The internet is a wonderful place, with a wealth of information on every subject under the sun. It can be tremendously helpful, but it can also be overwhelming and confusing – there are so many different takes on every subject, how do you know which answer is the right one? And although you may not mind too much when a new recipe from Google flops, training a new puppy is an entirely different matter.
So, with that in mind, here are four commonly searched issues, along with the top “bad” response and the appropriate Positive Training course of action (for more information on the Positive Training Philosophy, see our blog The Positive Pup).
Jumping Up On People
Dogs are scent-driven by nature, and one of the areas most aroma-rich on people is our mouths. It’s therefore hardly surprising that when greeting humans, dogs (and especially puppies) jump and stretch with all their might to reach our faces. As far as they’re concerned, it’s the natural way to say “hello” and to get to know us better, and it can be very endearing at times. For the most part though, it’s a highly unwelcome behavior and one for which many people seek training help.
The traditional, aversive answer would be to pair the dog’s jump with something unpleasant, such as jamming a knee in to her chest as she jumps, paired with a loud “NO!” The idea here is for her to associate the jump with the discomfort and scolding, so that she stops jumping altogether. However, this technique can backfire: some dogs come to associate the unpleasant experience with the person (rather than the jumping) and develop anxiety or aggression around greetings, the arrival of visitors and even towards their own family.
The positive approach, on the other hand, focuses on not rewarding the undesired behavior. The key is to determine why she’s behaving as she is (in this case because she’s excited and wants to say “Hi!”) and then ensure that every time she jumps she gets the opposite of what she wants: turn away from her, and refuse to engage in any way while she is jumping. Once all four paws are on the floor (or better yet she sits) she gets praised and rewarded by being calmly greeted. If consistently done, this teaches her that the most effective way of soliciting greetings is not merely to not jump, but to offer a far more desirable calm behavior instead. It may take longer and require more patience and consistency to see results, but in this way she learns to figure out what we want, and offer that, rather than making her try to figure out how to avoid being hurt or startled, and potentially having her make entirely the wrong connections.
Pulling On The Leash
Traditional aversive solutions here involve using choke chains, prong collars and “leash pops” (jerking sharply on the leash every time she pulls). This relies on having something bad happen when she pulls, and when she stops pulling the bad thing goes away. Hopefully she learns that pulling = bad, not pulling = good. However, just as with the jumping, this can easily go awry. For example, if she gets jabbed in the neck every time she pulls excitedly towards another dog, she may make the association that other dogs are the cause of her discomfort, completely missing the “pulling” lesson we were trying to teach her. She may then become anxious about or aggressive towards those things that trigger the pulling.
The positive approach, on the other hand, once again relies on making sure she is not rewarded for the pulling (by not allowing her to get to any of the things she wants such as sniff spots, other dogs etc. until she does something to earn it), and by praising her and rewarding her for doing the right thing. So, when out walking you would guide your puppy in to the correct position next to you, and set off. Keep her focused on you using commands she knows well and can do in motion (such as Looks and Touches), and if she pulls, stop dead. Don’t engage in tug of war, trying to yank her back in to position, just stop. She may flail about at the end of the leash for a little while, but typically she will look back to you or put a little slack in the leash. At that point, you would immediately praise her and move forward. Rinse and repeat as necessary (this can be time consuming and frustrating, but it is extremely effective in the long term). This puts her in the position of having to figure out what we want from her in order to get what she wants, no aversives required.
As you may have been able to predict at this stage of the article, the aversive school often recommends training tools like bark collars (which emit shocks, citronella mists or high-pitched noises whenever the dog barks) or advocate spraying her with a water bottle, once again trying to build the association that barking = badness, silence = pleasant. However, as with both the jumping and the pulling, this can easily end with her building entirely unintended associations even when it works as intended. The added un-bonus here is that these tools often DON’T work entirely as intended. The bark collars, in particular, are frequently set off by external noises, or even by the dog just moving around, resulting in the poor pup being punished completely out of the blue even when silent. This can quite understandably make a nervous, confused critter out of even a confident dog. Subject a naturally nervous pup to these stimuli and the effect is intensified; if the barking itself is coming from a place of anxiety, too (as is often the case) then not only is the poor dog already stressed, but you are adding unpredictable unpleasantness to an already horrible situation. It’s difficult to imagine how this could result in a successful or desirable conclusion.
The positive approach focuses on first finding out WHY she is barking. Demand barking (basically a “Hey you! Pay attention to me!” vocalization) benefits most from plentiful exercise to reduce energy levels, sufficient mental stimulation to avert boredom, and judicious lack of attention. Essentially, a tired dog is one with less motivation to bark, and if she does begin demanding your attention by yipping, then not giving her that attention until she asks for it appropriately (and quietly) is the swiftest way to teach her that barking achieves the exact opposite of what she wants. It is vital here that not only do you ignore the demand barking, but that you ensure that when she is happily playing and keeping herself quietly occupied, or comes to you asking for attention nicely, you are being sure to reward her for it. Unfortunately it is all too tempting to sit back with a sigh of relief when she is being good, and to engage with her when she is being annoying.
It is important to note that barking may also stem from anxiety or alarm, both of which require more detailed and individual-specific training plans based around the causes of the anxiety or the precise nature of the alarms.
Another very common complaint we hear from new owners is that the puppy won’t stop nipping. This again is a completely natural behavior – chewing and nibbling are important parts of learning the world and playing with siblings, and are not behaviors which we should try to extinguish.
Aversive methods range from squeezing the dog’s mouth shut, swatting her muzzle, alpha rolling her (flipping her on to her back and holding her there until she relaxes) or even swaddling her tightly in a towel and holding her for up to half an hour at time.
By this stage you can probably guess what the problems here are: teaching her the wrong connections (so, instead of biting = punishment, she may conclude that playing = punishment, or couch = punishment or even that owners = punishment), redirecting her natural chewing and nipping on to other things rather than stopping, or getting frustrated and confused enough to become anxious or aggressive. Another less than delightful possible result is something called learned helplessness. This means, essentially, that the dog decides she has no control over what happens to her. By repeatedly exposing her to aversive situations which she cannot escape, she learns to stop trying in every unpleasant or confusing situation (even ones which we would rather she was able to handle) and may become very passive and withdrawn.
Positive methods, by contrast, may take longer and require more consistency and attention, but are extremely unlikely to result in a shut-down or aggressive dog.
When dealing with puppy nipping in a Positive way, you first need to recognize that she is trying to engage with you, albeit painfully and inappropriately.
In much the same way as with the jumping, we therefore make sure that she is not being rewarded for nipping by simply making a loud “Ow!’ noise when she bites (to mark the moment the situation went wrong) and then leave the room for up to 10 seconds. This is long enough to be impactful, but not so long as to allow her to get in to unsupervised mischief. It typically takes only a few repetitions of this (with gradually lowering dramatic content, such as softer “ow”s and not actually leaving the room etc) for her to begin getting the idea. Equally, do not engage in play which encourages her to nip (such as rough-housing or jowl-slapping).
As with every other positive method, it is equally important that you are giving her an appropriate outlet for the behavior, such as toys. Any time she is playing with a toy, she should be praised for it, and possibly joined so she learns that bringing you a toy and chomping on it rather than on you gets her what she wants. You can also set up a mini-challenge for her by holding a long toy with one hand on either end and having her bite the middle. So long as she keeps her teeth to the toy, you continue to play with and praise her, but if she moves hand-wards and makes contact with your flesh you immediately stop playing with her and remove your attention entirely.
Of course, these are broad training outlines intended to highlight the difference in training methods and to showcase the pitfalls associated with the traditional, aversive training philosophy. Each pup is a delightful individual and all training should be tailored to meet their specific needs and personalities. However, when in doubt, remember this: poorly applied Positive training may not result in an obedient dog, but it’s unlikely to results in a withdrawn, anxious or aggressive dog either. Poorly applied Aversive training techniques, however, can and do result in dogs in whom issues have been created from scratch.