Training Puppies: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
In almost every area of dog training, trainers find themselves emphasizing certain theories or ideologies. In fact, when they find themselves emphasizing a particular point so much, they might feel uncomfortable when faced with a team who needs the opposite type of advice. One example for me might be the near constant emphasis I put on rewarding the right behavior, not using correction for longer periods of time, teaching the dog to be active towards a behavior instead of using avoidance…blah, blah, blah. When the team who needs more correction and a heavier hand shows up, a 180 may be needed and my usual ideals moved to the side. This could be because I believe the dog needs more overall respect, caution and self control in order to be safe, not just for the handler, but for the general public. Because of the situation in front of me, I now feel what's needed is the opposite of what I typically preach.
It’s no different for the issue of “How much should I be doing with my dog as a puppy?”
We typically push the idea of early puppy training (as do wildly successful teams like Heuwinkl)
because handlers who do too little seem to make up the majority of what we see. That could be changing, however, and I think it’s important to balance how far the pendulum swings.
Depending on an individual coach/trainer’s personal experience, they may find themselves either emphasizing “do more” or “do less” to puppy handlers.
The reality is, either message given as a blanket statement is wrong and can do handlers harm in their training goals and dogs harm in their physical and mental health.
Some handlers are going to lean towards seriously overdoing it, pushing their puppy way too hard, causing physical damage and mental fatigue. Some handlers won't do enough, overdoing it in kennel/crate time and creating a dog who spins, breaks teeth, shows neurotic repetitive movements and rarely has their mental and physical exercise needs met. The effects will be exacerbated or minimized depending on the individual dog. Are they already slightly lower drive and now are often overwhelmed by the inappropriate or constant work? Or are they genetically over the top drive and now have developed neurotic tendencies from being kenneled too much and trained too little?
There is no perfect formula for determining how to teach a puppy but I’m going to explain how I determine this for each puppy.
Why Do We Train Puppies?
We believe teaching (I specifically use this word instead of "working") a puppy can reduce long term impact and total repetitions needed within your training.
Additionally, imprinting behaviors while mammals are young produces behavior that is more reliable and permanent as an adult.
One example of how teaching skills to a puppy reduces the amount of repetitions needed as an adult would be the retrieve over the hurdle. With the idea in mind that fewer jump repetitions are better for a dog’s physical well being over their entire lifetime, we teach puppies to go through the jump stand (no height), go around a pole, and back through the jump stand. 2-4 repetitions per session, 1-2x’s per week, short term, is no more physically demanding than what a puppy would do on their own. Our puppies would normally be playing with their siblings, doing the zoomies, running off with items and exerting a certain amount of energy each day. All we’re doing is taking that some of that individual’s typical daily energy output and doing brief training instead. That doesn’t mean they never get to be a puppy, it just means that they often do training in a way that satisfies that need. The majority of their excess energy can be spent learning behaviors, not as a replacement for exploring and engaging in puppy play, but as an addition. Of course, some days an outing on the town or goofing off around the house is done instead. Training any dog, but especially a puppy, just means channeling their energy into training instead of destroying a sock or attacking your hands for 30 minutes. The energy is coming out one way or another, why not get the head start? The knowledge learned means far fewer real jumps needed in the long run.
Another skill that reduces mental stress as an adult is learning both a “mark” or “helper” and a back transport for food and eventually a toy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed someone teaching their dog the back transport on the helper. For the first time. What ensues is generally a shit show of correcting for forging and the dog returning to a formal heel, because the dog has only done eye contact heeling in it's year of training. It's their default when confused and receiving corrections. Had the dog been taught the marking skill while young, she would understand what the correction was for and the handler would need merely a fraction of the reps to complete the dog’s understanding of the behavior. Instead, in the worse case scenario, the very unfair training reduces the dog’s power in protection and takes time the really should have been spent elsewhere. “But Sarah, conflict can make the dog STRONGER in protection!” You are right, it can. But it’s very rare that the conflict that sets the dog up for sustained failure produces more power. It almost never happens. A bit of conflict is good, it challenges the dog. Sustained failure and conflict have been shown to universally slow learning and lead to a sense of defeat. Conflict used to make a dog stronger should be planned, not done because there’s no other way. Conflict should be presented in small doses where the dog ALWAYS wins and doesn’t feel threatened, hopeless or defeated in the process.
How To Determine How Much To Do
Determining how much training to do requires the same skills as “walking” an 8-10 week old puppy. Have you ever been on a road trip or living in an apartment with a very young puppy? Taking the puppy out to potty or for some exercise requires constantly watching for signs of temperature changes or fatigue. Researchers believe the number one reason puppies cry when away from their mother and siblings is the inability to regulate temperature. This must be carefully considered since our own bodies may feel fine in 75 degree sunny weather, while they are beginning to get hot. How to determine this? Look for behavior like shade seeking and laying down. If a puppy, in addition to not wanting to train, also is heading for the shade, flopping down or panting with a very open mouth, you have likely pushed too far. On the other hand, if they’re eagerly going along with the training, their mouth isn’t hanging open and they’re not struggling to keep up, you can likely continue.
In regular dog ownership, if your puppy is running full speed, snagging sticks as they go, you’re not going to stop them right? They have energy and they’re relieving it in the way nature intended. How ridiculous it would be to stop the puppy in the name of preserving joints or health? I would argue any breed who’s puppies need to be stopped from ordinary playing requires some serious breeding adjustments. Of course, certain breeds/individuals require more careful attention to their environment. A 90 plus pound dog at maturity should not have access to stairs or jump off points that could lead to joint trauma.
That is not what we're talking about here.
We’re talking about short, simple mental knowledge that does not involve any more impact than trotting around in the grass and leaves. Like a child, a puppy is a selfish little soul, acting immediately on their urges and instincts. When they tire, they flop in the shade, when they’re thirsty, they drop everything to greedily guzzle. You must allow the puppy to stop when they wish, ideally discontinuing the training yourself before that occurs. As a general rule, if the puppy is checking out, not hungry or interested, put the puppy away in a quiet room, kennel or crate. Of course, there is much more to why a puppy might be checking out.
She may be tired.
She may be full.
She also may be bored with what you’ve been doing.
Short, sweet training sessions, as you’ve probably heard, are the way to go.
Scroll below to watch a hold rep with Stanley the 4 month old bulldog.
The Lure of Getting The Shot
When training revolves more around social media than the dog, risk for doing physical and mental damages increases. Young, enthusiastic trainers should be extra cautious as both their energy and online social presence can result in a lower awareness for their dog’s limitations.
Keep posting your training!
Keep being excited to get out there and watch your dog learn.
But always be ready to stop, even when you haven’t gotten the shot. If you have a bigger boned, slower type of dog, relaaaax. Do a fraction of what you actually want to do. Do brief moments of luring (4-5 seconds), basic position, marking to a bowl, stand stays (stacking), tuck sits, fronts and tracking but alternate the behaviors and keep your total time to under a couple minutes. DON'T compare your dog to @RileyMotherofMalinoisDragonGirl's dog. You're on your own journey, not their's, and as I once heard Wallace Payne say, "Comparison is the thief of joy."
I frequently remind myself of that.
Now-a-days not only are we comparing ourself to the Jones' next door, but also the 2,583 online "friends" who post nothing, but the very best glimpses of their life, not the reality of what's going on.
You MUST watch your dog closely and ask yourself, are they into it?
Start to notice the little signs that they’ve had enough and learn to cut the session off BEFORE that happens. No matter what type of puppy you have, train on thick grass, carpet or other surface that absorbs impact.
Impact causes wear and tear, avoid it whenever possible and be smart where you train.
In addition to reducing impact whenever possible, get your young puppy accustomed to massages, something any athlete will employ at some point in their career, most using it regularly. Treat your puppy like an athlete in all areas of life. A fully hydrated body and muscles that are gently stretched and warmed prior to any exercise is something to start now, not once there's an injury. Like a professional athlete, they need a peaceful, warm and comfortable place to sleep, facilitating natural stretching throughout the night. They also benefit from a careful plan for the physical requirements of training so as not to injure themselves and there are more and more professionals who specialize in this.
Not everyone is on board with training puppies and that’s ok. For those of you who are:
Vary your behaviors often to avoid boring the dog. (5 reps of marking, 4 reps of spin, 4 reps of food chase, 5 reps of basic position, for example)
Alternate behaviors that YOU want to work on with behaviors THEY want to do. Static behaviors like marking and basic position can be boring so mix it up with things that entail movement.
Work on things for awhile (1-2 months), then take a break and go back to it once the dog has matured a little more. Their age can and should prevent you from a certain level of advancement. Taking a break not only allows their mental ability to increase, but also allows their body to adjust to the physical requirements, like looking up at you in basic position.
Keep sessions UNDER the time it takes for your dog to show signs of checking out. (8-10 week old puppies might only be 2-5 minutes, 1 time per day)
Any sessions with a toy will be MUCH shorter than sessions with food, as they require way more energy output.
If you notice your puppy becoming LESS excited about the training, cut back! Too much will lead to a dog who doesn’t value it enough.
Above all, LEARN TO READ YOUR DOG. Does too much praising make them whine? Cut back and be calmer. Are they “meh” about the food? Use something better! Adjust to your individual dog instead of blankly following the advice of others or the previous experience you've had. 99 dogs may respond one way, but perhaps yours is the 100th and the one who responds a totally different way.
You must read your dog, watch them, and respond to what THEY are telling you, no one else.