Whenever I am out in public and speak with people, whether it’s at a social gathering or just meeting someone, I often hear the question “What do you do for a living?” When I tell people my profession, it almost always sparks curiosity and genuine interest. Of course, as any dog trainer will tell you, it also stimulates about a trillion questions— which is why I sometimes cringe when I know the “what do you do” question is about to be asked. However, most of the time it is fun to talk about and a good topic of conversation. One of the most common questions I hear is, “How old does my dog have to be to start training?” My answer has always been the same: “From the minute you get your dog home, you are training her. If you have a dog, you are a trainer.” Often this response earns me confused looks. After all, most people have heard things like, “Wait until the dog is six months old before training” or, “Get your dog into puppy classes at twelve to sixteen weeks.” Thirty years ago, the six-month rule was fairly common. This was due, in part, to the fact that all too often training classes in those days involved strong physical corrections, and a puppy younger than six months might be physically or emotionally damaged if she was trained that way before the six-month mark. As you can well imagine, putting a 12-week-old puppy on a choke chain and administering sharp leash corrections was generally a very harsh way to train, and sometimes caused real problems. Fortunately—and this is one of the good things that has happened in the last 10 to 12 years—training methods have become far gentler. It is also pretty much universally understood in the training community that a great deal of effective training can be accomplished with puppies at a very young age. We have many trainers to thank for this, including such visionaries as Dr. Ian Dunbar. Trainers like Dunbar and others, including the ones in my company, have tried to communicate the importance of formal training at a young age. Formal training—that is, training with a professional instructor in group or private lessons, or even in a kennel—can and does start much earlier now than in the past. However, my “if you have a dog, you are a trainer” answer goes a bit deeper than that. What I would like owners to understand in this chapter is that any time you interact with your dog, you are teaching your dog something. All too often what happens is that owners inadvertently teach their dogs the wrong lessons, without realizing they’re teaching lessons at all. This makes it tougher to train the dogs formally later on. Let’s look at some examples.


Mr. and Mrs. Jones are very excited about getting their 14-week-old Basset Hound puppy, and who wouldn’t be? Alright, I’ll admit it, I have a soft spot in my heart for Bassets. They’re just so cute, and since I’m writing this book, the Joneses agree! So, Mr. and Mrs. Jones bring their 14-week-old Basset Hound puppy named Buford to their home. They put Buford on the living room floor and, like the true hound he is, Buford starts sniffing and wandering around. No harm there. Then Buford sees a table leg. This looks interesting and, after smelling it, Buford starts to lightly chew on it. He’s doing what all puppies do

investigating his environment using the physical tools he has at his disposal. In this regard he is no different from you, me or a two-year-old child. However, since Buford doesn’t have hands, he will put things in his mouth a bit more frequently than you or I would. When the Joneses see their puppy chewing the table, Mr. Jones tells Buford, “Hey, no, stop that.” Buford, thoroughly engrossed in the world of oak, ignores Mr. Jones, and Mr. Jones, seeing this, repeats his “command.” “Hey, Buford, no! Stop!” Buford continues to chew and Mr. Jones, a little bit frustrated, walks over and gently pushes Buford away from the table. Buford looks at Mr. Jones, walks three or four feet away, and then squats and pees. Both Mr. and Mrs. Jones yell “No!” pick Buford up and take him out in the backyard, where they put him down and in a stern voice say, “Bad dog, go out here, not inside.” Does any of this sound familiar? I’ve seen variations of this thousands of times. What owners don’t realize is that a lot is being taught to the dog in this scenario. Please read it again, and this time, count the number of times the Joneses gave commands to their dog that the dog ignored. Of course, there is no reason this dog should have responded to the commands, since he wasn’t born knowing what they mean. You and I know the command “no” means a dog should stop whatever he is doing, but in the scenario I’ve just described, “no” was given on at least two occasions when the dog chewed the table leg, with absolutely nothing else following it. At best, this teaches the dog not to listen to the word “no,” especially if this scenario is repeated five or six times a day for a month or two—or three. Additionally, and even more importantly, the Joneses have not yet learned the concepts of prevention and redirection. That is, they haven’t learned how to teach Buford what to chew on, so that they can strongly praise correct chewing behavior as opposed to just reacting to what he shouldn’t do. For example, when Buford was initially placed on the floor inside, there should have been proper chew toys available for his exploration. What’s more, Buford should not have been placed on the floor in the house unless he had gone to the bathroom outside first, then been praised for it and given a little extra time outside to make sure he had eliminated completely.

Basically what the Joneses taught Buford was:

◆ Not to listen to “no.”

◆ Table legs are available and interesting items to chew.

◆ If you have to pee, the living room is as good a spot as any.

◆ The backyard might not be a nice place, because this is where the large creatures take me and then yell.
Of course, Mr. and Mrs. Jones didn’t mean to do any of this. They, like so many other owners, didn’t realize that if they have a dog, they are training from the first second. The above scenario won’t really teach this dog all of these things after one single time, but many owners repeat this scenario, or scenes just like it, hundreds and hundreds of times—most prior to “formal” training.


Another challenge with young puppies involves obedience commands and raises a huge question regarding off-leash versus on-leash control. Basically it works like this. Most people need and want their dog to respond to obedience commands when the dog is not wearing a leash. This is not to say that most owners want their dogs to walk down a busy street off leash. In fact, this can be dangerous no matter how well trained your dog is, and may also violate local leash laws. That being said, your dog doesn’t live on a leash and, as such, has to listen to some commands off the leash. Which commands? The recall (“come”) is critical, as is “stay,” “sit” and probably “down.” Off-leash control needs to be attained, at the very least, around the house, in the yard and possibly in the neighborhood. The big question is, when does obedience training start and how does an owner typically go about getting off-leash control of this type? The real answer is, obedience training starts from the very second you, the owner, start giving your dog obedience commands. Most owners start giving their dog commands on the very first day. When should formal training start? The answer varies, because generally your dog will need to have some inoculations before being admitted to a class with other dogs. Speak to your veterinarian about this, but please understand that diseases such as parvovirus and distemper are nothing to ignore. They can be nasty, fatal and can strike puppies who are not inoculated against them. Typically most classes won’t allow young puppies to be enrolled before 14 weeks of age. If you get your dog at 10 weeks of age, this means a month before you start any kind of formal training. It is during this month that most owners start to make mistakes that often make obedience training much more difficult to teach down the road. Conventional training wisdom goes something like this: When you start formal training, you put the dog on a leash and some form of training collar. For many years the training collar most commonly used was a metal-link slip collar, usually called a choke chain. There are numerous choke chain variations. Some links are bigger, some smaller, some irregularly shaped, some are made of nylon


same noose-type principle. That is, when you pull one end of the collar, it tightens around the dog’s neck. When you release that end, the collar loosens again. Prong collars, sometimes called pinch collars, were once also routinely used. These devices work in a similar fashion to a choke chain, but the prongs pinch the dog’s neck when the collar tightens. It sounds worse than it is, but it is clearly not a device designed to be pleasurable for your dog.
Nowadays—and I think this is a huge improvement—head collars that fit over the dog’s head and muzzle are replacing choke chains as the collar of choice. It’s an improvement (for most dogs) because these collars enable handlers to more easily control the dog’s body with less force by controlling the dog’s head. This is very similar to the way some horses are trained. For a number of years, there was a huge debate in the training world (trainers love to debate) about whether head collars or choke chains worked better and whether choke chains were cruel or inhumane. I believed then, as I do now, that both collars are effective and, when used properly, neither is inhumane. Personally, I believe head harnesses are better in most, but not all, training situations. So, as I started to say, conventional training wisdom has you in class with your dog on a leash and some type of training collar. The objective is to train the dog to listen well enough on the leash that he can be consistently counted on to obey all commands regardless of distractions. When this occurs (and in the best case it can take four to six months), the hope is that you will be able to take the leash off and the dog will still obey you on the first command off leash, initially with no distractions and eventually with them. It makes sense—unless you’ve ever tried it. If you have, then you know what typically happens.

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