Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA
I get this question a lot. “When should I start training my new puppy?” My answer is the same every time. “Now. Right now.”
It is never too early to start teaching a puppy how to make life in our crazy human world work for them. Notice I didn’t say how to obey our every fickle human whim. That’s not what training a puppy is about (or an adult dog, for that matter). Our responsibility is to help our fresh new puppies learn what’s what. And it is a responsibility.
Dogs live with us at our discretion. We decide what they eat, where they relieve themselves, where they sleep, who they meet, where they go, where they stay, and yes – if they live or die. That all adds up to huge responsibility. So, we’d better be ready to step up and teach our puppy, who by the way just got to the planet a few weeks ago.
So, let’s start now. Right now. We have two broad lessons to teach our puppy. The first one is time-sensitive. The second one will be a lifelong work in progress. Ready?
Lesson One: The world is a good and safe place for dogs. We need to make this abundantly clear to our dogs in the first 18 weeks (weeks) of their life. Our puppies are weighing curiosity against caution more in the first 4 1/2 months of their life than at any other time. We have a great opportunity to tip the scales in these early weeks by teaching them that the people, places, objects, sounds, and common experiences in their life are safe.
We have a lot to cover – lots of people of many shapes, sizes, and colors – lots of things to see – lots of experiences to take in. And the clock is ticking. Start now. Yes, now.
- Introduce your puppy to as many people as you can in a thoughtful, calm, and joyful way. Each new person should give your dog a nice treat. Be mindful not to overwhelm your puppy. Give her a chance to take breaks when she needs to. Meet people outside the home and invite many many of them into the home.
- Introduce common household sights and sounds – vacuums, lawn equipment, blenders and ice makers. Hook all that up with your calm smiles and encouragement. Associate each sound with a tasty treat as well.
- Introduce your puppy to fully vaccinated socially savvy dogs. Let them sniff and play. Enroll your puppy in a puppy class for fun social activity after her second round of shots.
- Think of all the experiences that your dog will have on a routine basis and teach her these are joyful experiences: trips to the vet (treats), trips to the groomer (treats), car rides to fun places, joyful walks and outings to coffee shops and restaurants (treats).
This is a very condensed description of what we commonly call “socialization.” We know without doubt that dogs who have lots of well-thought-0ut positive experiences early in their life mature into more stable adult dogs. Think: calm, confident, and non aggressive. We really can’t overdo socialization but there is a time limit. We begin to see diminishing returns on this work as early as 18 weeks. So, start now.
For a more thorough look at the socialization process, I highly recommend the book Life Skills for Puppies.
Lesson Two: Here’s how life in the human world works. It’s all quid pro quo. This is the natural way dogs learn. If I do this – I get that. Or, If I do this – I can avoid that. Dogs don’t have to learn this part – it’s hard wired in. In fact, it’s how all animals learn, including us human animals.
The lesson we have to teach our puppies is which of their choices will earn them good stuff. How does the game of quid pro quo work for dogs in our human world? Maybe it’s better if we think of it like two lists: 1) things I want my puppies to do and 2) things my puppy would like to have.
My short list:
- Poop and Pee Outside
- Chew this instead of that
- Come when I call you
- Sit when I ask
- Lie down quietly when I ask
Her short list:
- Yummy bits of food
- Interesting toys and chew items
- Access to social encounters with other dogs
- Play and exercise
- Touch / social contact with us
All I need to do to teach my puppy the game. Trade things from my list in exchange for things on her list. If she pees outside (at the top of my list) I will give her a treat and engage her in some play (from her list). If she sits instead of jumping on me (my list), I’ll get down and pet her (her list). You see how it works?
Our constant exchange of this-for-that becomes a form of communication – a way to chat cross-species. And, when we start the process early (like, right now) we can actually influence our puppy’s physical brain development. Certainly we can and should train at home. But, again, early puppy classes are essential.
How far can we take this? We start with basic manners (sit, and down, and coming when called). But what about tricks? How about some complex tasks or maybe dog sports? Anything your dog can physically do – we can teach it. Use your imagination.
And, how long does this take? Well, we practice consistently well into our dog’s adolescence (up to age 2). Then we maintain learning through adulthood. But the truth is, we can teach new things (and should) throughout our dog’s entire life. Why not? It’s fun for the dog and us too.
All of this work adds structure and predictability to our young dog’s life. It’s comforting to know what do and when. It’s also very rewarding to know how the environment (specifically the people and other animals in our world) will respond to our actions. So, it’s clear that teaching our dogs how this process works is essential to their well being. Training (early training) is not a luxury or an add-on – it’s a core part of caring for our new puppy, like food, vet care, and exercise.
So yes! Start now. Start right now and keep going. And don’t forget to take pictures along the way. They grow up so fast.