Dog Training Goals
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I believe it is important to set training goals for every dog. Too many dogs are adopted or purchased without any consideration as to what is going to be expected in terms of behavior over time. I’ve met tons of people who expected 9 week old puppies to obey like adult dogs; rescue dogs with unresolved past issues; and adult dogs with little to no training and miserable to live with. Here are the goals I expect for most dogs:
Young Puppy – 0 to 8 weeks of Age
Young pups need to be with their mamas and littermates for the first 8 weeks of age. A great deal of early puppy socialization happens during this time, and makes a huge difference as to how the adult dog will turn out. When looking for a puppy, it is important to first look at the parents, and especially the mother, of the puppy you are considering. Just like unstable homes turn out kids with behavioral issues, unstable dog parents turn out unstable offspring. Some of this is genetic, and some of this is how the mama dog and the other puppies interact with your puppy during this time. Some female dogs are great with puppies, caring and giving proper discipline. Others can be indifferent; rough and aggressive; or even fearful and timid. Dogs are social animals, and are greatly influenced by those around them. A stable “home” is extremely important. I also want a breeder who knows how to care for young puppies and the dam. The “den” needs to be stress free: clean, comfortably warm, properly sized; and so forth. The pups also need regular human handling during this time, a few minutes a day is sufficient. The pups can also be systematically stressed and socialized by a knowledgeable breeder to increase immunity, and resistance to life’s stresses later on. A number of such techniques were developed by the military, and some breeders who know about such things implement them to “innoculate” their pups, making them more resilient as adults. The pups also need proper healthcare and supervision. Some large breeds will accidentally injure young pups, so precautions need to be taken. Some locations are more likely to have natural and biological hazards for pups, so those issues need to be addressed by a good breeder.
The Goal: What you want is a pup that is emotionally strong; ready to bond to you, your family and pets; to take up your territory as it’s own; and ready to learn.
Puppy – 8 to 16 weeks of Age
When you get a pup of this age, your main goals should be socialization; house training; puppy manners; and puppy obedience. What you do or don’t do with a puppy at this stage of life makes a tremendous impact on what the adult dog will become. You first want the puppy to bond to you.
Socialization is the process by which a dog develops a bond with a human, identifies itself as part of a human family, and develops relationships with people and animals. Bonding is comprised of imprinting on humans and then accepting certain humans as part of their pack. When we take a puppy out of it’s litter, we do it at a time when their “allegiance” to their species is not completely set. We want them to imprint upon humans, in other words, accept humans as if they were also dogs, and thus treat them as they would other dogs. You don’t want a dog to see a human as an adversary or as prey. You want a dog to see a human as another dog. We also want the puppy to become part of our pack. It’s too complicated to address the specifics here, but I will say that some dogs and some breeds make this transition better than others. A dog that has a stake in being part of your pack will then do beneficial things to ensure its safety, social interaction, and enjoyment.
This is also the time to begin leading your dog. Dominance is about competitive status seeking, and is always seen in conjunction with something a dog is doing around others. How you and others (human or animal) interact with your dog will determine your dog’s status. It’s important to note that establishing your dominance does not mean the same thing as being aggressive towards your dog. Aggression and dominance are not the same thing. There are good and bad ways of establishing your dominance. The bottom line is that you will want to become your dog’s leader in order to set the relationship on the right track, one of respect and attentiveness. It is very important to not skip this step.
Puppies need to learn how to be clean in the home. House training should start from the very second your dog enters your property. Many people wait days or weeks before getting serious about the house training, and all the while the pup is learning that it is OK to eliminate in the home.
Puppies also need Manners. Manners are polite, socially appropriate behaviors. From biting; whining; teething; crate training; house training; play; growling; chewing; jumping; leash and collar training; and fetch, tug of war and other games, this is the time to start addressing these behaviors.
Early puppy obedience should also be taught. Young puppies have limitations regarding what you can teach them, how long the lessons can be, and the intensity of the sessions. Even so, that is no excuse for not commencing the training from the very first day you bring your dog home. Pups can learn to walk nicely on a leash and collar, and do some early command work.
The Goal: A well socialized, house trained, mostly well mannered, respectful pup that likes to learn.
Young Dog – 16 weeks to 1 year
This is now the time to begin formal training. That will include extending the socialization experiences; house training; manners; drive work; and formal obedience lessons.
What you are looking to do is develop your pup into the kind of adult dog that you will enjoy having in your life. Formal training should now begin. This will involve more structured lessons and sessions. Socialization will be extended through a variety of techniques and situations. House training should get to the point where you can trust your dog alone in the home. Your dog’s manners should be a constant project, since young dogs can be quite defiant as they continue to mature, and your leadership must be actively and firmly established. Drive work should be focused and planned. Dogs that fetch should fetch a lot. Dogs that hunt or do other kinds of work should be given foundation drive work, taught to use their inborn instincts. And lastly, basic obedience needs to be completed to off leash ability during this time. The basics should be thoroughly worked. This is also the time the owner / handler must know how to lead, supervise, control and command their dog. Every dog is different, and thus every owner must learn how best to work with that particular dog.
The Goal: The foundation of training has been completed. Now we need to let the dog mature, and we need to begin Advanced Training.
Adolescence through Adult – 1 year to 3 years
This time seems to move very slowly. Much of the foundation is now in place, but it all just doesn’t work perfectly. Something is amiss: the dog isn’t an adult. No amount of training will turn an adolescent dog into an adult dog. Only biological maturity can do that for you. For some dogs, you need to just stick with the basics and wait, not adding a lot of new things during the first half of this stage. Forcing them to do things that they aren’t ready for will cause rebellion, frustration, and will sour the dog on working with you. Other dogs need to be pushed harder. For these dogs, the transition from basic to advanced training is almost seamless. This is where it helps to have a seasoned dog trainer to coach you. Most people make a lot of handling errors at this point. Many people also slack off on the training, and the dog reverts to being unruly and defiant. As a general rule, most dogs should be pushed to higher levels of performance during this period.
The Goal: A finished, trained, well mannered adult dog
What Am I Looking For In My Trained Adult Dog?
Because I get breeds that were created to obey, I have certain expectations for them:
a.) Well socialized: good with me, family, friends, strangers, and other animals in any setting
b.) House trained: 100% trustworthy indoors
c.) Well Mannered: in home and in public
Able to do Sit, Down, Heel, Come off leash, with distractions
Obedient up to 100 yards from me, even if the dog can’t see me
Advanced skills such as retrieving on command, agility commands, tracking
Note that none of this comes automatically. To get the most out of your dog takes planning and effort. Should you adopt a rescue dog, it is important to fill in the gaps through purposeful and thoughtful behavior modification and obedience training. Most dogs are loved and well fed, yet live terribly boring, uncomfortable, frustrating, stressful existences. Most owners will say their dog has issues that aren’t resolved, and that their dogs don’t obey very well. It doesn’t have to be that way. You just have to set some goals and then do what it takes to accomplish them. Doing that will also make you appreciate what a great dog you have.
Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.