Puppies Learn Best What They Learn First!
Four problem behaviors that people unintentionally teach puppies.
Because of the way canine brains develop, what we teach puppies during the sensitive period, from 3 until 16 weeks of age, stay with them forever unless and until someone makes them unlearn it. And in dogs, like people, unlearning later in life is a lot harder than learning right the first time!
Here are four problem behaviors that we accidentally and easily teach puppies.
1. Pottying anywhere.
Very young puppies are primed to be house trained but they quickly overcome this natural tendency and learn to potty anywhere. Breeders can set pups and owners up for success by providing potty areas for pups from 2.5 weeks on. However, if their entire pen is covered with wire, newspapers, shavings or pee pads, pups never learn there is a “right” place to go.
New owners are often initially casual about house training, assuming that their baby puppy will make many “mistakes.” As the pup has more and more accidents, pottying in the house becomes a habit and the smell of urine and feces draw it back to those spots over and over. For some breeds, this isn’t a big problem because they are easily housebroken within a few months. But for other breeds, particularly some of the toy dogs that struggle with housebreaking, these early lessons last a lifetime.
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2. NOT coming when called.
Baby puppies quickly learn to come when called if we call them to every meal. Within the first meal or two, puppies are reliably coming 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, many of us unintentionally undo that wonderful behavior by getting cheap or “rewarding” pups with something they don’t like. Each time we call puppies and do not reward them WITH HIGH VALUE FOOD or, worse yet, do something unpleasant like trimming toe nails or crating them, we chip away at our pups’ recall. By 5 months of age, most pups come only when they want to or when at mealtimes.
We can avoid this error by doing two simple things:
- Always, always, ALWAYS reward your pup with a small treat when it comes to you when called. Always! Every time! For the first year of your pup’s life!
- Second, if you need to do something unpleasant to your pup, do not call it to you. Instead, go and get it and either pick it up or put it on leash. This includes toenail trims, crating, baths, grooming, and even car rides for those pups that get car sick.
3. Offering an inappropriate default behavior.
Default behaviors are those that dogs offer when they aren’t sure what they are expected to do–when in doubt, do X and it will be rewarded. Some people call it “manding” but a default behavior is actually conditioned responses to ambiguity.
Many people quickly teach puppies to bark as a default. Owners teach barking while crate training their puppy. Breeders teach it as early as the whelping box. In both cases, pups bark to get attention and something positive happens–someone talks to it, lets it out of the crate, or picks it up. The pup has now been reinforced for barking and will bark again. This rapidly becomes a default behavior and although barking may be cute in a little puppy, it is not so fun when the pup has grown up.
Some people intentionally teach a default behavior to their puppies. This can be good or bad depending upon the behavior and the pup’s role. Most pet homes are happy if their dogs have a default sit but competition and working may homes likely want another option. For example, conformation homes want a stand-stay. Top obedience homes want a tuck-up sit. Other competitors prefer a moving default, like a hand touch.
In our opinion, a better default behavior for most dogs is quiet eye contact. We want the dog to think, “When in doubt, look at your owner for guidance.” The dog’s attention allows us to guide it when it is unsure, while not having to undo a behavior we don’t want.
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4. Rooting around on the ground.
We love teaching scent work to our puppies and have been very successful in creating excellent scenting dogs that excel in tracking tests, nose work, barn hunt, hunting, and search and rescue. However, one thing we never want to teach any puppies is to randomly root around on the ground 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 you will have to correct later or deal with for the rest of the dog’s life.
No one wants their dog to sniff the ground constantly looking for food. First, this behavior can increase the risk of pica, eating non-food items like rocks, sticks, mushrooms, picnic leftovers and more. Sadly, we all know where that ends…in surgery for removal of stuff from our dog’s stomachs.
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 we might want dogs looking for food on the ground is when we have directed them there or they are being taught to track.
Instead of tossing treats randomly on the ground, simply hand treats to your puppy. This avoids rooting and enables us to teach pups to take treats nicely from people’s hands, working on both eye-mouth coordination, and bite inhibition.
Think about the behaviors you are teaching your puppy, unintentionally or intentionally. Now imagine those behaviors in adult dogs. Are they what you want your dog to do for the rest of its life? If so, keep it up! If not, how can you change what you do to so your puppy learns good behavior from the start?
Share your thoughts in the comments below so we can all learn!
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