Teaching a Young Dog New Behaviors

By: David Codr

Published Date: February 10, 2015

WrigleyWrigley is a six month old Bichon / Shih Tzu mix who bites and nips hands, jumps up, doesnt recall, over barks and sometimes eats poop.

When I arrived for the session, Wrigley’s owner had to pick him up to keep him from escaping through the door. He was pretty excited; barking, circling around and completely ignoring his owner. I gave him a moment to settle down. While his energy dipped slightly, he continued to bark a disagreement at me.

I gave his owner a leash and as soon as she put it on him, his energy dropped and the barking pretty much stopped. I showed them how to use the leash to help Wrigley learn to settle down and suggested that they apply the same technique when he gets over excited or defiant towards them. By giving him a dog-time-out this way, we can help him learn that too much energy and specific behaviors are unwanted and come with a consequence.

After finding out that his owners hadn’t really incorporated many rules, boundaries or structure in his life, it wasn’t at all surprising that the dog did not listen to his owners. They gave him attention and petted him whenever he asked for it (and often without his needing to ask). I consider petting a dog or giving it attention akin to “paying” the dog. Just like a human who’s work paid him whether he went into work or not, Wrigley had developed a distorted perception of his situation.

I suggested that his owners adopt a few basic rules that will help redefine the leader follower relationships in the house as well as how to disagree with unwanted behaviors like his mouthing. I also suggested that they find a puppy class that will afford Wrigley the ability to socialize with other dogs his size and age. Dogs are much more effective at communicating with one another so that exposure will help with his mouthing. Its also crucially important that he gets practice at socializing with other strange dogs. Puppies are usually pretty fearless. The more exposure they get to meeting new dogs will lead to confidence as well as better social skills. While you can improve these later in life, its nowhere near as easy as the first 12 months of a dog’s life.

Because he is a young dog who just lost most of his puppy teeth, I recommended that his owner pick up some baby carrots and put them in the freezer. The next time they catch Wrigley licking (often a precursor to chewing) or chewing on the wrong thing, they can pull out a few baby carrots and offer them to the dog from behind. By offering them to the dog while positioned behind the dog’s back, we can redirect him away from the inappropriate object he is chewing on.

To address his habit of eating his own feces, I suggested that they add a few chunks of pineapple to his meals. The pineapple does something to the food in the intestines resulting in poop that “tastes bad.” This usually stops most dogs from eating scat. If it doesn’t, I suggested that they analyze the food they are giving him or consider adding a vitamin supplement. Its pretty common for dogs who’s food is lacking dietary staples to try to find alternate food sources to get what they are missing from their kibble.

Next I went through a few exercises to help condition the dog to recall on command as well as see them as being in an authoritative position. By practicing these simple exercises a few times a day for the next week or two, Wrigley will learn to come when called and listen when corrected.

Because he was a flight risk, I had one of his owners play the part of a guest; leaving through the back door and waiting a few moments before ringing the door bell. I sat with his other owner on the couch while we waited and offered a few tips; not rushing to the door, how to use body language and eye contact to move the dog to different positions and when to proceed to the next step.

As soon as Wrigley heard the first knock, his energy level shot up as he bolted toward the door barking. I calmly walked to the door then turned to face Wrigley as soon as I passed him, I kept my hips and shoulders square to the dog, then walked directly at him to back him away from the door. He attempted to get past me but after I blocked this move a few times he backed up to the edge of the entry way. Once he was there I waited a second, then took one deliberate step backwards towards the door.

As soon as I moved away from him, Wrigley started back towards the door. As soon as he moved I marched right back at him until he backed past the boundary I wanted him to respect. I had to repeat this process a few times but eventually got the dog to sit at the boundary while I walked over and opened the door. Wrigley barked most of the time, but I ignored it as that behavior usually subsides as this exercise is practiced.

A few minutes later we repeated the exercise but this time with Wrigley’s owner answering the door. This time his energy didn’t go up as much, he barked fewer times and when he did bark, it was less intense.  By the third time we practiced, Wrigley only barked a few times and it was pretty easy to get him to move away from the door.

I suggested that they practice this exercise with the members of the family over the next week or two. Most dogs learn to respect the boundary, stay calm and stop barking after 6-12 practice sessions. Based on how quickly Wrigley responded, it shouldn’t take long for him to adopt this new calmer demeanor when guests knock at the door.

By the end of the session, little Wrigley was all tuckered out. His owners were impressed at how quickly he adapted to the new rules, communication methods, boundaries and exercises. Because he is so young, it shouldn’t take long for him to embrace these new behaviors on his own.


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This post was written by: David Codr