Training: The Big Four
The good news about completely positive, rewards-based training is that it's never too early to start.
PHOTOS: In addition to fostering, I'm also a trainer, and was delighted to get to work with many of this litter after adoption. I have been absolutely gobsmacked by the focus these puppies have during training. Teaching pups at 4 weeks that sitting and making eye contact will pay off delightfully opens the door to a whole world of fun training. We also do have open crates always available as a cozy retreat, so that the pups are prepped for that idea by the time they get adopted.
Four Key Things To Teach
The good news about completely positive, rewards-based training is that it’s never too early to start. As Jane Lindquist articulates in Puppy Culture, "Keep in mind that the absolutely profound thing that you are teaching in these early sessions is that training is a good thing, a fun thing."
The beginnings of recall are rooted in mealtime! When you put down food for a litter of puppies, call in a musical, high-pitched voice “puppy puppy puppy!” After weeks of that, the puppies have formed such a strong, involuntary association with that sound that it’s a snap to have them running to you when they hear it. The next step is to add on the adult cue “come” or “here” in the same high tone. (If you just use a normal tone, that word will be meaningless, as dogs hear those two words in conversation all the time.) After a while, you can fade out that first “puppy puppy puppy” part. Then, keep up the rewards to keep that classically conditioned response super strong. (As reported by many adopters, when my foster alums hear, on a Facebook video I've posted, me calling to my current fosters, they often go nuts trying to "come." One woman even used my video, at high volume, when her pup wouldn't come for her. He came for that old puppy call that had such a strong positive association!)
#2: Crate Training
Thoughtfully done, early crate training has incredible benefits. In addition to helping with potty training, it can encourage structured rest. Puppies need to decompress, and you can help them by teaching them their crate means it’s time to calm down and nap. Effective crate-training also fends off separation anxiety later, because pups have learned to be happily alone.
The best way to get a pup to love a crate is to have it cozily set up with the door always open inside an enclosed pen area. Once pup is going in voluntarily, place a pup in there with a great chew, and close to door for just a second. Immediately open the door (before the pup has a chance to fuss) and do a “trade” with a treat for the chew. Repeat, many times. If the pup is relaxed and enjoying the chew, lengthen the time, but always open the door before pup fusses. Once he’s in there for longer periods, make sure you don’t put him in until he has an empty stomach (no food/water for a while), he’s a bit tired, and he’s had a chance to pee/poop.
#3: Sitting To Ask For Something
A wonderful thing to teach puppies is that if they want something (attention, food) from a human, sitting is the way to ask. Jumping and biting, which come naturally to him, will not earn him the response he so desperately wants, so help him out! As Jane Lindquist says as she describes what she calls "manding" in Puppy Culture, "Teaching a pup this beautiful skill gives him a voice of his own, a way to communicate in our world."
The way to do this is to get into the habit of constantly rewarding pups when they are sitting -- and not when they are not. For example, as you approach the puppy den and all pups are going nuts to be petted … stand there and ignore them until one (by accident) puts all four feet on the floor instead of jumping up. Pet that one. Then pet the others when they do the same. Pretty soon they will not be jumping up. Then wait until one pup happens to sit -- bravo! That one gets loads of attention, and the others do not. Have all visitors to the litter do the same. Soon enough, whenever anybody approaches the pen the pups will outdo each other trying to sit so beautifully for attention. This whole exercise requires patience. Mind you: You are not asking them to sit. You are teaching them how to ask you for something. They are two very different things.
#4: Leash Walking
Leash walking is, oddly enough, taught best without a leash! Pups this young will naturally follow along, and your goal is to show them exactly how. Go out in the most open space you have. Start walking in a circle, and wait for the pup to follow. Any time he is anywhere near your left side, give him a treat. Bend down and engage with your pup as you move, use your happy high-pitched encouragement voice and keep it up for a minute. If it’s going well, add a collar and try again. More treats! Two minutes of this is plenty at first.
The next time, repeat the earlier exercise, which the pup will likely fall right into. Immediately add the collar. Still fine? Then it’s time to add a very light leash. I use a kitty leash! It is incredibly important not to tug or pull. Keep it completely slack so the pup barely feels it. The “opposition reflex” is very natural in a dog. If you set up an oppositional link with the leash at this impressionable time you may be fighting pulling for quite some time. In contrast, if you design things so that the pup barely knows the leash is there and instead just keeps on doing that fun exercise he’s been doing where he trots along near your left side and gets treats … you have just saved the pup’s future adopter hours and hours of training.