By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
I remember when I was a young child, back in the 1960s, hearing that you must wait until a puppy is six months old to begin training. The reason I recall this is because I was obsessed with dogs from a very early age (nothing special there) and absorbed everything I could discover about them. Much of what we thought we knew back then—including how to potty train a puppy—turns out to have been exactly wrong. Ditto when to begin obedience training; as it turns out, training can and should commence the day you bring your puppy home.
And by training, I mean all aspects of training, but particularly socialization, the most important early learning you can provide for your pup. I have written posts and magazine articles about the importance of indoor puppy socials before full vaccination; introducing your puppy to at least 100 people by 12 weeks of age; and setting up your home and schedule to ensure that potty training progresses quickly.
But just as importantly, command training can and should begin as early as eight or nine weeks of age—which would have surprised my 10-year-old, dog-obsessed self.
Missing the boat
About 10 years ago, a gentleman in San Francisco contacted me about helping to train his 11-year Labrador Retriever. I often get these sorts of inquiries from owners who recently adopted a rescue, but in this case, his family had adopted the dog as a young puppy. I agreed to take on the case and set up an initial meeting.
What I walked into that day broke my heart: This overweight male retriever did not even know the command to sit! I was aghast and exasperated. I frankly cannot recall the owner’s excuse for having not done any training whatsoever with their now-elderly dog, nor why they decided it was finally high time, but I decided to see what I could muster from this old dog. I do recall that he had never been taken on walks, nor learned to play with toys or other dogs.
When I tried using the lure method to teach this old dog to simply sit, he did not budge. He had no clue whatsoever what I wanted him to do, nor that doing so would earn the treat I was holding in front of his nose. I left after about an hour, then wrote my follow-up email to the client on how to make the remainder of this old dog’s life as comfortable as possible.
Sadly, had this same dog been well-socialized as a puppy, with lots of mental and physical stimulation along with early command training, he might have turned into the most well-trained, social, happy dog in the world. To me, he seemed sad, confused and essentially inert.
While you can, indeed, teach old dog new tricks, the “new” part of that adage implies the dog has learned something in the past, which was not the case with this old fellow.
Learning to learn
By far the most important early training for any puppy is socialization, to other puppies at indoor puppy socials well before full vaccination (find another vet if they tell you otherwise); to lots of people (100 humans of all sorts by 12 weeks of age); and exposure to everything else they will ever encounter in their lives (hello skateboards and vacuum cleaners!)
The reason all this socialization must happen before 18 weeks of age is that a puppy’s brain goes through various stages in which certain activities must occur for normal development to proceed. As veterinary behaviorist Dr. Christopher Pachel explains in this excellent video, puppies are “experience expectant” during these early months, and providing your puppy with an enriched environment is crucial for normal development. Early socialization takes advantage of the fact that, especially before 12 weeks of age, puppies generally don’t have much fear; their brains are structured at that point to observe and learn social cues, from other puppies and dogs, from people, and from other animals (cats!), if they are around.
But this is also the ideal period in which to show a puppy that doing an activity cued by a handler (lured into a sit position, for instance) earns a reward (treat!) My favorite appointment is my “new puppy appointment”, when I meet with owners a day or two after adoption. Part of this appointment is teaching the young puppy to sit on cue. Why is this so important? Because that malleable brain is learning right off to pay attention to their human handlers and that following their direction makes good stuff happen: Learning to learn.
That early learning builds the framework upon which all subsequent training is based. The other command I recommend working on this early in life is recalls, teaching a puppy to come on command. If your youngster masters sit and come by 10 or 11 weeks, all subsequent training will progress much faster.
Don’t stop there
The four most important commands to teach a young dog are sit, lay down, stay and come. Caveat: I sometimes do not train a “lay down” command for very small breeds or mixes. When your adult weight is six pounds, there’s not much difference between sitting and laying, unlike say, a Great Dane, for whom sitting and laying down are monumentally different.
Once your puppy has learned those basics, it’s important to use them all the time in exchange for anything your puppy finds valuable, then to use fewer treats to improve compliance.
As your puppy enters adolescence and adulthood, by all means, continue teaching her as many fun new party tricks as you can! Each time you teach your dog something new, you’ve increased your shared vocabulary, and really, what could be cooler than that?