Many owners are unsure as to when they should start training their dog. As a young puppy? An older puppy? An adult? The answer will depend on the type of training they have in mind. Training is “the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior,” as defined by the Oxford online dictionary. With this definition in mind, owners are actually teaching behaviors from the very first day they bring their dog home.
For example, owners put their 8-week-old puppy on the living room floor. It wanders around for a bit and comes across a sock and starts chewing on it. The dog owners react, yelling “No, drop it,” multiple times. Their dog, having no idea what this mean, ignores them and doesn’t drop the sock. Eventually, it becomes bored and walks a few feet away, squats and urinates on the floor. The owners react, shouting, “No! Bad dog!” They pick up the dog and place it outside. However, the dog does not know why they have done this.
These negative learning experiences frequently occur for weeks or months before owners contact a trainer. By the time a trainer starts working with the dog, it is usually to help fix the inconsistent and improper lessons the owners have imparted. Owners do not deliberately teach their dogs the wrong behaviors; it occurs because most don’t realize how every interaction is a learning experience for the puppy.
When is the best time to start training a dog? On the first day owners bring it home. During the first month, owners should focus on the following areas:
Housetraining: This is usually done by consistently taking a dog to the correct spot and rewarding proper bathroom behavior, as well as preventing it from going in inappropriate places by confining it to an exercise pen or crate. Owners should maintain proper feeding and watering schedules. They should also use an odor neutralizer to clean up accidents and give treats as a reward for correct behavior.
Chewing: Preventing unwanted chewing begins by providing safe and interesting chew toys. Using a crate or pen in these lessons is also helpful. If the only thing a dog has to chew when confined are the correct toys, its fixation on them will be stronger. During a dog’s supervised free time in the home, owners should have several chewing-appropriate toys readily accessible and remove any tempting items, such as socks, shoes, toys, etc. In addition, chew repellent could be used to make some items less desirable. However, coating a home in chew repellent is not the solution.
Proper greeting and play: Play biting is normal for puppies and dogs in general—just watch them play with one another. Puppies will often play with their owners much the way they would with littermates, nipping and gnawing on hands and feet and happily jumping all over them. Owners tend to cause confusion by encouraging the behavior some of the time and discouraging it other times. This sends a mixed message that often exacerbates nipping and jumping. Owners need to teach the dog how to properly play with and greet them.
Obedience cues: While it is not necessary to teach an 8-week-old puppy obedience cues such as “sit,” “stay” or “down,” most owners will use these cues regularly with little or no follow up. For example, a dog is running around the house and its owner wants it to come. The owner tells the dog to “come” eight times in a row without the slightest ability to reinforce the cue. After months of this, the dog learns that “come” doesn’t mean anything. At the very least, owners should make a conscious effort to not give cues like this until they know how to properly teach their dog to respond to them.
Pet retailers who understand how—and when—puppies learn what is good and bad behavior can offer their customers valuable suggestions on how to stop or prevent the latter. This, in turn, will help owners and their beloved pets have better relationships and establish their facility as a helpful source of trusted information.