Before the holidays I started this series about the "social dog" in which I will explore how to best help a dog adapt to our human world, whether you adopted him as a puppy or as an adult. We last went over the importance of socialization of puppies. Now on to that wonderful age of 3 to 8 months: the golden age of learning.
As soon as your puppy comes home, he begins to learn. He learns what to do to get what he needs and wants: food, play, attention, exercise, chewing and the chance to relieve himself outside. This is the best time to teach your puppy, soon-to-be adolescent dog, what the house rules are and to lay the foundations for good manners. Attention is only given when your puppy is on the ground, not jumping. Establish this from Day 1! Walking happens when the leash is loose, not tight. Jumping up on the counters is never rewarded (keep your counters clean!) Sit, down and stay are very easy for a dog to learn during this time. These skills are the basis for all obedience, manners and self-control. This is the best time to teach your puppy that coming to you s fun and means something good will happen.
All of these rules, manners and skills can be taught with either rewarding your puppy when he does something you want him to do, or withdrawing rewards when he does something you do not want him to do. It is a fact of behavioral science that behavior that is rewarded grows stronger while behavior that is not fades away. It helps to keep in mind what a reward is from your puppy's point of view. Food is obviously a reward and a great way to feed your puppy his dinner is by hand, asking for sit, down and stay. Not only is your puppy learning skills in a highly motivating environment, he is also learning that human hands deliver food. This is an important concept for a dog and one that prevents food and resource guarding in the future. Also, it is a great way to teach him that human hands deliver food only when he takes it gently and does not bite. Attention, play, toys and praise are also very important rewards. The most important reward is, "if I do this, I get what I want." By controlling the resources, we can shape a puppy's behavior so that he does what we want him to do to get what he wants.
Use praise, games and food rewards every time your puppy looks at you while on a walk. This teaches him to check in with you. Play "hide and seek" and have a big party when your puppy finds you. Run away from your puppy and teach him to chase you, rather than you chasing him. Make this a fun game with lots of rewards and praise and you will be laying the foundation for a fast and motivated recall in future months.
Puppies have no way of knowing what is OK to chew on and what is not. Pick up as many valuable items you do not want chewed on as possible, only leaving lots of puppy toys on the floor. Trade out for things you do not want in your puppy's mouth by offering him something equally as enticing to him, but something he can chew on. Play "take it" and "drop it" games with him using two equally enticing toys and trading out. Teach him to play with you using toys rather than human body parts.
This is also a great period in your puppy's life to continue socialization. Introduce him to neutral-tempered dogs of all sizes. Take him for car rides and to stores that allow dogs. Introduce him to calm, gentle people and children in a variety of outfits, coats, hats and backpacks. In our mountain environment, let him get used to people on skis and snowshoes. Continue to expose him to a variety of different sounds and surfaces in ways that will not scare him, but let him gain confidence in all of these new environments.
Most of all, take the time to form a trusting, loving relationship with your puppy. Teach him that you and other humans are trustworthy rather than unpredictable and scary. The effort you put into your puppy now will pay off quickly, for adolescence is just around the corner!
Louisa Morrissey is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and owner of Skijor n-More. She is also a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and a licensed Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer. www.skijornmore.com