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How do puppies learn?

Any behaviour that a puppy repeats frequently is done so because he or she gains some benefit from exhibiting it. These beneficial outcomes may be:

  1. A directly rewarding outcome from the owner i.e. a treat, a game, gaining your attention or being allowed to do something he or she wants to do.
  2. Something the puppy finds fun – chase, chew, dig etc.
  3. The removal of something unpleasant – a threat stopping, or the puppy being removed from a scary situation. Simply, the problem goes away!

Most people know that the best way to motivate a puppy to perform a behaviour is to reward them for doing so; understandably, they then believe that the best way to discourage him from a behaviour is to do the opposite. For most people, the natural thought is that the opposite of reward is punishment. However, whilst punishment certainly can discourage unwanted behaviours it is often unsuccessful because:

  1. The puppy simply does not link the punishment with the crime. Puppies do not have the ability to reason so often do not make the connection or simply become confused and just associate you with unpleasant outcomes. This rarely changes a puppy’s motivation to display that behaviour again but often makes him fearful of his owner!
  2. The punishment does not occur consistently every time they display the behaviour. No matter how good a trainer you are and no matter how consistent you try to be, it is impossible to deliver the punishment immediately every time the puppy starts the unwanted behaviour.
  3. The benefit outweighs the punishment. Even if 1 & 2 do exist, the puppy may decide that the benefit they gain from the behaviour is worth enduring the punishment often resulting in progressively more severe punishments being necessary to achieve the same result. A negative, stressful and pointless cycle.

However you look at the opposite of ‘reward’ as ‘no reward’, you are likely to have much more success. No intelligent animal continues a behaviour that never achieves a result, long term. With this in mind, when you want to change a puppy’s behaviour, the most effective way is to control the outcome so that it no longer benefits the puppy. Further success will be gained if you also offer them an alternative behaviour (that is incompatible to the first) and make that very rewarding. This basic principle applies to all behaviour and you simply need to work out just what benefit the puppy is gaining so you can them control it.

Attention seeking

Most of the time, the benefit your puppy is seeking is simply your attention. Attention seeking is one of the most common reasons for puppies to display unwanted behaviour, jumping up, stealing items, barking, mouthing and nipping are all common attention seeking behaviours; even negative responses (such as being told “no” or “down”) may prolong the problem as your puppy will be interpreting this vocal command as the attention they’re after!

Worse still, if the puppy manages to engage you in what they perceive as a game, they will learn that their naughty behaviour = fun!

For example, your puppy picks up an object that you don’t want them to have and you chase after them to remove it, your puppy doesn’t learn that picking up this item is wrong, to the contrary, they are now likely to experiment with picking up different items to see which brings the best response!

If your puppy is exhibiting attention seeking behaviours this does not necessarily mean that he or she is lacking in attention or that you are a bad pet parent. It simply means that they have learnt a successful way of becoming the centre of attention in the same way that young children often do. It’s very common for pet parents to inadvertently ‘train’ their dogs to exhibit attention seeking behaviours by responding every time they perform, usually because it is annoying! Often attention seeking can be a secondary reinforcer even if there is another motivator present. For instance, your puppy may chew at the rug because it’s fun to play with, but when their chewing then also gains a response from you, this gives them double the motivation to chew in future!

Fiona Whelan ~ Pet Behaviourist

Fiona has been working at the Training and Behaviour Centre as a behaviour specialist since 2002, and previously ran her own training and behaviour establishment in Lincolnshire for seven years so has a wealth of experience as a behaviour counsellor.