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Puppy behavior: Five tips from a vet for solving problems

puppy behavior
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Puppy behavior is something you need to look out for. New puppies are super fun, but they can also be a handful! If this is your first puppy, or it has been a while since your last one, you may not  realize just how much work training a young dog can be. Fortunately, most puppy behavioral problems can be solved if you address them early. Punishment-based training methods – like yelling, hitting, spraying with water, or 'alpha rolls' – are scary for your puppy, and may cause more behavioral problems in the future. Instead, check out these tips for using positive reinforcement training to address some of the most common puppy behavior concerns. 

1. Whining and barking while in their crate

Puppies don’t naturally enjoy being locked up in a crate away from you, so it will take some time to teach your puppy to view the crate as a safe and comfortable resting place. Make sure you’re providing your puppy with a comfortable bed in the crate and using lots of positive reinforcement during training. Feeding your puppy in the crate or providing a special puzzle toy to keep her busy are great ways to encourage quiet behavior when crated. The biggest mistake pet parents make is letting the puppy out of the crate when she is whining. Unfortunately, this only teaches the puppy that whining and barking will get her what she wants! Never let your puppy out of the crate or give her any attention when she is whining or barking while crated. Remember that even negative attention – like yelling or startling the puppy – is still attention, and may reinforce their behavior! Instead, ignore the puppy until she is calm and quiet. You can reward calm behavior by occasionally dropping some tasty treats into the crate for them, which reinforces that the crate is a fun place to be!

2. Urinating and/or defecating in the crate

Accidents in the crate are another common problem that pet parents encounter during crate training and potty training. Often, this occurs because the crate is too large for your puppy. While it may be tempting to purchase a larger crate to fit your puppy’s expected adult size, a crate that is too large will allow your puppy to urinate and defecate in one area and sleep in another, which may encourage soiling. Ideally, the crate should be large enough for your puppy to stand up to her full height and turn around in a circle, but no larger. If you’ve accidentally purchased a crate that is too large, you can easily use pieces of cardboard or plastic to section it off until your puppy grows into it.

puppy behavior

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Inappropriate or destructive chewing behavior

Puppies will start teething as their adult teeth begin to erupt, much in the same way that human children do. Teething can be uncomfortable, so puppies may chew on inappropriate surfaces such as furniture. Puppies also naturally like to explore the world through their mouths, which may be a contributory factor to this destructive behavior. Some puppies will outgrow inappropriate chewing behavior, but it’s still best not to encourage it. Make sure you provide your puppy with plenty of the best dog chew toys of varying shapes, sizes, and textures. When your puppy tries to chew the furniture, redirect her onto a more appropriate object, and reward her with plenty of praise and treats. You can also use deterrents such as bitter apple spray or even hot sauce applied to the surfaces she likes to chew – just be careful not to apply them to upholstery, which may stain, and never spray them on your dog or around her face.

4. Jumping up on people

Does your puppy get so excited at meeting new people that they just can’t control themselves? You can help curb this behavior by teaching them to keep 'four on the floor' when greeting new people. First, make sure your friends and family don’t inadvertently encourage the behavior by petting or talking to your puppy while she is jumping on them. Even pushing them away may be seen as part of the game. Instead, they should calmly turn and walk away when they jumps so that they will learn they cannot get their attention this way. 

When a new person is approaching, ask your puppy to sit and stay. You may need to start at quite a distance at first if your puppy is too excited to listen. Once they are sitting and calm, reward them with a treat, and allow the person to calmly approach. If your puppy tries to jump, simply turn and lead them away – they've lost their opportunity to greet that person ,. With patience and repetition they'll soon learn that they needs to sit politely and keep 'four on the floor' if they want to say hello.

5. Nipping and inappropriate play behavior

Pet owners often worry that their dog is becoming aggressive when they start biting at a young age. But in a young puppy, this is often inappropriate play behavior. Puppies frequently nip at moving hands or legs in an effort to initiate play. To stop this behavior, it’s important to avoid sending mixed signals. Never play with your puppy using your hands or body – including wrestling or rough housing – as this can teach them to use you as a chew toy! Instead, try to redirect them onto a more appropriate toy. If they continue trying to nip, put your hands behind your back until they settle down or get up and walk away. With patience and consistency, they'll learn that play time stops if they get too rough. Never hit your puppy, grab them by the muzzle, or use other punishments, as these responses may cause fear and aggression in the future.

Patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement

Whether you’re addressing an unwanted behavior or teaching a new trick, being clear and consistent with your training is key. Use positive reinforcement by rewarding desirable behaviors with a good experience, such as praise, petting, or a tasty treat. Using this method consistently will teach your puppy that good behavior is far more fun and rewarding than causing trouble.