Puppy Training Rules
by Race Foster, DVM and Marty
Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc.
Before we actually start puppy training or even thinking about it, it
is important that we get ourselves in the right frame of mind. If we do
this and know where we are going, we will be much less likely to violate
certain training rules that may hinder or prevent us from attaining our
goals. Additionally, we want to prevent ourselves from doing anything
that may adversely affect the relationship we hope to develop with our
puppy. In our article on Housebreaking, we alluded to the fact that everything
we do in training can result in positive or negative effects on how our
puppy sees us. We start out with the idea of making our dog more like
we want it to be, but if we are not careful our pet may end up seeing
us as something it doesn't want us to be.
1. Always Be Consistent
1. The First Rule of general training is Always Be Consistent. There should
be no exceptions here if you want the training to go as rapidly and as
easily as possible. This relates to your actions and words. From the very
start you need to decide exactly what you are trying to teach or control
and how you will do it. If you are going to use a certain word or phrase
as part of a command or in conjunction with a certain point you are trying
to make, always say the exact same thing in the same tone of voice. This
is important for all the members of a household or anyone else working
with the puppy. Everyone that is involved in the training should know
and use the same expression. As an example, let's think in terms of the
"Come" command. It obviously will not makes things go faster
if you use the word "Come", your spouse uses the word "Here"
and one of the children uses "Yo, Boy". All of this simply confuses
the dog. Remember we are trying to train it in our language; we can't
expect the puppy to be multilingual at 8 weeks of age.
Every time you give a command or are working on a training point, consistently
carry it through to completion. Don't tug on the check cord for the pup
to come to you and then become distracted and forget what you are doing.
If you start pulling the animal in but then stop with it halfway to you,
he becomes confused. The puppy is supposed to come to you, all the way
to you. If you don't insure that happens, the puppy may think that it
is okay, when given the come
command, to only come in part way to you or completely ignore the command.
Try to expect the same reaction out of the puppy each time. If you use
any form of praise or reward for a job well done, be consistent on how
well the task in question is completed before the praise or reward is
forthcoming. If the puppy is supposed to sit, don't praise him if he only
bends the rear legs a little bit. People love to praise their dogs and
sometimes they are so anxious to do this that the animal is hearing a
string of "Good Boys" but it hasn't yet completed what he was
supposed to. Over time this tells the puppy that he doesn't have to sit
all the way down but rather a slight crouch will do. The puppy will believe
that close is good enough.
When you start training the dog on a particular day, think of the next
few minutes as classroom time. When children are in school, there is classroom
time for learning and recess for playing. The same should occur with your
puppy. When you start a training session, maintain a consistent training
attitude for you and your puppy. Think training and not play. Work only
on training issues and do them over and over. Stay in control so it doesn't
become playtime for the puppy. When you are not in a training session,
be careful of what you say and do.
In the early stages of training don't ever give a command unless you can
control the puppy's actions. This is a part of consistency that many owners
overlook. As an example, let's say you are currently in the process of
teaching your puppy the come command. She doesn't respond every time yet
but she is learning what the word means. You are in the backyard together
playing with the puppy and children. It is recess, not classroom time.
The puppy is off of her lead and suddenly takes off after a wild rabbit.
Do not, we repeat, do not even think about saying "Come"! You
know the puppy isn't going to respond because her mind is on the rabbit
and only the rabbit. If you do scream "Come" hopefully the dog
will be so distracted that it won't hear you. Because if she does recognize
the command but continues after the rabbit, the puppy has just learned
that when you are not in control, she can get away with ignoring what
you say. During the training phase, when the pup is doing anything, and
you are in a position that you are unable to control or restrain it, don't
say anything. Rather move to the animal and stop or prevent her from what
it is she is doing. In the above example, you have two correct choices.
You can either let her continue the chase or run and catch the puppy.
Don't scream "Come".
Along the way, you may make modifications in your training method but
from that point on be consistent. You may find that certain styles of
training work better on your pup. That's okay but do not start switching
back and forth. Just because one command is going slow, you shouldn't
change from method to method, hoping you find the magic formula that speeds
up the process! This rarely happens and in the interim, the puppy may
become hopelessly confused. We have found that any individual pup, regardless
of the method used, may have trouble with a certain command but not the
others. This probably relates back to some experience in the animal's
2. Keep Training Sessions Short
2. The Second Rule of general training is Keep Training Sessions Short.
In many instances young children can become engrossed for several hours
in a game, book or television show. Successful kindergarten teachers can
make learning fun and productive often for an hour or so. However, dogs
and especially puppies, do not possess long attention spans. Young pups
won't spend more than a few minutes chasing an exciting, moving stimulus
like a butterfly or bird. They simply lose interest and go on to the next
thing. The same is true with training, they burn out quickly and become
bored. After that has happened, nothing further will be learned.
Generally speaking, most successful trainers limit training sessions to
no more that 10 or 15 minutes regardless of the age of the animal. This
seems to be a good duration for most dogs to tolerate or enjoy. If this
window of time is exceeded, the learning process actually starts to go
backwards. It is important that the puppy enjoy these sessions. If not,
they may resent the entire program. If forced to continue training after
they have lost interest, this same behavior may spill over into future
sessions. Keep their minds occupied and keep it fun.
Set up a schedule and stick to it. It is much better to train for 10 minutes
every day than 60 minutes once a week. Plan to have your training times
revolve around the pup's schedule. Don't expect the puppy to be a ball
of energy and willing to learn if you try to work on the commands when
it would normally be napping or eating. Plan your training sessions when
distractions are at a minimum. If you have young children, it might go
better if you trained while they are at school or in some way occupied.
There are ways to get in additional training time other than the brief
scheduled periods and these extra ones can be very important. If your
animal is doing something that you are trying to train it to do, use obvious
opportunities to reinforce the command. A best case scenario would be
when you are getting ready to feed the puppy. You've learned that as soon
as the animal hears you filling the bowl he automatically comes running.
As soon as he starts toward you, bend down with the bowl and say "Come".
It is a free, can't fail training session! Another example would be when
you are trying to train the puppy not to do something. Let's say you are
trying to keep him from jumping on people. You've learned that every time
you first come home, the puppy rockets through the house and jumps up
on your leg. Be prepared and when he jumps up immediately put light pressure
on his toes (see our article on Jumping Up on People). Then immediately
bend down and greet the puppy just like you always do. Don't say anything
about the jumping as you two are happy to see each other. Whenever you
can control the animal or know what he is going to do, it's a good idea
to use these situations as a continuation of your training.
3. Stay Calm and in Control
3. The Third Rule of general training is Stay Calm and In Control. This
is where most people fail in training. By staying calm and in control
we are talking about you, not the dog. In training situations you can
never lose control or get excited because when you do you may become mad,
lose your temper and do something exceptionally stupid. Training should
be enjoyable for both you and the animal. If the puppy isn't having a
good time she won't learn anything. Likewise, if you are out of control
or aren't enjoying yourself you are not teaching anything.
During training there should not be any distractions for the puppy to
contend with. You should guide her through the command so that she does
it and is then praised for the successful completion of the task. If you
are excited or angry your puppy will pick up on this and not be thinking
about the task in question. You have to be focused for the animal to be
able to concentrate on the training. You will learn that your demeanor
during training is directly proportional to the amount the puppy will
learn. If you are up for this and enjoying it, the potential is there
for the dog to make solid headway during the lesson. But if you are down
then the pup's potential for anything good coming from the session is
also way down.
Carried to the extreme, if you get mad and lash out or treat the puppy
harshly, you have destroyed any good that might have come out of this
individual training session. You have also set back the animal's understanding
of the particular command or act in question and put a black cloud over
the relationship between the two of you. When you do something to another
person that you should be sorry for, you can sincerely express your regret
and apologize. If they are of a forgiving nature, the act or unkind words
are forgotten. Unfortunately, you cannot sit down with your puppy and
reason through the stupidity of your act. What's done is done and you
must work long hours to regain the animal's trust. You will need to take
time that could and should have been used for training just becoming her
Some people do better in training if they use a system in which they do
not talk to the dog during training. They teach the dog the command without
using or putting a verbal command to it. We will go over this method later
but if you tend to raise your voice when you sense that you are not in
control (or in the process of losing control), this may be a useful technique
to try. Most people talk way too much during training and for some this
becomes a stepping stone to shouting and anger.
4. Do Not Over Praise
4. The Fourth Rule of general training is Do Not Over Praise. In dog training,
praise for doing something correctly can take a variety of forms. Some
prefer to give a treat, others may use the expression "Good Dog"
and a third group may only give a single, gentle petting action across
the animal's shoulder. They all work because they show to the dog that
you are pleased or approve of his actions. You said "Come" and
the puppy came. You indicated for the dog to sit and he sat down. The
animal did what he was supposed to. Praise is important, but the animal
needs only recognizes it as a thank you for a job well done. You communicate
to the dog that he did something correctly and you are happy he did. If
your form of praise is always consistent in method and amount, the puppy
will understand perfectly.
Where many owners err is that they bury their animal in praise. Rather
than say a single "Good Dog" they get down on their knee and
let out a string of forty "Good Dogs. Instead of a single stroke
over the shoulder, they give the animal a full body massage. Instead of
a single small piece of a biscuit or treat, the dog is given half a box.
All of these overdoses do the same thing. They distract the dog from what
it has just learned. Too much of a good thing and the animal forgets what
the two of you are doing. The command and his response are no longer reinforcing
correct behavior. The entire incident may be lost in the past.
5. Always End on a Positive Note
5. The Fifth Rule of general training is to Always End On a Positive Note.
Every training session should end with praise. The last thing you ask
or command the puppy to do should be completed with the puppy doing it
correctly. Someday when things are not going as well as you would prefer,
for the last command, choose something that is easy and can't fail. When
the puppy does it correctly, praise her and move someplace else for some
recess time or relaxation. Ending a session on a bad note may continue
into the next training period. You want the pup to finish one lesson and
because of the praise, to look forward to the next session. Always remember
that to the dog, praise helps fulfill her desire to please you.
6. Forget Discipline (Punishment)
6. The Sixth Rule of general training is Forget Discipline. Now before
you overreact understand what we mean. To some trainers and most dog owners,
discipline usually means to punish the animal for something he has done.
To these same people, punishment usually means to hurt the animal in some
way. In our minds this just isn't necessary. If discipline means punishment
or causes pain, forget it.
Let's look at the most common reasons people discipline their dogs. The
most common one is for something the animal did. Notice we didn't say
"something the animal was doing". Rather we used the past tense.
People punish their dog for something she did in the past. Examples would
be finding a stool in the house during the housebreaking process. You
didn't catch the animal doing it, you only discovered it later. The pup
is picked up, scolded and put in her crate. A second example would be
if someone's dog runs away from home without them knowing it. Two or three
hours later she returns so, to make her see the error of her ways, the
owner punishes her. They use a rolled-up newspaper to give her a spanking.
Neither of these animals had any idea what the punishment was for. They
didn't sit there thinking, "Gosh, I wonder what I did lately that
deserved punishment?" Dogs don't reason. Just because they got punished,
they don't assume they did something wrong. All they know is that their
owners were mad.
Often punishment that occurs as part of training is brought about because
the owner is impatient with the improvement of the dog. The owner is trying
to push the animal through training too fast, assuming the dog should
already know the command or action. Be patient, remember that with most
training you are altering the natural instinctive behavior of the animal.
The best punishment for an incorrect reaction in training is a lack of
a reward. If the animal does it right she is praised, if she makes a mistake
she receives no praise. If praise from you is important, a lack of it
may send a message. Praise is positive reinforcement, punishment is a
There has to be a good way to communicate to the animal when he is currently
misbehaving. And there are but they aren't going to hurt anybody. In some
cases a stern "No" is all that is required. You catch the animal
urinating in the house, you say "No", pick the puppy up and
carry him outside. Dogs understand a change in the tone of your voice
much better than they do most punishment.
In human behavioral medicine today, a "time out" is believed
to be an excellent way to get across to children that they are acting
in an unacceptable fashion. When they act up or do something wrong, they
must live through a period of "time out". This is a new way
of saying "go to your room" or "stand in the corner".
The same method can be used for dogs. If they are out of control, barking
excessively or jumping on the furniture, they are given some "time
out" by being placed in a cage or crate. A stern "No" may
also be part of the treatment.
And lastly, in place of punishment we can simply choose to ignore them.
When children act in a way solely to gain attention, good therapy is to
ignore them. In some examples this also works for dogs. A dog might bark
just to get a treat or to go outside. If you want them to have neither,
consistently ignoring them will probably break the behavior pattern. If
the barking doesn't work and they don't get what they want, they will
probably stop the barking.
Most things we want to punish our dogs for indicate a lack of training.
Rather than punish them for doing something you don't want, train them
to do what you would prefer. Until that can be accomplished, a firm "No",
being placed in acrate or ignored will bring an end to most unacceptable
Honest - Can You Train?
Be honest with yourself. Not everybody can train his or her dog. Many
people say they don't have the time but if they cannot afford 10 minutes
a day then do they really have the time to have a dog? Maybe the issue
is that they do not enjoy training. This is understandable. Training is
not for everybody. Some do not have the patience for it, some cannot control
their temper and some simply do not enjoy it. If you think any of these
describe you, then you probably shouldn't try to train your dog. It would
be smarter to use a professional trainer. Your dog won't care. In fact,
it would probably prefer it. A good professional trainer will only help
a dog while an individual owner who loses control may destroy one. The
owner may or may not physically injure the animal but may cripple the
dog's personality and self-confidence. If you think you cannot handle
the job, use a trainer.
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