Do you ever look at a well-trained dog and wonder how they got so good? They certainly weren’t born that disciplined. As many owners already know, having a new puppy unfortunately isn’t all fun and games. Your puppy needs to learn a lot every day, and it will take time for them to become a well-behaved dog. In the meantime, accidents and naughtiness will happen. So what should you do when it’s time to discipline a naughty new puppy?

How Puppies Learn

Both puppies and adult dogs learn by association. A puppy will learn that one stimulus (a sound, action, smell, command, etc.) is associated with another (a reward or punishment, for example). If they recognise the first stimulus again, they associate it with the corresponding stimulus and become excited/fearful as a result. There are two main ways puppies make associations: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning is involuntary association between two stimuli. This is best explained by Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov and his famous experiment. The basic premise is that a dog will naturally salivate when it smells food. If a bell is rung when food is delivered, over time, the dog will associate the sound of the bell with food. Now, every time a bell is rung, the dog will salivate, even if no food is present. Pavlov’s experiment was more complex than this (and certainly not welfare friendly by today’s standards…) but the premise is the same.

Operant conditioning is voluntary association between an action and a consequence, positive or negative. For example, a dog hears the word ‘stay’ and the owner backs away. If the dog sits still, they will get a reward. By repeating this many times, the dog will learn that the command ‘sit’ means if they do not move, they receive a reward. 

More on Operant Conditioning

There are four ways operant conditioning is used by puppies to learn. 

Positive reinforcement

Where a reward is introduced to reinforce a desired behaviour, such as a treat when your dog sits. 

Negative reinforcement 

Taking away a punishment to reinforce desired behaviour, such as releasing a firm hold on a dog when it stops being aggressive. 

Positive punishment 

Where a punishment is introduced to stop a certain behaviour, such as shouting at a dog that is being mouthy. 

Negative punishment 

Where something good is removed to prevent bad behaviour. Such as taking away a toy if the puppy is being destructive. 

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Positive reinforcement is considered the best way to teach a puppy as it encourages positive interactions between humans and dogs, reduces punishments and speeds up learning. Negative punishment can be used when whatever is removed does not cause harm or distress. Negative reinforcement and positive punishment are not as welfare friendly.

So to summarise, training a puppy requires rewarding good behaviour and ignoring bad. Punishing or taking away rewards for bad behaviour tends to be counterproductive. 

How Should You Discipline a Puppy?

Let’s put this theory into practice.

We’ll start with a common example of bad behaviour – pooping on the floor. 

It takes time for a puppy to become housetrained so you might spot them making a nasty present on the living room carpet. The old advice was to ‘rub the dog’s nose in it’. This really is a bad idea. Not only is it unlikely for the dog to associate the punishment with the act, it creates stress, trauma and fear of the owner, as well as just being unpleasant.

Instead, use negative punishment, removing a reward. In this case, ignoring the puppy or placing them outside alone. Thus the reward of ‘attention’, can work. The puppy will see you are not interacting with them and stop their behaviour. This is a good start, but punishment must be counteracted with reward. The next time they poop outside, reward them using positive reinforcement. This could be a treat or just praise. Repeating this many times will slowly lead to the association of pooping indoors with loss of attention from their owner, and association of pooping outside with a reward, favouring pooping outside

What about destruction?

If your dog is starting to tear up a magazine, shouting ‘no’ as positive punishment will often only lead to fear, and could make the problem worse. Instead, remove yourself or the object and provide no attention, as negative punishment. Again, providing positive reinforcement for the opposite behaviour will direct them in the right direction. Praising them when they receive an object and play with it carefully. 

Crate training is a tricky one to get right as well – puppies need to learn to be by themselves quietly, to avoid separation anxiety in future. 

Crate training is one way of doing this. However, many puppies do not take the crating well and start crying. Coming in and shouting at them (positive punishment) or even comforting them to calm them down can have the opposite effect. Instead, a puppy crying in a crate should be ignored (within reason) and rewarded when sitting in it quietly. It is best to build up crate training slowly to avoid distress. Introduce the crate with the door open. If they enter it and sit quietly, reward them. Try closing the door – if they start to cry, ignore them until they stop crying, then praise them when they are quiet. Your dog will associate quiet behaviour with reward. Repeatedly doing this, increasing the duration each time, will lead to positive associations with sitting quietly in the crate, and a well-trained dog.

There are also some general guidelines and rules you should follow when teaching or disciplining a puppy. 

Remember that your puppy will learn by association, so consistency is key. Don’t praise a behaviour one day and punish it the next, or you will lead to confusion. Ensure that everyone in the house knows this – it’s all well and good you spending hours teaching your puppy not to beg for food from the table if your kids are secretly giving out scraps!

If you have to tell your puppy off, try and avoid shouting – use the same word consistently, such as a quiet but firm ‘no’, ‘off’ or ‘stop’ and remove them or yourself to prevent the behaviour. Over time, they will learn that the word means they are doing something naughty, and should stop. Always supervise your puppy, especially in the early stages – time alone is time to misbehave without correction, which could lead to association. This is why early crate training is sensible if you have to be out of the house.

Final Thoughts

Puppy training and discipline doesn’t have to be complex. Remember to gently punish by removal, stopping the activity or ignoring them, and ensure you reward once the behaviour has stopped. Never punish after the event. Positive reinforcement is the best way to learn, so encourage lots of good behaviour and reward it accordingly. With a little (or a lot!) of input, even the naughtiest puppy can become a good boy or girl.Need help? Take a look at the FABC Website here!

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