Puppy Behavior and Training: Dealing with Undesirable Behavior

How do I prevent my puppy from doing damage or getting into mischief?

Prevention is the key to a happy life with puppies!

Set your puppy up for success by preventing her from getting into trouble in the first place. To be successful, your puppy needs to be directly supervised by a responsible person. When supervision is impossible, confine your puppy in a safe place such as a crate, pen, or in a safe puppy-proofed room. Be sure she has an appropriate elimination area, water, chew-resistant bedding, and safe toys when confined.

While watching your puppy, you can use a gate or leash to keep her from leaving the area and possibly making an inappropriate choice. Puppies naturally engage with objects when they explore their world. Set up a successful environment where it’s hard for your puppy to make a mistake: put away valuable or dangerous items that your puppy might chew and stow away the trash. Provide many safe, acceptable toys, including some that are chewable.

"If your puppy does start to engage with something inappropriate, immediately and cheerfully distract her by presenting a fun toy."

If your puppy does start to engage with something inappropriate, immediately and cheerfully distract her by presenting a fun toy. Don’t make a big fuss or shout at her. The training plan should condition your puppy to consistently reach for toys while simultaneously reducing the value of going for something inappropriate.

While your puppy is exploring, provide plenty of bathroom breaks. Very young puppies sometimes need to eliminate every 15–30 minutes when actively running around. By bringing your puppy to an appropriate toileting area before there is urgency, you can condition her to use that area instead of your carpet. This is much better than interrupting your puppy during an elimination attempt—puppies don’t have much bladder control. They could become frightened if they are suddenly lifted or scolded. Create a routine that fits your schedule while meeting your puppy’s needs. It will be easier to train your puppy if you can provide food and bathroom breaks at consistent times.

Do I need any specific equipment to get started with my puppy?

Management can be easier with the right tools. Here are some useful basics:

  • A regular buckle collar that will hold an ID tag (remove collars when puppies are not supervised or when they play with other dogs as there is a risk of choking)
  • A harness for when your puppy wears a leash
  • A 6’ leash and a longer lightweight line 10-30’ in length
  • Plenty of tiny, delicious treats
  • A crate or other small, safe confinement area

How do I train my puppy to be well-behaved?

Puppies are learning every waking moment! Training and learning occur every time your puppy interacts with you, with an object, or with the environment. Puppies naturally engage in a wide range of behaviors as they explore. Any intrinsically rewarding behaviors that feel good or help a puppy accomplish a goal will be repeated.

Your puppy may make many excellent choices every day, but she won’t always know that she is on the right track unless you tell her. Similarly, your puppy won’t naturally know which behaviors you do not favor. This is where training begins. To teach your puppy to continue to repeat desirable behaviors, reward her when you notice her making good choices. For example, if your puppy is lying quietly on a dog bed, you can inform her that resting quietly on a dog bed is a desirable behavior by quietly and calmly dropping a treat onto the bed between her front paws.

Always be on the lookout for desirable behaviors from your puppy. Sometimes good behavior is just ‘doing nothing'. When rewarding calm behavior, use a quiet tone of voice to avoid exciting your puppy. Save animated praise for other situations, such as when you are training fun tricks and cues. Although rewarding your puppy with praise and treats for making good choices is very important, it is equally important to continue using good management, including supervision, to prevent her from making choices you don’t want.

What should I do if my puppy misbehaves?

Some of a puppy’s self-rewarding behavioral choices may not be acceptable to you. It may be tempting to repeatedly try to STOP your puppy when you are not pleased with a behavior. However, stopping behaviors does not leave the puppy with any understanding of what behavior would be preferred or allowed. Sometimes, unwanted behaviors intensify when puppies are consistently interrupted.

Instead of saying "stop" and waiting for your puppy to come up with a better choice, you can teach your puppy precisely what behavior would be acceptable and appropriate. This training is easily accomplished by using a food or toy reward to encourage your puppy to engage in the behavior you have selected rather than the one that came naturally. You need to be consistent and apply your training each time your puppy is in the situation so that there are no further opportunities for her to gain any self-reward for her original, undesirable choice. For example, many puppies greet people by jumping up. This comes naturally, and it works—jumping usually results in a puppy being petted.

"If you scold your puppy for jumping, she will become confused and possibly frightened or frustrated."

Once a puppy has grown bigger and stronger, people no longer enjoy being jumped on, yet the puppy has come to expect that his jumping will lead to a pet. If you scold your puppy for jumping, she will become confused and possibly frightened or frustrated.

Instead of trying to STOP your puppy from jumping up, you can teach your puppy an acceptable alternative behavior, such as ‘sit’, while consistently refraining from rewarding your puppy when she jumps up. To train the new behavior, when your puppy rushes toward you, be prepared with a treat in hand, and as your puppy gets close, squat slightly and use the food to lure her into a sit. Give the treat AND gently pet your puppy—wow, two rewards (treat and pet) for sitting and zero for jumping. If you consistently use the treat/sit with every greeting, your puppy will automatically sit to greet you. Be sure your friends know the rules, or they will sabotage your training!

Decide in advance what manners you’d like your puppy to have as an adult dog. Will you allow your adult dog on the sofa or bed? Is jumping up to say “Hello” OK? Are there any rooms or regions which are off-limits? Provide supervision and management to prevent your puppy from accessing the off-limits areas from the outset. Use gates to block access instead of repeatedly calling your puppy away from a room. Lure your puppy to an appropriate dog bed before she ever climbs onto the sofa. If you miss your chance and your puppy jumps onto the sofa, use a treat to lure her onto the floor and then guide her to her bed.

Suppose you need to interrupt your puppy from doing something dangerous, such as chewing an electrical cord (supervision lapse!). In that case, you may be able to distract your puppy by squeaking a toy or throwing some treats nearby. Still, in a true emergency, you may need to make a sudden noise to startle your puppy, then reward her immediately for letting go of the dangerous item.

Don’t I need to punish my puppy for misbehavior?

Using punishment as a training strategy carries risks. Punishment techniques rely on using something aversive to discourage a behavior. It is tough to determine just what level of an aversive is appropriate, and a puppy can easily be irreparably frightened. To a sensitive puppy, a stern “Hey!” might be sufficient to interrupt a behavior, at which point the puppy could be gently lured away with a treat or toy to encourage a more appropriate response.

Punishment of any type, including shouting or grabbing a puppy by its scruff or muzzle, can cause long-term fear, including fear of people and noises. Punishment may also increase the risk that a puppy will develop aggressive behavior when it matures into an adult dog.

"Punishment of any type, including shouting or grabbing a puppy by its scruff or muzzle, can cause long-term fear, including fear of people and noises."

Punishment should never be used ‘after the fact’. If you find that your puppy has done something inappropriate, such as damaged an object or eliminated indoors, clean it up and vow to supervise your puppy better in the future. Chewing things is normal puppy behavior; it is up to humans to prevent that from happening. Do not get your puppy and bring her over to the mess and yell and physically discipline her. Remember that you need to punish a behavior the exact instant it is occurring. Your puppy may cower or even look guilty, but this posture actually reflects fear or submission, neither of which is desirable for learning nor for supporting a wonderful relationship with your dog.

See handouts “Using Predictable Rewards to Train Your Dog” and “Dog Behavior and Training – Teaching Settle and Calm” for more information.

What if my puppy is stubborn or uncooperative?

Puppy personalities and learning styles are as individual as those of children. A puppy that seems stubborn or uncooperative may need a different training strategy. For instance, some puppies are easily frustrated and need multiple ‘wins’ –easy tasks at which they can be successful. Some puppies have a short attention span and need shorter sessions to stay engaged. And some puppies are very energetic and do not settle easily unless they are taught.

The first step to training is to learn what your puppy likes, enjoys, and wants, then make sure only the behaviors you like lead to these things! Show your puppy that appropriate desired behaviors work. If you begin to feel that your puppy is stubborn, challenging, difficult, or a poor listener, seek help from a professional behavior consultant who can design a personalized training plan that fits your puppy’s learning style. Not every puppy is easy! It’s OK to ask for help; the sooner, the better for the best possible outcome.

What must I do to provide for my puppy's needs?

For proper behavioral and emotional development, puppies need good nutrition, daily social interactions and age-appropriate exercise, plenty of sleep, and reward-based training of cues that will assure clear communication with you and your family. See handouts “Using Enrichment, Predictability, and Scheduling to Train Your Dog” and "Behavior Management - Working for Food" for more information.