I am frequently asked when to start a puppy in training. I always answer with, “As soon as you get him.” If you have done your research on picking that perfect breeder, your puppy will come to you confident and playful. Your puppy will not be fearful of strange objects, noises or motions.
However, this isn’t true of every puppy in every situation, even the ones that have come from the best breeders. Every puppy is different and picking out your puppy should be exciting and fun. When picking a puppy, look for one that fits into your home and living style first and foremost. Do not feel sorry for the loner puppy that sulks, or looks fearful, retreating to a corner away from you. If this puppy is fearful in his home environment, he will have issues when you get him home. The worst thing you want to encounter with your new puppy right off the bat is having issues and having to fix problems that may not be fixable at all.
Also, do not pick the puppy that is the total bully of the pack, diving and biting on other puppies, especially if you have other dogs at home that will not like or accept this behavior.
Once you have picked out the puppy that most suits your family and lifestyle, and you get him home you can begin his training. What do I teach my puppies? From the a puppy comes home, I gear towards competition, so I teach exercises that reflect what he will learn as an adult, only on a puppy level.
From 8 -12 weeks, I teach puppies the following:
1. To make eye contact by saying her name, not saying “watch”. The reason? If I am doing anything, from playing in the yard to running agility, I will NOT holler “WATCH” when I want my dog to look in my direction. I want instant attention by saying her name, followed by what I want.
2. To follow me by dropping the slack in the leash as I walk away and say her name. As she looks at me with her name, I give her a healthy “YES” and reward her. This later becomes my heeling.
3. To do a “hold still” and a “touch”, which I will use to:
a. Keep my puppy from mouthing and biting me.
b. Examine my dog without her wiggling all over.
c. Clip nails and clean or post ears.
d. Get my puppy used to a target for both agility and obedience. (The “touch” and “hold still” are frequently used together) e. Get my puppy ready for the holding the Dumbbell without mouthing it for Open obedience work. (I may start with a pen or small dowel.) f. Start the “go out” portion of direct jumping exercise for Utility with a “touch” item. g. Set up a focal point for working on Agility contacts. h. Teach my puppy to go away from me for agility distance exercises.
4. To play with me with a toy and release when asked without prying a toy out of my dog’s mouth.
5. And the usual exercises of Sit and Down, and I begin the Stand.
YES, this is all done by the time the puppy is 12 weeks old.
Common errors people make with new puppies:
1. Thinking it is necessary to take food or toys away, to make sure the puppy doesn’t become food or toy aggressive.
a. Instead, teach the puppy to wait before putting down his food. As your hand reaches towards the bowl, add a treat or a bit more kibble. Do not take away. This shows that your hand is friendly, not challenging.
b. If you take food away from your puppy, you are teaching the puppy to defend his food.
While a puppy that does not have issues will probably be submissive, and live with a hand near his food, a more demanding puppy will begin to defend his food. IF you have a puppy that is food aggressive from the beginning, the worst possible action is to take his food away trying to prove you are dominant. Instead, play food games with the puppy by asking for an action, then reward the action. Teaching a puppy to back up will let the puppy know you are not taking food, but perhaps adding to it when he complies. (puppy may have to be around 12 weeks to work with understanding the back up).
2. Allowing the older dogs to reprimand the puppy when the puppy starts biting and chewing on the older dogs.
a. Your dogs that are at home are NOT the puppy’s mother, and do not have the attachment to your puppy that the mother did. They may hurt the puppy, so you have to be really careful if you choose this route.
You must defend your older dog from the puppy’s sharp little teeth, while teaching the puppy that he does not get to dive bomb the unsuspecting older dog. I do this by having my puppy on a leash, 100% of the time when around the older dogs, until he learns the proper etiquette of how to treat other dogs and abide by the house rules.
3. Grabbing and holding the puppy’s muzzle when he bites and saying NO does not teach him anything specific.
a. No WHAT? By just telling your puppy he is wrong, is not teaching him what TO do.
If you reprimand him for biting, he won’t understand, and this may even make him worse. This is when I work on the “hold still” which teaches the puppy what to do. When he holds still, he gets a treat. So, when the instinct is to reprimand, the actual command to “hold still” will not only stop him from biting but give him an action to perform and get rewarded.
Whenever reprimanding your puppy for ANYTHING, you MUST give him an alternate action to perform. If you do not, you will only serve to frustrate your puppy and yourself.
4. Correcting the puppy for having an accident in the house. Puppies don’t know there is a right and a wrong place to go. Housebreaking involves 100% effort on your part.
a. If you are able, and not rushing to avoid an accident, have your puppy on a leash. Having him on a leash teaches him to go when on a leash which is extremely important if you plan on showing him or taking him many places as an adult.
Take your puppy out every 15 minutes, plus when he wakes up, after he eats, and if he just gets overly squirmy when you are holding him. Praise him lavishly when he goes outside. Do not expect the puppy to miraculously know where the door to outside is when you are always carrying him to the door to avoid an accident. Puppies give signals; it is up to us to read them.
5. Teaching him to sit when someone comes to pet him because he jumps on the person.
a. Teaching a puppy not to jump is a process, not an instant fix.
b. By making him sit, you are not allowing him to show his excitement in a correct way. This is a space issue, not always a jumping issue.
c. Instead of telling a puppy he has to sit instead of jump is telling him he cannot act out his excitement at seeing you. Instead, teach him how to keep four on the floor while still allowing excitement, but not coming into your space.
One more issue I would like to address with new puppies is the amount of time spent with the other household dogs. I totally believe in teaching puppies how to act around other dogs, and how to meet a strange dog. However, allowing your puppy to spend too much play time with your other dogs can result in a puppy that bonds more to the dogs than to you.
I have a student with a young dog that also has an older dog at home. In training, the dog pays very little attention to her, and seems indifferent to treats or toys. We have not been able to excite this dog. When trying to define the cause and get the dog to want to play tug with her, she made the comment, “She tugs ALL the time with her brother.” Bingo! The dog is more bonded to the other dog than to her.
Be sure to spend alone time with your puppy, and limit how much your puppy plays with the other dogs, making sure you are more exciting in your puppy’s life than the other dogs are. This is very important.
There is so much involved in training puppies. Remember that training should be a fun time. Investing in a puppy class where the puppies have different challenges is a great social activity. In my puppy classes, in addition to the basic sit, down, come and leash walking, puppies have a tunnel, wobble board, ramps and a variety of interactive toys and games. They are taught how to correctly meet other puppies, and not dive onto each other. Puppies are not turned loose with other puppies, as the key to the socialization level, is to teach social skills, and how to interact with their owners in a chaotic environment.
In other words, it is imperative that your puppy learn how to learn.