'Tis "puppy season"! This time of year into early Spring is when we get inundated with new puppies. Owners who know the importance of training and socialization get their puppies out and about from the start, which is fantastic. They are asking about training classes and also, what they should be teaching their puppies at home.
Now, this is where we may diverge a bit from what the "traditional" thoughts on "puppy training" might be. "Skills"--such as sit, down, stay, walking on leash, et cetera, are of course ALL very important skills for your dog to learn. However, those are just that; "skills". They can be easily, and very quickly, taught to dogs who have existing foundation behaviors. As in, we must have an understanding of how water, soil and seeds work together, and how to treat all of these elements, before we can grow a productive garden. And like in a garden, we don't just "grow it" once, and then walk away. It is an ongoing process, that needs to be continually nurtured and balanced in order to produce results again and again.
So, what are the most important elements to consider when initially training your new puppy? Here are the five behaviors we tend to focus on with our very young dogs that will lead to better skills learning and more stable dogs down the road!
1. Learning to eat
Yes, I said it! Learning to eat, when presented with food, as silly as it sounds, is something that frequently gets muddied up early on for many dogs and owners. Puppies should ideally be fed at least half of their meals from you, via training sessions or other enrichment games. When they do need to be fed out of a bowl, it should be a pre-determined amount, on a general schedule (as opposed to free feeding on the dog's timeline). Building the puppy's propensity to look to YOU for reinforcement, as opposed to just having food available whenever, with no connection to you, will devalue food in general for many dogs. With just a little bit of effort on your part form early on, your puppy will learn that you + food = great stuff happens!
2. Play! Play and more play!
Many people play with their puppy initially when the puppy is very young, but then leave the dog to its own devices. One on one play with your puppy is one of the BEST ways to build relationship and engagement with your dog. If again, just like with food, your puppy learns that engaging in appropriate toy-based and physical play with you is enjoyable, it simply gives you that many more "tools" in your reinforcement toolbox for down the road. Play fun games of fetch and tug with your puppy. *If* your puppy can enjoy gentle wrestling games without going into hyper-bitey-overdrive mode, play that way. Some puppies like to chase or be chased. Experiment and find out what your puppy likes. Having interactive play games is also a great way to burn off energy, while simultaneously reinforcing the fact that YOU are the best of all the options.
3. Containment and confinement.
Most people do use crates early on in their puppy's potty training, as they should! But unfortunately, once the puppy is mostly housebroken, the crate gets relegated to the garage where it gathers dust until the next neighborhood yard sale. I say, use that crate! Now, I do not advocate leaving a dog in a crate all day, by any means. BUT, a dog that can relax happily in a crate for a few hours at a stretch is a dog that will; board comfortably, be able to settle a bit better at the vet or the groomer, travel in confinement, and/or be a good house guest in others homes. Dogs that can handle confinement with aplomb are those dogs that can literally travel through life with a lot more ease. Make the crate a GOOD place for your dog!
4. Name and foundations for recall.
If I could choose one and only one behavior for every dog on earth to have 100% reliable, it would be a "recall" or a "come when called". A recall isn't just useful, but a rock solid recall can even save your dog's life. Building value for your puppy responding to it's name from the early stages, and generously and diligently reinforcing their response, is a great way to build your dog's propensity to respond to your call. For every time you say "Max!" in a burst of annoyance, there should be five more "Max!"s, that are reinforced by a cookie, a ball throw, or something the dog *really* wants. Be VERY aware of how and when you use your puppy's name. Calling them to you, then putting them in the bath tub, or clipping on the leash and then leaving the park, degrades their response to their name. So, be hyper aware of this VERY critical "bank account," and deposit LOTS and LOTS of "cookie money" to ensure the pay out will be there when you most need it.
5. Handling and husbandry behaviors.
I'll be 110% honest with you all (if you're still with me!). Husbandry and handling is one of my "weaker" spots. I am a "doer" in life, and my dogs and I like to go, go, GO! BUT, solid husbandry behaviors--such as holding still for examinations at the vet's, the groomer, etc., take time and patience! And they are SO important. Gentle handling with tons and tons of reinforcement for cooperation *should* be a critical component of every puppy's early upbringing. Here's a video of us working with a client puppy on accepting ear cleaning and teeth brushing. Having a dog that is comfortable with these routine procedures, and who can actually *relax* at the groomer's or the vet is a dog that makes everyone who comes in contact with him/her happy and so very grateful that you took the time to do that extra bit of training.
So, that may seem like a lot, BUT, guess what, you have time! Take the time to carve out just five minutes a day to spend on one or two of these items, and you will be handsomely rewarded down the line. Plus, if you do, you will get the amazing BONUS side effect; an engaged dog! Puppies whose parents spend the time teaching them critical life skills mature into happy, eager learners who are a joy to live with. Don't be intimidated, just get out there for a few minutes a day and do it! You, and your puppy, will be glad you did.