Recently, this guy and I spent some time in Christchurch, New Zealand, housesitting for a lovely young couple who were the proud parents of Lucy, a 3-month old kelpie huntaway cross puppy. Though sad to leave their new baby for a month, the couple took off for an important trip to Europe while entrusting us to care for little Lucy, after only knowing us one day. Oh, the sharing economy.
Once they were gone, we realized what was ahead of us. Lucy was cute, but she was a handful.
She loved to dig up the yard when we weren’t watching. She chewed most things and played with nearly everything she saw. Our relationship with Lucy began with us tossing a few toys in the yard for her, and she did love the game, but there was something less than entertaining about playing toss with a dog that doesn’t bring the toy back to you. It would turn into a game of toss the toy and then wait around calling her back to you, getting fed up and going inside. There were some other difficulties, too. She wasn’t responding well to our commands of “no,” “sit” and “come.” She was just sort of doing her own thing and we were simply trying to keep up.
Enter puppy class.
Our housesitting hosts had signed Lucy up for an expert-led puppy training classes with Els from Trainimals (an amazing trainer!), and we obediently took Lucy over there once a week during our stay. Turns out that puppy class was much more for puppy parents than for actual puppies. We learned the psychology of puppy training in a way. How puppies respond, what they need, how they learn. And, at the end of each class, all these super adorable puppies would just wrestle on the ground, and then one would inevitably pee and it was always the cutest thing ever. So there was that.
By the end of our housesit, thanks to what we learned from puppy class, Lucy was able to sit, come, lay down, shake, heel (sometimes) and even roll over! It was miraculous to see.
For those of you out there who are struggling with training a new puppy, here are some of the tips and tricks we learned from Els that were really important in training our puppy:
Give her lots of attention.
Puppies are like toddlers, which means they seek your attention. And when they don’t get it willingly, they misbehave in order to get it. They love to play, and they are ready to be trained. There is a window in puppy-hood where they’re perfectly trainable. Don’t miss it or you’ll end up trying to train a dog who’s already stuck in her own ways. Regular training is imperative to keep things consistent, and regular attention keeps her a happy pup. Also, it’s good for you.
So many treats. Even when you think you have enough treats, go get more treats because you will need more treats than you think you need. This was the one thing I found to be truly surprising. My instinct (having never trained a puppy before) was to use “no” commands rather than positive reinforcement. It just did not come naturally at first, but I quickly learned how ineffective that strategy is for training a puppy. But once Els enlightened us (aka sold us more treats and told us to use them all the time), we realized that the positive reinforcement of offering a treat was much more successful than the negative training we were inclined to use at first. A small crumb of a treat (dried liver or lung–I know, ew, but she loved it–or just any old run of the mill treat) was enough to encourage Lucy to achieve training feats that she couldn’t have done without them. She suddenly started to do as we asked, always hoping for a reward. And, to encourage that behavior, we always gave her one.
Reward the small wins.
She’s sitting quietly. She’s walking next to you or she simply returns the toy to you after you throw it. Though they may not seem like it, these small moments are actually worth rewarding. If it’s some kind of behavior that you want her to learn to repeat, reward her. Again, even a crumb of a treat will do. In fact, we just learned to keep a small pile of them on the counter or in our pockets so we could dole them out anytime. Just don’t overdo her portions or you’ll make her tummy upset.
Don’t set her up to fail.
Yes, you may want to try to get her to roll over on your second day of training, but she probably has no clue what you want her to do, or she still has yesterday’s “sit” command on her mind and keeps doing that instead, expecting a reward. Take it slow and practice patience. Once she masters a trick, move onto another one without setting your expectations too high.
Don’t reward her for half tricks.
If you say “sit” and she lays down, then don’t give her a treat just because she’s adorable. That will end up being confusing to her in the long run. Try this: if she lays down when you say “sit”, take the treat in your hand and put it near her nose so she knows it’s there. Then, slowly move it up (she’ll likely follow) so she has to sit in order to get her mouth close to it. Voila! You have a sitting puppy. NOW give it to her…because she is adorable.
Use a release command.
When she’s completed a trick, a firm but bright “OK!” or “Good!” is enough (if done consistently) to signify to her that the trick is over and she can have her treat now. This is important for times when you want her to sit and then lay down. Or sit and then heel. Or sit and don’t cross the road because a car is coming. She may be inclined to sit for a moment and then pop out of it because she thinks a treat is coming. A release command keeps her in the trick, so to speak, until you say it’s over.
Don’t take it personally.
There are few things more frustrating than a dog that has torn her bed to shreds in the middle of the night or one that won’t listen to your commands or stop barking (that was our biggest issue). Honestly, your puppy probably just wants your attention or doesn’t know any better. As a parent to a puppy you really have to Zen out. There is no reason to get angry or upset or take it personally when a puppy misbehaves. She isn’t misbehaving because she hates you or wants to piss you off. She’s just being a puppy. All the more reason to keep up your training and reward her when she does something good.
These are just some of the basic ideas, but Els’s in-person training sessions were invaluable. Can’t say enough about this class and how much it helped us with Lucy. When it came time to leave Lucy, it was probably one of the hardest things we have ever had to do. There’s something about a puppy that just makes you fall in love, and we had established a real bond over our month in Christchurch.
So, best of luck to all you new puppy parents out there! Having a well-trained puppy is important, and above all, it’s a fun way to really connect with your dog. Enjoy it!