Puppies Learn Best What They Learn First!

by | Breeding, Dog Training, Puppy, Puppy Raising

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.

If puppies are not given the opportunity to learn housebreaking, they quickly learn to potty anywhere.

READ: The Six Biggest Potty Training Mistakes Dog Owners Make

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.

READ: Want to learn how to potty train a litter of puppies?


ACBM an on-going membership program designed to provide an extensive dog-breeding education that takes you from wherever you are, novice or longtime breeder, to Master Breeder!

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.

READ: Are You Sabotaging Your Puppy’s Recall?

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.

Breeders quickly teach puppies to jump up and bark when pupsare left in a solid-sided whelping box.

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.

Conformation buyers want a default stand for their pups

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.

Want to know more about raising healthy, stable puppies?

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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.

One thing we never want to teach our puppies is to root around on the ground for food.

WATCH: Avidog’s “Baby Noses” webinar for the AKC Canine Health Foundation

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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  1. Dawn Spano

    Excellent article. Thanks for posting

  2. Linda Swanson

    Rxcellent article and points made, except for tracking. I have two Champion Trackers and have helped others train and do not motivate with food on a track for the exact reasons you speak of… They learn first best!!! Being creative and using scent articles will start the pup on the right foot and food will not need to be phased out. Reward treats are given at the car after completing a successful track. Note: no matter what, I make sure there is success.

    • Gayle Watkins

      Linda, I’ve not trained a CT yet so will bow to your knowledge. Now there are even fewer reasons to put food on the ground :-). Thanks so much for your insights! Gayle

      • Susan Palius

        There are plenty of Champion Trackers that have been trained with food on the ground…and plenty that have been trained without. Whether of not to use food drops, food scent/drags, extra articles, extra tracklayer scent (scuffing, triple laying, handprints, etc.) or any other aid depends on what works for the dog.

        But I do entirely agree with the potty training ideas…my gaylan’s golden came home at 9 weeks pretty much potty trained — and sleeping through the night in his crate, too.

  3. Kathy Ziemke

    Great article! Wish we could get more breeders to implement these techniques!

    • Lise Pratt

      Kathy, thanks so much! We’d love more breeders to implement these techniques, too! Help other breeders learn about Avidog – tell them about us. We really want to help breeders create the best possible dogs possible. We’ve had so many people ask “Why don’t I know about you?” We’re working hard to get the word out and would love help from anyone who believes in what we’re doing!
      So feel free to talk about us and share our Facebook posts and blogs.

  4. KJ

    Wonderful article. I already follow most of the ideas but was making one mistake of using recall way to much and not rewarding for every recall. so in essence I was not just doing the reward for every successful recall.. I was calling them to me for nail clipping and moving from one place to another for cleaning their areas etc.. I’ve learned a lot and really appreciate all of your articles. I’ve also had some wonderful success with using my home built activity center using the directions I downloaded from your site, the puppies love it and really are much more adventurous verses being timid with new sounds and textures.
    I’ve instinctively followed the thought that puppies that can’t see out will jump up.. so that’s a very good point. I’ve always allowed the puppies from 3 weeks on (just finding their legs and able to walk reliably without toppling over) out of their initial whelping enclosure that does have solid walls except for a see thru gate.. they are from 3 wks on allowed out in their larger room with potty pad area and sleeping area, they learn quickly to leave their bedding and head for those potty pads. and it’s stopped the jumping up and trying to escape their initial smaller area.. Everyone ( new families) seem very happy with how well their puppies learn their routines.. and will settle down for crate time, but are very easily taught.. Again, I appreciate your articles and I learn to watch every little thing I do as a boxer breeder to bring our pups to their full family friendly potential …

  5. Elizabeth Mallory

    Great article! Points out some things that are so easily corrected by breeders and that will make a lasting difference for their pups. Thank you.

  6. Lori Visintainer

    Count down to Kansas ….can’t wait for more!

  7. Jen Shaul

    Fabulous article! Thank you for outlining all these wonderful points.

  8. Jen Shaul

    Fabulous article! Thank you for outlining all these wonderful points!

  9. Shirley Nilsson

    Nice article! However, some concern about using eye contact and quiet attitude as a default behaviour also. I breed pointing dogs and they are faulted heavily in field trials if they are ‘loose headed’ and turn their head away from the bird while pointing as might happen as the handler approached to flush the bird. It is a fault that appears to be familial in some dogs and acquired by training pressure in others, but either way, having a default eye contact could also potentially contribute to loose-headedness on point – no matter how unsure or pressured the dog feels on point it needs to maintain eye contact to with the bird in order to consistently win.

    I wonder also about a default behaviour that is designed to take a pup out of drive. For competitive field, obedience, agility dogs etc wouldn’t we want their default to be in drive when they engage with us and we can use training to take them out of drive as needed? I realize that pet dog training is all about endlessly taking dogs out of drive but my breeding program goal is to produce competition prospects.

    Shirley Nilsson

    • Gayle Watkins


      Excellent points! Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. For working Weims and other pointing dogs, eye contact sounds like a wrong early behavior to teach. Thinking through what puppies will do as adults is key rather than just blindly teaching a sit. I loved visiting your website. Congratulations on all of your success! Will we see you when we are out in British Columbia for our upcoming seminar?

      Gayle Watkins

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