One of the things I like best about puppy preschool, and training puppies in general. is that they respond so well to praise and positive direction. They haven’t learned that bad behavior can get them what they want. They haven’t decided for sure that this thing is “bad” or that thing is “scary.” By the time a puppy reaches 14 weeks, they are less receptive to new things, and by the time they are two years old, they have pretty much figured out what they do and don’t like and how to avoid what they don’t like. This can be by hiding or biting or anything in between.
Young puppies crave attention, they are interested in new things and they like to stay close to their people. They also have very short attention spans and they put everything in their mouths. These things can be very frustrating and annoying. But all of these things make working with young puppies easy if you plan ahead and approach things by focusing on the positive.
Housetraining is a critical issue for young puppies. Little puppies have to go to the bathroom frequently. You could approach house training with a negative focus. “I want this puppy NOT to go to the bathroom in the house.” That is a reasonable goal. But if you focus only on the negative, and don’t take the next step to a positive action, it will likely be very frustrating and unsuccessful. Yes, you could punish or scold your puppy every time he goes to the bathroom in the house. How does he know what you are punishing him for? In the ideal situation, you catch your puppy urinating in the house and you tell him he’s a bad dog. He can tell from your tone that you are unhappy with him, but urinating is a normal and important behavior. Are you scolding him for urinating? Are you mad at him because he did it in front of you? Or are you upset that he did it in the house? He really has no way of knowing unless you teach him what you want.
Suppose that you are starting a new job. There is a refrigerator and a water cooler in what appears to be a break area. When you get to work, you put your lunch in the refrigerator and at lunch you get your food out and get some water from the cooler. Now, suppose your boss comes by while you are eating lunch and tells you he doesn’t like that and if you do it again, he’s going to write you up. How confused would you be? Were you not supposed to be eating lunch? Would it be okay to eat lunch at another time? Are you not supposed to get water from the cooler? Are you not supposed to be using the refrigerator? Was it something you did earlier? Of course, you and your boss speak the same language, so you could try to ask him. But you’d probably be too intimidated by that point to ask. At that point, you’d probably just be looking for a new job. This example is pretty far-fetched, but truly, puppies do not speak English, and you shouldn’t assume that they understand what they are being punished for when they are scolded or otherwise punished.
So, how can puppies learn what we expect if we don’t punish them? Interesting question. I like it better when you say “How can puppies learn” because young puppies are programmed to learn. Using the housetraining example, you reward your puppy when he goes to the bathroom outside. How do they know they are being rewarded for going outside, and not just going to the bathroom? They don’t. At least not the first few times. But it doesn’t matter because you are making them feel GOOD, not BAD. If you make your puppy feel good frequently, he likes it and he likes you. He learns to trust you. If you make your puppy feel bad frequently, he becomes worried and fearful, and he doesn’t trust you. When he feels good, he keeps trying to do things that make you happy. He might not always be right, but he keeps trying. If he is scolded, he will try to avoid doing things that get him in trouble, and he doesn’t know what that is, so eventually, he tries to just avoid you. The more you scold him for, the more he tries not to get into trouble. Alternatively, your puppy learns to ignore you when you scold him. Neither of these outcomes is really what you want.
Let’s go back to the example at our new job. This time, you’re eating lunch and drinking water from the water cooler, and your boss tells you you’re doing a great job, and he’s really happy with you. You still don’t know what you did, but I bet you’re not thinking about leaving this job. You’re probably thinking this is a pretty sweet deal. You might even work up the courage to ask your boss what you did that was so great. Maybe not, but you’re going to work really hard to figure it out.
So, praise makes us feel good, and criticism or punishment makes us feel bad, but that is not the only power of the positive. In fact, it’s not even the most important thing. The most important thing is that DOING something is a lot easier than NOT doing something. In other words, a positive action is easier than a negative action. If someone says “Don’t chew your nails.” It’s a lot harder to do than if they hand you a wad of clay and ask you to make something, anything. The beauty of it is that you aren’t chewing your nails while you are making something with the clay. What if they tell you they really like what you made with the clay? That might make working with clay more fun. Detractors may say that you are going to go right back to chewing your nails after you are done with the clay. But people don’t chew their nails constantly. Usually, there is something that stimulates them to chew their nails, like stress. The important point here is that chewing your fingernails is very difficult to do when you’re with clay.
This approach can be used with teaching your puppy many things he or she should know. Suppose your puppy is chewing things up in the house. Chewing is a normal behavior in puppies, and there are many reasons that puppies chew: boredom, curiosity, teething, attention. Instead of scolding your puppy for chewing something he shouldn’t, give him something he CAN chew. Make sure he’s had plenty of exercise, been out to the bathroom, and make sure that he is mentally stimulated. If he’s looking for attention, scolding can actually reinforce his chewing behavior (scolding=attention). If your puppy is jumping up on you, he needs to learn to sit. Every time he jumps on you, turn your back to him and fold your arms across your chest, then reward him when he sits. It is much easier to ignore a 10 pound puppy jumping on you that a 50 pound adult dog.
Finally, recognize when your puppy is well behaved, and reward him for that. If he’s sleeping on his bed, walk over quietly and scratch him on his head or belly. If he sits quietly looking for attention, pet him a little, otherwise he will try other, less desirable, means to get what he wants.
Puppies are a lot of work, but we love them for many reasons. Focusing on what we want and what we like about our puppies and gently discouraging undesirable behaviors can go a long way to making that time in your dog’s life even more precious.