Frustrations and Joys of Training a Puppy

March 29, 2007

As the co-owner and instructor of a dog obedience school for 12 years now, I have helped hundreds (thousands?) of people train their dogs. Some people have been a joy to help while others took a bit more patience, but I have learned something from every owner and every dog. As the trainer of my own dogs, I have had it easy so far. With the exception of a childhood family pet (who was, unfortunately short-lived), I have raised and trained 4 dogs now, and had another for about 6 months who didn’t work out in our home (he was returned to his breeder). The first three I raised were all Rottweilers. The first two were Bear and Teddy (forgive me, please for the cutesy names… but I still love them!). I took both of them through a local obedience school, along with my best friend Susan (and now business partner) and her German Shepherd pup. Back then our instructor taught using what was called a “motivatinal method” and it was indeed kinder than what some other trainers were using at the time… and unfortunately are still using. We knew nothing different, however, and really enjoyed the time training and bonding with our dogs. My male Rottie, Bear, was a very enthusiastic boy. He was also big and strong. I was shown how to effectively use a prong collar to teach him to stay in heel position (or else). We also praised and gave some treats, but force was often used – such as a quick pop on that prong collar – to get the point across to him what I wanted him to do. He would yelp sometimes, then look up at me and eagerly try to figure out what I wanted and we would go on. Bear did eventually earn his Companion Dog title through AKC obedience competition, and seemed to love working with me regardless. Teddy, my Rottie bitch who was 4.5 years younger than Bear, was a much “softer” dog. No prongs for her – the one time I got frustrated and put one on her and gave it a yank to make her stay in heel position was the last time I used one. That sweet girl just laid down in the grass and quit. I will never forget that moment as it was a real eye-opener for me. I thought to myself, “what the hell I am doing?” This was supposed to be fun for us, a way to bond and interact with my dog. She was already well-behaved and obedient enough as a pet – the competition was supposed to be fun. That sunny afternoon I realized that Teddy was no longer having fun. I doubt she ever enjoyed it much at all. We took a break of perhaps 6 months, then I was able to work with her a bit more and finish her CD. We started some training for Open, but at that point I was newly married, starting to have kids, and I lost interest.

Several years passed – Teddy was now about 9 years old. Susan and I were learning about clicker training. We were going to seminars Association of Pet Dog Trainers and even camps. Susan had a new GSD puppy to train – I had really old Bear (he was 13) and Teddy. I decided to try to re-train some behaviors to Teddy using the new (to me) clicker method, using different hand and verbal signals. Would it work for such an old girl? Well, it not only worked, it was amazing. Her previous response to “Heel!” was to slog along at my side. Quite obedient, but not happy. Taught the new way, Teddy was soon dancing along in heel position, eyes on my face and joy in her eyes. I was stunned. The old handsign for down would have her slowly crumple down, hanging her head… it looked like I have beaten her but never had. Taught anew – she plopped instantly to a Sphinx position, head up, shining eyes making contact with mine. I had very mixed feelings during this. Pleasure in understanding why so many trainers were praising this way of teaching dogs behaviors, and guilt at ever having taught her another way. I know that Teddy would have been a different girl if that was all she had known. Instead, her memories included a lot of rough training.. for what.

So, after teaching people to train with clickers for about 3 years, I finally got my own puppy – Sugar Bear. She has never known anything else and is the most amazing dog. I don’t do competition obedience any more, lacking the time and interest. I do hope to do rally someday (still need that time…). Sugar Bear fills her days as a family pet, a demo dog for my obedience school, as a therapy dog for sick kids, and an occasional visitor to schools where she help me teach kids about dog safety. She has quite a repertoire of tricks, favorites being “lick your chops,” getting me a tissue when I sneeze, and finding my son or daughter when they hide (she knows which one to look for by name). She is an absolute joy to have around the house – she never chews anything inappropriate, gets into the trash, or steals a pig ear from the open box of them (she waits for me to give her one). She even plays nicely with our cat. She has loved every person she has ever met.

So… then we decide to get another puppy. This one would belong to my daughter Sara, who will turn 13 next week, and be a companion for Sugar. We want a less powerful dog for her, and ultimately decide upon a Borzoi. Déjà Vu joined our family last summer and has certainly stirred things up! With my help, Sara trained her in the basics, taking her through my school’s beginner course. Housetraining went well – and it was much more fun having someone else be responsible for cleaning up the inevitable accidents! Sara started the pup in our Level 2 course, as well… and then dropped out. As a rowdy teenager, Déjà became much more of a challenge and having the class at 8:00pm on a school night was just too much for Sara. We have continued to work with her at home, of course, and they will be starting Level 2 again in a few months – Sara will have a friend with her own puppy in the class which will make it much more enjoyable for her. The challenges are still there, however. ALL of my previous dogs, and the vast majority with whom I work, are extremely food motivated. That makes the initial training so much easier! Of course, after a behavior is taught we “wean” them off of the constant treats just as we stop needing the clicker. Reinforcements at that point are simply much more variable, including praise, petting, the door being opened, a ball being thrown, and yes, still a goody to eat at times. So anyway, this dog is not nearly as food motivated. In a quiet, familiar place she is happy to learn something new for a treat, but with other dogs around… no way. She will clamp her mouth shut and turn her head away, no matter how amazing the treat! So, I figured with were going to have to work the harder way. If food wasn’t motivation enough, and I knew toys wouldn’t be for her… what was? The answer: playtime with other dogs. It works, but darn – it is so much slower! First off, I have to have someone else’s dog aroubnd as Sugar Bear doesn’t count for this. Today was the first day we really had a chance (i.e. made the arrangements) to have another puppy friend over. This was a friend she had met several times before and who was a graduate of our classes – a beautiful labradoodle named Casey. As I was also hosting a small party for my son, I couldn’t get much training in, but was pleased with what we did. Déjà was able to focus on me and respond to already-known signals for attention, sit, down, stay, etc. She and Casey would both respond, and I gave them each a treat for doing so. This was an improvement on previous efforts! I will have to arrange another puppy play date, however, before I find if I can hold her attention to teach her something new. At the very least, I need her to be able to really focus on me and hold steady – we have entered her in her first dog show at the end of April. Wish us luck!

Well, if anyone has read this far, thank you. I welcome any comments you might have. Although I consider myelf a pretty experienced obedience instructor, I am still learning (and hope I never stop).

7 Responses to “Frustrations and Joys of Training a Puppy”

  1. Amber said

    Hi Mary,
    I was reading through your blog on training with both Deja and Casey.
    I am working on very initial stages of clicker training my four dogs. I have a toy fox terrier and bassett hound who both have some issues with food aggression. I tried to work on some focusing excersises with the two of them and they began to get really snippy with eachother.
    Any suggestions on get DA under control with the use of a clicker? Should I work longer on the focusing before working them together?
    Suggestions and ideas are more then appreciated! Thank you for your site, I have found a ton of useful info!

    • Amber, for some reason I wasn’t able to post this reply on my blog, so here it is:


      You definitely need to work separately with your dogs. That is crucial – otherwise, there is no way for each dog to know which click is for him/her. So, it seems as if the other dog is “stealing” the treat they think they earned… no wonder they get snippy! There are clickers that have different sounds ( has them) but I don’t recommend you even do that with beginner dogs. You want all of your information to be as clear as possible. I am glad you are finding my site useful!

      ~ Mary

  2. Maria said

    Hi mary happy hear that your training has gone so well. My problem with my pups would be that they both will play and bite really hard. There 3 month old beagles and when one pup cries the othee does not stop. Now they know not to bite or chew on us but they dont get the hint with each other.

    • Maria,
      If one seems to be really hurting the other, then you should step in and remove the biter for a brief period of time. If you are consistent in doing this, then he should learn to bite more gently so as not to lose his playmate. Are there adult dog who have proven track records with puppies they could play with? They are the best at teaching puppies to have gentle mouths. See my page on Puppy Biting, and see if you can adapt that info to work for your situation. Remember to stay calm 🙂

  3. Tori said

    Hi Mary,

    I recently purchased a clicker that didn’t come with any kind of instruction, so I am very pleased to have found your site! I have a four month old goldendoodle puppy that is quite feisty and a ten year old golden retriever who is the most gentle dog in the world. My puppy bites and bites and bites my older dog. I interrupt it with loud noise, separate, put him on a leash, but he doesn’t stop unless he’s sleeping! I actually purchased the clicker to help with this and would click when he was biting. He would obediently come to me for a treat (his favorite is green beans) and then go right back at it–after reading your lessons here I now know that was the wrong thing to do!!! I am constantly stressed because my older dog is stressed and he is too nice to do anything to the puppy. I know that clicking for the correct behavior is the thing to do, but I’m not sure how to apply it to this situation. Any help is appreciated as I live in rural Iowa where there aren’t any positive reinforcement classes. Also, my puppy is quite mouthy and my vet told me to put him on his back, grab his mouth and growl to let him know that that is unacceptable. When she did it he calmed right down, but at home, if I have to do it more than once, it seems to make him more wound up. He’s getting larger by the day and I don’t want to be doing things that are going to make him aggressive. I’ve started time-outs (it’s what works with my kids!) but have not seen an improvement. Again, thank you for your help and we are starting positive C&T tomorrow–very excited!!!


  4. Emily said

    hi there ! jus wanted to say thanks for all the help !

    we have a 7 week old bundle of joy that we saved from horrible breeders and he just sooooooo smart ! he can sit , lie don and wait already !

    he look just like sugar the same coat and colours ! he is rotti cross golden retriever ! n was jus wandering what breed sugar is she is really gorgeous !

    thanks again

    • Emily,

      Sugar Bear is actually a purebred Rottweiler. Her parents are both breed champions and her littermate competed at Westminster. Sugar Bear, however, inherited the recessive gene for long hair, which crops up occasionally in the breed. Her breeder sold her to me for 1/2 price – wasn’t I the lucky one!

      I am glad to hear your little one is doing so well with his training. It’s it fun??

      ~ Mary

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