Who doesn’t love puppies? Soft and furry, adorable and rambunctious, they grab the hearts of everyone they meet.
But rambunctious puppies can grow into unruly dogs whose bad manners and unbridled energy can make them distinctly unlovable.
It doesn’t have to be that way, say a trio of Billings trainers who work with puppies and their owners.
“My goal in teaching a puppy class is to give the puppy and owner a good start to a fun and rewarding relationship that will keep the puppy in the home their whole life and keep the owners happy,” said Linda Birtles, puppy trainer at the Billings Family Animal Hospital since 2003.
That’s also the goal of a couple of other veteran trainers. Jennifer McCandless, who teaches classes through Lovable Pets Bakery & Boutique in Billings, has trained dogs since 1995.
And Helene Tiefenthaler, of Paws-a-tively Canine, has taught owners and their dogs since 1989. She works in Billings and Laurel. Tiefenthaler is a certified professional dog trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and also is a certified dog behavioral consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.
They talked about how to get off on the right foot with your puppy.
Choosing the right one
“Too many people buy a puppy on a whim,” McCandless said. “They really need to research breed tendencies and figure out what works with their lifestyle and their own personality.”
Understanding what the dogs are bred to do or what their breed is like will give a potential buyer some clues.
For instance, boxers are high-energy dogs that tend to be tenacious and stubborn and do well with owners who are the same. Labrador retrievers are likely to be good family dogs, McCandless said, because they’re adaptable, not high-maintenance and not physically sensitive, which makes them tolerant of children.
Hounds tend to dig, bark at everything and, when they put their noses to the ground, it makes it hard to get their attention, Birtles said.
“That’s what we have bred them for,” she said. “That might work in search and rescue, but if you want a dog to focus on you, ready to do what you ask them, you might go for a herding dog.”
She suggests puppy buyers consider choosing an adult dog. Training a puppy is a lot of work, she said, whereas many older dogs are ready to go.
“You don’t have to potty-train them, they’re past their chewing stage, and they likely already know how to live in a house and have good manners,” she said. “There are so many wonderful dogs that, through no fault of their own, end up looking for a new home.”
There are a couple of other factors to take into consideration. Decide whether you want a small dog or a large one. A lot of smaller dogs are bred to be companions, Birtles said.
And keep in mind the dog’s coat. Some shed and have to be brushed often. Others require professional grooming, and the cost of that can add up over time.
When to start training
Puppies are learning from the moment they’re born, McCandless said, “so you don’t want them to learn the wrong things.” As soon as they’re old enough, usually around 8 weeks, once they’ve started their vaccinations, she suggests getting them into a class.
“There used to be a school of thought, and some vets still prescribe, that you don’t start until they’re finished with the vaccinations,” she said. “But you’ve missed a window of opportunity of up to 16 weeks for optimum socialization and you really need to make the best use of that time.”
Birtles said that by the time puppies are 6 weeks old, a good breeder will already be working with them on potty training and getting them used to being handled.
Tiefenthaler said puppies are dogs, not little people in fur suits.
“Living with humans, we have to show them how to live in our world,” Tiefenthaler said. “Sniffing, chewing, barking, digging, peeing wherever they need to go are typical dog things.”
For Birtles, it’s a learning time for everyone.
“We’re teaching the puppies how to learn and the owners how to make training fun for both of them,” she said.
A word that often comes up in training is “socialization.”
Socialization, Birtles said, is exposing the puppy in a safe way to all kinds of people, animals and noises early enough that they are confident and comfortable going out into the world.
“Then you eliminate where they might need to bite, if they’re fearful of people, or bark or get traumatized,” she said.
Studies going back to the 1950s say the best window of opportunity to socialize puppies is up to 4 months old, McCandless said. Puppies raised in isolation will often have fear issues “and they don’t develop trust of our species that makes life better for them.”
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“If they’re kept in their own little world of home, then anything new is scary,” she said.
The class itself will be a time of socialization, where the puppies get used to new people and different sizes and breeds of dogs. All of the classes include time at the end for the puppies to play together.
As part of socialization, puppies especially need exposure to small children and adult males, Birtles said.
“If they’ve never had a man, with his deep voice, or kids with their high-pitched voices moving erratically, the puppies may bark,” she said. “The rule of thumb is make sure they meet both.”
Common puppy issues
Owners frequently come in with questions about potty training, breaking their puppies’ biting habit and teaching them not to jump up.
“The hardest part of house training most dogs is communicating when they need to go out,” McCandless said.
She offers a helpful tip, to hang up a bell that the puppies can reach. Most dogs catch on to that really quickly, she said.
Because puppies are less likely to soil their sleeping area, crate training can help with potty training, Birtles said. After puppies wake up and after they eat are good times to take them outside.
She also suggests owners have a specific word they use consistently for going potty, and she recommends they reward the puppies when they are done.
When it comes to biting and chewing, it’s good for owners to realize that puppies explore the world with their mouths and that they’re teething. Puppy chews can help satisfy their need for chewing, Birtles said.
What an owner has to teach the puppy is “you never bite down hard and you don’t chew on things we tell you not to chew on,” she said. “If we teach them never to use their mouths and they get into a situation where they feel they need to bite — they’re in pain or they’re scared — they’re naturally going to bite as hard as they can.”
One technique Birtles uses when puppies pick up something they shouldn’t is to trade them for a treat or a toy.
“They want to give it to you because they’re getting something good in return,” she said. “There’s no battle of wills.”
When it comes to teaching puppies not to jump up, Tiefenthaler has a simple solution. It starts with recognizing that a dog jumps up because it wants attention.
Even if you say “no” and push it down, the dog is still getting attention, she said. In that way, an animal is like a child: If that’s the only way it can get attention, that’s what it will do.
Instead, Tiefenthaler said, just ignore the puppy.
“You don’t look at them, you don’t say anything to them,” she said. “They put four feet on the floor, give them a treat and talk to them. If two feet come off the floor, stop doing that.”
Focus on basics
All three trainers work with owners on a variety of basic obedience commands. They all use treats to reward the puppies as they respond to their owners’ requests.
Birtles and McCandless use hand signals and verbal commands. Tiefenthaler uses hand signals, along with a clicker, or a marker where she uses a unique sound or visual cue that’s not usually heard or seen in a normal day.
“Something about a marker goes back to a primitive part of the brain,” she said. “Plus, the nice thing about a marker is you can break things down into tiny steps.”
Tiefenthaler has the owners bring a rug for their puppies. She then helps them use a clicker to train the puppies to “do nothing” — to lay down on their rugs.
It’s one way to teach dogs a bit about how to inhibit themselves, she said.
For impulse control, McCandless teaches owners how to help their dogs “leave it.” She’ll place an object on the floor and have the owners walk their dogs near the object and then instruct their dogs to “leave it.”
During a recent class, all of the puppies responded to their owners’ commands and sidestepped a hat that was sitting in the middle of the floor.
The trainers also focus on basic commands, like sitting, lying down and staying until called. They also work specifically on issues that come up in that particular class.
It all boils down to helping the puppy turn into a polite dog that is welcome in the home and outside of it, McCandless said.
“It helps in getting off on the right foot, so their dog stays in the home and is a joy for all those years to come,” she said.