Giving your puppy an education
As well as socialising your puppy, you’ll want to spend lots of time teaching them how to behave appropriately, both inside and outside your house. Dogs that are well behaved are a pleasure to be around and they’ll often be able to join you on days out. They’ll get to enjoy the freedom of going off lead if they have a reliable recall and if they walk nicely on the lead, then you’ll also love taking them on long walks!
Although you can teach puppies and dogs a great deal (the list is endless!), the most important are the basics, some of which may even save your dog’s life one day:
- Stay or wait
- How to walk on a loose lead
- How to ‘leave’ or ‘drop’ it
It’s never too early to start training your puppy as they are learning all the time. We have some great advice in our 'Training your dog section', which also applies to puppies, but here are a few tips:
- Keep sessions short. Puppies, just like young children, have short attention spans and tire easily.
- Make learning fun and exciting. Dogs who enjoy learning new things are much keener students than those who find learning stressful or scary. Don’t be disappointed or tell them off if your puppy gets it wrong– just think of ways to help them get it right next time!
- Dogs learn by association and tend to repeat the things they find rewarding. Reward good behaviours using praise, titbits or toys (whatever your puppy enjoys the most) and you should see that your dog will repeat them more frequently. You can ignore some behaviours you don’t want your puppy to repeat, but this might not be enough to prevent the behaviour from happening – so teach an alternative behaviour instead.
The majority of dogs love to play. It’s lots of fun for them and it’s also a fantastic outlet for their natural behaviours. Dogs who don’t have the opportunity to play safely might find their own ways of meeting this important need which can be problematic and sometimes dangerous.
Playing with your puppy regularly will also teach you about your dog’s personality, their preferences for games and also strengthen the bond between you.
We have some great advice in our ‘How to play with your dog’ section, which applies to puppies, but here are a few other tips:
- Keep play sessions short as puppies tire easily. You don’t want to them to overdo it physically, especially when they are still growing. Puppies and adult dogs will often not realise they are overdoing it, as the excitement of play will often override any feeling of discomfort or tiredness.
- Some puppies get overstimulated and boisterous during play sessions. Intersperse play with breaks, using food and praise, so your puppy has time to be calm. Regular breaks will help prevent things going over the top.
- Teach your dog to let go of items when asked to. This is a really important skill and helps to keep play safe!
- Introduce a cue to signal to your puppy that the game is over. Put the toys away and hold out your hands, using a word such as 'finished' to make it clear the game has finished.
- Give your puppy a chew or Kong to have when you give your finished cue so that they associate the end of a game as a good thing. Not offering them something after the game has ended could result in them getting frustrated.
All puppies can be excitable, lively and boisterous. However some are more so than others. These puppies may play-bite more often or harder, or constantly be looking for something to do, often getting themselves into all sorts of trouble! Your puppy won’t always be this much hard work, but they will need lots of your patience and guidance to help them (and you!) get through this sometimes challenging time.
Important things to remember about puppies:
- Puppies’ moods and activity levels change throughout the day
- They have short attention spans and are easily frustrated
- Puppies need to sleep a lot – it's hard work being a puppy!
- They are learning all of the time
How to set your puppy up for success
Try to manage your puppy’s environment so that they are far more likely to develop habits you want than habits you don’t want. An example of this is when you’re not able to actively supervise - pop them behind a stairgate with a chew or stuffed Kong or in a crate (if they are happy using one). A puppy who has free run of your house unsupervised is much more likely to get into mischief and develop behaviours you don’t want (eg raiding the bin, chewing electrical wires or your socks).
When your puppy is in an excitable mood, try to channel their excitement into a play or training session. This will help provide them with the mental stimulation they need. Clicker training is great for puppies and something you can both have a lot of fun doing. Playing scent games is a fantastic outlet for all dogs and you’ll be really tapping into their amazing ability to track with their nose.
Encourage cooperative behaviour and self-control before you train, play with or feed your puppy. This helps teach them that all good things come to those who wait calmly.
Ensure that your puppy gets lots of quiet time. Puppies need to sleep and rest a great deal, and a tired puppy can be irritable or overstimulated, just like a person can be. Make time in the day for your puppy to have regular breaks, with a chew and a comfortable bed. If your puppy finds it difficult to switch off, then popping them behind a stairgate or in a crate can help with this.
Avoid punishing your puppy for mischievous behaviour. Quite often they won’t understand what it is they are being punished for, only that you get angry sometimes. This won’t be good for your relationship, as your puppy might begin to fear you. It’s much better to show your puppy what it is you want them to do and manage carefully the things you’d rather they didn’t.
Provide lots of items that you are happy for your puppy to explore and pick up, such as toys and chews.
Jumping up is a very natural behaviour for puppies. Most just want to say hello and they quickly learn that this is a great way to get attention! Many people don’t seem to mind a small and cute puppy jumping up, so it’s easy to see how this can become a strong habit for the puppy. It’s only when the puppy gets bigger that it can be an issue, so the best advice is not to encourage it in the first place. Try to give your puppy lots of praise and attention when they have all four feet on the floor when greeting you, and ask anyone interacting with your puppy to do the same. Turning your back on a puppy can lessen the jumping up, but it may also cause them to become frustrated. Teaching them an alternative behaviour to jumping up, such as a good ‘sit’, is often easier for the puppy to understand. Try practicing this simple ‘greeting exercise’ at home:
- Make sure your puppy already knows how to ‘sit’
- Put your puppy on a lead to prevent them from approaching the greeter
- Ask someone your puppy knows well to approach and ask your puppy to sit. If they do, praise them. If they remain sitting, then the person can move forward and say hello.
- If they try to jump up, then the lead will prevent them from doing so – but also ask the greeter to move away. Your puppy may become a little frustrated by this, but wait for them to calm and ask again for a sit. If they do, then the greeter can move forward again and say hello.
- Use praise and encouragement if your puppy remains either sitting or with all four feet on the floor during the interaction. It’s okay for your puppy to break their sit at this time as they will naturally want to engage with the greeter. If they jump up at any point, then the greeter must move away the same as before.
Repeat regularly throughout the day and your puppy should quickly understand the following rules:
- Sitting when asked = puppy is praised and person moves forward to say hello
- Stay sitting or standing during greeting = person continues to move forward and greets puppy
- Attempt to jump up = person moves away (the opposite of what the puppy wants)
Why do puppies ‘bite’?
Puppies investigate the world using their mouths so it’s perfectly natural to expect them to nibble and bite fingers and hands when they are young. Puppies need to use their mouths and teeth a great deal to find out how this important part of their anatomy works. Puppies will also play with other puppies and dogs using their mouths, so biting also occurs when they are trying to elicit play from other dogs, and later people. It’s also important to remember that puppies will be experiencing some discomfort during the teething period, so make sure that you provide them with lots of chews at this important stage (see ‘puppies and chewing’).
Learning through play
In the litter, puppies will use their mouths when playing with each other and their mum. If a bite is too hard the bitten puppy or mum will yelp and stop playing with the ‘offending’ puppy. The puppy then learns an important lesson - hard bites stop play. Over time and while continuing to receive this important feedback during play, puppies begin to inhibit their bite. In other words, their bites become much lighter and more controlled. This is an important lesson for your puppy to learn in order to have fun and enjoy playing with other dogs.
How do you stop puppies from play biting humans?
Puppies will also try to elicit play with humans by using their mouths. While a puppy of eight weeks old might be cute when it bites during play, these puppies grow up learning that biting is an appropriate way of interacting with people and often have lots of fun doing it. As the puppies get older and bigger it becomes more painful and a problem for owners to manage.
The quickest and easiest way for puppies to learn that it is inappropriate for them to bite people during play is to have a clear rule of no teeth on skin.
You can teach this by:
- Saying 'ouch!' loudly when your puppy bites
- Looking hurt
- Stopping the interaction straightaway
- Avoiding high-pitched squealing or similar noises - this tends to excite puppies which can often encourage more biting
- Praising them calmly when they stop biting and give a gentle fuss (if this doesn't excite your puppy!)
If you were playing with a toy at the time, continue your game once they have stopped the inappropriate behaviour. Keep doing this consistently every time and your puppy will learn that biting ends the fun.
The rules are nice and simple – when your puppy's teeth make contact with your skin, give the feedback ‘ouch’ and stop interacting briefly. Gently praise when they stop biting and continue your play.
What if this doesn’t work?
If your puppy ignores you and carries on biting, get up and walk away, completely ignoring your puppy for a little while. This sends a very important message to your pet – if you play too hard, then I’m not playing anymore! Go back after approximately 15 seconds and continue the interaction as before.
For persistent biters you may have to attach a houseline to them so that you can easily lead them to another room (behind a stairgate is a good idea). After your ‘ouch!’, calmly pick up the end of the lead and take them to your chosen area. Leave them here for no longer than 30 seconds, usually until they are calm enough to join you again - any longer and your puppy won’t make the connection. Ask your puppy for a 'sit' or some other known behaviour and resume interaction. Repeat if your puppy bites hard again.
Your puppy should eventually learn that hard biting stops play. Make sure you follow the same rules at all times, regardless of what might have triggered your puppy to mouth. This is especially important when playing games with tug toys - this often gets dogs very excited and they may sometimes forget themselves in the moment.
Typically you will see a reduction and perhaps even an end to biting by three months of age; however this will vary with each individual.
Behaviour around food
Food is extremely important to your puppy. Dogs have evolved from a species that hunts and scavenges for survival, so they come pre-programmed with a strong desire to seek out food wherever it may be. There will be a huge variation in appetite and scavenging behaviours which will depend on various factors, such as genetics and very early puppyhood, but what is certain is that for most dogs, eating is one of their favourite pastimes!
Managing your puppy’s environment
Using their incredible sense of smell, puppies will naturally be drawn to bins, cat food (if you have one), dropped food and so on. Try and keep temptation out of your puppy’s way as you’ll not want them to develop a habit of raiding bins or stealing the cat's food – remember that dogs repeat things that are very rewarding, so if your puppy is very successful at acquiring food other than what you give them, they will get very good at it! It’s also very difficult to teach your dog not to take food when you are not there. For a dog there is no such word as ‘stealing’ – they are just doing what comes naturally to them so they could end up eating or choking on something that is very dangerous.
It’s nice to have a dog that sits calmly before their dinner is given or a treat is offered, so once your puppy has mastered a ‘sit’, always ask for one before you give food. This way your puppy’s default behaviour when being offered food is to sit calmly. It also reinforces the important lesson that all good things come to those who wait patiently.
Being relaxed around food
It’s important that your puppy feels relaxed when eating – be this their dinner or a tasty chew. In the past it was popular advice to regularly take food off a dog once they were eating as it was thought that this would make the dog ‘safe’ around food. Unfortunately the opposite is true, as all this says to your dog is that you can’t eat safely in the presence of people. This makes dogs very uneasy and worried, and some might begin to defend their food and themselves using aggression. This is the opposite of what owners really want, so the best advice is to not take food away from your dog at all.
As most people tend to feed their dogs in the kitchen, you could occasionally drop something exceptionally tasty in your puppies bowl as you pass. This will help your puppy feel very happy about people being near him. You'll soon see the effect of this as your puppy will being to wag their tail whenever you pass their bowl in anticipation of occasional extras. There’s no need to do this at every meal or every day, just occasionally, which will help reinforce the message that eating in the presence of people is nothing but a good thing.
What about chews?
You’ll want your puppy to feel very comfortable tucking into a chew when they’re around people, so try not to bother them when they’re engrossed in it, so they don't see you as a threat for something that's really important to them.
As with the food bowl exercises, occasionally give them something extra delicious while they are eating their chew – this way your approach and presence is nothing but positive.
What if my puppy picks up something they shouldn't?
Puppies are naturally curious so don't tell them off when they pick up things you don't want them to as this may frighten them and cause them to be wary of you. Instead, puppy-proof your home to make sure they don't get the opportunity to pick up items that you'd rather they didn't.
Prevention is the best way of ensuring that your puppy doesn't come to any harm picking up something they shouldn't. It also stops puppies learning that picking up things gets them a reward.
In the event your puppy picks up an item that is dangerous or just something you would rather they didn't have, you have several options:
- Try to distract your puppy into moving away from the item by enticing them into another room. Puppies are naturally curious and will often leave what they are doing if they hear you doing something interesting or exciting elsewhere.
- Recall your puppy, ask them to sit (if they know it) then have a game with them or offer a treat. Puppies live in the moment and very quickly forget about what it
was they were doing.
- Teach your puppy to ‘leave’ or ‘drop’. When your puppy has the item in their mouth, prepare something really tasty that they cannot resist. Show your puppy the mouth-watering treat and as they drop the item say ‘leave’ or ‘drop’. Make sure everybody uses the same word consistently. Once your puppy has dropped the item reward them with the treat and remove the item. Practice this with toys as well so your puppy learns that giving something up gets them something even better!
- Avoid chasing your puppy in this situation, as most will think this is a fun game. They may learn to enjoy stealing as it results in lots of attention from you.
Preparing your puppy for being handled at the vets or groomer
Most puppies enjoy being touched, handled and stroked by those that they know well. However when your puppy visits the vet or groomers for the first time, they will have to be handled by a stranger in a new environment and all this has the potential to be a bit overwhelming and scary. It’s not uncommon for dogs of any age to be frightened of going to the vet or groomers, but there is a lot you can do to help prepare them for these situations. As well as puppy visits to the vet or groomers (see ‘socialising your puppy’), you can teach your puppy all about how they are likely to be handled during an examination or grooming session. It will be quite different from how you usually handle your puppy, but it doesn’t have to be scary!
It’s a good idea to use the same mat or piece of vetbed for this training – this way your puppy will understand what is going to happen and what is expected of them. It also lets them know when the training begins and when it ends.
- Prepare some tasty treats and lay your mat on the floor
- Encourage your puppy over to the mat and ask them to sit on it, if they know how to. If not, reward them by giving them some treats for just being on the mat.
- Hold your puppy gently in a ‘hug’ (close to your body) and give them a treat. If they wriggle wait for them to stop wriggling, praise and give a treat. If your puppy wriggles a great deal, becomes worried or very frustrated, don’t hug at first – instead place a hand on them, praise and treat and build it up slowly from there. This is called restraint training.
- Once your puppy is used to being held for a few seconds at a time, carry on building the time that you can ‘restrain’ your puppy for – this training will help prepare your puppy for being held still, which will be necessary for procedures like injections and so on. Make sure that you reward your puppy heavily with praise and treats!
Once your puppy is used to being still for this handling, you can then start to work on other areas likely to be examined by the vet:
- Legs, tummy, feet, tail, head, eyes, ears
- Lift up the lips to examine the teeth too – many dogs find this difficult, so help your puppy feel comfortable with this by taking it slowly and use lots of treats
Carry out similar training during grooming sessions, particularly if your dog is either long haired or will need clipping. You can also desensitise them to clippers by pairing firstly the sight and then the sound of them with some tasty treats.
- Take things slowly, praise and reward generously and take regular breaks. If at any point your puppy looks worried or panics, then go back to the stage your puppy was comfortable at and begin again.
- Keep sessions short - no longer than a few minutes at first. Remember puppies tire and get bored easily!
- It’s a good idea to keep up this training regularly throughout your dog’s life to remind them that being handled in this way is a positive thing
The puppy phase won’t last forever and once your puppy learns how to fit in to your life (with your guidance), things will gradually become easier.