Reward Based Training For Puppies

Ralph2Like all puppies, Cockerpoo Ralph can change from a manic foot-chasing, hand-nipping whirlwind to a sleeping ball of fluff in an instant.

Sometimes they have their special ‘victim’ – often someone who lavishes the most love on them. Frequently this is the lady, but not always. I have known it to be a child but less often a man.

It can be upsetting when our new ‘baby’ seems to turn on us.

I was with them and Ralph for over three hours but as is often the case I never actually witnessed the behaviour. We preempted it once by giving him something to concentrate on, in this instance learning to touch a hand using a clicker.

Brain exercise can often do more good than physical exercise whRalphich can fire a puppy up even more. He needs pacing – attention, exercise and training projects little and often, using reward based training.

Ralph isn’t too keen on being stroked. He is so soft, silky and fluffy it’s almost impossible to keep ones hands off him. He has started to quietly growl if touched when asleep and when he’s had enough of being stroked.

Here are a few of the basic tips I have given them and which are applicable to a lot of cases.  It would be good if Ralph had to put in some effort for his attention. The lady in particular should refrain from going over to where he is lying and touching him. She should wait until he comes to her. She can call him, but if he says ‘no thanks’ it’s not a good idea to cajole and beg him.

If touching and stroking is given to him on a plate, pushed onto him even, he won’t value it.

They should avoid picking him up and moving him which also makes him cross. If they make use of his food as rewards he will willingly come of his own accord, and isn’t ‘willing’ just what  we want?

Another thing is that a puppy’s environment should start small and gradually open out. Time and again I find a puppy in a large garden chasing human feet and clothes. It’s like the lack of physical boundaries brings out something wild in him. Trying to ‘tire him out’ with chasing and games will only make him worse. Having an anchor point can help when puppy starts to get excited and silly (lead hooked to harness not collar for safety), and he then needs to be occupied with the sort of thing that can calm him down – hunting and foraging for bits of scattered food or something nice to chew.

The question people always want answered is, ‘what do I do when he’s actually biting me’?

Immediately withdraw all attention. Immediately – not after one or two bites. Look away. If it’s a hand you may do a soft squeal and fold your arms (anything louder might be too exciting!).  If it’s feet – freeze. For now it’s sensible to wear clothes that give a bit of protection.

This is only half the story though. He needs to learn what he should do. ‘Food is your Friend’! Reward based training.

As soon as he backs off or stops, silently give him a piece of food. Do it over and over – he will get the message. It may seem like rewarding the biting, but it’s not so. You are rewarding NOT biting.  Add to this distraction. Immediately put something acceptable into his mouth, a chew or a toy.

It all requires forward planning. You need big pockets or a bum bag so you can keep food and toys on your person all the time! It’s not forever. He will grow up all too soon.

Ralph is a clever little dog. He was soon learning using clicker. He also walked nicely in the garden – with none of his usual grabbing and tugging on the lead, demonstrating the power of positive reward based training.

This is yet another instance of the actual problem they wanted help for – nipping and chasing feet – being more than just that.  A holistic approach comes from all angles and enables us to work on the underlying causes. It shows the humans how their own behaviour can affect the puppy’s behaviour, as well as showing the puppy what we do want of him.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Ralph, which is why I don’t share all the exact details of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own puppy can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies puppy parenting specific to your own puppy (see my Get Help page).

Why is Colin growling?

Understandably we don’t like our dogs to growl and it can be embarrassing, but growling is GOOD.

Collie Cross growls when approached by Barney or a person

Colin

Growling tells us what our dog is feeling. Growling gives us the key to open the door to the dog’s emotions. When we know what he is feeling, we then know what to do about it.

Shi tzu Barney is old, blind and deaf

Barney

Colin is a four-year-old Collie-Terrier cross looking like a very small Border Collie. He lives with his lady owner and Shitzu age sixteen called Barney who is very slow-moving, blind and deaf.

Whenever Barney approaches Colin, he growls. The lady assumes he growls because he himself doesn’t want to be approached by Barney. As a trained observer one sometimes sees different things. Because Colin is near the lady all the time, he growls because Barney is approaching her. I would be willing to bet he never growls at Barney if she’s not there.

In my photo on the right Barney had just come in the door which meant walking past the lady. Quickly Colin was under her chair, growling at him (something he couldn’t hear anyway!).

Colin is hiding under the lady's chair

Colin

Colin also sometimes growls when touched. The lady, like most people, then scolds him. I would say it’s only a matter of time before he abandons growling as a waste of time and nips instead. He is merely saying ‘please don’t touch me’.

The lady is going to keep a note of where on his body she is touching him when he growls to see if it may be local discomfort and need for a vet visit, or whether he simply doesn’t want to be touched anywhere just now thank you. Because he then lies on his back the lady believes he wants a belly rub. When Colin growls then, the lady think he is just ‘talking’. He is! He’s saying ‘please stop’ or perhaps ‘go away’.

I experimented. I briefly tickled his chest and he moved in to me for more, indicating he quite liked that. Then he threw himself onto his back. The lady said ‘see, he now wants a belly rub’. I thought a demonstration would help her better understand him and, watching him carefully, I moved my hand gently towards his lovely inviting little soft tummy and he growled. He was saying ‘no thanks’, so of course I backed off immediately.

This little dog has never bitten but I believe it’s only a matter of time. His restraint is amazing really.

The lady has two main angles of approach. First is to teach Colin by her own behaviour that she isn’t merely a large unruly resource belonging to him that he must follow, guard and protect – and stop anyone else getting too near (he also reacts badly when she welcomes friends with a hug).

Second is for him to associate the approach of Barney (or the lady’s friends) with good stuff (food) and not scolding.

The protectiveness and nervousness has been spilling out onto walks where he will rush at dogs he doesn’t know for no apparent reason than to drive them away. He’s not actually bitten yet, but it has been a near thing. Most recently Colin was off lead and he charged – barking, growling and snapping, at an approaching young on-lead Spaniel.

It’s embarrassing for the lady and distressing for the other owner and dog. People feel they must be seen to be taking a firm hand so they react by scolding. But scolding doesn’t work.  If it did, Colin would be getting better, not worse.

It’s also vital that the opportunity for this off-lead behaviour is prevented from happening again while work is done, starting with a bomb-proof recall or loss of freedom.

A friend had suggested spraying him with water and shaking a bottle of stones at him when he barks and growls at approaching dogs when on lead. Two bottles were waiting on the hall table. Fortunately I arrived before she actually started to use them.

‘A friend told me to do so and so’ is a very common theme with people I go to, with different people saying different things. There is all sorts of conflicting advice online also. ‘What people say’ (“you need to get a grip on your dog”) is invariably misguided and along the ‘quick fix’ lines that may work in the moment but end up by making things far worse, with a confused dog becoming more fearful and aggressive.

In desperation people often end up doing things they feel very uneasy about, believing it’s the only way.

It’s not the only way. The lady is dedicated to doing her best for her little rescue dog.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Colin, which is why I don’t go into all exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good – most particularly if any aggression is involved. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dogs (see my Get Help page).