By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
I decided to write this blog because in some parts of the country, a low percentage of owners partake in early training (before six months old) with their puppies, whether the training is performed by them, in a group class, or private training. I think there are likely a multitude of reasons for this, but what I do know is that some level of early training is imperative for all dogs. Getting an early start with this type of training the better it is for your dog in the long term. Dogs that attended training prior to 6 months of age had significantly reduced chances of displaying aggression, compulsive behaviors, destruction, and excessive barking as adults, according to a study published earlier this year. It is important to note that the study also found that dogs who were trained with punishment had increased likelihoods of displaying aggression and excitability compared to those who were trained with reward-based methods (Dinwoodie 2021). Puppies and rescue dogs do not come pre-programmed to relax in varied social situations and environments that one might encounter in a suburban neighborhood. They also do not understand how we expect them to behave in those situations. They are just doing what works with them. Nipping at a stranger who is invading personal space can be highly effective at getting the person to move away. Counter-surfing to get to food yields quick and satisfying results for a dog. Why not teach them specific, more desirable behavior patterns (expectations) that they can offer to get similar results and eliminate the unwanted behaviors? These things are far too often not considered until there is a major behavior issue, but this is what early training is all about.
The word “training” can evoke strong emotions in people depending upon their past experiences. People who experienced harsh training methods with their previous dogs may avoid putting their dogs through training. For them, training equals pain and fear. That is a huge problem in certain parts of the country – including where I live – where the majority of trainers utilize punishment including shock collars, prong collars, and leash corrections heavily during training. Other people may not think that their dogs need training at all unless there is a problem behavior. I was one of those people when I got my first dog as a young adult. I thought that training was about punishment and control, not cooperation. I believed that it would crush my dog’s fun, goofy personality as I had seen those changes in other dogs who went through harsh training for basic obedience and manners. I thought that if my dog loved me enough and we had a strong relationship that my dog would never need anything more than the few very basic skills I taught at home. Unfortunately, once dogs get to the point where there is a major behavioral issue there may be a lot of frustration, and even anger and exasperation, on both sides. The dogs have no idea what the person wants, they might wonder why they are in trouble, and they are stuck in a rut continuing to do the same unwanted behavior over and over again. If you see any signs of unwanted behavior, the time to get help is now! Unwanted behaviors do not go away on their own but typically get worse over time.
We don’t get dogs to be frustrated with them!
They are our companions, our family members, a snuggle buddy, and maybe even a helper who does work with us on a farm or as a service animal. Beyond that, we still need to see them for who they are and understand them. While they like to please us, they exist for themselves, not for us. They have internal drives pushing them toward certain behavior patterns, depending on what they were bred to do over countless generations (e.g. guarding, retrieving, herding, following scents, predation, etc.). They seek any fulfillment that they can personally enjoy from life. Viewing the world through that lens allows us to better understand our canine partners so we can socialize thoughtfully and train them uniquely to be able to navigate their world successfully.
As I have mentioned before, I am not a fan of excessively trained dogs who appear almost robotic and lacking personality, unable to act independently, unable to live for themselves. That is not my idea of training. That isn’t my idea of “life” for a dog, not even a service dog. The purpose of training is to enable dogs to ultimately gain more independence by teaching them to make good choices when confronted with options in their environment. When my dogs are puppies, I actually try to pace the training to have a natural flow to it so the learner has opportunities to build on the skills, retain the information, and put them to use in real situations. They think they are just playing fun games with mom/dad that we are taking into new locations and contexts. With the pressure off and the fun dialed up learning takes hold smoothly. My goal is not to make them into an adult dog more quickly. Rather, the goal is to teach them some boundaries, focus, and reliable cooperation with verbal cues so I can guide them in new situations and environments without severely limiting their freedom. The first things I like to do are to build automatic check-ins and willingness to disengage from exciting things in the environment when asked to do so. That way, they can safely and more freely explore the beauty of the world around them. With early training, we are fine-tuning communication between us and our dogs/puppies so we can, in essence, speak to one another more effectively. The communication is not the traditional, militant style that is directed one way, but instead is like a conversation between you and your dog.
I encourage puppy clients to go at the dog’s pace, but that can be a tough sell in today’s world where competitors (usually “balanced” or “leadership” trainers) are promising your dog will be fully trained, obedient, and off leash in two weeks – guaranteed! For those who did not train early and are frustrated, these false promises can be appealing. But they are just that…false promises. A folly of near-instant gratification. In these programs, there is no reliability as the dog has not learned “what” behaviors people would like him to do. He just learned what “not” to do, and to fear humans and the punishment as he guesses at what is acceptable for him to do and which behaviors might trigger the punishment. That really is not a way for an animal to live, and it is not quality (or ethical) training. Training is a journey upon which relationships are built as the foundation. Training is not just a box to quickly check.
Every dog needs some level of training for the sake of safety. There are things in our homes and in public that can hurt them if they do not understand the rules of engagement. Otherwise, how would they know what they can and cannot interact with both at home and in public? How do they know the expectation is to come to you when called no matter what appealing things are present in the environment around them? Imagine that they made a concerning choice and picked up a dangerous item like a chicken bone. Why would they have any interest in surrendering their newfound treasure when you ask them to “drop it”? Reliable, desirable behaviors to not happen on their own, like rapid recalls, avoidance of desirable items in the environment, and independent relinquishment of items without hesitation. They are meticulously trained with care and consistency.
There are huge benefits to early reward-based training beyond the safety and good behavior aspects. Dogs are empowered with more influence over their environment, which in turn decreases anxiety, when they know which desired behavior they can offer to get them the things they need/want. Humans control all the resources dogs in a dog’s life – when they go on walks, when they see friends, who those friends are, what they eat and when, when and where they pee/poop, etc. Without specific training, they are left unable to convey to us that they want/need something. They may plead for these things through unwanted behaviors (barking, jumping, whining, nipping) unless we teach them the behaviors we like and show that they are effective. Early reward-based training geared toward the pace and needs of the learner builds trust, good communication and positive feelings between the dog and owner. Most dogs like to work alongside their people and they enjoy having expectations that they can fulfill, even if the expectations are simple. They like a sense of purpose and they feelings of fulfillment when they do the right thing. It is our job to effectively convey what we want and teach it in a way where they can achieve success. When we teach our dogs to make good choices, we can give them more freedom and the quality of life that they want and deserve.
Dinwoodie, I.R.; Zottola, V.; Dodman, N.H. “An Investigation into the Impact of Pre-Adolescent Training on Canine Behavior”. Animals. 2021. https://doi.org/10.3390/ ani11051298