Have you ever wondered what the pros consider most important when bringing a new bundle of joy into their own homes? I reached out to my network of dog training pals and asked them this question:
'If you are a professional dog trainer and have raised one or more puppies of your own, what do you prioritize, training wise, when they first come home?'
I specifically wanted to know about puppies under the age of 6 months. Here’s what everyone seemed to collectively agree on:
1. Bonding and Engagement
Most pros, including myself, said they give their puppies a couple weeks to learn the ropes at home before they go out and about. We don’t want to overwhelm them by throwing too many new experiences at them right away. We focus on creating a predictable routine the puppy can fall into to feel comfortable and safe. This includes potty training, play with us and other primary caregivers, and crate time. We typically keep the puppy separate from the other adult dogs in the house for a few days as well.
Once it is time to start taking our puppies out and about, above everything else, we focus on relationship building and engagement. Some of this comes naturally but we like to take it to the next level and make sure that even in new environments, our puppies are able to focus on us and ignore distractions. We want to imprint this routine while our puppies are young and impressionable.
When I was raising Kamikaze, we’d take short (5-10 minutes) trips to dog friendly places like Home Depot and Chuck and Don’s as well as local parks to explore and work on engagement. I’d take her out of the car, bring her to potty, then we’d slowly make our way into the store. When we got inside, we avoided busy areas and I let her sniff around. Anytime she’d turn her attention towards me I’d give her a little jackpot of treats, praise her, and play with her before sending her back to sniffing. As she started to offer engagement more frequently, we’d make our way to the busier sides of the store then we’d leave. During this time she didn’t say hello to any other people or dogs. This time was about us and building our relationship. I wanted her to know that despite what the world has to offer, I'm the most fun thing in the room.
2. Socialization and Creating Neutrality
Engagement and socialization go hand in hand when it comes to how professionals raise their puppies. Before we bring our puppies out for the sake of socializing we picture their future and shape their early experiences around what that looks like. Some might be sport prospects, some might be service dogs, some of us want to be able to bring our puppies to patios, parties, and travel with them, some require trips to the groomer, all puppies will need to go to the vet, and be around unknown people and dogs. Whatever their future holds, all of us want our puppies to be confident, well adjusted adults. We also prioritize neutrality meaning our dogs can be neutral, not overly excited, fearful, or aggressive when exposed to new stimuli. This means showing them as many new experiences as we can while they are in their most moldable stage, 8 - 16 weeks.
Now, the way pros expose their puppies to new experiences is a very strategic process. We want to create good associations with new experiences while also building good engagement, shaping the ability to learn and train around distractions, and respecting our puppies’ natural preferences. We understand that not all dogs enjoy interacting with their environments the same way so we use our early outings as a way to gather a baseline for how our puppies respond to different stimuli. We do all of this while keeping our future training goals in mind. For example, we might have a puppy that is very social and curious towards new people. While we like to see a confident response to strangers it can hurt our engagement and create future training struggles if our puppies are always pulling to say hello to everyone they encounter. We’ll adjust our socialization process to work more on engaging with us in the presence of strangers. We’re still building good associations but the puppy learns to pay attention to us instead. On the flip side, some puppies might react fearfully to situations. We’ll adjust our approach to include more time for the puppies to explore these new situations on their own, still rewarding them for returning to us. We never press our puppies to interact with something they seem nervous around but we will reward them for trying and retreat if they seem very scared. The goal is not to simply expose but to shape good experiences that will set them up for success in the future.
3. Crating and Being Comfortable Alone
Another skill professionals agree is useful to build in the early stages of puppyhood is being comfortable being alone. It’s very tempting to spend as much time as you possibly can with your brand new puppy. Unfortunately this doesn’t set the puppy up for being able to settle when left alone. When we bring puppies home and are creating a predictable routine, we plan time for the puppy to be separated from us into their days. This can be in a crate or a playpen in a separate room. When I was teaching Kamikaze to be comfortable in her crate, I paid close attention to her natural sleep schedule and planned her crate breaks around times I knew she’d be sleepy. I’d make sure she had an opportunity to go potty, give her an age and size appropriate chew (she loved lamb ears), and put her in her crate in a separate room. She’d whine a bit but if I did my part by making sure all her needs were met, she would settle quite quickly. With this approach, it wasn’t difficult to teach her that being separated from me was easy. It also made her crate a comfy place she could relax because it was always associated with nap time. To this day, no matter where we are, when she needs a break I can send her to her kennel and she’ll settle almost instantly. I’ve been able to bring her to parties, family member’s houses for holidays and I can plan vacations with or without her know that she’ll be good in the hotel or for the dog sitter because she doesn’t need me around to feel safe.
Trainers also mentioned that they like to teach their puppies how to settle outside of their crates without needing to be physically exhausted first. This also helps break the connection that being out of the crate always means play time. One way pros do this is to set up a playpen in a busier area of the house like the living room or kitchen, give the puppy appropriate toys and chews, then ignore them. As long as their needs are met, they will learn to play independently and eventually settle down for a nap. Once the puppy gets a little older, we’ll let them be loose in a gated off room or have them dragging a leash depending on how busy they can be, and set them up the same way. It's always important to supervise your puppy anytime they are outside of their crate even when you're purposefully not interacting with them. We want our puppies to know that they can be independent and self-reliant whether or not you are nearby.
4. Handling and Care
Part of being a well adjusted adult is being able to not only tolerate but cooperate in grooming and vet care processes. When our puppies are young, we include these experiences into their socialization plan. All dogs require some level of grooming in their life so we start with short sessions of things like getting in and out of the bathtub, having their feet, ears, and bodies handled, running a brush over them, etc. We expose them to the sound of the water running, the blow dryer, and the nail grinder buzzing. We’ll bring them to their vets and groomers to have short little engagement sessions, have them meet the staff, climb up on the scale or grooming table, then leave. We do all of this before they need to have any real vet care or grooming done so they start off with good associations. During their appointments, we work with staff to ensure they are going at the puppy's pace. Throughout all of this we are keeping sessions short and gradually increasing the difficulty. We give our puppies opportunities to take breaks and continue only when they are ready.
5. Learning to Learn
By now you may have noticed that not once have we discussed obedience training. Dog professionals know that we have our puppies' entire lives to teach them obedience skills and manners so we spend the first few months together focusing on building our relationship and teaching our puppy to learn. Rather than teaching actual skills, we'll teach our puppies foundations for training that will help them be successful in the future. Learning to learn means we're teaching our puppies that their behavior and communication with us gets them access to reinforcement and that when they try, they will win! We'll start by capturing behaviors we like, teaching simple skills like responding to their names, following a food lure, playing with toys, taking treats from our hand, learning what a clicker and other verbal markers mean, targeting objects and our hands with their paws and nose, and being on a leash. We'll also start imprinting patterns we'd like our puppies to find valuable in the future like heeling or going to their bed or crate. All of these are foundations that we'll build upon when we start training actual manners. If our puppies are training savvy, their ability to learn new skills has no limits!
When pros bring their puppies home or work with their clients' puppies, we take the time to build the associations we know will create a strong bond and a solid foundation for learning in the future. There are so many benefits to taking things slow and enjoying the puppy phase before we start expecting them to behave like adults. We also recognize that a complete free-for-all doesn't do our puppies any favors either. So before you second guess your decision to reach out to a trainer and before you plop your new buddy into an obedience class, think about the future you could have!