Today I want to talk a little bit about training and what has worked for us. Both Millie and Gracie have graduated beginner puppy obedience class and Millie is going back for another round in February. If nothing else, she has so much fun there, so we’re looking forward to it. They both know a handful of tricks, and we’re actively working on not jumping on people when they come over (ahem, Millie) and not stealing things off the counter (still looking at you, Mill), so if anyone has any tricks that have worked for them, we’d love to hear them! Gracie has an annoying barking habit, but I’ve just been lazy about fixing that. I’m not overly concerned about it because it’s much more annoying when Millie steals butter off the counter than when Gracie barks.
Other than those minor issues with Millie, she and Gracie have responded pretty well to training. We did a lot of research before we brought them home and use positive reinforcement as much as possible. Instead of scolding them if they do something wrong, we try our best to praise them when they do something right. It’s not easy and we’re not perfect, we make mistakes and get frustrated like anyone else, but have seen first hand that if we’re consistent, they will learn eventually. Below are some tips that really helped us get through “the puppy phase.”
The most important thing for us was accident prevention. It’s basically impossible to prevent 100% of accidents, but if you devote enough effort and time in the beginning, later will be easier. We were lucky to be home enough that it wasn’t too hard to get them trained. When they were babies, we brought them out basically every two hours (or after naptime or playtime) and praised them the second they did their business outside. Millie had to spend mornings alone when she was little and we never scolded her if we came home and there was a puddle in the kitchen. It wasn’t her fault and we didn’t expect her to hold it for four hours – that wouldn’t be fair. Instead, we would walk right past the puddle to take her outside and then give her a treat to enjoy while we cleaned it up. No big deal. If you scold the accidents, they may hesitate to go outside since you yelled at them inside. If you catch them in the act, just pick them up and take them right out to the grass.
Both girls are fully house trained, and they were within a couple months of coming home. They always go to the back door and they know their code words “outside” and “walk” so well that their heads snap around when you say them. Consistency and patience is key.
Try to remember that whatever they chew is just a thing. There’s usually a reason for misbehavior and when they’re chewing things they’re not supposed to be, it’s probably due to teething (their teeth hurt!) or anxiety (have they been alone? Are you ignoring them because you’re busy?). It’s easy to get frustrated when they chew your favorite sunglasses, but try to remember that you’re the one who left them accessible, and they didn’t mean to make you mad. Buy a new pair and move on. Things can be fixed, but your relationship with your dog can’t if you’re always mad at them.
Following Commands and Keywords
Both girls have a certain few words that they know pretty well. They both sit on command, they both know paw, roll over, lie down, wait. The basics. Again, the keys are repetition and rewards. We did short sessions multiple times a day until they mastered one command then we would move on to another. We’d mix in previously learned commands in with new ones to switch things up and make sure they didn’t forget. They still have to sit whenever they get a treat, and we do other commands at least once every few days so it doesn’t slip their minds. Plus, it’s pretty funny to watch Millie “wave.”
Other keywords they know are “grandma” (they love our moms), “Winnie” (my mom’s dog, Gracie’s bff), and “look!” These are helpful because they aren’t flawlessly trained yet. When they’re completely distracted by something outside or really can’t bring themselves to focus on whatever we’re saying, knowing their triggers helps to snap them back into whatever they should be focused on, rather than the mailman or the bird two yards over.
This isn’t as much of a problem with Gracie as it is with Millie. Gracie just has to do a few laps around the room and her little legs tire out pretty fast. Millie, however, could go for hours and hours if we don’t redirect her. The easiest thing to do is give her something to chew on. If we can’t give them all our attention and they’re feeling rambunctious, bully sticks are the easiest way to consume their energy. We buy the huge ones because Millie goes through them so quickly. Another thing to try is something our obedience trainer calls “busy work.” You fill an empty marrowbone with goodies and freeze it. Then when she starts to get wild, you take it out and she has to work at it to get the filling out. The best mixture I’ve found so far is to cook a batch of plain mashed potatoes, and add in a little peanut butter and some kibble. Mix it all up in a bowl and split it between a few marrowbones. Millie goes nuts for it, and it lasts a lot longer than a peanut butter kong. The best part is you could totally get creative with the mixture – sweet potatoes, rice, shredded chicken, so many options. You just might want to think about giving it to them on hardwood or tile because it can be a little messy. It’s hysterical when we give one of the marrowbones to Gracie because she can’t reach the middle, so she sticks her entire snout in the hole and holds it with her paws in an attempt to get every last bit.
Besides the obvious solution (exercise), the only other thing we’ve found that works for Millie’s hyperactivity is to work on commands. She’s food driven, so this grabs her attention quick and she’ll pay attention to us as long as we keep her focused. We’ll just do tricks over and over and give her kibbles as a reward instead of treats so she doesn’t have too much “junk food.”
We don’t really let the dogs off the leash anywhere. I know some dogs are just the most well trained dogs in the world, and I trust Millie not to run off more than I trust Gracie, but I can’t shake the fear that she might see a rabbit or squirrel or something and just not listen to me when we call her back. Scares me too much.
Gracie never had much trouble with the leash, but Millie took some time to get used to it. She still thinks it’s a toy sometimes. The only thing that helped was consistency and time. She used to get so distracted and pull like crazy. We used to have to go on short walks down the street twice a day or so just to get her used to the leash. Now she’s better and big enough for a harness, so when we take her places we use that rather than a collar. We’ve gone through a few but the best we’ve found is the Ruffwear Front Range Harness, found here. It’s super durable and comfortable for her. We also got her a head collar that we’re excited to try once the weather warms up a little and we can go on regular walks again. Headcollars obviously aren’t a great solution if you’re going on a hike or something, but they’re good to use as a learning tool to fix a pulling problem.
Joe really is responsible for our success with this one. He said from the start how important it would be to make Millie understand that she can’t bite too hard. He would stick his hands in her mouth all the time and if she ever bit too hard, he would yelp and say “OW!” and walk away from her for a second. We read that this was like teaching a puppy the same way they would learn within their litter – if you yelp like they hurt you and walk away, they’ll understand what they did and remember not to bite so hard next time. And he was so right (he loves when I say that!). I see it every day when the girls play together. Millie NEVER bites down on Gracie. Literally ever. Gracie sticks her entire head in Millie’s mouth sometimes and Millie just never bites down. It’s actually amazing to watch because Millie clearly has the power to just crush Gracie and she never does. She’s so gentle with her.
Since the girls are still young, we’re obviously still learning and working on training and behavior correction every day.
One great tip we learned is that when you’re training a dog as a couple, it’s important to be aware that both people working with one dog can be confusing for the pup. Don’t try to give commands at the same time. Work separately to make sure your dog isn’t literally getting his or her signals crossed, and it’s best if one person can take the lead.
We highly recommend a teaching commands and working on training, even if you adopted an adult dog. For us, the process is less about obedience and more about creating a bond with our dogs. They’ve learned to trust us and we’ve learned how to understand them, their needs and their triggers.
So, that concludes Dog Week. I swear I didn’t mean to have my first week of blogging be all about our dogs, but I couldn’t help it once I got going. It seemed easier to introduce them in the beginning, and then go from there. So I promise, I have some home and lifestyle posts in the works!