Each January, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers holds Train Your Dog Month. I applaud that effort. However, I think we desperately need January to be Train Your Puppy Month.
Why? Here’s why:
1. Puppies are STILL given as Christmas presents
I abhor the practice for many reasons, but the top one is the huge onslaught of unwanted, untrained, and/or suddenly inconvenient puppies dumped at shelters across the country. It’s legion. Shelters know the puppy dump is coming every year, and the good ones prepare as best they can.
You might think: So what? The puppy is still a little thing and oh-so-cute, so surely someone will adopt him? Maybe. Maybe not. But changing homes, first from the mother dog and siblings to a new home and then to a shelter and then — if the pup is lucky — to yet still another home sets the puppy up for difficulty fitting into the human world.
2. The first 20 weeks are crucial for training
While your new little rug rat is looking adorable on the outside, crucial parts of him are developing on his inside, and that period must be handled with extreme care and consideration. In the horse world, it’s called putting a good foundation on a young colt. The very same thing must happen with a young puppy, because his brain is changing in accordance with the sensory experiences of his new world.
During the critical time — the first 18 to 20 weeks of life — structural connections in his brain are exquisitely susceptible to alterations based on what the puppy sees, hears, smells, feels, etc. A puppy is so incredibly vulnerable; he MUST be positively shown what the world is about at this time, as the window of opportunity closes at 20 weeks. If not socialized properly, that time is gone, and the owner spends the rest of the dog’s life trying to play catch up. Interested in the science behind this fact? Read more about the neuroscience of puppy development and about what to expect during the first three months in general.
3. Parent health and well-being also are important
Genes are important, and if you have an aggressive parent dog, the gun comes preloaded for the puppies of that dog; that gene might be expressed or it might not. Why take the chance? The mother dog should not only have quality genes with a stable temperament and good health to pass along, she also needs to be in a healthy, calm environment when she has the puppies and for the several weeks after birth, as she is the one socializing them to their very first experiences.
If you are buying a dog, insist on meeting and spending time with both parents. No excuse is good enough not be permitted to see how the mother dog interacts with humans, dogs, and novel sounds and sights. Never buy puppy mill dogs or dogs from high-volume breeders, where there is no way a breeder can assist the mother dog in crucial early socialization. Puppy mills are specifically setting up young dogs for failure with their large-scale breeding operations, which treat the mother dog like a caged chicken. That early socialization must happen before you come into the young pup’s life, and then it is up to you to keep the learning happening, especially in the first 20 weeks of life.
4. You must set the puppy up for secure interactions with humans and other animals
This means that you introduce new sights, sounds, textures, and experiences to your little angel in a positive way. If you allow something scary to happen during this critical time — and what is scary is what the puppy determines to be scary, not the owner — you can create a memory for the dog of that fright that very well may stick with the dog for all of her life. Get thee to a puppy class with a qualified positive reinforcement trainer. Do not allow anyone to choke, hit, throw things, or startle your vulnerable pup. You can download a puppy socialization checklist for free from the Pet Professional Guild; also, check out our puppy socialization info on Dogster.
5. Do not wait until your puppy has received every single vaccination to begin socialization
Shall I repeat that? It is CRUCIAL to begin introducing your puppy to new stimuli the very week he enters your home. Your home should be a clean place where you can immediately start showing the young canine new sights and sounds. I pair new things with terrific food, for example. A pan drops loudly on the kitchen floor, and that sound releases a chicken fiesta around the puppy. It is important that if something is potentially scary to the dog, that you create the stimuli first and then add the food after. If you provide the chicken first, and then something a little bit novel or perhaps concerning, you can create a dog who is afraid of chicken or food in general. You want novel stimuli to be a predictor of excellent food falling out of the sky.
Read this important statement from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, which calls for puppy socialization classes to begin at seven to eight weeks of age. Of course, limit where your puppy goes until all of those vaccinations are complete, steering clear of public places such as dog parks, but do not avoid a well-planned, indoor puppy class.
Your dog’s fate is literally in your human hands. You have the option of creating an environment rich with positive learning opportunities before the puppy reaches that critical 20-week mark or you can neglect the puppy and perhaps doom your dog to a life of fear and reactivity. It’s up to you.
About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.