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Helping your puppy build good habits

Posted in 'puppy training' on November 3, 2015, 12:00 am
Ever tried to break a bad habit? Then you'll know how hard it is. Humans are creatures of habit, and our habits govern our lives. When you want to lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, get up earlier, be more productive etc, your success is determined by your habits.

Even when we get really motivated and make drastic changes, chances are that 2-3 weeks later we have fallen back into our old habits.

The same is true for good habits. If you exercise regularly and eat healthy most of the time, you can binge eat and sit on the couch for a week, and then get back into your healthy eating and exercise regime without too much trouble. (This is why personal trainers can eat like an obese person for a week and then easily lose the weight).

Like humans, dogs are also creatures of habit. They can have bad habits and good habits, just like us. Some common bad habits are things like pulling on the leash, barking, peeing in the house, jumping up on visitors etc. 

The challenge when you raise a puppy or adopt an adult dog, is to build good habits. But once those habits are in place, it's pretty much smooth sailing. You still have to enforce the rules and maintain your dog's training, but the hard work is done.

This is why when you get a new puppy or dog, you need to commit to training that dog intensely for the first few months. A new environment is the perfect opportunity to create new habits. If you put in the effort as soon as you bring your new puppy home, you are setting yourself and your puppy up for a happy life together.

The reason I often see dogs past the puppy stage is because the owners never put the effort in when the dog was younger, and the dog now has a plethora of habit habits. And at that stage we are not only creating good habits we are fighting all the bad habits as well. 

The majority of behavioural issues can be avoided with early training.

So do yourself and your puppy a favour and build good habits from day one. Here's how:

Limit your puppy's freedom in the house. 

Puppies don't know how to behave in the house, and if left to their own devices, they will chew, bite, pee, chase feet, herd the cat, pester the older dog, etc. 

Every time your puppy does one of these things, he is forming the habit of doing it. 

The more your puppy does something, the longer you will spend teaching him not to do it (i.e. breaking the habit). By limiting your puppy's freedom in the house you are setting him or her up to form good habits for life.

When not directly supervised, your puppy should be in a play pen with his own chew toys.

In the play pen, your puppy should have his bed or crate, a water bowl, a variety of different chew toys, and if he's going to be in there for more than an hour, some newspaper in one corner.

How does this form good habits, you ask? 

When your puppy gets bored in his pen, what does he do? He will start chewing his own toys. This is a good habit in the making. If your puppy wasn't restricted, he would be grabbing your kids' toys, chasing their feet, chewing the furniture, or similar. In the pen, the only option available to your puppy is what you want him to do chew his own toys.

He can then lie in his play pen and chew his toys right next to where your kids are playing with their toys, forming the habit of leaving them alone when they play.

Another advantage is that you will spend a lot less time chasing your puppy down and getting frustrated with his behaviour. This actually creates a more positive environment for your puppy.

When your puppy is out of the play pen, he should be directly supervised so you can take him outside whenever you think he needs to pee, and interrupt and re-direct any behaviour you don't like.

Your puppy should have limited freedom for the first 12 months of his life. You can gradually increase the amount of freedom your puppy has from about 6 months old, if your puppy has shown that he is forming good habits and is responsive to you.

Some puppies can be given more freedom earlier, while others need a very strict routine until they are 18 months or older.

If at any point your puppy behaves in a way you don't like with increased freedom, he has shown you that he wasn't ready for that level of freedom. Go back to a lower level of freedom for a few more weeks.

Note: I'm not saying you isolate your puppy in a play pen away from the family for hours every day. Puppies need attention, love, play time, outside time, and regular training sessions. The play pen is a safe place to keep your puppy when not supervised.

Other ways to limit your puppy's freedom is by using baby gates to block of areas of the house where you don't want him, close the doors of rooms where he shouldn't be, putting him in a crate overnight or for short periods during the day, or leashing him to you.


Start basic training with your puppy

Preventing bad habits from forming is important, but teaching your puppy what you want is just as important, otherwise you will always be restricting his freedom because he doesn't know how to behave when his freedom isn't restricted.

How many different commands you teach your puppy depends on your individual needs and how interested you are in training. But as an absolute minimum, all puppies should learn self control and to come when called.

Self control teaches your puppy to be patient and wait for what they want rather than simply diving in. This helps with general manners around the house, stealing food, jumping up, pulling on the leash, and more. 

Learning to come when called is important for safety. If your dog gets out, breaks the leash, or is off leash and there is danger, you need your dog to come back the first time you call him and at full speed.

Dogs who reliably come when you call them can have more freedom, which means a better life for your dog and more confidence for you because you know your dog will come to you when you need it.

As if that wasn't beneficial enough, recall training is also the key to a focused dog who wants to hang out with you. This is because your dog will learn that focusing on you and coming to you is highly rewarding and fun, so he will choose to do this instead of obsessing over other people and dogs in the environment.

This means a better relationship between you and your dog, but also a dog who is easier to train. Imagine training a dog who is staring at you in anticipation of fun games vs a dog who won't look at you because he's sniffing the ground or checking his surroundings for something more interesting than you.

You should ideally be working on self control and coming when called several times per day with your new puppy. The more time and effort you put into it, the faster you will see results, and the sooner your puppy can have more freedom.

Other important obedience skills are sit/stay, go to your bed, and leash walking.

Training sessions don't have to be an hour long. Spend 5 minutes in the morning, 5 minutes around lunch time, and 5 minutes after dinner. Or if you are watching tv, do some recalls every time there is an ad break. 


In short:

1. Restrict your puppy's freedom and thus the potential for forming bad habits.
2. Train your puppy to do what you want so he can form good habits.


The goal of restricting your dog's freedom is so he can have a lot more freedom later on. 

I don't want to deny my dogs anything, I want them to have the freedom to be off leash and do doggy things and enjoy life. But the only way they are able to have that freedom is if they know how to behave and respond to me when I tell them to do something. The quickest way to get that focus and responsiveness is by building good habits from the start and teaching them how to behave through training.

This requires time, effort, and commitment, but that's part of the deal when you get a dog. Training done right is fun for the both owner and the dog.


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