Setting Puppies up for Success with The Power of Choice
By Irith Bloom, CPDT-KSA, CBCC-KA, CDBC, CSAT, KPA CTP, VSPDT, CBATI, VSDTA Faculty, DWA Faculty
Do you have a puppy in your home? It’s exciting and fun to live with a puppy—but it can also be a lot of work. Puppies aren’t born understanding human rules. In fact, normal puppy behavior can sometimes make puppies hard to live with. But don’t despair! You can help your puppy learn to make better choices.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors (and Puppies)
All behavior—including puppy behavior—is affected by what’s happening in the environment. Take a simple example: If your yard is securely fenced, your puppy can’t leave the yard (at least not without your help). I know that seems obvious, but thinking about the world your puppy lives in and how it affects your puppy can prevent a lot of misbehavior. In the training world, we refer to arranging the environment to prevent “bad” choices and encourage “good” choices (e.g., fencing the yard) as “management.”
Better Management = Better Choices
Good management is a key element in teaching puppies to make good choices. Here’s an example: A common misbehavior we see in puppies is chewing the wrong things (e.g., shoes and nice furniture). To prevent inappropriate chewing, put away items you don’t want the puppy to chew on, or block the puppy’s access to them. You might keep shoes in the closet or install a baby gate to prevent your puppy from roaming your house unsupervised.
It also helps to provide your puppy with appropriate items to chew on, such as toys and long-lasting chews. Chewing is a normal puppy behavior, so the goal is not to teach your puppy not to chew at all; it’s to get your puppy to chew on the right things.
Good Management Sets Your Puppy up for Success
When you block access to things you don’t want chewed, your puppy is set up to make better choices in terms of chewing. The “wrong” items are out of reach, and lots of appropriate items are in reach. Your puppy will get used to chewing on toys and chewies, instead of chewing on the wrong stuff.
As your puppy gets older, and his or her urge to chew reduces, you can allow your puppy to be around more valuable items. If your puppy chooses to chew on the right stuff even when other things are available, your puppy has learned to make the right choices in that situation. If he or she is still eager to eat your Manolo Blahniks, though, keep the management going a little longer.
Better Training = Better Choices
Another great way to teach your puppy to make better choices is to show your puppy that behaviors you like earn good stuff. Spend time each day training your puppy to do things that you consider polite. Puppies aren’t born knowing what behaviors we humans want, so taking the time to teach your puppy behaviors you like will pay dividends.
A Quietly-Lying-Down Puppy is a Good Puppy
I like teaching puppies to lie down and relax. I teach them to do this both when asked (on cue) and at random (as a default). A puppy who is lying down quietly is not chasing the children, jumping up to bite your sleeves, or stealing food from the counter. And relaxed puppies are cute to boot!
To teach a puppy that lying down is worthwhile, praise and offer the puppy a treat (between his or her paws on the floor) any time you notice the puppy is lying down. The praise and treat tell the puppy he or she has done something you like. Putting the treat between the paws encourages the puppy to stay lying down. You can also teach puppies to lie down on cue, by either capturing or luring the behavior (more on those topics another time) and praising and treating when the puppy responds to the cue to lie down, as well.
Start early for the best results!
The sooner you start teaching your puppy to make better choices — by managing the environment and training behaviors you like — the sooner you will see the benefits. I’m not saying your puppy will be perfect. Puppies are growing and changing, and some days will be harder than others no matter how well you set things up. But thinking carefully about what behaviors you want to encourage, and praising and rewarding behaviors you like, will help your puppy learn those strange (to puppies) human rules much faster.
- Irith Bloom is a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant who specializes in teaching dogs how to make better choices. She helps clients worldwide live the good life with their pets.