Updated: Sep 12, 2020
I have been hearing these exact words a LOT lately: "None of my training is working with my 8 week old puppy!". I hear a few things reading between the lines of these words: this owner does care for their puppy in that they are trying to get training started off early, this owner has high hopes for their dog's behavior, but also that this owner has some unrealistic expectations of dog ownership that need to be attended to. It is true that teaching things correctly is much easier than undoing improper training later. However, there are right ways and wrong ways to accomplish this, and its more involved than you might think.
I am asked often, "At what age do you start training?" and my answer is "Well hopefully it started as soon as this puppy opened its eyes!". What do I mean by that statement though? I certainly don't mean that I started sit stay drills with a three to four week old pup. Recently, at a consult, I got thinking about a term that can really describe what I mean. I was calling it "house training" or "lifestyle training" but I didn't feel they got across the right message. What I finally came up with is "Family Lifestyle Immersion Training". So what does THAT mean? It means in the beginning weeks of my dogs life, I am teaching them about living with our family. I am teaching them where they can and can't go inside our home, I am teaching them their name (and If it means come to me or just to get their attention), I am teaching them it is not ok to put their mouths on human family members, and luckily for us our older pack members are helping to show them what is and isn't allowed in play. I introduce basic commands, but only to start exposing them to the concepts, not to make them adhere to them by 10 weeks old. You'd be surprised how much easier true obedience commands are picked up once they have their lifestyle skills mastered.
It is also important to remember that each puppy is an individual. "Train the dog in front of you" is a saying in the dog training world. It means if you have a lab puppy in front of you, there will be certain perimeters they will fall into BUT they are still a unique, living being and may have their own quirks you need to work around. Also important is to be conscious of their age. It is easy to feel like your puppy has been in your life much longer than they have been, and especially with bigger dogs to forget with their size how young they actually are. It is also vitally important to remember nothing in our world means anything to a dog. They are not born knowing what sit means, you have to connect words with actions. If you really wanted to you could use the word "fan" to mean sit or "couch" to mean come. A huge mistake people make is assuming their dog knows their name so they should know to come when they hear it. Did you actually teach them that?? If not, it's like handing a toddler child a pencil and expecting them to know how to write. You have to intentionally and consistently connect words with actions, or they will not know what you want. It is not fair to say your dog is being disobedient if you have not trained and proofed the behavior. It is not enough to work in your house or yard, that's the start but then you need to add in the 3 D's of dog training; Distance, Distractions, and Duration. Only then can you expect your dog to reliably perform commands. News flash: This takes time! More than that, it takes hard work and consistently. There are no short cuts in this journey folks, sorry to burst your bubble.
Another client I worked with yesterday made a great point I want to include. It is easy to focus on and be frustrated with what your puppy ISNT doing right, but it is much better to focus on your wins and just dig a little deeper into the trouble spots. Often if you look at all the things your puppy IS doing right for their age, that list actually is longer than the list of mishaps. You just have to train yourself to see them. That does not mean to ignore things you don't like, you should be showing your puppy both what you do and don't want them doing. If you find yourself getting frustrated with something you're working on, try changing it up. Add in some trick training just for fun, or go back to Family Lifestyle Immersion Training a little while. If it's not fun for you, it definitely isn't fun for your puppy.
Make sure you are being intentional and consistent with your training too. If you don't want them doing something for the next 10-15 years, don't let them do it now. Period. No matter how cute it might seem in puppyhood. Make sure to pick commands you can stick with. We'll go back to our using their name for recall example. Do you expect their name ALWAYS means "Come here"? Or sometimes do you not want them to come when you say their name? Are you accidentally teaching them that "sit" is actually "sit, sit, sit, Brody SIT!" Training goes better and sticks faster if you are conscientious with your commands and their delivery, and that's on you not your dog.
You are your puppy's guide through this life, take this responsibility seriously. Do not compare them to puppies you see on YouTube, you are seeing a painfully short snippet of that puppies life. You are not seeing the 10 out takes it took to get that one 5 minute shot. You do not know what that puppy's whole day of life looks like. It's like comparing yourself to social media influencers (don't do that either, it's not worth it).
One final piece of advice; training sessions can be short! Especially with puppies under 9 months old. 5 minutes of formal training twice a day is better than zero minutes, especially when paired with Family Lifestyle Immersion Training. They are learning with every interaction, even if you didn't intend it to be training time. Do not feel like if you can't sit for 30 minutes you failed or it's not worth trying. It is better you do a little every day to build consistency and reinforcement history than a long session a couple times a week. As always, reach out if you need help, I'd be happy to assist.
For the Dogs,