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Puppy training

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From the moment you first accept a puppy into your household it begins to learn behaviour patterns, so puppy training starts straight away. Even at just 8 weeks old your puppy should be starting to understand commands such as 'sit' and 'stay'. The best approach to training is through short, frequent sessions - puppies lose interest very quickly.

First, you must find something that will act as a reward to your puppy - this will commonly be food, or perhaps a particular toy. With this reward you should be able to tempt the puppy into the position you want, eg sitting. When the desired position is achieved, 'label' this position by saying the associated command, eg 'sit' and give the puppy his/her reward. With repetition the puppy will quickly learn that adopting that position in response to the command 'sit' results in a reward.

In the above example, the reward (eg food) is what we call the 'primary reinforcer'. It is useful to create 'secondary reinforcers' while training. A secondary reinforcer is something that can be associated with the reward, eg verbal praise. If every time you present the puppy with a reward you also give verbal praise, the puppy will learn that verbal praise is associated with a reward. You can then give the actual reward (eg food) less frequently in response to good behaviour and use verbal praise instead. Creating secondary reinforcers is useful, for example when you need the puppy to obey but do not have any food to hand.

House training

In the first few days of having a new puppy in the home, supervise him/her whenever possible. Consider creating a pen for times when the puppy cannot be supervised. In this way the puppy will not have the opportunity to get up to mischief and therefore the need for punishment is minimised. Training should be reward-based rather than punishment-based. If a reprimand is needed, a verbal 'No!' is usually sufficient.

Puppies have a strong urge to toilet after sleeping and after feeding. You should aim to predict when your puppy will need to eliminate and take him/her to the appropriate place in time to prevent accidents. Reward your puppy for toileting in the right place and give praise. If your puppy begins to eliminate indoors, give a verbal reprimand and quickly take him/her to the correct site to finish.

Socialisation & habituation

As a puppy develops it is essential to expose it to as many different experiences as possible, to reduce the risk of fears and phobias becoming established.

Puppies that have been handled often during their first 5 weeks are usually more confident and better able to cope with stressful experiences in later life. That said, puppies should remain with their mother and littermate until around 7 weeks old. There is also an important 'socialisation period' during which puppies should be encouraged to mix and interact with other animals and with a range of people. This period is from 3 weeks to around 13 weeks of age, after which puppies often become more shy and less willing to interact with strangers. This socialisation period is also the time to get your puppy used to car rides, roads, bicycles, trains and so on.

At the stage, the main barrier to progress can be the risk of disease while the puppy has not yet had its vaccination course. It is important, however, to strive to give the puppy a broad range of experiences. Mix the puppy with healthy dogs that are up-to-date with their own vaccinations and with other healthy puppies in a clean, safe environment.

Dealing with biting

Biting is a form of play in puppies, so part of the process of overcoming this behaviour is to ensure there are plenty of other forms of acceptable play available, such as fetch/retrieve games or chasing games.

The important thing that puppies must learn is 'bite inhibition' - that is, teaching them how much pressure they can apply when biting before inflicting pain. The best way to teach this is to make it obvious to your puppy when they bite you that you have been hurt - react by saying 'Ouch!' loudly and then terminate any play activity that was taking place (if necessary, by leaving the room). Quickly the puppy will learn that biting will end a play session.
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Dacre House Veterinary Clinic
91 Powder Mill Lane
Tunbridge Wells