Dog Training and Behaviour FAQ

Answers to the most common problems with
dog behaviour and management.


This is the million dollar question! It’s a hard one to answer in many ways, and it might be easier to approach it from the standpoint of what you need to avoid, and alarm bells that need to go off in your search for a new family companion.

If you’re going for a puppy, whether purebred or not, there are some things that must be in place in the premises from which you buy… the absence of these elements puts your new dog at significant risk of developing behavioural problems which are at best difficult to treat, or at worst, not possible to treat effectively at all. Remember, it’s you who’ll have to live with these problems, not the breeder! So demand the following minimum standards to reduce the chances of behavioural problems developing.

The reason why the following standards are so important is due to a combination of genetics, and the most important period of psychological development the dog goes through in life: the Socialisation Period. It is during this time that pups learn how to make social bonds with other living beings, and how to acclimatise quickly to new and unusual situations. If the puppy does not learn how to cope with these things gradually and gently during the Socialisation Period, it’s going to have serious difficulty learning how to do them as an older pup or adult.

Here’s the scary part: the Socialisation Period lasts from 3-12 weeks, tapering off to finish completely by 16 weeks. If the foundations are not well established by 12 weeks of age, it’s a losing battle. Most breeders sell their pups at 8 weeks, some hold onto them a little longer. This means that the breeder is responsible for well over half of the puppy’s Socialisation Period. Breeders who don’t take full advantage of this on your behalf should be avoided at all costs: you’re the one who has to live with it if they don’t.

Here’s a sobering fact: almost every dog I see with behavioural problems, particularly fear-based behavioural problems, had an inadequate Socialisation Period. The most common problems associated with lack of adequate Socialisation include fear and/or aggression towards other dogs, fear and/or aggression towards children, fear and/or aggression towards men, and fear and/or aggression towards strangers. Why set yourself up for problems, when they’re easy to avoid at the outset?

Here are some of the minimum requirements you need to be aware of the maximise the chances of finding a great family pet:

  • Meet the Parents: If you’re buying a puppy, there is simply no excuse for not meeting its mother, and preferably its father, although the latter is not always possible. It is critical that you meet the mother.. Why? Because fear (and consequent aggression) is the most strongly heritable behavioural trait. If mother is nervy, timid, or worried about your presence, there is a significant chance that her puppies will be too. Never cut this corner, and do not deal with a breeder who suggests you do. Instead, look for a mother who is outgoing, friendly, and gentle.
  • Do not buy a pup that has been raised outside the home. Pups raised outside the house do not become habituated to household comings-and-goings and noises, and have not begun the process of housetraining. When you collect them, their sudden transfer to an indoor environment, taken away from their mother and siblings, and suddenly with people he doesn’t know, is traumatic enough as it is, without asking the pup to also deal with an entirely new and unfamiliar environment. In my work, there is an over-representation of problem adult dogs who were raised in a shed as pups. I can’t be any more blunt than that. Instead, look for a breeder who raises the pups in the house, or at the very least, brings the pups into their house for several hours every day.
  • Beware of the pup raised in a rural environment. Pups raised in a quiet, rural environment are less likely to have experienced much in the way of meeting lots of different people, traffic, loud noises, and other dogs. Again, such dogs are over-represented amongst the dogs I treat for fear and aggression problems. Instead, if you must buy a pup from a rural environment, make sure the pup was raised in the home (as above), and that the breeder went to some lengths to make sure the puppy met a range of adults and children, other dogs, travelled in the car, saw traffic etc.
  • Rescue Pups: It’s not always possible to meet a rescued pup’s mother, as such pups are all-too-often abandoned. However, good rescue groups are well aware of the importance of the Socialisation, and will have abandoned puppies fostered in appropriately busy homes. In such cases, you should still satisfy yourself that the pup has been raised inside the home, has started the housetraining process, has met a wide range of different people and creatures, and has experienced a variety of different situations.

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It is a problem that the vaccination protocol for puppies means that they’re simply not covered to go out into the big bad world until their Socialisation Period is all but over. Is there any way we can work around this problem?

Yes there is! Merial, the vaccination company, have published a great pamphlet which deals with the age-old problem of balancing medical health with behavioural health. They recommend that we carry out various socialisation processes in a careful, considered way. Activities we can safely carry out with our not-yet-vaccinated puppies include:

  • Bringing puppy on car journeys
  • Bringing puppy to friends’ houses, including those who own dogs that are vaccinated.
  • Inviting friends and their kids around to your house, including those who own dogs that are vaccinated and wormed.
  • Carrying pup out and about.

Click here to download the Merial Puppy Pamphlet. Spread the word! Whilst this pamphlet has been distributed amongst vets in the UK, it has not been distributed too widely in Ireland, so your vet might not necessarily be aware of this risk-reduced balancing act.

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I’ve put this near the top of the list, because I simply cannot emphasise enough how important good socialisation is for pups before they reach 16 weeks of age: if every dog was properly socialised as a pup, I’d be out of a job!

But it would be worth it, because lack of adequate socialisation has such serious knock-on effects later in the dog’s life which can make both the dog’s and the owner’s life a misery.

Under-socialised dogs feature in huge numbers amongst those put to sleep, or surrendered to pounds and rescues every year. A well-socialised dog, on the other hand, is a pleasure to own, and can take new situations in their stride.

When it comes to owning a well-adjusted pet dog, the psychological developmental stage which occurs in the few short weeks starting at 3 weeks to somewhere between 12 to 16 weeks of age is, without doubt, the most important.

It is during this time that pups go through their maximum rate of psychological development, and never again will they have the capacity to absorb the information they do now.

It is now that the blueprint for the dog’s future behaviour is laid down. It is called the Socialisation Period, and it is during this time that pups learn how to form social bonds with humans, other dogs, cats, horses, and any other living creature. Meanwhile, the pup also becomes habituated and familiarised to the sights and sounds he will experience throughout his life, and he is prepared to function as a well-balanced pet dog.

Dogs who have not been exposed to plenty of unfamiliar things before the window of opportunity closes will tend to become cautious of unfamiliar things, they are wary of approaching new situations, they tend to become nervous easily, and as a result are more likely to become aggressive when confronted by something they have not been familiarised with.

There are a number of living creatures that under-socialised pups are more likely to be wary of, due to lack of regular and pleasant exposure to them during their Socialisation Period: these are children, men, and other dogs.

As the ideal age at which to acquire a pup is 8 weeks, a large chunk of the pup’s Socialisation Period occurs while he’s still with the breeder or rescue. As their early work will dictate what type of adults our pups grow into, it is important to make sure your pup’s breeder or rescue group are fully aware of the part they play in socialising your pup. The earlier work starts on socialisation, the better.

Each day is vital. Beware the breeder who raises pups outside with little exposure to household life. A family-reared pup, reared mainly in the home, is going to be set up for life as a first-class pet dog. Demand this from your pup’s breeder, it’s you that has to live with this dog for the next 12+ years, not the breeder!

It is vital that pups learn how to interact appropriately with humans of all ages, and with other dogs from as early in life as possible. This means allowing pup to meet new people and new dogs every day, maximising his exposure to new and novel situations. The rule of thumb is to give our young pups a minimum of FIVE new experiences every day.

This means, each day until he is 16 weeks old, make sure your pup meets at least one new man, one new child (of different ages), one new woman, one new dog (these dogs must be known to be vaccinated and safe), and has at least one new experience such as a car journey, traffic, seeing a hoover in action, hearing loud noises, a man with an umbrella, and so on.

Get your pup used to strangers coming in and out of the house. There are no limits to what you can dream up: but remember to make sure that every new meeting and experience is enjoyable, light-hearted, and fun. Give all newcomers a treat to give to your pup, but don’t force pup into any encounter. Let him size up each situation until he is ready to mingle!

Pups must get out an about meeting other dogs: this teaches them how to “speak dog”, how to communicate effectively with other dogs of different shapes, sizes and temperaments. Pups that don’t learn these communication skills often end up getting into fights or become excessively fearful of other dogs as adults. Never allow your pup to mingle with an unknown dog: each dog he meets must be known to be vaccinated, and must be known to be kindly with pups.

If your pup gets too exuberant with another dog, quietly take him away from the situation to allow him calm down. If your pup becomes worried, let him hide behind your legs until he’s ready to go again.

Don’t forget to get your pup meeting other animals too! Cats, horses, livestock: keep your pup on-lead at all times so that he cannot chase other animals. Give him lots of praise and treats for appropriate behaviour, and don’t allow a situation arise where he becomes frightened.

A good puppy socialisation class is an invaluable help for all puppy owners: go to see how the class is run without pup first, and make sure the instructors are properly qualified and experienced enough to run these classes properly. There should be no dogs over 5-6 months of age in a Puppy Playgroup, and pups should never be allowed feel frightened without the instructor taking appropriate action.

Pups which have experienced a variety of different situations at this early age are better at adjusting to novel situations later. They tend to be more curious and confident, and as a result, they learn faster. So some early work will pay dividends for the rest of the dog’s life, for both dog and owner!

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The housetraining process is not unlike the toilet-training process for human children: it requires patience, repetition, consistency, and a real determination to make it work! Establishing a predictable and reliable routine is vital. Happily, dogs don’t take as long to housetrain as children do! The secret is to teach the pup, day by day, that going to the toilet outside is more rewarding for him than going inside. It is vital to give yourself and the pup every chance to maximise your successes, and this means preventing the pup, as far as possible, from having accidents inside the house.

There is no better way to housetrain a pup or an adult dog than to crate train them. The crate is a wire cage which should be large enough only to fit the dog’s bed in it. Do not humanise the crate: used properly, the dog does not view it as a cage, but a haven, a place of safety, his bedroom! The crate allows you to manage where the pup (and his bladder) is at all times, so that you can manage where the pup goes to the toilet.

Pup should sleep in his crate, and be put into his crate at times when you cannot fully supervise him. It is never to be used as a prison, and pup should not be left in it for longer than one hour. Every time you open the crate to let pup out, bring him out to the garden to toilet: do not carry him out to the garden, he must learn to make the trip under his own steam. You will find that after you’ve followed this pattern for a few days, that as soon as you open the crate door, pup will make a beeline for the door to the garden, as this has become habit now, something he does every time the crate opens.

When you get outside, wait quietly with him. Don’t talk or cajole him, as this will distract him and take his mind off the job at hand. In any case, chatting to him is a reward, and this should be reserved for after the great event, rather than before!

You may have to wait a while until pup toilets, and it is critical that you’re there in the garden with him so that you can reward the event: reward must be instantaneous in order for the pup to make the connection between eliminating and his reward. When he goes, praise him gently (not so loud that you stop him in mid-flow), and immediately he’s finished give him a delicious treat, such as a piece of chicken.

Whilst he won’t make the connection the first time, after a number of repetitions pup will realise that going outside is far preferable to going inside. Once you’ve got into a routine, and can better predict when your pup is about to perform, you can start to introduce a command just before he goes, such as “empty!”, or “wee-wees!”, or another command of your choosing.

In addition, as soon as he’s finished and had his food reward, bring him back inside for a lovely game or hug. This will eventually teach pup that he only gets back inside once he has emptied, thus avoiding the common problem of pups waiting outside only to pee as soon as they come back in again!

Now that he’s empty, he’s “safe” to have free-ranging around the house for a while: every pup is different but a young pup probably won’t last much more than 30 mins between pees. Pups always need to toilet after waking up, often after eating, after a period of activity, and with younger pups, a few more times in between. Many pups give off signals that they need to go: they may start to sniff the floor intently, or turn in circles, or just get a faraway look in their eyes. Look for these signs in your pup, they act as a great cue for you to get him outside!

If he has an accident, unless you catch him in the act, there is no point whatsoever in punishing the pup, he will have no idea why you’re punishing him: punishing a pup for toileting issues is very risky business, and can result in some very unpleasant avoidance behaviours such as coprophagia (eating their faeces). Never, ever rub a pup’s nose in his pee or poop, it is ineffectual and unkind. If he has an accident, make a mental note that you didn’t get him out fast enough, and resolve to be more watchful for the next time.

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The easiest way to stop lead-pulling is to not allow it to arise in the first place. In fact, almost all of the most common unwanted behaviours in adult dogs can be avoided if the pup is taught from the start that he will not be rewarded for pulling.

Why does a dog pull? It’s quite simple: pulling gets him from A to B faster than not pulling does! It has nothing whatsoever with him wanting to be “pack leader”: he does it because pulling works better for him than not pulling.

So how do we teach him not to pull? First of all, we want our dog to want to follow us and walk with us happily. This is not going to be achieved by jerking or yanking at his neck, waving a stick in front of his nose, or using harsh equipment such as choke chains or prong collars. Please don’t abuse your dog: a well-fitted front-attachment harness is the kindest piece of equipment you can put on your dog, not only do they feel better for the dog, but they make pulling more difficult for him. Brand names include the Sense-Ible Harness, the Halti Harness (not the Halti Headcollar), or the Gentle Leader Easy Walk Harness. Use the harness with a good quality lead, not an extending lead.

Around the house and garden, encourage your pup or dog to follow you, by clicking your tongue, waving a treat, and when he comes over to investigate, telling him he’s just wonderful and giving him a nice treat. Walk away a few steps, and repeat: click your tongue and wait for your dog to join you. And continue, all the time making yourself irresistible to your dog. If he decides to go in another direction, click your tongue and go in the opposite direction: you’ve got the treats, it won’t be long until he decides that going your way is a far better idea!

As your pup gets better at following you happily, start to make it a little more challenging for him: speed up, slow down, change direction more sharply. Stop every few yards and ask him to sit: this allows him to maintain focus on you, and not get bored with the one activity. Practise in lots of different enclosed areas where it’s safe to have him off-lead, gradually building up the level of distraction so that your pup can follow you even if there are other people or dogs about.

Once you have this following routine well established, and your dog follows you happily when you click your tongue, it’s time to put him on lead and follow the same routine, but it is so important not to allow him to take a hold on the lead. If he pulls, or attempts to pull, stop. Wait a moment, then as usual click your tongue and walk away in a different direction. When he follows, praise him warmly and give him a treat.

This method is also wonderful for owners whose dogs tend to lunge at passers-by, other dogs, cyclists, cars etc: as soon as the lead tightens, Stop, wait a moment, click your tongue, change direction, and reward your dog. Watch while your dog gradually stops lunging, as he learns that it doesn’t work for him any more, and following you is far more rewarding anyway!

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This is one of the most commonly complained-about problems from dog owners. Why do dogs jump up? They do it to greet us, and more importantly they do it because we humans have taught them that it’s ok to do so! How many of us can resist a cute little puppy climbing up our legs? We pet him, pick him up and cuddle him, and make him feel great. But what is pup learning from this? He’s learning that scratching at and climbing up your legs is how he gets humans to give him attention!

But then the dog grows up, and all of a sudden his jumping up isn’t cute any more. In fact, it’s a damn nuisance. So, when pup comes running up to greet us by jumping up our legs, just as we have taught him to do, we yell at him, slap him, knee him in the chest. Poor pup. Why has his owner suddenly started to get so angry at something that used to make you so happy?

Our angry behaviour elicits appeasement behaviours from our dogs. One of many of a dog’s appeasement behaviours is to lick at the mouth of the angry dog/person. How is a dog going to lick our mouth? By jumping up on us to reach us! So, our punishment makes the behaviour even worse. Besides, dogs will respond to any attention, good or bad, and when we yell at our dog, we are in fact giving him attention, which is rewarding the behaviour of jumping up.

The easiest way to stop a dog jumping up on us is to not teach it to him in the first place! Don’t give your pup attention when he climbs up your leg! Instead, wait for him to replace all four feet on the floor, then give him all the attention he wants! Better still, wait for him to sit, and then give him lots of attention!

For a dog that is already a confirmed jumper-upper, we have to be a little more patient. First of all, teach your dog a reliable sit command: it is good practise to get pups into the habit of sitting whenever we are about to reward them in any way. Get them to sit for a treat, sit before you put their food bowl down, sit before you put their lead on, sit before you open the door to allow them a romp around the garden, sit before you invite them up on your lap… anything your pup enjoys doing, ask him to sit before he gets it. If he doesn’t sit, he doesn’t get the reward.

Now, when your jumping dog jumps up on you, ignore him. He may climb all over you, but if you don’t react, he will eventually calm down, perhaps somewhat confused. Now ask him to sit. As soon as he sits, give him all that attention he was looking for! If he gets excited and jumps up again, go back to ignoring him, until he sits again. Dogs are not fools: they are very quick to figure out what “works” for them. Instead of allowing a dog think that jumping up on us “works”, we teach him that jumping up does not “work” any more… but sitting down does!

Be patient and consistent with this, every time you walk into the room, wait for him to sit before greeting him. It won’t take long before he acts more appropriately when you walk into the room. Once he behaves for you, start to practise with others in the family, and friends, visitors etc.

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This is a common dilemma facing many dog owners, because there are so many misconceptions about how dogs react to new babies. Young couples expecting a child are often put under pressure by parents and other well-intentioned relatives to get rid of the dog.

It is not fair to consign a dog to life in the garden once baby arrives: life outside alone is miserable for a dog, particularly for one that has lived in the house until now. If the dog is to be relegated to the garden once baby arrives, it would be fairer to think about rehoming the dog for his own wellbeing.

However, this doesn’t have to happen. With some careful preparation, getting the dog acclimatised to life with a baby will help make the transition to the baby arriving go more smoothly. Think of all the new things that will happen with the arrival of baby, and start getting your dog ready now.

First of all, get the dog acclimatised to not necessarily having access to all areas of the house: many parents find it useful to have a dog-free area in the house, whether that’s upstairs, or a certain room downstairs. Use baby gates to curtail the dog’s access to these areas now, before baby arrives.

Alternatively, get your dog habituated to spending happy-time in a crate. The crate is a first-class management tool which will enable you to get your dog out of the way, or out of danger for short periods, but he can still spend time with you, and not feel that he’s being abandoned just because a baby has come along. Concerned grandparents and relatives tend to feel more relaxed when they can see that the dog is clearly under control. Start acclimatising him to spending short periods of time in a crate now.

New baby furniture and paraphernalia will make the dog curious, so don’t leave it until baby comes home to introduce the dog to new items. Bring the dog for walks beside a buggy, or borrow a friend’s baby and buggy to go for walks with the dog. At home, set up the cot, Moses basket, high chair, buggy etc now, so that they are literally part of the furniture by the time baby arrives.

Dogs often view kid’s toys as their own: make it clear to your dog that certain toys are “illegal”. Do not chase him when he makes off with a forbidden toy, as you are rewarding him with the fun of a game of chasing. Teach your dog, before baby ever arrives, to give up a toy on command, by teaching a “Leave it” command with treats, using toys that are not intended for the baby. When your dog gives up an illegal toy, make sure to reward him, and give him a toy that he is allowed to have.

A crying baby may upset a dog that is not used to high-pitched noises. Baby-noises CD’s are available to buy online, and are a valuable training tool to acclimatise your dog to baby noises. Start out by playing the CD at low volume for short periods, gradually building up the volume and duration over a number of weeks. The dog will slowly becomes used to the noise, and will not be startled by it when baby cries for real!

Many dogs are fascinated by their owner carrying a bundle around: again, it is important to remove the novelty from this scenario. Buy a baby doll, wrap it up in blankets, and carry it around the house with you, put it into and take it out of the Moses basket/pram, and settle it on your knee when you sit down. Generally mimic the things you will be doing with the baby for real. You want your dog to be bored with you carrying a bundle around when the baby arrives.

Teach your dog a reliable sit command, and teach him not to jump up on you, your visitors, and particularly anyone who is carrying the baby. The dog should also learn not to jump up on the furniture, particularly whilst you’re feeding baby. Teach this now: do not wait for baby to arrive. See above for directions on how to teach your dog not to jump up. A well-behaved dog will put worried grandparent’s minds at ease!

Get your dog used to be grabbed, nice and slowly. This will help to prepare him for when baby is a little older and mobile. Start off by touching your dog with your hand, and immediately giving him a treat. Gradually build this sequence up so that you can gently grab a fold of the dog’s skin, making sure to always reward him for accepting this behaviour. Gently get him used to his tail and ear being held and pulled.

Without any doubt, the most vulnerable time is when the baby becomes mobile: many dogs are fine with infants and older children, but they are bamboozled by toddlers! Toddlers move awkwardly, they tend to be relentless in trying to approach the dog, they are right at eye level with most dogs, and most importantly, a toddler cannot recognise when a dog is showing signs of discomfort at their proximity.

Toddlers fall on top of dogs, they wake them suddenly from their sleep, they grab dogs, pull their tails, and can generally make life hassle for a dog. I cannot emphasise enough, do not subject your dog to a toddler without very close supervision. Never, ever leave a dog and child of any age together unsupervised. Make sure your dog has a safe refuge to get away from a child that might be annoying him: the crate is ideal. The crate not only gives the dog refuge, it is also a visual barrier which makes it easier to teach young children not to approach the dog whilst he’s in his crate.

Let dad bring a garment worn by the baby home before the baby’s homecoming, to let the dog have a good sniff, and become familiar with the baby’s scent.

Finally, when the big day arrives and baby comes home, remember that your dog’s first encounter with baby will be vital. It is so important to set up a positive association between dog and baby. Get help with this: have your partner hold the dog on his lead, whilst you come in the door: by now your dog should be well used to sitting, and not jumping up, when you come through the door with a bundle. The lead will just give that extra bit of assurance.

Quietly sit down with a bowl of treats, and hold baby on your knee. Let the dog approach calmly, and allow him to sniff the baby until he’s satisfied and walks away. Use your hands to keep the dog’s nose away from the baby’s face. All the time, give him regular treats while he interacts with baby. Every time the dog sniffs the child in these first few hours and days, give him gentle praise and rewards.

From now on, all the training you put in before the birth will stand to you, and you can get on with being a slightly larger family! Most dogs become very fond of baby if you bring him out for walks with the buggy, reward and praise him for positive interactions with baby, don’t make him feel left out, and have him emotionally prepared for the new arrival and all the new things baby will bring.

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