Training Your Puppy
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Every dog matures at a different rate. Some breeds are adults at 1 year of age. Others won’t be an adult until the dog is 4 to 5 years of age. For the purposes of this section, I am assuming that you have the average dog. How old should your dog be before you start lessons? I will give you 4 approaches, and tell you which I prefer.
The average dog is a young puppy until 4 months of age, will go through adolescence between 6 to 14 months of age (when the male dog starts lifting his leg to urinate and when the female first goes into heat), and is an adult by 2 years of age. For the slower maturing breeds, you will need to adjust these figures outwards. For the faster maturing breeds, I would assume that it is a young puppy until 4 months of age, that it will go though adolescence around 8 to 12 months of age, and will be an adult at 12 months of age. Generally, the larger breeds mature slower than the smaller breeds, but there are exceptions to the rule. For example, a Labrador Retriever will be an adult at 3 years of age, but a Chesapeake Bay Retriever will be an adult at 4 to 6 years of age. A Doberman will mature faster than a German Shepherd. A Poodle will mature faster than a Tibetan Terrier. A Great Dane will be very immature at 9 months of age. You will need to do a little research on your breed to know the rate at which the dog is ready for more intensive adult training methods. Proper training is a long term project that can’t be rushed along at a faster rate than the puppy is capable of handling.
The goal of young puppy training is to get them headed in the right direction to enhance future formal obedience training. If you don’t do any teaching at all until the dog is an adult, then you are missing a lot of opportunities to make your dog a better dog. On the other hand, a well socialized adult dog can be trained in less time than a puppy because they can pay attention for longer periods of time.
A well-trained adult dog from working lines can be expected to be under command and continuously working for up to 45 minutes at a time. Off leash and in public, you can put the adult dog on a 10 minute Sit and a 30 minute Down. This is too much to expect from any dog under 2 years of age. A young puppy, under 4 months of age, can learn many aspects of the obedience commands. They also learn very quickly and retain much of what you teach them. I don’t expect a young puppy to be able to be able to Sit or Down for more than one minute. I only expect them to be able to Heel for very short distances. I expect that they can Come at a distance of 30 feet in a quiet environment. And, I want to be able to accomplish this without using any force.
So long as you teach motivationally, then you won’t run into any problems when working a very young puppy in obedience. If you use a lot of force (psychological or physical) on a puppy under 8 months of age, you’ll take much of the spirit out of them and you won’t be able to put it back in again. Properly leading a young puppy IS NOT the same as using force on a puppy to train them.
You are going to hear a lot of theories on when to start obedience training. Here are the theories and my thoughts on each of them. Since I am a professional dog trainer, and have trained dogs of all ages, I am qualified to give my opinions based upon personal knowledge and experience.
1.) Train from the very first day. I feel that this is the best approach. This perspective was popularized after research showed how trainable dogs were at a very young age and revolved around the teaching of dogs to be guides for the blind. The strength of this approach takes into account that dogs are learning all of the time, whether you are purposefully teaching them something, or if they are figuring things out for themselves. I feel that you shouldn’t ever waste an opportunity to teach your dog the right thing to do, regardless of the age of the dog. If you teach all the main behaviors right the first time, you won’t have as many problem behaviors in the adult dog. The weakness of this approach comes about when we try to put too much training pressure on a young dog. Young dog training should be based mostly food, praise and play, yet balanced with teaching Puppy Manners. You teach the right things, you distract or mildly correct the dog from doing the wrong things, and you crate or kennel the dog when you can’t supervise them. If you keep the lessons brief and fun, then you will have a better-prepared adult dog, that will perform better, when you finalize the training. This is the approach I take with my own dogs and the approach I recommend to dedicated pet owners. I think it is the best, provided that you keep the lessons fun, brief and rewarding. Then, you will finish the training once the dog indicates that it is mature enough to be formally trained. For most puppies, you can start training them with treats and toys, even as young as 8 weeks of age. You can usually start leash training as young as 12 weeks of age, provided that your trainer says that the pup is ready; sometimes you have to wait an extra month to start lessons, depending upon the breed or individual dog.
2.) Begin training after the dog has had it’s vaccinations. This perspective is one that many veterinarians advocate. This approach combines the concepts of the early trainability of the dog, the early enthusiasm of the new dog owner to work with their dogs, and the susceptibility of young dogs to get diseases before 4 months of age. The biggest downside is that the pup is kept home until 4 to 5 months of age. I try not to use this approach when training dogs for customers because I feel the risks of a lack of socialization outweigh the rewards. I want to begin the dog’s training as early as possible to take advantage of the young puppy’s learning advantages. I also want to get the owners on the right track as soon as possible, so that they make fewer mistakes with their dogs. Regardless of the approach you take, it is important that you begin to socialize your dog from the first day the pup comes home. Yes, there are risks that your puppy could contract a disease, but if you wait to socialize your puppy until after the pup has had all its vaccinations, you will severely stunt the dogs potential; your dog will be more likely to be fearful of normal things in the real world. You have to balance the risk that your dog will get sick with the risk that your dog will become a fearful adult dog if you don’t socialize the dog early. The socialization process is most influential between the ages of 4 and 16 weeks; after that, you will have less ability to socialize your dog to be any different. Vaccinations have nothing to do with mental development, nor do they have anything to do with how trainable your dog is. They have to do with immunity to disease. This approach is used by trainers that teach group classes or do board-and-train, because they are afraid of the liability if your dog gets sick and dies in their classes. When I do group classes or arrange a board and train situation, then I am forced to use this approach. You don’t really have to worry about this with private lessons. Group classes and boarding-and-train classes are risky from a health standpoint because your pup, who hasn’t received all its vaccinations, will be around lots of unknown dogs in a closed environment. Some breeds, especially Rottweilers, are known to have weak puppy immune systems. These breeds have to continue having puppy vaccinations up through the 5th month, and can still be susceptible to disease through their first birthday. If you own a breed with a weaker puppy immune system, you are taking a bigger risk by enrolling in group or board-and-train classes.
3.) Begin training at 6 months of age. This was the school of thought that this was the youngest age you could begin obedience training, because if you started any earlier, the puppy couldn’t take the pressure, and if you started later, you’d have an uncontrollable dog. It is the recommendation of most of the old dog training books you find in the library or at bookstores. The only way to successfully train a dog using the old style force methods, is to be an expert at using leash and collar, excellent at praise and affection, and very patient and precise in the teaching — definitely not something a novice can do. Then you need a fairly hard dog (meaning a dog that was bred to be very resilient to corrections), and let the dog mature before commencing lessons, so that the training doesn’t damage the dog’s spirit. The problem with this approach is that, since we can now train dogs earlier and better using other methods, and because it is hard to find pets that are being bred to be resilient, it is not wise or necessary to wait until the dog is older. I think this is why the old school trainers had to develop such harsh methods for dealing with unrly and destructive dogs; they had waited too long to address these issues, and these bad behaviors had been given months and months to develop into bad habits.A good old school trainer can do great things, but very few know how to do the training in this manner these days.
4.) Begin training once the dog indicates that it is mature enough to be formally trained. This perspective is one promoted by sport dog and hunting dog trainers. They don’t want to fool with a puppy, they won’t even buy a dog until it is between 8 to 36 months of age, and they won’t select a dog to train that hasn’t been previously tested to demonstrate that it has the potential to do the work. They don’t want to waste their time training a young puppy that might wash out of the program when it gets older. There are some merits to this approach, if you are willing to buy an older dog or put up with an unruly dog until it is ready to be trained. First, you MUST be an advanced dog trainer. This is not for novices. You have to unravel whatever problems you encounter, and at the same time pick a high performing dog out of a lot of dogs to do this with. If you use this approach, you MUST NOT buy a an unsocialized dog! An unsocialized dog, such as one that the breeder has held onto for much too long, will be, almost always, a perpetually fearful and spooky dog, and will be unable to adapt to a normal life with you. You must buy a dog that was properly socialized for the purpose of later training. After the dog has been tested, formal training can be started. Once formal training is started, then you can rapidly finish and polish the obedience. However, before training begins, the dog is allowed to become a little monster. No behavioral controls are put on the dog, and no corrections are applied. Most likely, the dog will be uninhibited with respect to biting, and if it comes from protection lines, might even attack you while in the midst of training (you’d better know how to properly deal with this kind of situation). The dog will not be housetrained. The breeder did the initial drive and socialization work for you, but that’s about it. Retrieving games were probably emphasized for hunting dogs. Biting and tracking games were probably emphasized for protection dogs. Lessons were brief, intense and focused. The downside is that the young dog needs to be in a kennel when you aren’t working with the dog, since it will be almost impossible to live with until training is completed. I think these dogs miss a lot of important family socialization. I think this kind of training approach is only justified when training multiple dogs for full time professional work, where you want to highly focus the dog’s learning for a specific role, but the dog won’t ever be expected to be a family dog. I don’t recommend this approach for pet dogs!
Puppy Training Programs
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.