What Makes a Difficult Puppy?

difficult puppy

Puppyhood. A time of joy, fun, laughter, tears, and needle teeth. Especially if you’ve got a difficult puppy.

This can greatly skew your puppyhood experience, and land you right in the land of puppy blues. Puppies can be hard! But they can also be made much easier!

Cute Little Idiots

Puppies know nothing. They are pretty much a blank slate that is trying to figure out the world and their place in it. Often they are practicing things that worked for them in the litter, or just testing things to figure out what works! Their level of knowledge is so so small, and this can make an easy puppy into a difficult one. 

Their communication system is usually one that hasn’t really involved humans, just their littermates and any other dogs around. The most practice they have gotten in their short lives tends to be very dog centered, after all they have spent much more time in the litter than out of it! So of course they don’t know much about the world, and the only way they can find things out is by being curious and trying stuff. 


From the human perspective this can mean a difficult puppy! They’re not coming when called, they’re not pottying in the correct areas, they’re stealing, nipping, barking, running amok, and generally being a nuisance at times. Or maybe terror is a better descriptor. 

But when it comes down to it, these difficult puppies are simply ones that don’t know what to do and when to do it. They don’t have any training foundation, and often owners don’t realize how to train skills like being calm in the home to a puppy. A lot of owners also fall into the “cute trap” where a puppy is allowed to get away with cute things that will become troublesome habits later! 

False Sense of Security

Along with the “cute trap”, another common pitfall that leads to a difficult puppy, is waiting to train. With puppies, training starts day one that they are in your home. Even if they are 8 weeks old, there is a ton for them to learn. They will be absorbing knowledge like a little sponge at that age, which includes the topic of what they can get away with or where your household is lax. 

The trouble is that at 8 weeks old most puppies are still sleeping a ton, and this creates a false sense of security in owners. The puppy seems well behaved, when really they are a little sleeper agent of a difficult puppy. They are learning all sorts of habits, especially if they are given a lot of freedom too soon, and these habits usually seem very small or nonexistent between weeks 8-10. 

Then suddenly at week 11-14, full blown difficult puppy who is pushing all of the WRONG buttons. They no longer need as much sleep and begin to use the information that they’ve been learning to their advantage. 

  • Not listening (but do they know listening is important?)
  • Chewing like a maniac (were they taught which chews were appropriate?)
  • Annoying other pets constantly (were they taught how to stop?)
  • Not coming when called (what kind of foundation was done here?)
  • Fighting the leash (how was this introduced?)
  • Puppy witching hour (where is all this energy being channeled?)
  • Rowdy, rough, and inappropriate play (what impulse control skills have been built?)

While these issues are all normal and all puppy owners will experience them, it is very easy for an owner to get caught off balance and be unprepared if no training has been started. Instead of being able to redirect the difficult puppy into an appropriate behavior and reinforce a desirable skill, there are no controls at all! The puppy is a runaway train. 

Soon the puppy shots will be all done and most owners want to get out in the world with their pup to socialize. But without training it is really hard to work with a difficult puppy on proper socialization, as they’re already practicing a bunch of unwanted behaviors. Studies have shown that puppies that get training earlier have less behavioral issues, which is something us trainers have known for a long time.

Puppy Myths

You have to wait to train your puppy

This myth is so damaging and painful! As I’ve said already, puppy training starts day one that they are home with you, especially if they are 8 weeks old. Whether you know it or not, they ARE learning without you, and this includes plenty of unwanted habits.

This is the time when we can teach the most with the least amount of effort, it take many less reps of a behavior for it to be a budding habit (As little as 1-3 reps for some!!) and this is great for training, but terrible for unwanted behaviors.

It's just a phase!! They'll grow out of it.

If left alone, unwanted behaviors will persist and grow stronger. Every time a puppy practices something it will get stronger, just like any other habit! 

Two instances is already pattern for a puppy, and three is a budding habit that is likely to grow. Do not wait for a puppy to grow out of a habit, especially if you’ve seen your puppy do a behavior multiple times already. The habit isn’t getting weaker the more they do it, nor will it magically disappear at some undisclosed age. 

Waiting = Making Things Harder

The longer a habit goes on, the longer it will take to change, and with puppies unwanted habits can seem to happen in a flash! To make matters worse puppies are growing so quickly that waiting often gets owners in hot water. A small puppy that pulls on leash is quite different than the 7 month old 60 pound beast, who is dragging you around. Yet, the time difference is nearly nothing. 90 days between smol and cute, to big and out of control!

By that stage the training is no longer preventative. We’re not preventing a pulling problem, teaching impulse control foundations, or socializing, etc, we’re instead playing catch up. Trying to dismantle an reteach a skill like pulling, fighting against the time that the difficult puppy has had practicing the behavior in the first place!

As the saying goes “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and this is especially true with puppies. Proactive prevention is the name of the game!

What can you do with your Difficult Puppy?

Get help from a trainer! All puppies need training, difficult puppy or not, simply to understand our world. There is so much to be learned, and it is way easier to live with a dog that has had training. Having a communication system that is effective is much less stressful than pointlessly telling a dog no for instance, or repeating commands like a broken record, or hoping that a dog won’t do XYZ this time. 

Just because an owner has a difficult puppy does not mean it’s too late to train, there is always change to be made! That said, it is more work when you’ve got remedial and extra training to accomplish, and the training pipeline is no longer streamlined. You end up juggling many different things, instead of naturally flowing from one skill to the next. 

There is plenty of hope to be had, and even with a difficult puppy you can absolutely make things easier. Behavior is not set in stone, and getting the right help makes all the difference. If you feel like you might have a difficult puppy, or like you’re starting to struggle with your pup, it’s probably time to get training help!

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