Puppies Learn Best What They Learn First!

by | Dog Breeding

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.

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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.

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!


  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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