We have a new puppy! Felix the border collie, who came to live with us at 8 weeks, is now 14 weeks old and people have been asking what I’ve taught him so far. Well, the answers might surprise you!
First up, things he DOESN’T know:
- Sit – on a command
- Down – on a command
- Heel – at all!
- Stay/wait – on a command
So, almost all the puppy class basics are missing from my boy’s repertoire. Why is that? Well, I strongly believe that you can teach these things to a dog of any age. A puppy has far more important things to learn. Here’s my list of top priorities:
1) Swapping Stuff is Fab!
Felix, like most pups, likes things in his mouth. Everything that will fit (and some things that don’t) will go in and, unless intervention of some sort happens, they often go down as well! One of the very first things I taught was that spitting things out is a great thing to do. He will now swap toys for food or other toys and spit of debris he collects in exchange for treats. This has lowered my blood pressure considerably as dangerous items are no longer quite so prone to ingestion. If you’ve never had a puppy before you will be shocked at their ability to find ‘stuff’ to swallow on the cleanest floor. Save your sanity by teaching your pup to swap ‘prizes’ for better, and safer, ones!
2) The World is a Safe and Interesting Place!
Felix has been having daily adventures into the big wide world since he arrived at 8 weeks. These adventures are about letting the pup take in the world; learn what is normal and expected. Before about 12 weeks of age a pup is ‘programmed’ to learn about the world. This is the optimum time for ‘socialisation’. Between 12 – 16 weeks the window of opportunity is still open but is closing fast and new experiences will become potentially scarier. After 16 weeks you will be playing catch-up for the rest of the dog’s life – you are no longer ‘socialising’ but ‘rehabilitating’. Sure, you can help a dog feel better about the world but you will have lost the opportunity to make the biggest positive influence.
Before it was safe for him to sniff and fossick (vaccinations not complete) he was chauffeured in a children’s push chair. He loved this arrangement! He has been to many, many places and seen/heard/smelt and all sorts of things. If he showed keen interest in a friendly stranger he was allowed to interact. If he wasn’t interested, or worse, looked cautious, then people were asked to leave him alone. If he saw something that interested him we stopped and let him look for as long as he wanted to.
(A push chair actually works really well if your puppy is a bit shy. People see the push chair but don’t notice the bundle of cuteness riding in it! We see pushchairs all the time so they become part of the background – they blend in and give the pup ‘camouflage’.)
Places we visited:
- Supermarket car parks – traffic, people, noise
- Hardware stores – people, strange lights, objects, noises, smells
- Parks – dogs, runners
- Playgrounds – kids doing all sorts of weirdness
- Popular walking areas, both at quiet times and busy times
- Cafes – traffic, people, settling on a mat results in cookies
- The beach – the sea, smells, weird objects, strange surfaces
- The esplanade – surfers in the water, people carrying surf boards
- Quiet streets – sudden noises and appearances
- Busy streets – hustle ‘n’ bustle
By the time he was safe to walk on the ground he’d already seen lots. We revisited these places and allowed him to explore at his own pace – the aim of the game is learning not exercise!
3) Novelty and Surprises are Great!
Most fearful dogs are scared of novelty and sudden events such as noises or people popping out of ‘nowhere’. Lots of dogs do just fine in a busy environment where no one thing stands out. However, go somewhere quiet, with the occasional surprise noise or appearance, and they lose the plot.
One way to help pups love these surprises and set them up for confidence in the face of startling events is to play the ‘surprise’ game at home.
Put out one new object a day. Don’t let your pup see you place it. There is a good chance they will startle “what the heck is that – and why is it in my yard??!?!” If they do, ignore them but go and be really interested in the new thing. Coo over it, stroke it, be fascinated by it. Praise any signs of bravery, reward interaction. DO NOT TRY TO LURE OR CAJOL your puppy! Let them take their own time to explore the new thing. If your pup is bold and explores immediately, great! Praise and reward their bravery!
Put out new surfaces such as tarpaulins, sheets of bubble wrap or large sheets of cardboard. Scatter treats over them and let your pup snuffle them up. Use great food but do not intervene – let your pup find his own bravery in his own time.
You can do similar things for noises: make a sudden strange noise (not a frightening or loud noise!), immediately follow it with a big handful of very tasty treats. Repeat at random times during the day. Always follow with top tasty treats. Use different noises, gradually work up to louder or harsher ones (metallic ones can be a big problem for some dogs). Take your time and don’t overdo it, a couple of sound surprises a day is enough – you don’t want to make the poor pup ‘twitchy’!
4) I LOVE Being Handled!
Like many pups, when Felix first arrived, he seriously didn’t like being restrained or examined. Checking teeth, doing nails or grooming were fates worse than death as far as he was concerned. It wasn’t that he was scared, he just didn’t like being ‘fiddled with’ or holding still. This is one lesson that is far easier to teach while your dog is young. With gentle restraint and handling being paired consistently and thoughtfully with his breakfast, Felix is now happy to be brushed (yes, even those sensitive bits like elbows and bum!), have his teeth, ears and eyes checked, have sun screen applied to his nose and have his nails both clipped and dremeled. Read more about teaching relaxed handling here.
5) I LOVE My Name!
All pups need to know their name and be taught to come when called. I do use the dog’s name as a recall signal but you can just as easily teach the name to mean ‘pay attention’ and a separate signal to mean ‘come to me NOW!’ Believe me, teaching this to a young pup is much easier than trying to teach it to an adolescent. A young pup is (in most cases) already pre-programmed to want to come to you. The distractions and temptations of the world at large haven’t been discovered and you represent safety and security. Strike while the iron is hot as they say – if you leave recall training until your pup is out and about, exploring the world at 5 months old, just hitting adolescence, you are likely to really regret it!
6) Leads are NOT Elasticated!
Lead walking nightmares are often one of the biggest issues new puppy owners create. And yes, I do mean create. People teach pups to behave like dray horses by following them when they pull. Simple as that. Some pups kick up stink at the restriction so people give to the pressure – rewarding both pulling and thrashing!
Felix learnt early that once he ran out of lead, that was as far as he was going. No arguments, no discussion. I used rewards such as food and toys to reinforce walking with me. I used passive resistance to extinguish tantrums and pulling. Not all pups fight quite like Felix did but ALL pups need to learn that a lead is a boundary – you can’t go any further! (Top tip – use a longish lead. My leads are at least 5 ft. I add a short piece of chain to the end to discourage lead chewing as you can see in the video below.)
Having said all that, lead walks for young pups are NOT about heeling, loose lead walking by the person’s side, or exercise. Allow your pup a decent amount of lead so they can explore, sniff, fossick, and learn about the world. Don’t route-march – wander along at your pup’s pace; allow them to stop and stare at things as much as they like. Little legs get tired quickly so don’t plan a long distance. I prefer to measure my ‘walks’ by time – and adjust by how long it takes for my pup’s brain to get tired by the new experiences. Keep adventures short and sweet! A tired puppy is likely to be emotionally reactive and not having fun or learning what you’d like them to learn.
A side effect of this is that pups learn that they can’t always have what they want. If that rubbish on the ground is outside of the lead range, then you can’t have it. See another dog walking by? Sorry. Not for you to meet. Simple. It’s then up to the person on the other end of the lead to handle the lead sensibly to prevent access to things that are potentially dangerous BEFORE the pup has reached them! Done properly there is no need for dragging, jerking or yanking. The lead can be kept loose as any slight tightening cues the pup to leave/ignore the temptation and reorient to the handler for cookies and/or praise.
7) Confinement is Fun!
Most pups dislike being confined. Many have a ‘fear of missing out’ or a fear of separation. However, being settled in a crate is a basic skill for my dogs. They travel in crates in the car, they rest in those same crates at shows and if they need to be hospitalised then they will be confined to a crate. It also makes visiting friends’ houses or staying in motels so much easier!
Right from the start Felix has slept in a crate/pen overnight. He was also fed one meal a day in a crate and EVERY time he is placed in a crate he is given a special chewy or treat toy. He was not lured in; the goody only appeared once he was inside. Sure, we had some fussing and screaming at first but given that he could see me (he wasn’t abandoned! I was literally right outside) and he was only placed in his crate when he was tired and toileted, he soon learnt that the most sensible thing to do was settle to chewing his goody and then go to sleep. It takes patience (and very occasionally ear plugs!) but it is so worth it.
8) My Behaviour Has Consequences!
One of the reasons I don’t do much lure training (sit/down) is that I want my pups to work out that they can control their experiences by the things they do. So, I reward a pup for sitting nicely instead of jumping on me but I don’t lure them to do so. Same with offering to settle. I might set up the environment to make settling a likely option but I don’t lure it. I now have a thinking pup. Context works to ‘tell’ the pup what will get him the results he would like. This is far more powerful than asking for sits/settles when we want them. The downside is that the handler needs to be thoughtful about what the pup is actually learning at any given moment!
As a part of this, Felix has learnt that doors/gates open when puppy bottoms are planted on the ground and shut rapidly when puppy noses try to barge through before being invited! I use food to help the learning (self-control is hard for young pups!) and do my best to set him up for success by not asking too much, but it is a fact of life that sometimes acting too quickly makes the thing you want disappear. This makes sense if you think of a dog learning to hunt. A successful hunter has learnt how to control their approach: slowly, carefully, wait, creep forward, wait…..NOW! Moving too early results in the prey escaping (or the door closing!)
Felix has also learnt that in certain contexts he can ‘make the click happen’ by offering to ‘do stuff’. This makes him an active participant in his training. Although I do my best to set things up for him to make it obvious what I’m hoping for, he has worked out that behaviours such as interacting with objects, standing on things or touching them with his nose earns clicks and rewards. These are the foundations of our performance training in competition obedience to come later.
Forget about formal obedience exercises such as sit, heel, down etc. Teach life skills such as self-control and agency. Build and grow confidence and bravery in the face of novelty and surprises. Let them really experience the world around them by taking them on little adventures every day. Make sure they understand boundaries and rules by being consistent and fair. Teach them to love the things that are part of life such as confinement and handling.
Above all, love them and keep them safe, let them be babies and see you as their security and giver of good things. The result will be so much more than a dog who can sit or down on command. Read about common puppy raising mistakes – and how to avoid them, here.
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