Teaching my Puppy about Actions and Consequences

Puppy mouthing is troublesomeWe have spent the last 14 days teaching my puppy how to navigate his world and overcome emotional obstacles. How not to run from strange, unfamiliar things and that curiosity is rewarded.

Zwei has successfully learned to follow, to respond to his name, to sit for greetings and to come when he is called. He has traveled virtually every day but a few, and has met at least 70 new people and about 20 strange dogs in 14 days.

We have been successful in teaching my puppy a schedule of elimination; lights on by 6 am and lights out by midnight. He sleeps straight through until about 6 am and remain ‘clean’. (YAY!)

At 10 weeks, he has abdicated his afternoon meal and eats only two times a day. He is a robust morning eater and is moderately interested in his evening meal. Occasionally he will not finish.

We are engaging in some pattern learning for casting drills, remedial obedience and laying the foundation for the retrieve.

A few days ago Zwei found his voice. He has learned that if he whimpers when in his crate, he gets attention. He is a very smart puppy.

Frequently I get calls from new puppy owners who exclaim their pup was wonderful for the first few days and cannot seem to understand why “all of a sudden” their precious pup has turned into a whiny, needy little tyrant.

It’s easy really, we teach them that. They learn through the processes we have discussed in prior posts about early social development.

We start out as attentive hosts to our new little charges. We feed them on a schedule, we play with them, we confine them and release them, we love them and we spoil them. Whether we plan it or not, we teach them. We teach them what time to expect meals, to go to the bathroom, when we will play, when we will leave them. They observe us doing it, pattern the rituals of our behavior and learn from us. Both those things we plan and those things we don’t.

We are entering the second stage for teaching our puppy. He has learned how to make demands. We have patterned the things that are immediately important to him, so now he takes liberty with the knowledge and makes requests. They start innocuously enough, they start out timely and appropriate. He whines when he hears us rattling the food bowls or sees us heading out the door with another dog to train. He is not interested in settling into his crate with his toys when I am preoccupied with a phone call or making dinner.

The quality of his demands are changing. They are becoming insistent and they are occurring outside the scope of our patterned learning. Our pup is growing up! His increased self-awareness is the benchmark of learning. He has learned that he can manipulate his environment.

Zwei is no longer satisfied with the fun little games and chew toy pacifiers. He demands stimulation at exponentially increasing rates and protests when these desires are not met.  He is fast becoming an obstreperous little megalomaniac.

Since he is about midway through the most critical period of his development; again, we must be careful to preserve all of the progress we have worked so far to obtain.

Our pup is beginning to learn that actions have consequences.

If we perceive a consequence as “something that logically or naturally follows from an action or condition”, we are better prepared to limit options, guide choices, control outcomes and stay safely within the parameters of our imprint period. There can be negative consequences and positive consequence. A consequence is simply the result of an act.

When Zwei learned to bark and carry on for attention, he learned that the event that followed that act was usually an opportunity to engage in an activity that he enjoyed. When he bites at hands or clothing, the consequence is an end-game that either limits access to those options entirely, or an outcome that the pup might not enjoy. Now, this is not an ordination to smack, scruff or scold; it is simply a means of  limiting options, guiding choices and controlling outcomes. Grab my pant leg, I cease to move abruptly, or I move incredibly fast. Nip my hands and they retreat.  Bark uncontrollably, for no legitimized reason (biological needs have been met: exercise, toilet breaks and fed) and be patently ignored. All great tactics for teaching my puppy, Zwei. These are all consequences.

Our pup is experimenting with his autonomy. The nature of his demands require our attention immediately, since at this stage of his life, it’s important to set boundaries. Gnawing on our couch, not a good idea. Hollering at the top of his lungs, also not a great idea. Shredding clothing, shoes, hands and feet, equally offensive.

At this age, it is easy to limit options, as puppies are easily distracted by the next greatest bauble if he decides your Coach handbag looks tasty. Limiting options to a few approved toys and engaging with them frequently will make them more attractive and willingly sought. It is also easy to guide choices by quickly offering him one of these approved toys as an alternative to satisfy his curious palate. You successfully control outcomes by limiting his options and guiding his choices. Provide him with smart alternatives when you are present to supervise his behavior, and confine him so that he cannot practice the wrong choices when you are not there to control the outcome. If your pup is unable to engage in the “wrong” behavior, it ceases to become a choice! Confining your pup is a crucial tool for his education. When your pup is safely confined to a crate in your absence, he is still learning.

Zwei is a hunting dog. As he grows, so does his desire to seek “game”. Whether its the butterfly that crosses his path or the birds that flit through the yard, his attention is more easily carried away from us, and becoming more difficult to reacquire. This is not a bad thing, but it presents problems far more easily addressed at this age than at any other.

My small fenced training “yards” are no longer enough to appease him and although Zweis’ recall is impressive for a 10 week old puppy, he is swiftly approaching the point in his young life where our social appeal is losing it’s magnetism. If we are to engender cooperation, it’s time to put the brakes on.

This weekend, we introduced Zwei to a leash for the very first time.

I crafted a lanyard out of about ten feet of poly rope and sized it appropriately to slide easily over his head. The circumference was fixed so that it would not tighten if he pulled but was not so loose that he could back out of it. We headed out to the big, open training yard and I let him go.

I let my pups leash break themselves, or if I have a couple of pups, I will let them leash break each other. Since Zwei is my only youngster and none of the other dogs are appropriate for this task ( all but one of the current dogs in for training are here for some pretty significant behavior issues) I just set him down to figure it out for himself. He rolled around and wrestled with the line, tangling himself in the process.

He couldn’t escape the line, but it wasn’t inhibiting his ability to move as it pooled loosely around his feet and legs. He tumbled and he stumbled and he fought and he squirmed until he realized “it” wasn’t going to eat him before I even picked up the other end of it. My husband stood a few feet away and Zwei headed in his direction. When he met the “end of the line” he reared up and twirled around like a tiny tornado. I dropped the line and moved away, ignoring him. When he tried to pass between the woodpile and the chairs next to it to follow me, a loop of line caught on a piece of timber and stuck him fast.

Zwei tried to use his teeth to extricate himself from this new dilemma and as I reached down to hook the loop of leash off the piece of lumber, his mouth closed on my hand. It was nice to know that we both had the same idea, not so nice when his sharp little teeth sliced the back of my fingers.

I could not “correct” him for that act, he didn’t know that my fingers were going to the same place his mouth was and his response was not out of aggression (he’s a puppy), so I just finished releasing him and let him figure out the rest on his own. I bled quietly to myself.

Once he came to his senses, he looked around and sought my comfort and I praised him up for coming to me. I offered him a tidbit of food and walked away. He followed, dragging the line behind him. We practiced walking with the leash in my hands and with it dragging on the ground, sitting and recalls and he responded with confidence and willingness.

Total elapsed time from introduction and willing cooperation was about 5 minutes. I allowed Zwei to go through his gesticulations and he figured out on his own that he was not, in fact, dying. He picked himself up, dusted himself off and returned to the determined little pup we have been cultivating.

Zwei learned a few valuable lessons. Leashes are not giant puppy-eating snakes, “new” need not be “traumatic” and hysteria gets him nowhere. All in about 5 minutes.

Puppies are pretty adept on picking up our cues. Had I made a big fuss over him when he was caught in the wood pile, he would have lodged that memory away and perhaps the next time he felt trapped, he might respond with the same anxiety and frustration as the first time. Except, maybe he might be just a bit older, a little bit bigger, and a little bit more willing to protest with his teeth.

Since our response was neutral including our non-emotional reaction to the inappropriate contact of his teeth on my hand, we gave him nothing to be concerned about. His lesson was that the consequences were a result of his own travails, and not externally influenced by me. Although we were the ones who put the leash on him, we were not directly involved in the litany of events that occurred immediately after. He became the harbinger of his own discomfort. That one, 5 minute lesson, was sufficient to create a permanent memory and only a few hours later when we leashed him up again, our pup willingly accepted it, moved without resistance and tacitly avoided the area that was the source of his greatest moment of discomfort.

Through our limit, guide and control process, we assured that his purview of the leash was not with discomfort or fear, but something to yield to. This tiny little step has prepared our young dog for a future of learning. His leash experience is by no means complete, but we have created an environment where he accepts it without struggle and has identified that it represents rewarding adventures.

We continue to allow opportunities for unrestricted play in the open yards, as we continue to exploit parallel learning by imprinting key components to good decision making and the ability to accurately evaluate elements of outcome, including reward value, predictability, and risk (I wish I had access to the whole study, but alas, I do not) while channeling instinctive drives.

Pups learn incredibly fast at this age, being permitted to engage in self-rewarding behavior is a potent aphrodisiac to the young dog. What they learn and do now will influence their behavior as adults. We can successfully abrogate those behaviors we wish to diminish by promoting incompatible, self-reinforcing ones.

By providing a wealth of experiences without confrontation, our pup continues to trust us while learning to make appropriate judgments of his own.