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Ask the Trainer: new puppy to-do’s

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New puppy? Keep in mind: from day one puppy is learning both good and bad habits. Between five and 10 months of age many puppies move into adolescence, and any problem behaviors you haven’t dealt with are bound to intensify. Puppy problems don’t go away on their own; they tend to get worse. That said, focus on the following areas:

Household Manners
Housetraining, chewtoy-training, and teaching your puppy alternatives to natural (but undesirable) behaviors, such jumping, nipping, recreational barking or destructive chewing, is your most urgent priority.

From day one, try managing the puppy’s environment so mistakes are virtually impossible to make. Create a confinement schedule and have plenty of chew bones and toys available, such as Kong’s or hollow bones.

Confinement/Home Alone
Most of us can’t (and shouldn’t) spend all day every day at home with our new puppy. Many of us unknowingly cultivate anxiety in our puppy about being home alone by not teaching this valuable skill from the beginning.

Use an exercise pen, baby gates, or (for short periods) a crate to create a space of confinement for puppy, making sure she has plenty of chew toys to keep her busy. Even if you have taken time off work to be home with your puppy or if you are usually home most of the time, give puppy short periods of alone time throughout the day.

Consider crate training your puppy – this will help with confinement and house training.

Socialization with People
By 12 weeks of age puppies have reached a developmental milestone wherein they form social attitudes about interacting with new people. Make it a priority to introduce your puppy to new people. Show your family, friends and visitors how to use kibble to teach sit, down, and come, and how to encourage proper use of puppy’s mouth when playing. When you’re with your puppy around new people and in new situations, illustrate that “new” and “different” equal “no big deal” by remaining calm and largely ignoring sights and sounds that might be unusual in the environment. This ability to adapt is an attitude that if not encouraged over the first two years of puppy’s life can fade, especially during late adolescence, so don’t stop after puppy class is over.

Socialization with Dogs
As soon as your vet says it’s OK, join a puppy socialization and training class. Dogs learn many of their social skills with other dogs by 18 weeks of age. This isn’t to say that an older puppy or dog can’t learn, but it’s difficult to undo what dogs have learned about using their mouths during play by this age.

Teach your puppy the polite way to greet other dogs – calm approach and head-to-butt for a round of getting-to-know-you sniffing. Realize that most adolescent and adult dogs feel compelled to “teach” puppies the ropes (and can appear downright cranky to puppies), so, while of course you must keep your puppy safe, don’t overreact or try to overly manage other dogs’ communications with your puppy. Unless the other dog is truly aggressive or may inadvertently hurt your puppy because it’s too rough, you don’t want your puppy to sense your anxiety about meeting other dogs. An air snap and vocal correction by another dog is simply dog language for “Hey puppy, calm the heck down and get out of my space”. That being said, don’t be shy about stepping between another dog and your puppy, and stepping toward the other dog (to back him off) if you feel the other dog is “dangerous” to puppy. This body language where you “claim” your puppy and force the other dog to move back will be interpreted as strong leadership by both dogs.

“Sit” and “Settle” Commands
While your puppy can learn obedience commands at any time during her life, you can start with the “sit” and “settle” commands as soon as you’d like puppy to start listening to you. These basic commands can keep puppy out of trouble and keep him from being annoying to those who might not want to experience him up close and personal.

Use a food lure to teach “sit,” and be sure to mark the behavior (with a clicker or a “yes!”) the moment puppy’s butt hits the ground. To teach “settle,” say that word whenever puppy is lying calmly and earning attention or treats. Soon your puppy will associate the word “settle” (and calm behavior) with something positive (a treat).

Sitting on the dog
A tried-but-true method, “sitting on the dog” is another technique that encourages puppy to learn to self calm. Have a leash on puppy, and sit in a chair with the leash under you. Leave just enough leash so puppy can lay down comfortably at the side of the chair.

Ignore puppy (no talking, touching or eye contact) until and unless puppy lies down. Then immediately pet puppy, giving one long stroke down the back from shoulder to hip and simply say “settle”. This rewards puppy for calm behavior. If puppy gets up, petting and attention stop and ignoring begins again.

With very young puppies, the exercise lasts until he has settled down once or twice.

Bite Inhibition
By 18 weeks of age dogs have developed behaviors and habits relating to biting and using their mouths. Hopefully your puppy spent his early weeks in a litter with his mother and littermates who didn’t hesitate to let him know when he bit too hard. Mouthing is a completely natural and necessary puppy behavior; if a puppy is not allowed to play-bite, he can’t develop reliable bite inhibition. Bite inhibition training requires first teaching the puppy to progressively inhibit the force of its bites until painful puppy play biting is toned down and transformed into gentle puppy mouthing. Then, and only then, do you start teaching puppy to progressively inhibit the incidence of his mouthing. Puppy learns that mouthing is by and large inappropriate and that any pressured bite is absolutely unacceptable.

Puppy classes (or your dog trainer) are a good place to seek advice if you’re concerned about your puppy’s biting behavior.

Remember: training your puppy starts from the moment you bring her home. Combine basic training how-to’s with patience and consistency and you’ll be on your way to a well-mannered dog.

Have a dog training question? Send it to ann@localbark.com. It might make a good column!

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