Puppy Priorities Week 1
I have preached to others for so long about what you should focus on during early training and your puppy’s crucial socialisation period. So to help, I’ve decided to document the programme I’ve undertaken with my new addition. That way, you can get some ideas of what I feel is priority, how to start on the basics and what can be left for later on in life.
Rescue puppy Guinness, a Border Collie, arrived home at approximately 8 weeks old. He had been vaccinated early because of the rescue policy and so may have been allowed out sooner than the average ‘bought’ puppy. It is imperative that you combine an early socialisation and training programme with care and attention to your puppy’s exposure to common canine illnesses. For example having people visit you and visiting friends who have children and vaccinated adult dogs is a great way to start early socialisation. This still allows puppy time to complete his vaccination programme. In addition, carrying your puppy to places where he’ll meet other people, see traffic, livestock, experience various forms of transport and be handled by lots of people is another great way to start socializing him. Finally your local vets, groomers and kennels will be only too happy to have you visit and cuddle a cute puppy. This gets your dog used to the sights, smells and sounds of places he will no doubt visit regularly for the rest of his life. Just make sure you don’t put him on the floor where unknown dogs have been or in areas of high canine traffic.
Socialisation is key to a well adjusted dog. In the word of Dr. Ian Dunbar, ‘Living with an undersocialized dog can be frustrating, difficult, and potentially dangerous. For undersocialized dogs, life is unbearably stressful.’ I believe that more dogs are put to sleep every year because of lack of socialisation, then ever die of the canine diseases we vaccinate against. I look upon socialisation as vaccination against life itself. That’s why it is so important to get puppies out and about to meet and greet people and other dogs, ride on public transport, be around livestock, not worry about traffic, noises, surfaces, mingle in crowds etc.
A puppy like my new arrival, Guinness, who isn’t shy, but is not the pushiest pup in the litter, needs careful socialisation to avoid becoming overwhelmed. The key here is to relax, keep your voice upbeat and never force interaction. If he’d rather watch from the sidelines, which he has chosen to do on several occasions, then that’s ok. In the first week home-all outdoor public trips had been in our arms. We’ve visited the cash and carry, a local theme park, watch outdoor theatre, been to the beach, visited the pub, met hundreds of people young and old, seen wheelchairs, buggies, kids rolling down hills and playing football. We have smelt horses and geese and pigs and cows. Guinness has met our vet staff at least 4 times. We have invited as many people to visit as we can. He has been introduced to quite a few well adjusted adult dogs and a couple of unruly puppies, which he was not so sure about. In all cases, it’s my job to intervene if at any point I feel my dog is being overwhelmed. The key to good socilisation is to move slowly, encourage, never force and give your dog the opportunities, but allow him to decide whether he wants to take them or not. Coupling tasty treats at a safe distance from scary events or things is also a good way to use classical conditioning to help your puppy change his opinion from negative to positive.
House training begins on day one with the premise that puppy is always where I want him to be, when he needs to eliminate and unless I’m sure he’s just done a wee/poo, he’s crated unless supervised. This means that I keep a diary of the times he’s eliminating over the first few days so that I can preempt his toilet needs and make sure he only ever toilets outside. Mistakes will happen, he has soiled his crate a couple of times which was entirely our fault and had a tummy bug which didn’t help the poo diary. I’m exhausted from getting up to take him out in the early hours, but after only a week, we already well on the way to establishing a good housetraining routine.
None of my puppies are fed from a bowl. I use the food as a means of training, reward and more importantly a way to keep puppy entertained, rather than getting into mischief chewing elsewhere. So chew toys such as Kongs are introduced from the very first day. In addition, I carry kibble around with me so that any voluntary interaction I get from Guinness, following me, sitting in front of me, eye contact etc can be immediately rewarded with a piece of food. A word of warning though, unless you’re prepared to get up several times a night to let your puppy poo, I’ve avoided feeding from noon to approximately 6pm.
Training always starts with getting the dog’s attention. Ideally, I don’t want to have to nag my dogs to comply, so I try to get them to offer me behaviour instead, as it’s worth their while. So sitting on the floor on day one, I showed Guinness that I had food, and then waited for him to stop looking everywhere but at me, then rewarded him for eye contact. I use a clicker for shaping this behaviour as I’ve found it’s the fastest and easiest way to get the message across to the dog that you are worth checking in with. The basic puppy positions of sit/down/stand are taught immediately as they are so easy to get into a young puppy’s head using food lures. It’s vital that after showing the puppy 3 or 4 times what you want him to (by putting the food on his nose and getting him to follow it), you remove the bribe and reward instead. Most young puppies get this really quickly.
Recall training, at this early stage is so easy and this is mainly due to the social attraction that you, the owner has for your puppy. Guinness is a people oriented dog, that was one of the reasons I chose him, however he also has an independent streak already with potential to do his own thing later in life. So getting a strong recall was crucial. My first lesson was in the house, where I simply made myself really appealing (I make silly noises, jump about, scratch the floor etc) which usually gets the average puppy to come running. I then offer something as a reward, either food or toys. Remember that recall is all about the promise that fun is about to start, not end, so I try to couple running towards me with rewards so amazing that puppy can’t resist. Only when puppy is running towards me do I start to put in a recall command. After several repetitions, I start to run off as the puppy is eating his treat, and bingo, he usually follows, so I repeat the command and reward again. By day 3, Guinness was following me around the garden and small local field picking up speed to catch up if I ran away from him. My main ambition is for him to be toy focused, so plenty of play helps build our relationship and makes me more worthwhile to stick around. But play needs to start in the house, and then the garden and out and about. Most owners give up trying to get their dog to play out and about which is a shame as a dog who likes to play with toys on a walk, rarely has a poor recall.
Loose leash walking is one of the easiest things to teach a dog, as long as it’s started the first time a leash and collar is attached. Taking advice from esteemed dog training John Rogerson, Guinness was put on collar and leash and the leash tied to a heavy piece of furniture several times during the first few days he was with us. This exercise teaches the dog that when he feels tension on his neck, he cannot move forward at all. I tend to click/reward when he settles and stops trying to get to the end of his leash. Taking this early learning on his first walk, Guinness stopped and refused to move forward with me. It’s now crucial that you become the piece of furniture and stop each and every time the leash tightens between you and your dog. Encouraging Guinness to follow me took a while, but each time he took a few steps forward, I clicked and rewarded him. Our first walk of approximately 100 yards, took almost half an hour and I carried Guinness home so as not to undo our good work. But that’s what leash training is about. It’s not about taking your new puppy for a walk hoping, as if by magic he’ll learn loose leash walking himself. On our second day trip out on leash, Guinness walked down the local high street, stopping often to take in his surroundings. This is afterall, what socialisation is all about. Each time he stopped, I simply waited until he was ready, encouraged him forwards and rewarded him for catching up with me. At no point so far in our training has he been allowed to move once he feels tension on his neck. This means however that you cannot pull him along on a tight leash either.
I don’t think with all the puppy training books that I’ve read over the years, anyone has mentioned what hard work it is to raise a well adjusted, well trained dog. But it’s so worth the early training and socialisation. I have noticed huge improvements in Guinness since we picked him up a week ago. He is well on the road to being house trained. He enjoys my company and is now running with enthusiasm when he hears my recall command. Guinness has had his first lessons in walking by my side on a loose leash. He knows the hand signal for sit, down and stand and will offer eye contact regularly. Guinness is enjoying games so much that he will gladly fetch a toy and bring it back to continue the game-a huge improvement on last week when, due to bossy siblings in his litter, he would run a mile if he managed to win the toy. Finally he has been exposed gradually to so many experiences out and about that hopefully, he’ll take all that life has to offer in his stride. And that’s only week 1……