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How to Prevent Common Puppy Behavior Problems

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Excessive Barking

The old saying goes that "If you don't like a dog that barks, get a cat" because all dogs (with the possible exception of Basenji's) will bark, at least, on occasion. The idea is not to prevent the dog from barking, because barking is a natural behavior and a means of communication for dogs, but rather to train the dog to stop barking on cue.

In other words, you don't punish barking, you reward silence. It's just a different approach and one that many owners and some trainers fail to appreciate. There are many benign ways of training a dog not to bark. Most of them involve utilizing a voice command, such as No bark! Some of them simply entail patience, where you wait until the dog eventually does stop barking and then you reward it with some highly sought after treat (e.g. a piece of hot dog).

The duration for which the dog barks will be progressively reduced over time if you stick with this technique. You can interrupt the barking tirade even after issuing the command No bark! by diverting the dog with words that indicate a treat is imminent in the event of silence. You could say, for example, "Would you like a hot dog?" Such an interruptive technique may hasten the arrival of silence.

A common misperception about food training is that once a behavior has been taught, you have to reward the dog with food every time it obeys. If you do reward your dog with food every time it responds, it will only work for you when you have food. Instead, sequester the food on your person, issue the command, and when he stops barking, sometime simply praise and pet him. At this stage of training, hot dog pieces should arrive on an intermittent schedule, which will powerfully reinforce the behavior of stopping barking.

Another technique of stopping barking is to use negative reinforcement. Head halters with training leads attached are very helpful tools in this respect. Tension is simply applied to the training lead as it barks and the message conveyed to the dog is one of your leadership and of your disapproval of its behavior at the time. The reward is the release of tension. Most owners make the mistake of feeling that they have to chastise or otherwise punish their pup for barking but the commotion and anguish that this causes does little to improve the situation. In fact, in yelling at a dog that is barking may seem to it as if you're barking, too.

Last Tips

The name of the game, when it comes to training puppies or dogs, is reinforcement; reinforcement of behaviors that you want. The opposite of reinforcement (reward if you will) is not punishment, it is no reward.

Simply stated, you reward behaviors you want while you ignore behaviors that you do not appreciate. If you do this, you will not encourage problem behaviors that you subsequently have to deal with. Puppies need to know the limits of acceptable behavior from the earliest possible time.

It is too late to wait until a pup is 6 or 8 months old and then start training. Training should begin at the get go, at home, under your benign supervision and should be consistent between family members. There is nothing confusing about this strategy but, for some reason, it is one that many find difficult to grasp or, at least, to stick to. For puppies that grow up to have problems related to destructive chewing, biting, nipping, jumping, and excessive barking, the main mistakes that owners have made, with respect to training, are too little too late. That and using the wrong approach. It's time to reverse this tide of misunderstanding and to start creating well-behaved and well-mannered dogs. And it's perfectly possible for anybody who wishes to try.

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