If you’re asking the question “how do I discipline my puppy,” chances are the real question you’re asking is: “how do I get my puppy to stop this unwanted behavior?” The key to handling misbehavior is:
- Prevention: Environmental management will make life a lot easier for everyone. If your puppy likes to steal food off the counter, keep counters clean so that they don’t rehearse the behavior.
- Redirection: Help them find appropriate outlets for their energy. For example, a bitey puppy can be given chew toys to channel that urge to chomp.
- Physical and Mental Stimulation: Exercise, play, and training make for a tired dog, and we all know that a tired dog is a good dog.
- Rest: Your puppy is growing and needs a lot of sleep, but may not have the ability to settle down on their own. Overtired, overstimulated puppies can be overwhelming, so make sure they’re getting enough rest.
Positive punishment, or adding an aversive stimulus to stop a behavior, is not effective in the long run and can damage the bond you’re developing between you and your dog. Your puppy’s ability to link cause and effect is extremely limited–frightening them may only teach them that you can be unpredictable and threatening. During your puppy’s first few months of life, focus not just on teaching basic obedience and manners but also building their confidence, resilience, and trust.
How to stop your puppy's unwanted behaviors humanely and immediately
Interrupt the behavior. Train a positive behavior, such as responding to their name, that immediately stops the behavior.
For example, your dog barks at the window, harassing other dogs and your neighbors. Train a strong recall that brings them to your side. Once there, you can proceed with standard desensitization and counterconditioning measures and teach them to ignore outside stimuli. Then, cover the window or block your dog’s access to it so that they can’t return and bark when you’re not around.
This accomplishes multiple things: it stops the behavior (barking), avoids allowing your dog to rehearse the behavior (continuing to bark), reinforces an alternate behavior (coming to you) that makes it harder to engage in the unwanted behavior (standing at the window and barking), and puts you in a good position to train and reinforce a more desirable behavior (calmness).
Although we label many behaviors–barking, chewing, jumping, digging, etc.--as “bad,” remember that your dog has no concept of polite human society. These behaviors are totally normal for your dog. This doesn’t mean you have to tolerate them endlessly; just remember that your puppy is still learning the rules as they go.
How dogs (and humans!) learn
Dogs learn through repetition, consistency, and success. And while every dog is different, most dogs do not need correction to learn a new behavior. In fact, many dogs find it frustrating or demoralizing, and will lose interest in training. If your puppy is very young, err on the side of caution and focus on prevention and environmental management.
Positive punishment–ex. Jerking the leash when your dog pulls–is not actually associated with better behavior. While your dog can and will learn to alter their behavior, research has indicated that positive punishment can lead to decreases in confidence and increase the likelihood of other problem behaviors. Aversive training methods are known to lead to physical and mental health problems in dogs down the road.
With that said, positive punishment has been part of the history of dog training for decades. People do not enjoy scaring or harming their dogs, but many advocates argue that you must punish your dog for misbehaving. Why do we feel like it’s necessary?
The answer lies in reinforcement. Learning theory and the four quadrants (positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment) apply to humans as much as they do to dogs.
When your dog engages in something annoying, such as barking, and we yell, once the dog stops, we have positively reinforced the yelling in our own minds, making us more likely to yell in the future.
But will your dog bark again in the future?
Difficult to say. What we do know is that, in this scenario, yelling is a short-term solution that your brain understands to be effective. Next time, the human brain will reach for this solution as a shortcut, ignoring the underlying issue causing your dog to bark.
What if my dog isn't listening to me?
Take a step back from the situation and evaluate it. What exactly is going on? It takes practice for your dog to start generalizing a cue–your dog may be responsive and obedient indoors, but when confronted with the distractions outside, they may be too excited to register your presence.
Rephrase the situation. Rather than say, “My dog is refusing to listen!”--implying that this is willful disobedience–think of it as, “Under these circumstances, my dog does not know what I’m asking for” or “Something in the environment is more reinforcing to my dog than I am.”
And finally, ask yourself: what is my dog getting out of this behavior?
A lot of dog training revolves around figuring out what your dog wants and harnessing that to reinforce the behavior that you want. The two of you are a team working together, not two forces in opposition.
Training takes time. Your dog might not get it right immediately, but keep practicing and they’ll get there. New scenarios might throw them for a loop, but over time, the more successes they rack up, the more likely they are to default to those reinforced behaviors.
By and large, dogs are not defiant and stubborn. Those are human words that we project onto our pets to try and rationalize their behavior. Individual dogs find listening to you more or less inherently rewarding. By building a strong bond and working on training, you can show your dog that doing what you want can be just as rewarding as obeying their natural instincts and desires.
And remember–your dog is maturing and growing! A 8-week old puppy is an infant that looks to you for guidance and is eager to please. That same puppy at 8 months is an adolescent, coping with hormonal swings and urges, testing boundaries (and your patience). Give your puppy time and remember to enjoy the process.