Boundaries and interruptions
We work with our puppies using as much positive reinforcement as possible, since that builds confident, happy puppies (and who doesn’t want that).
But, like toddlers, puppies also need boundaries. Crate time outs are a good example of placing good boundaries on your puppy. When she’s excessively rambunctious, pick her up, put her in her crate, cover the crate, and let her have a nap. Works wonders.
We have had some families dealing with rambunctious behavior that doesn’t necessarily respond as well to time-outs, like puppies getting over enthusiastic and thinking the humans are big, living tug-toys. For behaviors like that, we recommend what we call an “interruption.”
Puppies get excited and their little brains can just grab on to something (sometimes literally, like the leg of your pants) and not let go.
The point of an interruption is break this loop and bring them back to the present.
There are different levels of interruption. Start with and use the lowest effective level. You may need to escalate immediately, or over time, but don’t escalate unless necessary.
NOTE: Interruption is NOT a punishment. It is a redirection to a more appropriate behavior. Sometimes a puppy is too excited to break from a behavior on her own even when you ask her to perform a behavior she already knows. For example, she may be latching onto your shoes and having a grand old time and your pleas of “sit” mean absolutely nothing to her at this time. So you will need to interrupt the behavior first and then redirect to a more appropriate behavior. (Sometimes the appropriate behavior is a crate time out of she needs some time to regain her wits.)
Interruption should ALWAYS be followed with something she can do successfully (whether it’s sitting or just being quiet in her crate) and should ALWAYS be followed by praise. Letting go of your pants leg is a good act, something you desire and want to reinforce, so as soon as she lets go you need to praise her, even though she was initially doing something that didn’t make you happy.
Ideally when you tell a puppy NOT to do something, you should immediately follow it with telling her TO do something. It’s easier to reinforce a “yes” than a “no,” so always try to give her a “yes”—something she can do that you can say yes to. It’s not always possible, and sometimes the praise can only be for her ceasing a bad behavior, but try when you can to give her something positive to do that she is confident about and can be rewarded for. We have taught our puppies to sit as a default behavior, so sit is usually a good standby “yes” activity.
Level 1: Interrupt with a toy or chew. Example: Your puppy is chewing on your hand, so you take a bully stick and place it in his mouth instead of your hand. The interruption is the replacing of the hand with the stick, and the stick is a reward and reinforcer in and of itself, so you can verbally praise, but it’s not always necessary.
Level 2: Interrupt with a word (“no” or “leave it” are common verbal interrupters). Example, your puppy is picking up a sock to play with, and you say “no” or “leave it.” As soon as she listens, you MUST praise her. If you can, give her an appropriate replacement chew or toy and praise her for playing with it. If one isn’t available, ask her to sit, or just praise her for listening.
Level 3: Interrupt with a loud noise, such as a loud hand clap. Same principle as level 2, but sometimes a loud noise is a stronger interrupter for when she is really involved in whatever it is you don’t want her to do.
Level 4: Physical interruption. Sometimes she just may not listen. Whatever she’s doing is sooooo fun and exciting, that your voice or noises just don’t matter. At times like this, you may need to physically separate her from the stimulus. If she’s jumping all over the furniture and it’s driving you nuts, pick her up and put her in a crate. If she runs away from you when this happens, then you may need to leave a short leash on her in the house so you can grab that when she loses her mind (only leave a leash on under supervision—she can get seriously hurt or worse if it get caught). Praise her as soon as she stops her imitation of a Tasmanian Devil.