Sunday, 19 March 2017

What to train your puppy

I don't talk a lot about training on my blog, mainly because everyone has different ideas on it, and when talking to someone who has already formed opinions, it's a good way to have a disagreement. From time to time, people tend to ask me if I recommend any books about training, and I don't, because I have always just used what works for me and my own dogs.

I'm going to write something here about what I've found works best when training your new puppy. First of all, I recommend that you concentrate on what's most important for your dog first, rather than teaching lots of different tricks and confusing the dog. The most important thing for your dog's safety is recall. Every time you take your dog outside and you call your dog and it comes back to you, it should get a high-value treat. The things your puppy learns first are what it will tend to use as 'default' behaviour when it progresses to learning more complex things. A lot of people will see 'sit' as the obvious first command to teach the dog. However, it is sometimes inappropriate for dogs to sit, and dogs who have learnt sit early on and had it reinforced more than any other command, particularly if they are encouraged to sit without even being given the command, will tend to sit when they don't understand a new command or when they're supposed to be doing something else, because they tend to pick up the idea that sitting is always better regardless. It can create problems later on, for example, if you want to teach the dog obedience and it needs to do a standing stay, or if you want to do ringcraft and the dog keeps breaking a stack by sitting. This invariably leads to frustration and the dog being told off for doing something it's been told from the start is always right.

I've had to retrain a few dogs that have received pet training of a number of 'tricks' in a particular sequence. A lot of people seem to do a regime that involves making the dog sit, lie down, and put its front foot in the trainer's hand. It is hard to break this behaviour without the dog becoming frustrated or discouraged, as when told to do something the dog will automatically do the first part of the sequence, and then when corrected will proceed to the next step and so on. Never teach tricks as a sequence, and from a personal standpoint I would also say never teach your dog to put its feet on a person -- it's an obnoxious behaviour that shouldn't be encouraged.

Therefore, the first command I like to teach the dog is to stand still and look at me. This teaches the dog a lot of different skills that will be transferable to further training later. Firstly, it 'clicker calibrates' the dog. Secondly, it teaches self-control and will correct jumping and climbing behaviour. Thirdly, it teaches the dog to focus on you. Fourthly, you are actually teaching a rudimentary stack which will help if you want to show your dog. And importantly, this is a neutral behaviour that it is unlikely you will ever have to 'unteach' for it being inappropriate. A dog that stands calmly and watches is unlikely to be offensive to anyone. When you are trying to teach any other command, if your dog offers this behaviour, you won't have to correct it and pull it out of a sit as you would if you taught this command first. This is a safe behaviour that will help to build your dog's motivation and focus, rather than something your dog can get wrong and be discouraged by. You don't need to use a command to teach this, but you can use your dog's name to encourage it to look at you.

To summarise:

Do use a clicker and treats
Never smack or otherwise physically punish your puppy
Do teach vital 'survival' commands first and prioritise them
Don't overload your puppy or confuse it by trying to teach too many different commands at once
Don't prioritise teaching tricks, and particularly don't teach tricks in a sequence
Don't teach things like sendaway or waits until you have developed a good recall
Don't encourage jumping or any behaviour that involves putting feet on any part of a person, either deliberately or inadvertently


  1. Manda, do you tend to ignore behavior you wish not to encourage? I imagine it depends on the behavior, but I just notice that with Otto it seems you are rewarding the behavior you want more of (attentive to you/all fours on floor) - and when he jumps up it appears you remain neutral and wait for him to resume the behavior you're seeking to encourage. Is this right?

  2. Yes, I just ignore behaviour such as jumping on me. Telling off dogs for minor things that are caused by overexcitement I believe can be demotivating to them. I will tell my dogs no if they are wilfully disobedient, for example if I tell them to do something they know how to do and they run away instead.