Friday, November 13, 2009

Laying The Groundwork For Training Success

By Suzanne La Croix, MS

Suzanne La Croix is an ethologist and animal behavior counselor researching the ontogeny of behavior in canids at Michigan State University.*

“Timing is everything,”…the mantra of every dog trainer, regardless of training method. When training canines, critical timing can mean moments—the moment of reinforcement for a task successfully accomplished, and periods—specific periods of growth and development during puppyhood. Like humans, puppies and dogs learn different levels of skills more easily during specific developmental periods. To properly lay the groundwork for successful puppy training, it’s important to understand the growth and development periods that puppies go through.

Puppies begin learning by making simple associations that provide their foundation for learning. Next, they learn “how to learn” from their breeder, mother, and littermates. Finally, as they mature, their ability to perform more complex thought processes permits them to make decisions and solve problems. During puppies’ physical, neurological and behavioral development periods, breeders and new owners can schedule specific association and training tasks to achieve the behaviors and skills they desire in their adult companion animals.

Over the past 50 years, comprehensive scientific research (conducted by scientists including Scott, Fuller, Pfaffenberger and Fox) has directed much attention to the socialization of puppies. Today, we continue to draw conclusions from their experiments on developmentally “sensitive” periods and combine them with an advanced understanding of neurological development and the ontogeny of learning. When considering your training program, keep in mind that individual puppies, as well as different breeds, will proceed through development stages according to their own rate of growth.

Neonate Period (0-3 weeks)
Although the mother does most of the work during this stage, it is important that breeders hold and pet each puppy daily. Significant physical and neurological changes are occurring and stimulation is important for the development of neural pathways. Human touch is qualitatively different than the touch of the bitch, and may predispose the puppy to human handling. Exposure to human scent, through stroking and warmth, helps puppies form positive associations with humans.

Transition Period (3-4 weeks)
As the puppies’ senses of sight and hearing enter operational mode, they begin exploring. This period presents the prime opportunity to build positive associations with “all things human.”

Breeders can direct puppies’ perceptions of their world by introducing: background noises like human voices, nail grinders and the garbage truck; background scents like potpourri, shampoo and dinner cooking in the kitchen; and background visual stimuli like the grooming table, wheelchairs and children or other pets moving through the area.
While continuing to handle each puppy daily, gently introduce the command for the puppy to hold “still.”
Socialization Period (3-12 weeks)
Beginning at 3 weeks, breeders should set the foundation of positive associations for the desired adult dog behaviors. General and specialized skill areas can also be introduced.

Provide safe, positive, and repeated (once a week) exposure to pre-school children, older children, adults (male and female) and senior adults including their sounds, smells and touches.
Create positive crate associations: place several puppies with their nesting blankets in a crate for five-minute periods and leave the room during this time.
Expose puppies to different ground surfaces. This helps teach the difference between “bedding” and “potty areas.” Provide transition to outdoor elimination habits with a litter box or designated gravel indoor potty area.
Begin leash work: get puppies used to wearing a collar, work up to short informal jaunts on a leash, and restraint on a grooming table.
Begin exposure to travel in a car with short car rides around the block or to safe destinations (other than the veterinarian!)
Teach a general “Come” command: call “Puppy, puppy, puppy!” as you enter the room with their food dishes.
Begin supervised exposure to desired adult dog activities: introduce pheasant wings, retrieving bumpers, solid agility obstacles like the tunnel, dog sleds and carts, show ring fencing, stuffed bunnies for chasing, and household furniture.
Permit puppies to observe the mother exhibiting good dog behavior and performing commanded tasks.
Fear Period (8-10 weeks)
Just when socializing is proceeding with great success, many puppies will suddenly exhibit fear and avoidance of familiar stimuli. During this natural stage of hypersensitivity, breeders should avoid introducing novel stimuli and traumatic experiences.

Take a few days off from socializing, as needed and keep the pups together in their protective litter environment with positive visits from the mother and breeder.
Juvenile Period (12 weeks – puberty—up to 18 months in large breeds)
Following the above steps helps you set the stage for your puppies to develop strong bonds with their new humans and to confidently expand their skills as they adjust to their new homes.

From the puppies’ first day in their new homes, new owners should reinforce perceptions of “who’s the boss” by consistently asking for and reinforcing desired behaviors.
Generalized “Come” and “Heel” commands are easy, since the puppy is naturally inclined to follow owners on walks and explorations. Expect more precise behavior as he matures.
“Sit” and “Down” commands are easy to introduce, since the puppy is inclined to allow owners to be dominant. His diminutive size at this stage negates the need for wrestling matches that may occur if the new owner waits several months to begin skills training!
“Fetch and Retrieve” should be introduced as games and will be easily understood when a veteran dog demonstrates the tasks, or if the thrown item has a string attached.
New owners should continue providing positive experiences with new people, places, sights, and sounds to maintain optimal socialization of the growing puppy.
Recent research supports the value of observational learning, too. In this type of learning, a puppy creates positive associations and learns portions of tasks by observing other dogs displaying these skills. This comes as little surprise to multiple-dog owners who routinely “apprentice” their younger pups in the field or in a new situation with a veteran dog who will display the desired behaviors. Training a puppy in obedience alongside well-behaved older dogs provides a behavior model for the unruly puppy.

The success of a puppy’s future trainability takes shape during the formative experiences with the breeder. Even so, much work remains for new owners who want to develop high performance dogs and loving companions. Working with your puppies during their physical, neurological and behavioral development periods, will help lead to enriching, lifelong relationships and will help you reach your goals of successful, lifelong placements.

Your First Vet Visit

In addition to providing your new dog optimum nutrition, scheduling regular visits to the veterinarian is key to ensuring his health and
happiness. Here’s how to prepare.


If you have time, introduce your dog to his new veterinarian by scheduling
an orientation-only visit. Let the veterinarian’s staff pet him and offer treats. If you project a calm, upbeat attitude, your dog will likely remain calm, too. Some experts recommend scheduling these “just dropping in” visits on a regular basis.


At your dog’s first appointment, you’ll be asked basic information, and a staff member may weigh your pet. Keeping track of his weight can help identify problems associated with weight loss or gain.
Then you’ll meet the veterinarian. You’ll be asked about your dog’s diet and lifestyle. Next you’ll get to ask about your dog’s care. Then the veterinarian will examine him and may administer his first vaccinations.


The information you provided will help the veterinarian determine the kinds of diseases your dog may be exposed to and plan an appropriate vaccination schedule.
Schedules vary, but it’s important for puppies to get a series of vaccinations to provide optimal protection against infectious diseases like the ones listed at right. The series is begun as early as 6 weeks old, with boosters given 3 to 4 weeks apart until they are 12 to 16 years old.

Canine Distemper
Canine Parainfluenza (DA2P)
Canine Parvovirus (CPV)

To help your dog live a longer, healthier life (and control pet overpopulation), spaying or neutering is important. Your veterinarian will recommend the appropriate age, generally around 6 months.


A brushing each week will keep your dog’s coat in good condition, but if he gets really dirty or has acquired an odor, use these steps to bathe your dog:

Step 1: Brush your dog and then gently plug each ear with a cotton ball. Place him in a tub or basin with a nonskid surface. Hold the collar firmly, then pour lukewarm water over his body, being careful to leave his head dry. If bathing your dog outdoors, don’t use water from the garden hose. Cold water will chill your dog and make bathing an unpleasant experience.
Step 2: Use baby shampoo(not as harsh as dog formulas) to soap the body. Work up a lather, talking to your dog and praising him as you work. When he’s well lathered, move to his head, being careful to keep shampoo out of his eyes, ears and mouth.
Step 3: Rinse and dry the head, then rinse the body. When the water runs clear, rinse one more time. Dry your dog with towels and then remove the cotton plugs from his ears. If your dog has healthy skin, you can dry him further with a hair dryer set on low or warm.