EARLY PUPPY EDUCATION
Early puppy education is something that, sadly, the majority of dog owner’s do not do. In my opinion, the time between 7 and 24 weeks is the most crucial in a young dog’s life. It is during this time that the foundations of future behavior and lessons are made – for better or for worse. Not using these weeks to teach the very basics of manners and desired behaviors is a waste. Pups in this time period have an incredible ability to learn new behaviors. I’m sure this is hard-wired in them as their cousins, wolf pups, must learn their lessons thoroughly during a similar period for survival individually and in the pack.
There is a fine line between teaching a good solid foundation of desired behaviors and pushing young pups past their developmental capabilities for their age. While my pups learn an incredible amount in a very short period, it is done without stress. I always remember that they are puppies. I have learned over the years to start my more "formal" lessons when the pup is older. Even then, Even when those formal lessons start differs from pup to pup and progress at the individual’s pace.
Teaching many new lessons and behaviors to young pups is particularly easy when the handler takes advantage of the science behind positive operant conditioning and uses a marker signal - particularly the commonly used clicker box. As I have previously written about the science behind training (Learning Theory for Trainers, Alaskan Malamute Annual 2001) and how clicker work in particular can be used in different areas concurrently (Click and Crosstrain for Versatility, Alaskan Malamute Annual 2003) I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say that I am an enthusiastic convert to "clicker training."
Before I can really do any serious education with my dogs, I must have an idea of what personality type each dog is. As a pup grows, this knowledge is helpful in planning their lessons. As a pup grows from that oh so sweet age of 8 weeks into a juvenile adolescent, their personality evolves even more. As a quick overview, I look at three aspects of a pup’s personality: pack orientation, innate intelligence, and confidence level. All are important factors and influence each other. The different factors also play a role in how each pup’s education is approached. Now some brief examples of how each trait can be addressed individually. For a pup with a strong pack orientation (alpha seeking), the pup must learn to accept the handler’s leadership. This can be done without violence or alpha rollovers. A "down" or learning how to quietly accept tummy rubs while lying on his back in the handler’s arms accomplishes the task of the pup learning to present passive submission to the handler. The intelligence factor is very important to address. Note that I am not referring to the trainability factor but the dog’s innate intelligence. For instance, a Canine Einstein is a huge challenge to deal with. The more innately intelligent a dog is, such as the Einsteins, the more they question "why" with each new task. If that question isn’t answered well enough, they are just as likely to say "nope, won’t do that." These super bright dogs push their handlers with a "didya really mean that" type of questioning. To be blunt, the dogs with lower innate intelligence are considerably easier to train – they won’t question their handlers, just do whatever is asked over and over and over. These dogs have a high trainability factor while the Canine Einsteins have a very low trainability factor. Conversely, the Canine Einsteins learn extremely quickly and retain everything. They must be "taught" not "trained." The third personality factor, confidence level, is as equally important as pack orientation and innate intelligence. It is also crucial for handlers to realize that all pups go through fear periods as they grow and develop. At these times, a normally confident pup may "suddenly" act shy or spooky for no apparent reason. This is usually transient provided that the handler reacts appropriately and not unintentionally builds upon the pup’s irrational fears. Generally speaking, confident pups are a joy to work with. The pups on the other end of the scale – those with little or no confidence – are a major challenge and if not educated well may develop major behavioral problems such as fear biting and separation anxiety.
This past spring, I chronicled the progress of one pup’s education and behavior during his first weeks with me at Inharmony. My intention for doing this was to monitor his progress. (Recording training sessions and the subsequent progress of a training program is highly recommended by many well known trainers for all dogs.) This record also had a secondary benefit of informing his breeder how her pup was doing. Permit me to share the beginnings of Dorje’s education with you.
To start with, the decision of which puppy to select is a delightful task! When that puppy is thousands of miles away, the new owner must rely upon the observations of the breeder and, thanks to the technology of our time, lots and lots of e-mailed photos of the entire litter. I am fortunate to be working with another Malamute breeder who listens to what I am looking for, has similar "tastes" in conformation type, is ethical, and has been working with me in selecting new foundations for my kennel. It also helps that she has a long-time successful breeder as a friend and mentor to help her assess the pups objectively.
Through many e-mails and analyzing photos of pups and their older full brothers and other close relatives, a choice was made and shipping arrangements finalized. The pup would first fly across the entire width of the U.S. to Seattle, Washington where I would meet him. I would then drive to Vancouver, B.C. the same day. The following day, we had almost a 7 hour drive home to the Cariboo in the interior of B.C. This is an exhausting journey for an 8 week old puppy. It is also compounded by meeting a new person as well as a new pack of Alaskan Malamutes.
Finally the long awaited day came and anxious wait for the crate to be wheeled to my truck. Finally I saw, in the fur, the pup that I’d been waiting for. Dorje was sitting in the front portion of his crate looking at where he was being taken. He did not appear stressed at all by the long journey he’d already taken. He came to me easily when I opened the crate door…….. then in my arms and smothered my face with puppy kisses complete with little tail just a-wagging! Ahhhhh - an auspicious beginning. Before we left the airport, we spent a few minutes getting to know each other a bit. He explored the interior of my Suburban while I changed the towels in his crate. His education began the moment I put his first puppy collar on.
For my trip to Vancouver, I had traveled with one of my bitches, Maia. We stayed with dear friends of mine who have her daughter. After arriving at their house, Maia and Dorje got to meet each other in their lovely garden. I had anticipated that Maia would accept Dorje immediately – which she did in true motherly fashion. During our overnight stay, Dorje learned about leashes, collars, eliminating while on a lead, and sleeping and eating in a crate. Our trip home the next day was, fortunately, uneventful with stops along the way.
My pet sitter, Matt, was waiting for us when we arrived. While I’ve introduced newcomers to the pack by myself previously, it is always helpful to have a second pair of hands if needed. Maia was first released into the yard to reacquaint with the oldest housegirls, Kira and Echo. Then I carried Dorje in and while I held him, Kira and Echo checked out the puppy. At this point, all of the other dogs were very vocal! I knew that the alpha male, Geoffrey, had to meet the new pup. (He was also the loudest!) So while Matt held Dorje, I got Geoffrey. My normally polite male dragged me across the yard directly to the pup! I wasn’t concerned as Geoffrey loves babies – two or four-footed. After evening chores (as I had arrived in the late afternoon), the other two housegirls, Sila and Zhouma, met Dorje inside – but while he was crated. This was the best decision considering the personalities and pack dynamics of my housegirl pack and the stress/exhaustion level of the small puppy.
While it may seem that I’m digressing from the "education factor," learning how to fit into another pack is crucial for a young pup. As well as trying to figure out what the humans in his new pack are communicating, the pup must also learn "canine-speak." I define this as the many verbal and non-verbal ways that dogs communicate. Pups who never have had the opportunity to learn proper communication and proper canine manners (taught by older and wiser dogs) have difficulties with other dogs throughout their lives. Pups raised with at least one adult are quickly taught the necessary communication skills and manners. As Dorje settled into living at Inharmony, I allowed my adults to teach him how to behave with others. I always strictly supervise puppy and adult interactions. I will emphasize that I do not leave a young pup alone with a group of older dogs. If I leave a pup in a kennel run with an adult, it is either with his mother or with a highly trustworthy adult.
The first two weeks were intensive for the 8 week old puppy. He learned the daily routine quickly including recognition of "his" crate in the shelter where the dogs are fed. I specifically worked on key verbal commands: his name, inside/outside, upstairs/downstairs, dinner, cookie, cues I use for eliminations, and negative sounds I use. Dorje quickly learned that coming to me was always a wonderful thing. He quickly became accustomed to the lead as he was on it for elimination times and inside when he wasn’t in a crate. Dorje stayed in the exercise pen (with lots of special toys he only played with there) when my three boys and two girls were playing in the yard. In the beginning, Dorje had "free yard play" with the older housegirls and Geoffrey. When he was a little bigger and the others were more accustomed to him, then he was introduced to Drala and Anakin separately (without the exercise pen barrier) in the yard. Only then was he allowed to join in their play – supervised very closely I will stress!
As mentioned before, I like to assess the pup’s personality profile. As Dorje’s breeder had done the testing I routinely do at 1 week of age (holding the pup upside down in her hands and seeing how quickly and quietly the pup relaxes – or not) and had described his behavior well as he grew, my assessment of Dorje at 8 weeks didn’t require any revision. Dorje’s profile is: gentle/very intelligent/ with good confidence. To clarify in other terms, he is an easy going puppy who is very smart and quite confident. When he does get spooked (occasionally only), he has a very quick "rebound" or recovery from whatever upset him.
Dorje’s "formal lessons" also started at 8 weeks of age. My agility pause table is ideal for lessons for dogs as their concentration factor is increased when the dogs are raised above the ground. Dorje quickly understood that the funny new sound (click) meant a yummy treat soon followed! He also quickly learned how to follow the hand with the treat in it (luring technique). Combining a click (marker signal for "Yes!") with luring, it is extremely easily to teach a pup the three basic position of sit, down, and stand. Wherever the pup’s attention (and his head) is, the body will realign itself to be in the best possible position to get closer to the treat. Thus: head up, bottom down = sit; head the same level but treat moving directly away from the pup’s nose = stand; head down, body down = lying down. The down is easiest to each from a sit. Half of the dog is already in position! To help the pup keep the bottom planted, I use one hand to gently hold it as the other hand moves the lure down and along the ground away from the pup. Puppies naturally follow this action and slide into a down position. The pup learns that lying down, while being a submissive posture, is also wonderful as it comes with treats.
Dorje’s first lessons of the three basic positions were without verbal cues. It didn’t take very long before he was ready for the verbal cues to be added. As the emphasis increased with the verbal cues, the luring decreased proportionally. As soon as he began to assume the position verbally asked for, he heard a "click" which told him that he was guessing right! The hesitation time between the verbal cue and behavior cued for decreased rapidly. At this point, Dorje was probably about 9 weeks of age. He was already going to his own crate for his meals without direction so I added the "down" to his mealtime routine. The first couple of times, there was hesitation as I had changed the criteria for "down" drastically – he was no longer on the pause table, he was in his crate – and there was dinner waiting, for goodness sakes! But once he made the connection that "go to his crate and lie down = dinner", he did it without cues. He also, on his own, transferred this knowledge to the crates inside the house. When he went to his crate inside, he lay down – and immediately got a cookie –without any direction or cues.
To add variety in our 5 to 10 minute lessons, I started adding in simple tricks. The first tricks I taught him are also excellent warm up exercises for athletic events. The easiest to teach is to follow the lure in a clockwise direction ("circle") or a counterclockwise direction ("spin"). These give the impression of the dog chasing his tail. With each rotation, Dorje earned a click and treat. The next trick I added was the "bow". This is easy to do with a little puppy. I hold the treat in my right fist (which eventually becomes my hand signal for the bow) while the left hand, with the clicker in it, is under the pup’s belly. As by this time, the pup knows to follow the hand with the goodie, he lowers his front, hears a "click," and the treat magically appears. Some pups take a while to get their elbows on the ground and usually lick and mouth the handler’s fist. With a very few repetitions, Dorje "bowed" without a hand under his belly.
At the same time as starting these three tricks, I also start the beginnings of attention work. I gave a verbal command to "watch me" and at the first flicker of eye contact, Dorje heard a click. Once Dorje understood the concept, then it, too, was added to the dinner routine. Before his dish was handed to him (while in a down position), I asked for a "watch me."
At 10 weeks of age, Dorje’s education was progressing very quickly. The cues for his various movements were strengthened – less luring and more waiting for him to do what was cued. This really tests the patience of the handler but it is crucial that the dog "figures out what is wanted" by himself – he will retain it much better.
The next cue that Dorje learned was "leave it." This is a very important lesson for all dogs to learn. My method of teaching this may seem harsh (I tap the pup’s nose with a finger and give a verbal NO! Leave it!) but this is one instance where negative reinforcement is extremely effective in teaching. Dorje learned this lesson with one slight tap on his nose. I proof this lesson with the dog in different positions – sit, down, stand. I also want the dog to know that he is not just to "leave it" but immediately seek eye contact with me. If whatever he is asked to leave is safe for him, then he knows that he’ll be given it.
For the "fun stuff" in our lessons, Dorje started the game of "Paw" – putting a paw on the handler’s palm. While this is fun, it is also a good trick to teach as many dogs do not like having their feet touched let alone nails clipped! In this game, the pup learns that it is safe, fun and earns easy rewards just for putting a paw on the hand. This is the foundation in the process of shaping a dog to accept nail trimming easily. The other easy trick that Dorje learned was to touch his nose to the target stick. Again, this is an easy, safe, and fun game for the pup to easily earn clicks and treats. In a couple of days, I put him on the ground and just had him move in different directions to touch the target.
At 11 weeks of age, and still on the pause table, Dorje started the foundation of the "free-stack" such as seen in the conformation ring. Even if my pups never get to the inside of a show ring, they all know how to stand beautifully for photographs! To teach the foundation for the free-stack, I cued a "stand." But this time, he didn’t get an immediate click and treat but had to "hold" the stand a little longer. Soon his tail started wagging while he was holding the stand – which always earned an immediate click and treat.
At 11 ½ weeks of age, Dorje entered his third week of "formal" lessons. I will emphasize that we only had these once a day and only for about 10 minutes. The rest of the time, his education continued but in our daily routines. His cues for sit, down, stand, circle, spin, and bow were solid. In "Paw," he was learning that when a particular hand was presented, he was to place the correct paw. (Eg. right hand = pup’s left paw). The free-stacking on the table had improved so I added the verbal cue of "show dog." To me, the "stand" command means the dog must just assume a standing position but "show dog" means that the legs must be in a certain position, head is up, ears forward, alert and happy expression, and the tail is up and hopefully wagging. This is the final picture of the show dog pose and should be shaped in small increments. (Refer to Karen Pryor’s excellent book "Click to Win" about show dog training.)
In the target stick/moving part of our lesson, we moved around the pylons that were set up for the older dogs’ Rally-O lessons. Dorje walked the patterns beautifully on a very loose leash. He was doing so well; I felt he was ready for another new cue. So I started the "Back" command. I had Dorje standing, directly in front of me, gave the verbal cue to "back" and moved slightly towards him with a tiny step. As soon as he moved slightly backwards, I clicked and treated. A couple more repetitions and he had it! I then added the little finger wiggles (with palm down) I do to signify "back" and he posed! Then I used my hand (palm up) and did the "come hither" finger wiggles. Within three or four minutes, the pup was doing the Cha-Cha!
To add to this foundation, I cued "Back," gave a verbal command of "Show Dog" and Dorje posed! This became a twice a day routine during our "peanut butter time." (I have a couple of my older girls on medications which are given in peanut butter – so all the dogs inside get peanut butter at the same time.)
Three months of age, Dorje started puppy kindergarten/socialization class. Our classes are very informal – a drop in style – so there is always different sizes and shapes of pups and ages of pups attending. At Dorje’s classes, there were toy sized pups to a lovely Great Dane pup. One "trick" that Dorje mastered very quickly was to "work the room." He quickly realized that the people were "treat machines" and they couldn’t resist his gentle requests! (His brother, Anakin, also did the same thing – preferring to work the room instead of playing with the other puppies!) During the puppy play sessions at the classes, Dorje and I often did our own "play." He was off lead during these times and we just played at moving in the different positions around the handler. He easily lured into moving at "heel" (left side), "side" (right side) while I moved or stood still. I did not ask for any sits at this time as I specifically wanted him to be used to moving at either side and changing from one position to another. Adding a "sit" to the moving would be adding an extra task to the one he was learning. In this easy way, Dorje learned the foundations for heel work, fronts, and finishes (both swing and around the handler). We also added "back" when he was in heel position. He did it the first time asked! We started the trick "Bang" which is lying on his side. Finally, Dorje learned "paws up" which meant putting paws up on whatever he was asked to.
After Dorje’s six weeks at puppy class, he had a 3 month break from any "formal" lessons. He was spending the days by then with Geoffrey in his run. Geoffrey is an easy going alpha male and Dorje is very respectful so they get along beautifully. During this time, personal and family matters were a priority for me so when I had "extra" time to spend with the dogs (other than the usual time I spent with them), the dogs played and socialized. Dorje was definitely part of the pack but clearly the omega male. His brother, Anakin, before he was neutered made sure that Dorje knew his place! I found it very interesting that Dorje would seek out Anakin (as he still does at this writing) to present full passive submission to him. Dorje never seemed to do that with Geoffrey or Drala – just to the one male who was ranked immediately above him.
At 7 ½ months of age, Dorje was ready for some formal "lessons." We went to the occasional handling class at our club – more for the socialization than anything. But our main lessons in the future will be concentrating on obedience – particularly the skills necessary for Rally-O. When I started Dorje’s first "real" obedience lesson, all I was interested in was having him sit in front ("front") and sit in correct heel position ("heel"). With the foundation that had been laid as a younger puppy, Dorje easily moved (with a lure) to the front or side – to complete the goal of what I wanted to teach, I just had to add the verbal "sit" command. As Dorje wasn’t one to sit and then move away (like some of my dogs), I found that alternating the heel and front worked well for him. (This is an example of individually tailoring each dog’s lessons.) It only took about 6 repetitions of him hearing the verbal cue when he moved to the front or heel before he started to understand. At the 7 th repetition at both heel and front, Dorje sat without the verbal cue (as I was waiting longer for it hoping that he’d do it on his own). As soon as he did, he got a "jackpot" or large reward for each position and the lesson ended. The second time that we had our lesson (two days later), Dorje immediately, and without a lure, moved to the front or heel when cued and sat. His front was particularly straight. This is probably due to the "show dog" posing that we’d been doing – he was used to standing directly in front and backing up in a straight line away from me. His sits at heel position were not particularly straight – but that will come.
At the start of the "formal obedience lessons," I consider that Dorje’s early puppy education has finished. Did I push this puppy too hard, too fast? Absolutely not. He has maintained his sweet happy disposition without any stress and continues to demonstrate to me an excellent desire to learn. Dorje’s early education is almost a carbon copy of what I did with his older ¾ brother, Anakin. At 2 ½ years of age, Anakin has shown me and others that he is going to be a top notch Rally-O dog. His work ethic is superb in both obedience and harness work. I now have the luxury of progressing with the education of both Dorje and Anakin at a slower pace – a pace that will be suited for each boy individually.
I am a firm believer of laying a solid foundation of learning down, then slowly building upon that foundation at the individual dogs’ rate. This decreases any need for "fixing mistakes" or retraining of anything. All of my dogs got their foundations for manners and basic education at a very young age. Because of this early work, I have well mannered happy dogs who are educated and a joy to live with.