Puppy Training – React and Reinforce

Posted by Zena Conkey on May 25, 2020

Are you wondering why your new puppy keeps displaying the same behaviour regardless of how many times you discourage it? If so read on and I’ll explain why it’s so easy for dogs to learn to do things which we don’t want them to. In this blog post I would like to expand on the reinforcement topic which we talked about in our previous post

The most important thing to learn when bringing up a new puppy is that attention, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, will be rewarding to most dogs. Literally all they could ever want is attention and affection (and food too of course!). Interestingly this counts for a dog of any age. I say most dogs because some, particularly those with fear issues, just want to be left alone. The abused dog can often see interaction as pressure.

But we are talking about your new puppy, your blank canvas, and when you learn the fact that any kind of attention is rewarding, you will soon learn to stop reinforcing unhelpful behaviours from your puppy.

For instance a puppy that jumps up your body at eight weeks old is really innocent and quite cute. They are asking to be picked up and each time you do pick them up you are reinforcing their action of jumping up your body. In reality you are teaching them to jump up.

Now fast forward six months, your puppy is no longer 3kg, they're more like 15kg and heavy. Suddenly it’s less fun when they jump up both at yourself and people who visit. So you push them off and tell him to get down. Eventually the same dog will be put out of the room when visitors arrive.

Try to see this situation from your dogs point of view now. They have always jumped up and always been rewarded. They have never been taught, in their own language or any language that they understand, that jumping up is no longer acceptable. So they carry on with what they have learned previously but things have changed.

What has changed? Well, you have, your attitude towards the jumping up. You seem frustrated and annoyed, your dog will know this so they will try harder to jump up and what seems like naughty behaviour is actually your dog just trying to make things right by doing what has always worked before. By this point the dog might even be quite stressed. I have to point out again that they are not being naughty, it is just miscommunication between you both. You would probably be quite stressed too if you didn't understand right from wrong.

So what can we do to avoid the situation developing at all?

This is where you simply need to understand that attention, any kind of attention, is rewarding. When you understand this you can take away any kind of attention when they jump up and utilise this learning rule by giving attention when they display good behaviour. Even just giving them some praise and a treat when all four paws are on the ground.

So remember - by giving any attention to your puppy you are giving them an automatic reward. If they display bad behaviour, or something you would like them not to repeat, don’t give them any attention for it. If they display good behaviour that you want them to learn and repeat as a good habit then give them attention and maybe even an extra reward. By treating your puppy in this way you are teaching them, kindly and clearly, how you would like them to behave.

In our next blog post Why Does My Puppy... – Understanding Dog Behaviour, we will talk more about attention and why your dog reacts in a certain way in common situations, so do pop back and we will see you soon.

You can also check out all of our puppy blog posts here.