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How to Prevent Common Puppy Behavior Problems

While most new puppy owners are very good at supplying their pup with all the good things in life, such as petting, cuddling, kissing, and treats, many are often not so naturally inclined to provide the guidance and leadership that the young puppy needs.

Call it training, if you will, it is an essential component of raising a well-mannered and well-behaved dog. Sure, there are times when you can let the youngster have free reign; times when the two of you can cavort around in blissful silliness and indulgence. That’s half the fun of owning a new puppy, right? But the other side of the coin of happiness is setting limits of acceptable behavior so that the new puppy does not spiral out of control. Good puppies turn into good dogs, and puppies and dogs need us to be their leaders as well as their friends. Dogs need strong leaders.

Typical puppy problems include unacceptable behaviors such as destructive chewing, biting, or nipping, jumping up, and excessive barking. How should the hapless owner deal with such problems? The answer to this problem is universally applicable to all the behaviors described and, though simple, seems to be a hard one for some owners to grasp. It is that you should reward behaviors that you find acceptable or pleasing and ignore or redirect behaviors that you find unacceptable or annoying.

Destructive Chewing

First of all, understand that chewing is a normal behavior for young pups and may become quite intense around teething time in the 5 to 9 month age group. As such, it is extremely important for new puppy owners to provide their new pup something to chew upon.

A plethora of chew toys is available in most pet stores and these should be brought home and freely distributed for your dog’s chewing pleasure. If your puppy starts to chew on an unacceptable item, such as a chair leg or electric cord, issue a curt command, such as Out! and physically redirect it onto an acceptable item to chew (one of its chew toys).

It is appropriate to render certain items unavailable or aversive but the main thrust of your training is to teach the pup what is acceptable for it to chew. An inappropriate response to finding your pup engaged in destructive chewing and, unfortunately, one still recommended by some trainers, is to physically punish the dog for chewing what it should not.

Punishment teaches a dog nothing except how to avoid punishment. If you punish a dog for destructive chewing, it will simply chew it when you’re not around. It will learn that you are the source of punishment and will avoid punishment by avoiding chewing in front of you. Hardly an ideal solution.

Biting and Nipping

This is the problem that (excuse the pun) should be nipped in the bud. While it is okay to allow a young pup to mouth and nip fingers and hands, there comes a time when it must be taught bite inhibition. This is usually taught at around 4 or 5 months of age. The moment the puppy’s needle sharp teeth start to cause you, the owner, any discomfort or pain, immediately explain Ouch!, and withdraw your hand. That’s the end of the game and the end of the entertainment.

The puppy will soon learn that humans are soft and ouchy and only minimal pressure is necessary if they wish to discourage an unwanted intervention. The big mistake that owners make is writing off all puppy nipping as “normal puppy behavior” and failing to take any steps to curtail it until it is too late. If a young puppy is too aloof to play by mouthing encourage it to do so that you might teach it bite inhibition. It will pay off in the long run.

Another cardinal mistake owners make is to scream and flail when their new puppy nips too hard. This conveys to the puppy that you can be like a huge squeaky toy, the most entertaining thing in an otherwise dull life; so it may nip you simply for the pleasure of witnessing your response.

Another inappropriate way of dealing with nipping is by physical punishment (e.g. by slapping or hitting the pup) because this will ruin your relationship with it and may inflict damage. And, yes, there is such a thing as the shaken puppy syndrome.

Jumping Up

Here’s another all-too-common puppy behavior problem that is often dealt with inappropriately by owners. The first thing they fail to appreciate is that dogs only jump up because they are rewarded in some way by so doing. It may not be the owners themselves but their guests who lean down and pet the pup, giving it their attention in response to being jumped upon. This will ensure that jumping up continues.

If an owner wants an adult dog that will not jump up on them or their visitors, they should simply instruct all who meet the pup to “turn into a tree” or “turn to stone” or to simply walk away. If jumping up is not rewarded it will not be propagated.

If a dog is already jumping up because it has been rewarded for doing so and attention is suddenly withdrawn, the behavior will get worse for a few days before it gets better. This exacerbation is referred to as an extinction burst. Many owners don’t know this and so they give up too soon. It may take days or weeks for the behavior to fully extinguish.

Some puppy owners, in desperation, turn to the wrong type of dog trainer for advice on how to correct the jumping up problem. Owners are taught to knee the dog in the chest, cup it under the chin, or stand on its back paws as a way of eliminating the behavior. These physical punishments are rude and wrong and, while they might produce the goods on occasion, are uncalled for and compromise your relationship with your dog. A more acceptable technique is to hold the pup by both paws and remove them from your person but do not let go until it is clear the dog is keen to be released. This is a form of negative reinforcement and the pup will increase the frequency with which it greets you with four feet on the floor in order to avoid a negative consequence of you holding onto its paws.

While an owner may ignore or negatively reinforce jumping up behavior, there is one other component of training this behavior that is frequently overlooked. That is, rewarding the behavior that you want. You should always reward your pup with praise, petting, and your attention, for greeting you with four feet on the floor. And reward it for getting four feet back on the floor after a bout of jumping. Timely reward is important if non-jumping behavior is to be maintained.

The bottom line: ignore the behavior you don’t want (jumping) and reward the behavior you do want (four feet on the floor). It’s as simple as that. If you want to add a word cue or command, the one to use is Off! Do not tell a dog that is jumping on you Down! as this is a different behavior and the utterance of this word on this occasion will simply confuse the dog. Using a non-specific word, like no, or the wrong word, like down, are common mistakes that owners make when trying to retrain a jumping dog.

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.