Puppies really can learn!

Even when they're younger than six months

Q: We’ve been told that we shouldn’t start training our puppy until she’s six months old. Is this true?

A: Not at all! In fact, at the tender age of eight weeks, your puppy already has the same learning capacity as an adult dog. Obedience classes usually require their canine students to be six months old because of medical reasons -- to protect the participants, dogs in class need to have their permanent vaccinations, some of which can’t be given until age six months. But this doesn’t mean your puppy can’t start her training before then. With some breeds of dogs, waiting until they’re six months of age could mean you’ll have a serious behavior problem before class even starts.

You can start teaching your puppy simple commands like Sit, Stay and Come right now. Keep your training periods short and fun. Puppies have very short attention spans -- there’s so many things happening that are new and fascinating that it’s impossible for them to concentrate for very long. Use lots of praise and treats. Work on one command at a time and end the session when she’s successfully completed a command. You’ll be surprised just how quickly she can learn!

Some kennel clubs, animal shelters and veterinarians offer “puppy kindergarten” classes for puppies under six months of age. These are great for early socialization with strangers and other dogs, as well as building a foundation for early obedience training. They’re designed to help you and your puppy start your relationship off on the right foot. And they’re a lot of fun for puppies and people alike!

Q: I’m trying to teach my new puppy to walk on leash but all he wants to do is chew on it. I scold him sternly but it doesn’t make any difference. My expensive leather leash is almost ruined. Help!

A: This common problem is frustrating but very easy to solve. Puppies are fascinated with things that move. A leash waving near their faces is almost impossible to ignore. Few puppies can resist the temptation to grab it. Leashes, especially leather ones, are fun to chew on. Many puppies also discover that that struggling with their owners over the leash is simply another way to play tug o’war!

The solution recommended most often is to coat the leash with something that tastes bad like “Bitter Apple”, a product meant to discourage chewing. I’ve found, though, that this isn’t effective on all puppies. My favorite cure is to use a leash made out of lightweight chain. The sensation of teeth on metal is very unappealing to the puppy and he soon stops grabbing the leash altogether. As the puppy gets older and becomes used to walking on leash, he’s no longer distracted by it and you can go back to using a leather or nylon leash.

Q: Our new puppy gets pretty sassy sometimes. Our vet told us that he’s “dominant” and we should nip this in the bud right now. What are we supposed to do?

A: Like kids, puppies do talk back and get sassy sometimes. Your vet is right that it may be an indication of future dominant behavior. Mother dogs are very efficient at keeping their puppies in line and teaching them their place. You can use one of her best methods, too. It works because it talks to the puppy in a language he can understand -- dog language!

When your puppy sassed his mother, she didn’t waste any time reasoning with him. She simply knocked him over with her big paw and pinned him to the floor. She stared him in the eye and growled at him. You don’t need to growl and stare but rolling your puppy over is still a very effective correction as well as being a good general exercise in submission to a higher authority. In other words, it reminds him that you’re the boss and he’s not. Here’s how:

If your puppy is still small enough to cradle in your arms, pick him up and turn him over on his back, holding him gently but firmly in that position. He probably isn’t going to like this much and will wriggle and squirm, trying hard to escape. Rub his tummy and talk sweetly to him until he relaxes and lies still. When he does, praise him and let him go. At first, he’s only going to be still for a few seconds. Repeat this exercise several times a day and get your whole family into the act. Each time you roll him over, increase the length of time he must lie quietly until he’ll eventually stay in that position as long as you want.

This is also a good correction when he sasses back or needs to be settled down if he’s being too rowdy. Scold him with firm NO in your toughest-sounding voice, then scoop him up and roll him over. Don’t let him up until he’s stayed calmly in that position for a few minutes.

Q: Now that it’s summer, our dog has started digging holes in the yard and flower beds again. We’ve heard of some methods to stop this but they sound downright cruel -- like filling the hole with water and holding the dog’s head under it. Is this really what we should do?

A: No, that is downright cruel! First it helps to find out why the dog is digging holes in the first place. Is he being left in the yard by himself so long that he gets bored? Does he need more exercise and attention? Is he a breed whose nature includes digging holes like Malamutes or terriers? Is he just having fun? Finding out why will help you decide whether the digging can be stopped altogether or just controlled to a level you can live with.

When a dog is digging out of boredom, he often shows other undesirable behaviors like excessive barking and destructive chewing. Stopping the digging will force him to find another, also probably undesirable, outlet for his energy. A dog like this needs regular walks and exercise, games to play and perhaps, more time in the house in the company of his owners. By giving him things to do, you’ll see an improvement in all the problem areas.

For part-time and spur of the moment diggers, there are products you can buy that, applied to the area, repel dogs and other animals. They can be effective but need to be reapplied periodically especially after a rain. Check your pet supply, hardware and gardening stores for these products.

Certain breeds were bred for digging, like terriers. Others, especially Malamutes, have a definite flair for major exterior landscaping and excavation! Unfortunately, their tastes in groundskeeping are probably not the same as yours. Other dogs dig just for the fun of it. With these dogs, you may not be able to stop their digging altogether. Can you give the dog a portion of the yard for his very own - a place where he can dig to his heart’s content? The area needn’t be that large nor unattractive. With some inexpensive fencing and hidden from view with imaginative plantings or latticework panels, your dog can have the canine equivalent of a child’s sandbox!

Norma Bennett Woolf

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