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Do I Need to Become Leader of my Pack to Train My Puppy?

Aren’t puppies just the cutest? Its hard not to laugh when they’re bouncing around with some stolen prize like a dirty sock (if you’re lucky).  It is amazing how quickly things that seem so cute and innocent at 8 weeks are obnoxious and even dangerous a few short months later.

Your puppy’s purpose in life at this point is all about figuring out what works and what doesn’t to get him the things he wants.

He does this by constantly experimenting and then learning from the consequences- both positive and negative- of his actions: “Was it edible? Fun? Did it feel good, taste good or get me something I wanted, like attention?”. What your puppy is rewarded for – both by you and the environment- he will repeat, expecting a similar result. For example, for the 1st few weeks your puppy was home, he greeted you by enthusiastically jumping up on your legs, tail wagging like crazy. Delighted, you either bent down to smooch with him, or scooped him up in your arms. What did the puppy learn? That the way to greet and get attention from those you love is to jump all over them to prove it. Early puppy training is about building a relationship and establishing communication, managing the puppy and his environment to minimize opportunities for the puppy to make bad choices, and providing appropriate consequences for all the things you want to teach- and  for all those things he tries for himself. The most important thing to remember for the next few months is that you ARE training your puppy every second you spend with him, whether you intend to or not.  Make sure to recognize and reward the behaviors that you like, and to discourage and limit opportunities for unwanted behaviors, and you will have the dog you always wanted.

How to positively establish dominance with your pup

Dogs do not exist in, or even understand, democracy. Instead, their lives are more or less controlled by the high-ranking member of their pack – the ALPHA. Being an effective pack leader means being authoritative without being harsh, kind without being over-permissive. It is your responsibility to treat your dog humanely and fairly, and to consistently reinforce and correct your dog in ways he can understand. Alpha means combining the best traits of guardian, teacher, friend, partner and benevolent leader. To achieve Alpha status, you don’t usually need to resort to harsh physical “man-handling” of your dog. Instead, you become the source of all the “good stuff” in the dog’s life. When your dog has to go through you (comply with a command) to get to everything he finds wonderful in life, he usually will hand over the Alpha role to you quite happily. Why shouldn’t he when you are the SOURCE OF ALL GOOD THINGS? As Alpha, you control all resources. Resources include food, territory, toys, bones, attention, petting and play-literally anything that the dog wants or is motivated by is a resource you can use. The dog is allowed access to resources by you for responding in an appropriate way. For example, sitting and waiting politely until you say “take it” when you are putting the food bowl down “earns” dinner. Keep in mind that leaders lead! They go through doorways (territory boundaries)first, they eat first, they play (or provide grooming/petting) when they want to, not when the dog demands it, they require that lower ranking members yield space or move to get out of Alpha’s way. A good rule of thumb to follow is that until you have earned your place as Alpha in your pack (and your dog is responding to you reliably) give your dog nothing for “free”.

Proactive problem prevention for your pup

Set boundaries- As Alpha of your pack, all territory belongs to you. The dog is allowed to go only where you allow him. This means that until your dog is trained, you may have to crate, gate, tie down or “umbilical cord” your dog  with a 6-8 foot leash or houseline tied to you. Why is this so important? If your dog has no opportunity to get into trouble, then he can’t get into trouble! Its really about building good habits while preventing bad ones from starting. Let’s face it, there is a limited amount of trouble a dog can get into when he’s 6 feet away from you! Sounds simple doesn’t it? The rule: if you cannot be in direct sight of your dog, he must be contained in a crate or other small area. Tie downs can be used (2′ leash attached to something sturdy) only if you can be in the same room with the dog. Puppies very rarely make good decisions on their own (at least as far as we are concerned), so a good rule of thumb for now is if you don’t see him, SOMETHING BAD IS HAPPENING. If he gets away with something, roll up a newspaper and smack yourself in the head 3 times while repeating “I wasn’t watching my puppy”.

Provide outlets for normal behavior-A huge part of successful behavior management is understanding your dog’s need to engage in normal dog behavior. These behaviors include chewing, digging, barking, sniffing, playing, hunting and eliminating. If you are not teaching your dog when, where and on what it is appropriate to engage in these behaviors, he is going to make up his own mind. Remember, when dogs make their own decisions, they are rarely good ones! The dog doesn’t know that chewing the couch is wrong, only that he felt the need to chew, no one was around to correct and re-direct him, so the environment provided his chew toy. The rule: find ways to physically and mentally stimulate your dog or he’s going to provide his own entertainment-not to make you mad, but because he’s being a dog !

Exercise- Getting enough mental and physical exercise is critical!  A tired dog is a well -behaved dog, so find ways to wear out your puppy on a regular basis. Playing with other dogs and puppies is important socially, mentally and physically, so finding or forming puppy playgroups is highly recommended. While swimming, retrieving  and playing with other dogs are excellent forms of physical exercise; training, treat dispensing balls and “find-it” games are good examples of mental exercise.

Make undesirable behaviors non-reinforcing- Use dog bombs, squirt guns, or whatever your puppy finds aversive to stop him “in the act”. You must use these as a “sneak attack” – you want the puppy to think the correction came from the environment and not from you. (You get to be the “good guy”, not the “punisher”). Keep in mind that well-reinforced behaviors will not be easy to extinguish. Every problem you have with your puppy has been reinforced- either by the environment, or unintentionally by you or others. After the fact punishments are useless and only make your dog distrust you. You must make the act unrewarding to the dog. Setting up booby traps on counters or around trash cans can be very helpful in eliminating nuisance behaviors like counter surfing and trash-raiding, and I suggest setting these up for your puppy BEFORE they become a problem. Remember, just stopping him from making a bad choice isn’t enough, you have to redirect him to an alternative that is ok, too.

How to teach your puppy the commands you want him to know

There are 4 basic steps to teaching your dog something new:

  • Show the dog what IT is you want
  • Put a “name” on IT (your command)
  • Reward the dog if he complies with the FIRST command
  • Help him be correct if he doesn’t comply or offers an alternate behavior

Before you start teaching your dog the new behavior you will want to do a couple of things. The first is to establish a Conditioned Reinforcer (CR). Sound complicated? Its not! A  CR is simply a word or sound that tells your dog that he has performed correctly and has earned a reward. I use the word “YESSSS!!!!”. You can use yes, great, perfect- really any word you want, but it should be said in a way that your dog  would not hear in your normal conversation. I try to avoid using phrases like “good boy” because the dog usually hears it so much that it has no special meaning. You may also choose to use a clicker, which is a small noise-making device. The second thing you need to do is establish a Release Command, which tells your dog that he is done working for you for the moment. You may use ok, free, release or relax. Again, the word you use isn’t important, how you use it and being consistent is. To minimize confusion, make sure that each command you use has only 1 meaning (for example, “down” should mean either lay down or get your feet off, not both). Don’t lie to your dog- say what you mean, and mean what you say!

While we’re on the subject of being consistent, did you notice on # 3 the word FIRST? This is important, because the reason the dog has to comply with the first command is because he’s only going to hear it ONCE. Why is it important to only give one command? There are several reasons, not the least of which is that your dog probably heard you the first time, and simply chose not to do it. If you have fairly taught your dog the meaning of the command, and he chooses to do something different, then you are doing yourself and your dog a disservice by not correcting him (we are not talking about a major punishment here, just a correction- helping the dog be right). The more consistent you are in your training and expectations, the more reliable your dog will be in his behavior. Consider it this way: if you repeat a command, you are teaching the dog NOT to listen to the first one, because he can count on another one coming soon (or worse, that you will just let the dog have his own way because it seems easier at the time). Before long, this becomes a habit for the dog, and he starts waiting for the 2nd, 3rd or 33rd command. Which one was the one he was supposed to comply with? If you aren’t sure, then you can bet your dog won’t be either. Do yourself and your dog a favor and gently insist right from the beginning that he respond to the first command. Until your dog’s training has some measure of reliability, make sure you are not giving commands that you can’t enforce, again so your dog doesn’t learn that he can choose not to comply. Our goal when training your dog is to give him a habit of responding correctly and promptly to every command.

A few words about practice and punishments for your pup…

As the old joke goes, “How did you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, practice, practice. Reinforced(rewarded) repetitions are how dogs learn what behaviors work to get what they want. This is true for both the behaviors you like and the ones you don’t. The original opportunist, a dog will stick with what has worked in the past. So, in order for you to instill good habits in your dog, you have to spend time teaching him what you want- its not going to happen just because you want it to. Also, your puppy is going to find out on his own what he likes and what he doesn’t. Some of the stuff he likes to do, you won’t, so don’t let him practice(get better at) unwanted behavior. If he is very persistent in engaging in unwanted behavior, you will have to use a correction, in this case, a punishment.  The punishment will vary depending on the “offense”, temperament of your dog, and on what he finds aversive(something he works to avoid). Some punishments that may be effective for your dog might be dog bombs, water pistols or just a loud, growly “nahhhhht!”. If you are at the stage where you need to punish the puppy for something, keep these things in mind:

  • Is the behavior I’m trying to eliminate happening right now? If not, its too late, be on yours toes next time.
  • Is the punishment I’m using decreasing the behavior after 3-4 repetitions? If the occurrence of the “bad” behavior isn’t decreasing, then you are not using an effective punishment for your dog or the behavior. I’d rather punish the dog the right way once or twice and get on with my life than nag him for the next 10 years about the same unwanted behavior.
  • Since dogs are non-verbal animals, pleading, begging and reasoning are not effective, or even humane, training methods.

©2003 Jennifer M. Bridwell, CnTPM
The Canine Connection Dog Training, LLC    (203)876-2441

Please note: The information provided here is meant to supplement that provided by your veterinarian. Do not disregard veterinary advice or delay treatment as a result of information at this site. Nothing can replace a complete history and physical examination performed by your veterinarian. -Dr. Jeff