Common problems and training goals

  • Digging in the garden
  • Food and Toy Guarding
  • House training
  • Jumping up
  • Not coming when called
  • Walking on a lead without pulling
  • Puppy biting
  • Dropping prohibited items
  • Teaching to retrieve


Most dogs love to dig but some breeds are more prone to excessive digging than others. Terriers are especially fond of digging as they were originally bred to hunt small prey underground.
Since it is a natural behaviour, digging craters in the garden can be difficult to stop.
It is advisable to allocate an area of the garden you are not so fond of, to an official digging area. Make it attractive to your dog by burying bones and chews there periodically and show him at first that they are there, encouraging him to dig at that spot. He can have fun digging them up and should return to the spot where he keeps discovering these wonderful things. If you catch him in the act of digging somewhere else, startle him to interrupt the behaviour - perhaps with an unusual noise or with a can with pebbles in it landing near him and take him to his digging site and encourage him to dig there.
Digging can also get out of hand if an intelligent or active dog is bored. You can enrich the environment with toys stuffed with food treats scattered where he may not be expecting them. There are also plastic treat balls with small holes that can be filled up with treats that only fall out through the holes one at a time as the ball is moved. It is also a good idea to take the dog for a walk shortly before he is left alone so it has had some exercise and some mental stimulation from new smells and may be more relaxed when you are out and not as inclined to dig.


As with many behaviour problems in adult dogs, toy or food guarding or both often develop in puppies at which time they are easy to change and prevent.
Food or toy guarding means that the puppy or dog will growl at their owner if he or she approaches them while they are eating or lying next to their favourite toy. If the approach continues the aggression can escalate into a bite. This behaviour can be extended to include anything the dog considers valuable including the couch or doorway or the dog's bed or even the owner's bed.
Many people react aggressively at first, which is the wrong thing to do as the aggression can make the dog anxious and cause him to escalate the aggression of his guarding behaviour. In an adult dog this often results in the owner being bitten and if a toddler crawls towards the food bowl of a food guarding dog the consequences could be tragic.
From the time you first get your puppy you can start by giving him his meal and while he is eating bending down to add nice things to his bowl. This develops the association in his mind that hands coming towards his food bowl mean good times are here. You could then try giving him a treat and removing his bowl for a few seconds and then putting it back with another treat inside. If you have more than one dog make sure they have their own separate food bowls and that the older dog doesn't steal the puppy's food. You should practice this occasionally even when your dog is older just to remind him.

The same applies if the puppy has a bone or rawhide chew. Take a very tasty treat and exchange it for the bone. Keep the bone for a while and then give it back. This shows the puppy from a young age that hands coming towards their food and treats are not a threat.
Do the same with favourite toys as well. Always keep some toys as yours that only the two of you play with and the puppy doesn't have access to them all the time which keeps them special.
When it comes to areas of the house that the puppy likes for example the couch (if he is allowed on the couch), his bed, the doorway etc call him from the area for a treat and introduce the command "off" and go and sit there yourself or pick his bed up and move it around.
If the puppy is used to this behaviour from a young age it is unlikely that guarding behaviour will develop when he is older.


Puppies do not automatically know that they have to go to the toilet outside - they need to be trained to do so.
Remember that 8 week old puppies cannot control their bladders for more than a few hours so you are going to have to get up at night for the first few weeks to take your puppy outside to relieve itself.
Decide for yourself where in the garden you would like your puppy to go to the toilet. Once trained, dogs are quite particular about where they go and usually go to the same spot but bear in mind that you are going to walk to this spot in the dark in the middle of the night to take your puppy there. Dogs also favour eliminating on the same type of surface. A dog that has learnt to go on concrete will always prefer to go on concrete, likewise a dog can develop a preference for sand or grass or newspaper (or carpets if the owner is too lazy to watch the puppy)
Dogs naturally don't want to soil their den area and this helps with house training.

Puppies need to relieve themselves after they have been sleeping, after they have eaten a meal and after they have been playing so at these times take the puppy outside to the designated toilet spot and wait for it to go. Don't play with it or do something interesting that may distract the puppy just wait quietly. When the puppy does go praise it and tell it what an incredibly good and clever puppy it is. As it is going to the toilet you can put a word or phrase to it like "Go wee-wee" . If you say this every time your puppy does this it will associate that phrase with going to the toilet and later will do so on command which is very useful if you are travelling (or standing around in the dark in the middle of winter waiting for your puppy to go while your puppy is distracted and shows no inclination to do so).
While your puppy is inside watch it all the time. If it is about to relieve itself it will sniff the ground and start squatting. Grab it, say "No" firmly and take it outside. Wait for it to do something, give it your toilet phrase during the action and then praise it and tell it that it is the most wonderful puppy in the world.

Accidents happen! Should you catch your dog in the act behave exactly as above. Do not smack the puppy or rub its nose in the excrement. Just say "No" firmly and take the puppy outside and kick yourself for not being vigilant enough.

Should you discover a puddle or pile later with no puppy in sight just clean the area very thoroughly using a detergent that does not contain ammonia. Dogs smell where they have been before and return to the same smelling spots and ammonia compounds are part of urine so can lead a dog to believe its the correct spot. Sunlight dishwashing soap works well - so does Domestos as it contains chlorine. Kick yourself again for not being vigilant enough. It is no use dragging the puppy back and punishing it. It won't remember what it has done and you will frighten it and possibly make it afraid of you. You accomplish nothing good and may set your training backwards.

What to do at night! Try and feed the puppy regular meals and don't just leave food down all the time. This makes its toilet times more predictable and gives you an early warning if you puppy is sick. Try to feed the puppy at night before 19h00 and after 20h00 put the water bowl up. Try to take the puppy out just before you go to bed and ensure that it does something. It helps to confine the puppy. If it sleeps in your room try to fence off a small area for it to sleep in. Puppies don't like to soil their sleeping areas so are more likely to wake you up as they wake up and you can take them outside. If you don't want them in your bedroom confine them to the kitchen as the floor is easy to clean and also barricade off a small area. Set your alarm clock for four hours after you have gone to bed and get up and take the puppy outside. As soon as you wake up in the morning take the puppy outside again. Have some slip on shoes handy and a dressing gown if you don't sleep in much as the puppy, once awake, will not be able to wait for you to get dressed first.
The good news is that this will not last for more than a week or two as the puppy quickly develops the ability to control their functions for longer periods of time. The more vigilant you are and the less chance of an accident for the puppy the faster it will be house trained. All dogs are different. Some are fully house trained within a week or two, others take longer and still have the odd accident at times when you have already thought they were house trained.


This is something learned as puppies that in an adult dog can range from irritating to dangerous depending on the dog. A small dog jumping up to greet someone is usually harmless although sharp nails on bare flesh can cause some scratches. A large dog happily jumping up to say hello can knock someone over (breaking an old lady's hip) or terrify a small child or someone not used to dogs. Jumping up is generally considered bad manners.

In both dogs and wolves the junior dog will greet the senior dog by licking his mouth and face. This is a sign of respect. When you get your puppy he is going to want to do the same thing to you but your face is much higher than another dog's face so he is going to jump up you to try and reach and most people think that it is incredibly cute (which it is) so they make delighted, happy noises and greet the puppy in return and so the action of jumping up is greatly rewarded and sets in for life. Unfortunately it is not so cute if an 80kg boerboel greets you the same way.
The puppy doesn't understand that he has grown bigger and can't understand that what was once rewarded is no longer desirable.

The way to avoid jumping up is to bend down and greet the puppy before he jumps up so you lower your face to him. Whether you let him lick your face or not is up to you. You then tell him to sit (a dog cannot jump up if he is sitting down) and bend down and reward him. As he gets used to this you always greet him sitting down and make sure other members of your family do the same. You can also practice this with guests.

If the puppy does jump up ignore him and turn your back on him. Don't squeal or make any sound if you are scratched or tell him "no" as he may take this as encouragement. Greet him when all four feet are on the ground or he is sitting depending on how far his training has come.
When guests arrive at the door tell your puppy to sit while you open the door - you may need a helper in the beginning. Have a nice treat to give to your guest who can greet the puppy and give him the treat if he is sitting. Even when he is older and the behaviour of sitting to greet people is habit still reward him for doing it now and then to reinforce the behaviour.


Calling your puppy to come to you reliably and in all circumstances is probably the most important lesson in all training.
When it is time for feeding always call your puppy by name and reward it with its meal.
Carry some small pieces of biltong (game biltong works best because it is not fatty and doesn't leave grease marks) or other dry treats in your pocket during the day and periodically call your puppy to you. Always giving praise and a reward when it comes.
Slowly get more distractions into the game, for example it is easier to start training in your garden where there are few distractions and then take you puppy to new places to try somewhere different with more distractions.
Don't expect the same level of obedience in the new place as you do at home as dogs associate places with what they do and may need to be taught that you want the same thing as you did at home. Start at the beginning again with smaller distances. Also there are more distractions so you have to practice more. If your puppy doesn't come to you don't chase after it! Rather run away calling it in an excited voice. When it gets to you praise it.

Never ever ever ever call your puppy to you to give it punishment. It will associate coming to you with punishment and won't come in future.
Try not to get into the habit of having to call the puppy over and over again before it responds. If it does not come the first or second time you call then try running away as described above. If it still does not come to you hide out of sight until it starts to look for you then call it again. Most puppies will panic if their owner suddenly disappears. In the beginning when starting to train the puppy to come to you, try not to call it when it is distracted (playing with other puppies or chasing a stick) to try and give it the best chance of succeeding. Also if it is distracted it may learn to ignore that irritating voice in the background so only try calling in difficult situations once you are sure the puppy knows what you mean and is likely to come. Also start with calling the puppy over short distances and gradually increase the distance even moving out of sight to another room as the puppy becomes more reliable.

A fun game to play with your puppy is to get another family member to hold the puppy while you run away and hide. Start calling the puppy when you are in place and let him come and find you.

Even when the dog is older carry on practising calling the dog to return to you for a pat and a treat during a walk and carry on. Many older dogs come to realise that being called during a walk means having the lead put on and ending the fun and so avoid returning to their owners


Another problem that develops in puppy hood is pulling on the lead. Owners usually don't mind because it is easy to control the small puppy but when the small puppy becomes a 50 kg rottweiler dragging their owner down the street it is not so easy.
Introduce your puppy to the lead in your garden so it gets used to the feeling. You can drop it on the ground so movement is not restricted. Once the puppy is used to the lead you can start the training.
Pulling develops because dogs learn that by pulling they get to where they want to go faster than otherwise. To teach dogs not to pull you have to show them that only walking next to you on the lead lets them get where they want to go.
While your puppy is walking next to you give it praise and treats if you have some. If your puppy surges out in front of you and starts pulling stand still and wait. Eventually your puppy will come back to you. Praise it and give it a treat and start again. It may lunge straight out again. Do exactly the same again. This takes lots of patience on your part but the puppy will realise that pulling means it is going nowhere. As with the recall try starting off with few distractions and gradually increase the difficulty by going to unfamiliar or exciting places as the puppy becomes better.
For older dogs who already pull on the lead the Halti is a fantastic invention and the most humane way to stop pulling. It works like a horse's halter fitting loosely around the muzzle and behind the ears. The lead clips on under the chin. While wearing a Halti a dog can still open its mouth and pant, drink or eat as normal. The Halti gives the owner full control over the dog's head and doesn't allow the dog to pull with his shoulders and front legs because any pulling turns the dog's head towards its owner.
A Halti may also help the owner of a large or boisterous puppy that is very strong and difficult to control otherwise and is a far better choice than a choke chain.


A problem many people have with young, playful puppies is mouthing. Puppies explore with their mouths (and sharp, spiky teeth) and will tend to bite everything including hands and feet. They learn about their environment by putting many different things in their mouths and they have an inborn instinct to chase movement which in the adult would develop into a hunting instinct. They also play fight with each other in preparation for their adult lives and regard us as dogs too so treat their owners the same way.
Puppies need to be taught that humans are fragile creatures and they need to be gentle before being taught not to bite their owners, however playfully. Sharp puppy teeth digging into flesh are quite painful and clothes can easily be torn. Children are especially exciting for puppies as they run around uttering high pitched sounds and are irresistible to chase.
The secret to controlling biting is not to give the puppy any reward for doing it. Rewards for the puppy are attention, chasing games and tugging games. Don't join in the game by running away. If a puppy bites you give a piercing shriek and turn you back on him, stand still and don't interact at all. After a few seconds play with him again and he should be more gentle but shriek again and turn away. Gradually he will be more and more gentle and you can try and redirect his biting to a dog toy which is fine for him to bite and play with and is the means with which he plays with you. Flapping skirts are another favourite prey item. Stop moving and try to redirect his biting to a suitable toy and then tell him what a good dog he is. Perhaps limit wearing skirts while he is still very young as they can be irresistible to puppies. Children should try not to run near the puppy unless they are playing with him with a toy. Playing tug games are a favourite for many dogs. Some puppies may think that it is fun to make you shriek and turn away and continue biting to make you do it again. These puppies can be put in a room for a time out for a few seconds before you interact with them again.


A problem many puppy owners have is when the puppy picks up a shoe or other valuable item and runs off with it with the intention of destroying it. (Underpants are another favourite)
Many owners chase the puppy to get it back which makes it even more fun for the puppy. Not only does he have something interesting to play with - you want it too and will play an exciting game of catch to get it. Shouting doesn't help.

You need a ready supply of treats or your own toy. Ignore the puppy and pretend you don't care what he has just taken. Pretend to eat your own treats - make the bag rustle interestingly and show a lot of interest or play with the other toy. Drag it along the ground and pretend to be having a wonderful time with it. Most puppies will want to see what you have got that is so interesting you don't mind them disappearing out of the door with your shoe. When the puppy comes up to you give it a treat in exchange for your shoe or play with it for a while with the other toy or both. Next time put your shoes away!
Another problem is raiding the dustbin. In this case the only real solution is to put the dustbin where the puppy cannot get access to it. You can set traps like a pile of tins that will fall off and startle the puppy when it tries to get into the bin and these may work for some dogs but the serious dustbin raider will not be deterred unless the bin is out of reach or has a puppy proof lid.


This seems to be the exercise most people have problems with. There are two very different methods I can recommend.
1. Start by playing with a tug toy and get the dog used to holding something in his mouth. When he has it firmly in his mouth say a word like "hold" or "fetch" so he can associate the action and the word. Pull the toy up so he sits down and get him to release it and say "give" or "leave". Reward him again with another game of tug and throw the article a short distance. (It is helpful to have the dog on the lead at the time so he can't run off). Call him to you and reward him with a game of tug. If he is loose and runs off with it don't chase him - try and call him back in an excited voice and if that doesn't work just turn your back and walk away. With practise you can build up the distance and reliability.
2. The other method is to use a clicker. Some dogs don't like strange things in their mouths especially older dogs who have not learned to play as puppies or been punished for stealing stuff. For this method you us a clicker. If the dog shows interest in the article click and treat. When the dog shows more interest click and treat. If the dog mouths the article click and treat (here your timing must be perfect the click must come as the dog takes the article into its mouth not as it spits it out). Gradually you build up the behaviour you want by waiting for a little bit more before you click. Use your discretion here as you can go faster with some dogs than with others. Always try and end a training session on a good note. If the dog does something it hasn't done before click and treat (or jackpot) and end the training. The temptation is to try and get the dog to repeat what it just did which it may not do and you would have lost the learning experience. Quit while you are ahead as they say.

©Copyright by Angela Curtis