How to have an “easy” puppy
Since getting my new puppy Awa, a lot of people have commented on how “easy” he is. I’ve also had these comments from members of my Virtual Puppy School, as they watch the videos of me training particular pups that I was fostering at the time of filming the course.
So how do you get an “easy” puppy?
It’s true that some pups seem easy, and some pups seem like much harder work. But often this comes down to making the right choice about the puppy you get from the start (in terms of the pup’s age and breed, and the right fit for your lifestyle etc), as well as the preparation that you put into your home and set up.
In this article, I’ll delve into what you can do to make sure you have an “easy” puppy – and the instances when a puppy is just naturally more hard work!
1. Choose the right pup for you and your lifestyle
By far the best way to get an “easy” pup is to choose a breed that will fit best with your lifestyle and abilities. Many of the issues I see from our Behaviour Clinic clients and Virtual Training School members stem from a simple mismatch between the dog and the owner.
Some examples I’ve seen of clear mismatches include:
- An older man with mobility issues who got a border collie because of nostalgic memories of this breed growing up on a farm. Given a border collie’s ridiculously high energy levels and intelligence, they need serious exercise AND mental stimulation (ideally a job to do) to be “easy” dogs to have around. Unfortunately this particular man wasn’t able to offer his young border collie that level of activity, and this resulted in his pup becoming obsessive, hyper-vigilant and reactive.
- In another case, a client came in who was a very gentle, softly-spoken, soft hearted woman. Her heart strings had been pulled by a rescue dog in need, a very large and stubborn American Staffordshire Terrier. Though I utterly commend her kind heart, in this case the dog needed a very strong, firm leader with a commanding presence, and this woman was finding it hard to establish any kind of control or boundaries.
- A fit young couple had adopted a greyhound thinking that as it was a racing dog, it would be fit and up for big outdoor runs and adventures. They consulted me as the dog was ‘misbehaving’ out on their big walks. Turns out the dog was just exhausted, being a breed that’s built for speed but not stamina. Not an ideal choice for a family that wanted to do long distance adventures with their dog.
- A professional worker was having trouble with their dog’s severe separation anxiety. They had bought a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who was alone for 9-12 hours a day. Being bred for companionship, a breed like this doesn’t cope well with being left alone for too long. A cat or a much more independent breed would have been a better choice for this person.
In all of these cases, the owners would have felt that they didn’t have an “easy” dog – whereas it really just came down to a poor choice for their personality and lifestyle.
2. Consider more trainable breeds
Some breeds will be easier than others to manage and train, depending on what they were bred for. For example, labradors and golden retrievers are very people-focused and they have high intelligence, so they’re easier to train. Conversely, beagles have an immensely powerful scent drive and genetic inclination to follow scent trails (rather than listening and responding to you!) so are more difficult to train in certain areas. If you want an “easy” pup, consider getting a more trainable breed or a cross breed with a trainable breed as part of the mix.
3. Get a pup at the right age
It’s highly advantageous to get a pup that’s 8 weeks old (especially if you’re not an experienced dog trainer). This is the beginning of the absolutely critical Formative Period. It is when 80% of your pup’s brain gets wired up and they learn basically most of the behaviours and socialisation they’ll need for the rest of their lives. Do the right thing at this time, and you set yourself up for a sociable, well-behaved “easy” dog for life. Miss key socialisation and training in this period, and you could be in for a challenging ride. It’s much easier to prevent behavioural challenges than to solve them down the track. Around 8 weeks is also the naturally occurring time of separation from the dam in the wild, so it’s when pups are best placed for separation and ready to connect with the rest of their ‘pack’.
4. Get the right set up & gear
Having a good set up at home makes a puppy training journey SO MUCH EASIER. Really, I can’t emphasise this enough. I suggest having a crate set up within a play pen, in a main social area of the home, ideally pushed up against an external door or dog door so your pup can go out for toileting easily. The crate should contain soft bedding, the play pen should be laid with newspaper, puppy pads or astroturf for toilet training. There should be plenty of chew toys and enrichment toys available.
A simple set up like this will make house training easier, will help prevent destructive behaviour that can drive you crazy, will give you an easy way to do separation training to prevent separation anxiety developing, and will help you have good boundaries with your pup from the get-go. When you have the right set up from Day 1, it tends to prevent a whole bunch of heartache.
5. Increase your knowledge and confidence
Is it such a surprise that I always seem to have the “easy” pups? Of course not – I have decades of experience training and working with dogs, so of course any pup that I’m managing is going to seem easier than others. But you can replicate this effect to an extent by educating yourself about puppy behaviour and puppy training. The more you understand your pup and feel confident in training them the right way, the easier your pup will seem to be. My Virtual Puppy School can teach you everything you need to know about how to raise and train your puppy.
6. Puppy proof your home
Doing a good initial puppy proofing will help prevent a whole lot of frustration and angst with a new pup. Put away harmful substances, loose cords and precious items.
7. Reinforce positive behaviours
From day 1, reward your pup when they are being calm or responsive with treats, praise and affection to reinforce these states and choices. The more you focus on reinforcing these calm, positive behaviours, the “easier” your pup will appear to be.
8. Ignore or redirect negative behaviours
If your pup is doing something undesirable, either ignore it completely or redirect them into a positive behaviour. For example, if your pup is whining to be let out of their crate, ignore it and wait until they are quiet and settled to let them out. Or if your puppy is biting your hands, grab a dog toy and shake it around to redirect their biting onto the toy instead of you. The more consistent you are, the easier it’s going to be to raise and manage your pup.
9. Manage your expectations
All puppies are learning and will have their own little quirks and naughty habits. It’s all part of the journey, so don’t expect perfection – they are unique beings!
When are pups and dogs genuinely harder to train?
Having said all of the above, there are factors that will make a dog naturally more challenging to train. Some of these factors include:
Teenage pups (6-18 months)
Like with humans, hormones send them a bit wild! Hormones make them hyper distractible, more focused on the outside world and less focused on you, and more likely to be reactive. Their brain architecture is having a total overhaul and their drivers change – suddenly sex drive and predatory drive are number 1. It can feel like your pup stops listening & becomes more stubborn in this time! The key at this time is to focus on your bond with your pup and reinforcing the basics, you may need to go back a few steps in your training at this time.
Dogs that missed key training and socialisation in their formative period
80% of the pup’s brain is wired up at age 2-4 months, so any key training that was missed in this time will result in a dog that simply feels “naughtier” than other dogs. To rectify this, we need to take the dog “back to the den” and into that period of intense learning they should have had as a young pup!
Some breeds are more prone to distraction, and this makes them seem naughtier as it’s more of a challenge to get their focus and attention back on you! These can include the terriers, scent hounds and sight hounds and the spitz breeds, partially because they are bred to self-work and so not so oriented toward the trainer like working dogs e.g. border collies.
Less trainable breeds
Training will, of course, be more of a challenge with breeds that weren’t selected for smarts! They may be less interested in working for you and training, and slower to pick up new commands and behaviours. It’s all very doable with some time and dedication though!
But never fear, every dog is trainable and knowledge is power. To train your dog, you have to first fully understand them – what motivates them, what is driving them, and therefore what’s required to get them focused on YOU.
I hope this helps with your understanding into why a pup may appear to be “easier” than another pup.