What a gorgeous September — the warmest and sunniest I can recall, and it’s apparently affecting people’s thinking. Fall here is not typically puppy season, but it seems to be this year. We are seeing more puppies than ever.
More and more people are realizing that with force-free, reward-based training methods you can start off little ones at a very young age. Even before being weaned, puppies can begin learning some all-important lessons. Of course, most folks get a pup after 8 weeks of age and are eager to begin teaching their dog babies what they believe they need to learn: sit, lie down, come when called.
While that is admirable there are much more important lessons to be teaching our little canine friends at this tender age, ones that are time sensitive and much easier to accomplish when puppies are still itty-bitty. While “sit” and “come” are definitely valuable and worth teaching, they may not warrant being top priority till later on.
Instead, puppy parents should be focusing on teaching two main things: to be confident and comfortable creatures, and mastering all-encompassing skills that make daily life much more enjoyable. Both set the stage for a successful life as a canine companion across the board.
The world is safe and fun
That is the most important of all lessons. Most of you have heard about socializing and, done well, it can inoculate a dog against novelty. Done incorrectly it can create a fearful dog. Exposure to new experiences when the “socializing window” is open (and it’s not long — from 3 to 4 weeks up to 12 to 14 weeks of age) is key, and making sure pup is having a good time during those experiences is imperative.
A scared pup is learning exactly the opposite of what you intend: that the world is scary. There is much more to be said about this most important lesson. For more on socializing, see ”Start socializing puppies early” at JHNewsAndGuide.com.
My human will protect me
If a dog doesn’t feel his human will keep him safe he will do what he can to keep whatever he perceives as scary away himself via flight or fight. A dog that feels his human has his back does not need to protect himself.
Obviously, it is ideal if a dog is afraid of nothing. But an owner who understands and respects how his dog feels and takes steps to prevent his dog from getting into situations that are over his head, and is trustworthy in the eyes of the dog. Understanding and recognizing stress signs is a big part of that lesson (see “How to read your dog’s mind” or “Do you speak dog? Think again”), but taking action to change the situation when stress signs are seen is equally important.
Since we want every experience to be a good one with puppies, which in turn creates a happy, confident dog, understanding and responding to their feedback can quickly change what is shaping up to be a so-so or not-so-good experience into a good one.
It’s OK to be alone
Dogs are complex social creatures. When they arrive at your home most puppies have never been without their brothers and sisters. But even for the luckiest of dogs that get to be with their humans almost all the time there will come a day when they cannot. Realistically, most people have to leave their dogs alone for some part of the day.
Allowing a pup to become dependent on our constant presence is unfair. It’s our job to teach puppy that being alone is not so bad after all, even if it does go against her nature. Start teaching that gradually, via crate (or other confined area) training; see ”Crates help with housebreaking, chewing.”
Car rides are a good time
Some dogs spend far more time in cars than others, but all will likely be in a car someday. Teaching puppies that riding in the car is great fun should be a priority.
Some puppies do get motion sickness and therefore fear the car, so the motion sickness needs to be addressed first. Others have had only scary experiences in the car, the first being when they left the only family they ever knew. Some puppies need more work learning that the car is fun, using counterconditioning (car equals treats) and working their way up from shorter to longer rides.
Again, this is a subject that could be the focus of an entire column. In short, if pup is scared of the car, don’t force her or ignore it. Left unaddressed, you may have a dog whose life is limited or a big problem on your hands down the road (no pun intended).
Elimination is for outdoors
This lesson is a big one and a huge part of raising a puppy. Everyone breathes a giant sigh of relief when Fido gets it. This one also goes hand in hand with crate training.
House training is a lesson that relies largely on management. As is our next lesson: what is OK to chew.
Chew this, not that
Chewing: another bane of people raising puppies.
Puppies explore the world with their mouths, and nothing is safe unless you manage closely. If your puppy does not have access to the wrong things, and practices chewing only the right things, a habit is born. That requires management, but the habit is one you will savor for the rest of their lives.
Management should be happening anyway, because it’s key for house-training and more. Finding what kind of toys your puppy enjoys most and rotating toys, so your puppy only sees a certain toy once day every two weeks or so, means they remain novel and more interesting.
Good things for doing good
We want puppies to learn right off the bat that if they do certain things, good things happen. That makes training fun and motivates puppies to figure out what they can do to do to earn delicious tidbits, which can actually just be their daily ration of kibble.
Because rewarded behaviors increase, the more you reward valuable behaviors in your puppy — like chilling out at your feet, or racing toward you when you crouch down or whistle — the more she will offer them.
For more on three other important skills — teeth on human skin is a bad idea, touch is fabulous and give what’s in your mouth — see “Start puppies off on the right foot.”
With all these all-important lessons for your puppy to learn, you likely won’t have time to teach sit, lie down and stay. But that’s OK. Once you have instilled all of the above and your pup is a confident, happy youngster, there will be plenty of time to teach the basics.