National Train Your Dog Month….How to get your new puppy off to a great start and 5 reasons why punishment doesn’t work


January is the month for new beginnings. As the new year unravels its pages, there is something exciting each new year to stand at the crossroads, or the iron gate to a whole new year…. A chance to write a new chapter in your life. Whatever your new year resolutions may be, January is where it all starts and where the motivation is at the highest point. Sure, it may fade as the days go by, but the new dawn brings a promise of something better out there on the horizon…

This January is also the eighth year since APDT (Association of Professional Dog Trainers) introduced National Train Your Dog Month with the slogan, ‘Train them, don’t blame them’.

At VivaPaws, we naturally encourage you to train your dog every day of the year, but if you just got a new puppy, there is no better time to start than right now!

A very basic rule of training is to start where your puppy is right now. Work at your puppy’s (or dog’s) level. Get your clicker and treats ready. Sit yourself down and simply wait for your puppy to do something you like and would like to see repeated. So for example, when he sits down on his own, or lies down, is quiet (as opposed to barking), looks at you, or does something cute = simply click the behavior right when it happens, then reward him with a pea sized treat.  

If you keep rewarding him for his good behaviors he will naturally want to repeat those in order to get that yummy treat! It really is quite simple. Remember to IGNORE the behaviors you don’t want (I am not going to lie, this is the hard part!). 

We humans have been taught to correct wrong doings since the birth of man. We punish people for their crimes, and rightly so. The difference between humans and animals of course is that we have the mental capacity and our language to explain and comprehend the difference between right and wrong. Animals do not have this capacity. 

The first way puppies learn is by association (emotional response). They are constantly forming associations – safe, dangerous, neutral or good for me, bad for me, neutral. These associations inform the decisions they make and the reactions they have to various situations and stimuli.  

The second way they learn is by consequence (by doing). They quickly learn what works for them and what doesn’t work for them - what is safe/good for them and what is dangerous/bad for them.

When you reward your puppy for something you like, she learns that doing a particular behavior results in a positive consequence (good for me) and thus doing this behavior works for me (= I get a yummy treat). This makes her want to repeat the behavior again and again if the outcome (consequence) is the same every time. 

At the same time, if she does something you don’t like, and the only consequence of doing this is no reward/no reaction from you, she quickly learns (after a few attempts) that this behavior has neither a good nor a bad consequence (thus, this does not work for me, meaning I don’t get a nice treat for this, so why bother doing it again).

 If, on the other hand, you punished her for doing the behavior, by yelling at her, spraying water at her, yanking her leash, or even smacking her, she would quickly form the association that doing this is bad for me (it is unpleasant or even painful) and repeating this is not worth it. You may argue that punishment then works because it stops the behavior from occurring again. This is true. You can stop a behavior by using punishment or correction methods. 

However, here are five reasons why punishment doesn’t work very well:

 1)  Your puppy doesn’t understand what he did wrong. He only learns that doing this behavior has a bad consequence for him. He eventually may stop the behavior, but he won’t understand why it was wrong. 

 2)  Another downside of punishing or correcting your puppy in this way is that he will form a negative association with the punisher (you). He will learn that doing this behavior in front of you is not safe/ is bad for him. 

 3)  This also means that he may well stop the behavior when YOU are around, but it does not guarantee that he will not do it when you are not there. Because doing it when you are not there has no consequence (you are not there to correct it), and thereby it is SAFE to do it whey you are not around!

 4)  The fourth reason why punishment doesn’t work very well is that he won’t learn what to do instead. This can essentially lead to your pup becoming fearful, aggressive, or stressed if he is constantly corrected. What is he to do instead? It may also lead to a common phenomenon, learned helplessness, where he will simply give up and become depressed due to the unpleasant consequence of his actions time and time again.

 5)  Finally, not being taught what to do instead can lead to developing destructive behaviors and boredom just to channel his energy somewhere else.

 If you have to use punishment, especially with a puppy, know that it has to be immediate; it must occur right on the heels of the action that caused it, or it will have no effect. Using punishment also means being ready every single time your puppy does the wrong thing (and again, don’t forget, you may not be around every single time your puppy does something you consider punishable).

 It is far better to teach your puppy appropriate behaviors… keep all four paws on the floor gets her a treat as opposed to jumping up, for example.

By using Positive Reinforcement training (reward-based), your puppy learns that it is safe to try something else (if one behavior doesn’t work). It builds confidence and enthusiasm. Training becomes something that is fun (for both your puppy and you) and it forms a strong bond between you and your puppy.

And finally, socialize, socialize, socialize! The window of socialization (where your puppy is open to all new things) is short and closes around 3-4 months of age. So it is essential to introduce her to new places, people, objects, sounds again and again during this period. After that, she begins to become wary of things and may become fearful or aggressive, if not socialized enough. Lack of socialization is the number one factor contributing to anxiety, phobias, and aggression ind dogs.

Remember, however, that socialization has to happen at your puppy’s comfort level! Make sure that every single experience is a POSITIVE one…..bring little treats with you and feed your puppy a treat every time she meets a new person/kid, another dog, is introduced to traffic noises, etc. This will help form a positive association with these novel things/people. DO NOT FORCE your puppy into any situation where he or she may seem fearful or reluctant. It is very important that she has the chance to retreat if something scares her!

Enroll her in a puppy class or work privately with a trainer to make sure she is off to a great start in life and becomes a happy, relaxed adult dog.

VivaPaws Training & Behavior offers Private Puppy Training and will be offering Life Skills Puppy Classes later in 2019.