After last week’s plea, I received so many great ideas via comments on the blog, Facebook, and a few emails, I feel a little like a deer in the headlights–where to start?
One suggestion was to write about raising a puppy.
Not that I’m an expert.
By a long shot.
I have lots of experience rolling around in the puppy room with little puppies, accepting their kisses, cleaning up their messes, and then waving good-bye as their adopters take them home to do the real work.
What I don’t have is a lot of experience raising a puppy to a dog. This is my third attempt. Let’s hope this time is the charm, as they say.
(Full disclaimer I am NOT a certified, trained, professional, or even mildly qualified trainer. I am just going to yap on about what has worked for us and what we are doing to train Otis—or in
some cases, most cases, help Otis train us.)
Otis is exceptionally smart.
No, really. Remember, I’ve met a lot of puppies.
Okay, maybe he’s not exceptionally smart, but he is exceptionally food-motivated. This pup will do pretty much anything for a treat, a cheerio even.
We taught Otis to ring the bells to go out on his first day as our official puppy. Once he latched on to the idea that he got a yummy treat every time he went out, he began asking to go out several times an hour. Sometimes he legit had to pee, but sometimes he just ran around the yard a few times, paused in place and looked to see that I was watching and then came bounding to me for his treat. Mission accomplished.
The way we have managed this so that we don’t have to let him in/out/give treats fifty times a day (as it felt like we were doing that first week) and so that Otis doesn’t get fat, is to utilize a hierarchy of treats.
At the top of that hierarchy is chicken jerky (or puppy crack as I refer to it) or leftover steak/salmon, then hotdogs, then soft expensive training treats, then hard or uber-healthy treats, then Cheerios, and finally kibble. Every dog and every family likely have their own hierarchy, but basically what does your dog LOVE beyond reason (top of the hierarchy) and what will your dog at least sit for (bottom)? Stock up on those things and use them to strengthen your communication skills.
Otis (and Mia too) works mostly for Cheerios because he’s that treat motivated. This means the awarding of chicken jerky clearly communicates that what he just did was a REALLY big deal. Fanny, on the other hand, has no interest in Cheerios, kibble, hard or healthy treats. She will only work for good training treats (low end of her hierarchy) and chicken jerky (high end).
When we teach something new—Otis has mastered, come, sit, down, shake, and go to crate and is working on stay (which is REALLY hard for a puppy and at this point involves a LOT of chicken jerky)—we start by rewarding with a high-value treat every time. Once mastered, we downgrade the treats slowly (or in Otis’ case pretty much instantly as he does love his Cheerios). I think this treat hierarchy is the basic premise behind training pretty much anything. Don’t give the good stuff unless your dog has done something amazing, but be ready with them just in case he does.
I think the most important skill a dog needs to learn is to come when called. If they learn nothing else their entire life, they will still likely be just fine (okay, that and housetraining). If you want your dog to ALWAYS come when you call them then here are a few things to remember –
Only call your dog once. If you repeat his name, he learns to come after you’ve called him multiple times. (This is true of toddlers as well.) Say it once and wait. Use your treat hierarchy to reinforce. Because this is THE most important skill (imho), for the first few months you are teaching this, always be ready with the good stuff when he comes. Never take for granted that he came. If he learns to associate his name with fun times and good treats EVERY TIME, he’ll forever come to you happily.
In the beginning, especially if your dog is older and has never come when called, you should start by just saying his name and if he looks in your direction, treat him. You can escalate from there but be patient if your dog is anything like my Gracie girl who learns S-L-O-W-L-Y (and often regresses). Don’t ever say their name in an angry voice (think your mother calling you by your full name when you’ve been bad). You want your pup to only associate their name with good things.
When Otis does something he shouldn’t do, he is called ‘PUPPY,’ as in ‘Shut up PUPPY!’ (this from Ian at 7am when Otis is trying to loudly assert himself in Mia and Fanny’s morning reunion).
Or ‘PUPPY! We do not eat paper (kindling, mulch, trash, horse poop, puzzle pieces, toilet paper…the list is endless)!’
This is important: Don’t call your dog and then make him do something he doesn’t want to do.
For instance, when it’s time to crate up for bedtime, I don’t call, “Otis!” Instead, I call, “Bedtime!” in my sing-songy, happy voice and walk towards his crate with his favorite dental treat in hand. He (and all my dogs) bounds into his crate and whips around to wait for his nightly ‘toothbrush’. (All my dogs absolutely LOVE Purina Dentalife and race for the crates when I pull out the bag.)
For another instance, when I take Otis outside to play and explore off leash, I don’t wait until it’s time to go in and then call him. If I do, he’ll learn that when I call him, it means playtime is over. So why would he come when I call him?
While we are outside, I will periodically call him, give him a high-value treat and lots of praise, and then let him go back to what he was doing.
When it’s finally time to come in, I walk inside and we have ‘a party’ as one of my trainers called it. He gets lots of treats (he might even get them steadily as we walk inside), lots of praise, lots of jumping around excitement so that going back inside is an event, not a punishment.
There, that’s it. All the training wisdom I’ve got – positive, graded reinforcement that builds the bond between you and your dog. And that bond is what will make your dog happy, secure, and willing to do pretty much anything you have the time and patience to teach.
Thanks for reading!
For information on me, my writing, and books, visit CaraWrites.com where you can also find more information on my book, One Hundred Dogs and Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues, (Pegasus Books, July 2020) and my latest novel, Blind Turn (Black Rose Writing, Jan 2021)
If you’d like regular updates of all my foster dogs past and present, plus occasional dog care/training tips from OPH training, be sure to join the Facebook group, Another Good Dog.
And if you’d like to know where all these dogs come from and how you can help solve the crisis of too many unwanted dogs in our shelters, visit WhoWillLetTheDogsOut.org where you can follow the blog that shares stories or find the link to our podcast!
Our family fosters through the all-breed rescue, Operation Paws for Homes, a network of foster homes in Virginia, Maryland, D.C., and south-central PA.
If you can’t get enough foster dog stories, check out my book: Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs. It’s available anywhere books are sold.
I love to hear from readers and dog-hearted people! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many of the pictures on my blog are taken by photographer Nancy Slattery. If you’d like to connect with Nancy to take gorgeous pictures of your pup (or your family), contact: email@example.com.