Puppies Learn Best What They Learn First!
Before we invented the Adventure Box, we created many prototypes to help our pups handle touch, noise and sights. One of those early prototypes was a baby gate that the pups could squeeze through, helping them get comfortable with both touch and problem solving. It took us a week to build and then we used it exactly once. We quickly realized that while teaching problem solving, it was also teaching puppies to break through baby gates, one of the last behaviors we wanted a puppy to learn. Since then, we scrutinize everything our puppies are learning against their futures. Are we teaching our puppies something that will haunt or help their owners in the future?
Why is this important if pups are only with breeders such a short time, only 8 or perhaps 12 weeks? Because pups learn best what they learn first! What we teach puppies during the early sensitive period, from 3 weeks till they go home, will stay with them forever unless someone makes them unlearn it. Unlearning later is lots harder than learning right the first time! At this early age, puppies’ brains are undergoing important development. Some neural connections and pathways are being created while others are being shed. Connections that are practiced in these early weeks will lay the foundation for the puppy’s adult behavior.
We carefully plan this early learning because our dogs go to so many different kinds of homes. Whether our pups are going to be family pets, top competition dogs in an array of sports from agility to hunt tests, or working dogs like search and rescue, therapy or service dogs, we want our actions to make it easier for their new owners rather than more difficult.
Here are the FOUR problem behaviors that breeders unintentionally teach their puppies.
Four problem behaviors that breeders unintentionally teach their puppies.
1. Pottying anywhere
Three-week old pups are primed to be house-broken but if they are not given the opportunity, they quickly learn to potty anywhere. Although pups this age cannot be fully house trained, they can be taught to hold their urine and feces, walk a little ways, and potty in the “right” spot. However, if their entire pen is covered with wire, newspapers, shavings or pee pads, pups never learn there is a “right” spot.
For some breeds, this isn’t a big problem because they are easily housebroken after 8 weeks of age. But for other breeds, particularly some of the toy dogs that struggle with housebreaking, these early lessons last a lifetime. It’s typically easy to potty train a litter of pups and it sets them and their owners up for early success.
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2. NOT coming when called
Once their dam starts weaning them, we control puppies’ most valuable resource—food. Most breeders quickly teach their puppies to come when called by calling them to their meals. Within the first meal or two, puppies are reliably waddling to us when we call with their bowls. Easy-peasy, as long as we are rewarding them with their meals each time they come!
Unfortunately once pups come when called, many breeders unintentionally undo that wonderful behavior. How? Well, we call them to us to trim their toe nails. We call them so they’ll put their ears up for that darling photo. We call them to us to move them while we clean the pen.
Each time we call puppies and either do not reward them WITH FOOD or, worse yet, do something unpleasant to them like trimming toe nails, we chip away at our pups’ recall. At 5 weeks of age, puppies come nearly every time they are called but by 8 weeks of age, most pups come only when they want to or when it’s mealtime.
How do we avoid this error? By doing two simple things:
Always, always, ALWAYS reward your pups with a small treat when they come when called, even if you just said “Puppy, puppy” to get their ears up. And if you want to do something unpleasant to your pups, simply go and get them. For example, go gently pick them up for toenail trims, worming, grooming, etc.
3. Default behaviors.
Default behaviors are those that dogs offer when they aren’t sure what they are expected to do. Some people call it communication but default behaviors are actually conditioned responses to ambiguity. When in doubt, do X and it will be rewarded.
READ: The Art of Communication
Unintentionally, breeders can quickly teach puppies to jump up and bark as their default behaviors. This happens when puppies are left in a solid-sided whelping box too long. If pups cannot see out, they jump up to see outside their box. If the pups then start to bark and anything positive happens, such as someone talks to them or picks them up, the pups have been reinforced for these behaviors. Although it’s cute to have a litter of puppies jumping and yelping, those things are not so fun when the “pups” are 9 months old and guests come to the door.
Teaching puppies to stand for the show ring
Conformation buyers want a default stand for their pups
Other breeders intentionally teach a default behavior to their litters. Whether this is behavior good or bad depends upon the type of home a puppy is going to. Most pet homes want a default sit but conformation homes want a stand-stay. Top obedience homes want a specific kind of sit, usually a tuck-up sit. Other trainers prefer a moving default, like a hand touch, rather than a stationary.
The pups’ temperament also contributes to its ideal default behavior. Positive stressors, dogs that naturally move more when they are stressed, do best with a stationary default behavior, like sit. But negative stressors, dogs that freeze under stress, usually do best with a moving default behavior, like a hand touch. Since we can’t see this characteristic until pups are over seven weeks of age, teaching a default behavior to an entire litter before this may result in reinforcing the wrong thing in a pup. And since a pup learns first, it learns best, undoing that error may be very difficult.
What do we do instead?
We teach quiet eye contact as our pups’ default behavior. When in doubt, look at us! We then let our buyers finalize that behavior once they take their pups home based on the activities they plan to do with them.
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4. Rooting on the ground
We love teaching scent work to our baby puppies and have been very successful in creating excellent scenting dogs that excel in tracking tests, hunting and search and rescue. We use Early Scent Introduction in the first few weeks, scent trails around 5 weeks, and trailing and woods walks thereafter. But one thing we never want to teach our puppies is to randomly root around for food. Remember, puppies learn best what they learn first so if during their first few months they learn to look for random treats on the ground, this will be a behavior that owners will have to correct later.
No one wants their dog to root around for food. First, this behavior can increase the risk of pica, the ingestion of non-food items, in some breeds. If pups are taught food comes from the ground, then pebbles, twigs, mushrooms, picnic leftovers and more become targets of opportunity. Sadly, we all know where that ends…in surgery for removal of stuff from their guts.
Second, “rooters” are a challenge to walk on leash. We’ve all seen dogs that drag their owners from one piece of trash to another in hopes of finding a goody. Establishing this behavior early on simply increases the difficulty of teaching dogs to walk nicely on leash.
Finally for those of us who compete with our dogs, the last place we want dogs looking for food is on the ground unless we tell them to. Rooting makes agility, obedience, conformation, search and rescue, therapy work and other activities very difficult. The only time that we want dogs looking for food on the ground is when we have directed them there or they are being taught to track. For tracking, food is carefully placed on the track and we insure the puppy is not competing with other puppies for the treats, since competition causes chaotic and random behavior rather than tracking.
How do we avoid ‘rooting’?
Instead of tossing treats randomly on the ground, we simply hand treats to each individual puppy. This enables us to teach pups to take treats nicely from people’s hands, working on both eye-mouth coordination and bite inhibition.
The amazing thing about baby puppies is that there is no need to overteach anything, possibly creating behaviors that their owners will have to undo. They are primed to learn at this age so aside from setting them up to learn the basics–potty training, not jumping up and trusting people–there is no need for them to overlearn anything. Instead, this is a time of introductions and exploration since one or two positive experiences will set the stage for the rest of their lives.
Think about the behaviors you are teaching your puppies, unintentionally or intentionally. Now imagine those behaviors in adult dogs. Are they what your owners want their dogs to do? If so, keep it up! If not, how can you change what you do to so your puppies learn good behavior from the start?
Share your thoughts in the comments below so we can all learn!
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