This post is part of the Dog Agility Blog Event on Starting Your New Puppy. Visit the event page to see lots of other perspectives on this topic. A new puppy is one of the most joyful and exciting things to experience, but can also be the cause of much fear and trepidation, because we feel everything needs to started just the right way. With families who have brought one of my puppies into their home as their first dog, the need to start “just the right way” covers everything from getting just the right crate and leash, to the just the right method for potty training and crate training. When it comes to training for performance activities the fear can be even worse, especially when the puppy is going to have every bit of foundation training that the last dog missed out on and will have the perfect running or stopped contacts that the last dog didn’t have. In cases like these the mountain of expectations can seem almost insurmountable, and there is a fear of teaching something not quite right that can’t be undone later. After training more than 10 new puppies myself, the compulsion to get things just right has waxed and waned over the years, and I still have anxious moments where I worry whether I have a “real” training plan in place. But there are a few principles I’ve learned over the years that help me get started and keep going with my training, because after all, the process of starting and continuing to work with your puppy is more important in some ways than the specifics of what you train.
1. It’s Never too Early to Start
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the right age to start puppies — in particular agility skills — and I’ll save my detailed comments on that for another blog post. However, I firmly believe that as a puppy shows interest in certain types of playing and behaviors that start to approach what we may want as an adult, we can reward and encourage these to be done in a safe manner that fits the puppy’s developmental stage. Certainly I will have puppies I’ve bred who show interest in a tiny tennis ball chasing and retrieving it by 5 weeks old. I will reward with lots of praise and encouragement and we’ll maybe do it 3 or 4 times before the game is over. Similarly puppies may be familiarizing themselves with wobbly objects and running through play tunnels by 6 or 8 weeks. Sometimes this will be encouraged, but the duration of the activity will be determined by the puppy. In general I will keep to short training sessions that don’t require any real physical endurance or strength from the puppy through those high growth periods (through to about 6 months, depending on the breed) and let most of the physical activity be directed by the puppy in a safe environment. During that time there’s an endless number of useful tricks, such as targeting objects and other behaviors, like sits and downs, that can be taught, especially with clicker training. After that I believe puppies can be directed in a more structured way to use safely use equipment such as jumps with no or low bars, gently curved tunnels, and flat planks. Along with the emerging physical capabilities, the puppy is maturing emotionally and mentally such that they can concentrate for longer, learn to control impulses, and simply handle life. Through careful observation you’ll often see that this is the limiting factor on how much a puppy can do at any stage, as you’ll quickly see the stress responses and recognize shutdown and aversion to the activity if the puppy is pushed too far too fast.
2. Let Go of Your Expectations
Sometimes when we acquire a new puppy it’s because we greatly admire a dog of the same breed or type and hope and believe the new puppy will have the same attributes. Sometimes our expectations are high because we have a great training plan and work super hard with the puppy. However, each puppy no matter its breeding and to some extent its training comes with its own personality, preferences, and strengths and weaknesses. The most difficult relationships I’ve had with dogs in my house have been because there was a mismatch between what I projected onto the puppy and what the puppy actually was. The results in the ring weren’t successful either, until I learned to accept who that dog really was and not who I wanted it to be. Things would have been so much easier had I done that during puppyhood. Sometimes you get the puppy who by all their breeding is meant to be the next agility star but they aren’t that interested in toys or chasing you around a couple of cones in the yard and would rather do little obedience exercises. Or you can get the puppy who is so gangly and uncoordinated that you think they’ll never run fast, much less jump at their regular jump height. Or maybe you have an extremely impatient dog who gives you just a nano-second before they move onto the next incorrect behavior. I say let go of all the baggage. Stretch yourself as a trainer and see if you can be a decent obedience, herding, treibball or whatever type of trainer your puppy needs you to be. You’ll get much further faster in teaching your puppy how to learn if they are excited by the activity. Who knows — you may be able to generate some of that excitement later about activities of your choice. Have patience and let your puppy grow physically and mentally into what they are meant to be; often you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Take on the challenge of being more timely and correct in your rewards and make sure you turn the impatient puppy into a fast and accurate adult.
3. Enjoy Your Puppy and Build the Relationship
Going along with the last principle, I believe that if you can truly accept the puppy for who they are then you will really enjoy the puppy, quirks and all. My last puppy is really the first dog I’ve had who enjoys digging or finding holes and hiding in them. For sure this digging tendency is a pain in a dirt agility arena, but it’s pretty funny at home when he digs his way into the sofa cushions to find a hidey-hole and all we see is a little nose peering out. I have to remind myself of that vision while I am diverting him from ruining the arena 🙂 The same puppy tends to be very busy at times looking for shoes, children’s journals from school, and other contraband items, but he has the fastest recall of any dog in the house and willingly relinquishes any prize in second. For that I’m grateful as we put a new cover on my daughter’s journal for the third time. My daughter gets frustrated with her young dog sometimes as he can get distracted in training. But since he was a young puppy we’ve always made sure there is time to play, and even when she doesn’t have time for training she can take a ball into the hallway and throw it for him. That sort of activity is fun for both of them as she feels like she is able to engage him once again and he just enjoys the game. Find the things that you enjoy about your puppy and focus on those thing to help you feel positive and build the relationship that you’ll need for training in the future.