What I Learned When I Learned About Puppies

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German Wirehaired Pointer puppy sitting in deep grass

Two years ago I got a puppy: a German wirehaired pointer. I wanted to bring him up right. Ultimately, I wanted to raise the dog I've been wishing for since I was a kid.

Now two years in, I'd like to share what I've learned about training a dog.


I'm no professional dog-trainer. I'm a first-timer. I did grow up with a dog, so I'm not new to dogs themselves, but mine was a barn dog, not a member of the household. He was a black Lab rescue called Schnapps, named for his tipsy spirit, and while sweet, he didn't know a thing about obedience. I sort of taught him not to pull on the leash. That was as far as we got. Years later, when my sister got a Bassett Hound puppy, I trained her to bay on command and to roll over ("Ladybug, relax!"). So now you know my background in dog-training.

My background in horse-training goes further; I grew up riding and working with horses. In my teens I was a wrangler on a riding lessons ranch, where I led student trail rides and helped a problem-horse work through his issues so he could handle inexperienced riders. I also worked year-round at a summer camp ranch caring for a string of starving, sour horses and ponies, helping restore their mental and physical health so they'd be able to deal with next year's crop of summer campers.

Some principles translate pretty well from horses to dogs, I've found. Others don't.

Some training principles are true across the board, no matter which kind of animal you're working with — humans included. Before getting my puppy, I read What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage by Amy Sutherland, who described some techniques that large animal trainers use to good effect on your lions, your whales, animals who aren't interested in being told what to do and who won't be forced. It turns out that the same techniques that work well on grizzly bears work just as well on spouses, parents, coworkers, bosses and children (not to mention puppies).

Beyond Shamu, I read The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete and How to Raise the Perfect Dog by Cesar Millan, as well as countless articles written by people who categorically disagree with each of those sources. Since my puppy is a pointer, I also read an old-school manual published in the 60s on training your gun dog for field work. I watched a lot of clicker training videos from Pam's Dog Academy — what a genius she is — and I read from many various bloggers on this issue and that whenever I ran into trouble and questions.

Finally, most importantly, I spent the last two years trying to train a puppy.

Now here's what I wish someone had told me before I started.

1. You'll have to teach your puppy to look at you

Unlike human children, puppies don't make eye contact every time they have a question. This was a hard one for me to get used to. I had no idea how much I expected this behavior until I discovered that my dog just did not have the default.

Humans rely on eye contact. Babies instinctively look at their caregiver whenever they need or want something. It's a very natural way for us to communicate and connect, but dogs rely on their other senses, especially their noses, for answers. This is a quandary: how can you teach your dog anything if he won't look at you?

Short answer, he will, but you have to condition him to do it — and until then, you have to pick up some new ways to communicate.

2. Cause, effect and generalization are three things your puppy sucks at

This one I did know ahead of time, thank the lord, but it bears repeating. Puppies don't have the ability to connect cause and effect more than a few seconds apart. If you wait a moment to praise your pup for something, he'll like what he's hearing, but he'll have no idea what you're talking about. A grown dog can comprehend a slightly longer delay, but even grown dogs are not good at this. Timing matters: try to make your responses as immediate as you can.

As for generalization, a puppy that learns to sit on cue in your living room may honestly not know how to do the same thing on your front step.

The ability to apply one principle to different contexts — to generalize — is not a dog's strong suit. In fact, they're terrible at this. What you teach in one setting, you must teach in another, and another, and another. Only after you've retaught the same skill in a wide variety of situations can you expect your puppy to understand that "sit" means, "Sit, no actually, wherever we are, yes, here too, even with other stuff going on," rather than, "Sit right here on the living room rug if all is quiet and I'm standing next to you."

3. "Be patient" and "be consistent" are code

When trainers say, "Be patient," they're not just talking about a state of mind, a feeling of patience; they're saying that puppies do inappropriate things 97 percent of their waking hours; that this is normal. There's no avoiding it. Expect this.

Then, puppies are so easily distracted, you can't assume they'll do anything you ask as long as there's any other thought in their minds. Focus comes little by little, with age. A wordly-wise two-year-old dog can come when called, even if there's a cat. Your six-month-old pup will forget everything he's learned on sighting a butterfly.

This does not mean you should resign yourself to having a basketcase for a dog. Don't lose the dream. Believe in your training goals. Just know you're going to have to repeat the same lessons over and over for days or weeks or months. In other words, keep your expectations low, and your follow-through high.

Which brings us to that other adage, "Be consistent." When trainers say this, they don't just mean stick to the rules you've decided on (though that's important). They mean, get used to redundancy. Keep up the long game, teaching and reteaching, even when it seems pointless.

And it will sometimes seem pointless, like nothing is working — until finally, it does. The puppy will learn. But before the puppy learns, he will jump, bark, whine, chew, chase, bite, and ignore you, frequently. For as long as he's making the same mistake again and again, you may be tempted to despair. But have faith. If your methods are good, you will prevail; more on methods later.

4. Don't command what you can't enforce

Don't place any bets on your pup's obedience until he's no longer a pup. Assume there's always a chance he won't listen, and have a plan in mind for how you'll respond if that happens.

For example, if he doesn't sit on command at dinnertime, your backup plan is to stand there blankly holding his food bowl until he does. If he doesn't come when you call, your plan is to give his long-line a tug to get him started.

Bottom line, don't give a command you can't guarantee he'll obey — for example, don't yell, "Come!" to an off-leash puppy who isn't already coming or strongly motivated to come — or else you'll teach him that obedience is optional.

5. Despite #3 and #4, you don't have to be perfect

You don't have to catch every bit of misbehavior in order to raise a good dog with good habits, so don't make yourself crazy. True, true, if you allow a self-reinforcing behavior to set in, it will be difficult to undo later ... but this moment is not the only one you've got. Okay, so your puppy gobbled down a slice of bread from out of your toddler's hands. Stealing food from people isn't okay. But the hedonism to be had from one slice of bread is not going to ruin him.

It's a long game, remember. It's cumulative.

If you don't know how to respond in real-time to some newly invented mischief, remember that you can always crate your puppy and take a break. Give yourself time and space to think it over. It's okay to let this incident slip by. Chances are, your pup will try the same thing again later, and next time you'll have a plan.

6. Get in the right mood

Your efforts will work best and add up to a better, happier relationship with your dog if you act like a teacher who's in a good mood rather than an irritable disciplinarian. It's easy to get in a negative rut where you're a grump and your puppy is a problem, but everything will work better if you stay positive and steady.

Even if your puppy does something unthinkable ("You ate my mother's ashes! You burned down the house! You summoned the hosts of hell!"), don't train mad. Take a break and get your head right.

This will be hard. Sometimes you'll be tired or annoyed. Your puppy will misbehave in ways you don't know how to deal with, and it will be genuinely distressing.

When that happens, go back to basics. Tell yourself that mistakes aren't a problem; they're the point: they give you an opportunity to lead your pup back to the straight and narrow again and again, and after being shown the way a million times, he'll end up knowing for himself.

7. Rewards are the most effective training tool that exists

Positive reinforcement is more effective than any form of correction.

In fact, one of the most basic ways to train is simply to wait until an animal does something you want and respond immediately with a happy payoff. This is how trainers get large animals to do any number of things: using non-coercive, variable rewards; starting with simple behaviors and building cumulatively to more complex feats; and falling back to basics if ever the animal isn't getting it.

So while it's easy to fixate on what's going wrong, train your mind to tunnel in on the behavior you want, not the one you're trying to avoid, because "yes" is a much more powerful word than "no."

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