The learning curves

By Sue Ogden

Dogs, as humans, learn through association. They soon learn to repeat actions that are rewarded positively, i.e. in treats, cuddles or food. But actions that receive a negative response such as being ignored or a disapproving look or a firm “no”, they learn not to repeat. This is known as learned behaviour.

The time that a puppy is most responsive to initial training is up to the age of 12 weeks. In this time the puppy will learn his first actions from his mum. They learn to bark, play and socialise with their litter mates.

Once the puppy arrives in his new home that is when the main training starts. In the first 12 weeks of his life, we teach them to socialise with different things, unusual sounds, smells and environments.

It is very important that as soon as your puppy has had his injections, you try to take him with you to as many different places as possible. By taking him out and introducing him to new people, animals and noises, you are setting down the actions you want to see from him as an adult.

As a puppy he will bark at different things and may run to you for reassurance. This is perfectly normal and understandable. He has been in an isolated world and now he is out there in the big outside world.

He will learn by your reaction and it is vital that you are calm and only reward good behaviour. So if you’re sat in a café and he just lies down under the table, then he can be rewarded in whatever manner you wish.

If he misbehaves, then you are in charge and have to repeat commands until he obeys. Once he does as you ask, then you can treat him.

Like humans, dogs continue to learn throughout their lives and can be taught new things. But it will take longer to re-train them out of bad habits. Older dogs may have had bad experiences and, as a result, they could well have a few bad habits that they have learned. But given time, patience and commitment, these bad habits can be trained out.

One thing you will need to remember though; the older dog, as with the younger one, will from time to time test the boundaries to see if you have relented and will now allow them to have their own way. One thing dogs do have in unlimited amounts is the persistence to test you!

The act of reprimanding has to be done carefully, not too harsh, but then again firm enough to make sure the puppy or dog knows your displeasure.

One thing that is vitally important is that you have to reprimand within a few seconds of the bad behaviour occurring. There is no point whatsoever of punishing a dog or puppy way after the act, as they cannot reason what they have done.

It is always much better to reprimand either as soon as the act has happened or whilst it is happening. The main thing with correcting your dog’s behaviour is consistency. Everyone who is involved in either praise or punishment must use the same commands as you do. The act of reprimanding your puppy or dog has to follow on, the same commands, words or acts must be used or your puppy will get confused, making training take much longer and could undo the hard work you have put in.

All dogs will have some amount of inherited behaviour, as dogs were originally bred for certain jobs, and to take them out of their natural environment can, in fact, cause other bad behaviour they would not normally have developed.

I have seen, many times, problems with Border Collies. This breed has a natural herding instinct and loves to be out in the field. I have known of Border Collies jumping very high walls – which Border Collies are very good at – to chase a cyclist that has just passed the garden.

This is natural instinct, to herd, which if the dog is not doing can manifest itself as a chase instinct. Even walking and running free can often not be enough to suppress this natural instinct. They need to be allowed to chase; this can be mimicked by throwing a ball, which gives them the exercise and also feeds the chase instinct, resulting in a happy content Collie.

An example of unacceptable behaviour is jumping up. This can be annoying, upsetting and dangerous. This act can be learned as a puppy. As we all know puppies are cute, cuddly and loving, and we are all guilty of making that main first mistake to allow the puppy to sit on our laps and putting our faces close to theirs, and rewarding their attention with treats or physical rewards.

This is teaching the puppy that by being close to your face, a reward will follow. As they get older, the only way they can get close to your face is by jumping up.

This makes perfect sense. If when you enter a room, you immediately turn your back on your dog, more often than not they will not jump up. This is because they know that they will not get a reward from the back of your head.

If you have a jumping dog then you have to try to retrain them out of this. The main thing with visitors, which can be difficult to enforce if you don’t see them walking into your property, is to insist that they do not bend down and pat/stroke the dog. The act of patting and stroking is seen as a reward, and the dog will then crave more rewards, and the usual way is to jump up and try to get close to the face.

There is no doubt that a happy, healthy, well-behaved dog or puppy is a huge joy to own, but they do not come ready-trained and it is up to us to train them. With a little time spent with them as a puppy, then you have the foundation set for a very happy, well-behaved older dog that will be able to go to most places with you, making him a true family member.

As ever, if you have any concerns then speak to your vet. They will know of training clubs in your area, or even trainers that will come to you. There are a myriad of training aids and you can choose a system that works for you – training discs, clicker or a whistle are all good ways to train and available from good pet stores here in Portugal. The most rewarding way to train is to give some time and patience.

Happy training!

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Sue Ogden is a professional dog groomer living in the Algarve. In her regular column, she provides readers with information on how best to care for their pets. Trained in the UK, she studied nursing, breeding, grooming, nutrition and kennel management. 910 851 140