our job, I believe, to teach them with clarity, consistency, kindness, and plenty of positive reinforcement. You will be making an excellent investment in creating a dog who is calm, polite, and generally well-behaved!
Lisa serves on our Board and is instrumental in helping keep our animals happy!