The minute you get your new puppy - she is learning! She's like a sponge, soaking up experiences, processing them, discovering the outcome, and learning whether that thing was good or bad.
So whether you like it or not your puppy is learning every moment she’s awake, and processing that learning while she’s asleep.
What does that mean for you?
It means that you need to grab this opportunity and teach your puppy as much as possible while she’s in this absorbent, influenceable, state. Once she hits adolescence she’ll be developing ideas of her own, and they may not accord with what you’d like in your family dog!
Now, I’m not suggesting drills and route-marches, "don’t don’t don’t", and some kind of puppy bootcamp!
If you focus on teaching your puppy how to learn, adding things like sits and downs are a snap
When’s the right age to start?
In days mercifully gone by (mostly), puppies were given no training at all until six months or so. They were considered too soft to take the punitive methods then popular (and happily becoming less and less popular now). Of course they were! They were babies! But the good news is that there’s no need to use punitive methods at any age. In fact, they’re counterproductive.
These early weeks of your pup’s new life with you are, in fact, the best time of all to teach her how to learn.
What do I mean by that?
Instead of focussing on “commands”, “obedience”, and fighting the puppy’s “stubbornness”, focus instead on teaching her that being around you is good, being in your home is good, being with your family is good. And you do this by simply rewarding everything she does which you like! There isn’t any need for “No!” or “Stop that” or “Get down” or any of the other things that new puppy owners think they have to do to establish superiority.
You don’t need to establish superiority! The puppy knows which side her bread is buttered, and all she needs is kindness and patience while she works out what has a good outcome and what has no outcome worth pursuing.
And to harness this great learning skill, you simply
Reward what you like
Ignore what you don’t like
and Manage what you can’t ignore
Rewards are anything the puppy finds rewarding - play, cuddles, laughter, tasty treats, dinner, toys, running, chews, garden - etc. Ensure that every action you like is marked and rewarded, and your youngster will soon learn to repeat the things that earn her a reward and not bother with the things that don’t.
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Never say NO
There isn’t a place for NO in training babies, of any species. Love and encouragement are what works. But to ensure that you aren’t chasing round after a puppy trying to divert his attention from the electric cables and your favourite dining chair legs you need to set up a safe environment for your pup.
I like to use crates and playpens or babygates to make a safe area with plenty of chew toys. You want to have the puppy always in the same room as you so you can monitor what he’s up to. Then when you’re busy you can pop him in his crate for some much needed sleep and processing time while you get on with the rest of your life without having to worry about what the pup is doing. And when he’s with you, loose, you can watch him exploring his environment without having to do any “No” or “Ah-ah” because you’re there to divert him if a sniff looks as though it’s going to turn into a nibble.
In general, let your puppy explore everything. Don’t be curbing his enthusiasm for the world he now lives in. While we explore our surroundings largely with our eyes, and babies with their hands and mouth, puppies work largely with their nose and mouth. Let him! You can intervene and distract if necessary, but people are often surprised how little it is necessary if they can simply pay attention to their roving puppy and provide him with plenty of chewables in his playpen or crate.
A cat may look at a king!
Look to your puppy’s physical needs
Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which is much the same for dogs as for people.
If you cater for all your pup’s physical needs - shelter, security, food, sleep, exercise, warmth - you’ll then be free to work on her higher needs - companionship, love, self-confidence, and self-fulfilment. Everyone knows that continually nagging and chiding a child will destroy his self-confidence, and we naturally tend to encourage children in their efforts. Puppies are the same! Continual nagging and telling off will damage your puppy’s confidence in her coping abilities, which will seriously affect her ability to learn without second-guessing, fear, and anxiety.
Alongside all this is the necessity for appropriate socialisation. This does not mean thrusting your puppy into the face of every dog you see, or handing him round to strangers to touch. What it does mean is slowly and gently exposing your puppy to all the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, of our world, and ensuring that all experiences are good ones.
What you expect is what you get
If you think that inviting a puppy into your home is inevitably going to lead to destroyed furniture, soggy carpets, scratched and bitten hands and arms, shredded clothes, and all the rest, then maybe that’s what you’ll get.
If, on the other hand, you prepare well, supervise your puppy at all times - inside and outside the house - and work with rewards and patience, you’re setting yourself up for a life of harmony with a dog who knows how to please you, knows her boundaries, and is happy to learn whatever you ask her to.
For an example of how this learning takes place, have a look at this article which gives you a simple recipe to follow to get the results you want - whatever you’re teaching.
And if you want to know a bit more about the nuts and bolts of Learning Theory in dogs - exhaustively researched and proven over the last 100 or so years - see this piece by the marvellous animal trainer Bob Bailey. There was never any room for sentiment in Bob’s work, training animals and birds for astonishing wartime feats to change the course of history. His work, which guided much of what enlightened dog trainers do today, was based totally in science.
We want our pups to grow up confident and ready to learn, able to manage new things and new experiences. Excise NO from your vocabulary and you’ll be making a great start!
For lots of force-free methods for changing our puppy’s behaviour to what we want, check out this free email course.
And if you’re just beginning with your precious new puppy - look at
Got a dog already? Check out this article for successfully rearing a puppy in a multi-dog household.