On July 10th, we adopted a 9-week old puppy we named Jack. I thought I would share the trials and tribulations of training our new puppy. Hopefully you will be able to take away some good information in preparation for your next puppy!
Jack is a Doberman and he is our third adopted Doberman. Until Jack all but one of our other dogs (including dobies and mixes) have been adopted as adolescents or adult dogs. So having a puppy to train again – a relatively blank slate – is going to be a fun and different challenge! With Jack my training plan began with me consciously working from a list of behaviours I wanted to prevent and behaviours that I find particularly important. I needed to get started right away to take advantage of his imprinting period.
Current information on dogs tells us that the imprinting period for puppies ends at a mere 12 weeks of age rather than the 16 weeks that we had previously thought. Wow – that doesn’t give you much time to get some good stuff permanently planted in those little brains – I had only 3 weeks left!
When we think of dog breeds, there are always those breeds that we advise need to be “super socialized”. These are breeds who are genetically pre-disposed to be a bit more challenging and are often labeled with terms like: “suspicious”, “aloof”, “protective”, “good guard dog”, etc. Basically, these breeds tend react fearfully to things that are new or that they have had little or no exposure to. Dobermans are one of these breeds. Having already experienced owning Dobermans with behavioural issues and a complete lack of early socializing, this was going to be my main focus: I want to raise a friendly dog. I finally have the privilege of starting with a baby Dobie puppy, and I am going to do the best I can to raise a dog I can take anywhere.
When I first met Jack, it was clear he was pretty outgoing, somewhat fearless and curious – which is a good thing. Despite his good temperament, it didn’t mean the job ahead was going to be any easier, because he wasn’t going to stay that way unless I stayed on top of his socializing. What it did mean was that he had a natural curiosity and was willing to investigate vs hang back, be worried and need more support and encouragement. That meant that I would be able to speed up things a little bit as he was wasn’t terribly worried about meeting people and dogs or experiencing novel sights and sounds.
I took Jack everywhere. We went out to investigate something, someone or somewhere new every single day. I began doing this immediately – literally – on our way home from picking Jack up, we stopped to visit a few friends, buy a new harness and had our first weigh-in at the vet.
In those early weeks, at least one of his 3 meals a day was consumed in the form of treats during socializing. We went to local parks and hung around the edges as he watched people, kids and dogs play and walk by. We hung out at construction sites – big and small – and experienced all the noises, equipment and safety clothing. We went to the barn where I have my horses so he could learn to act safely around horses and be calm around all the barn activity. We went to pet stores, malls, libraries, fire halls, our vet’s office multiple times for weigh-ins, check-ups and treats, dog daycare for some puppy play, puppy classes, petting zoos, kids water parks and visited friends.
He pretty much went everywhere I did for the first 8 weeks or more that he was in our lives. And everywhere we went, people of all shapes, sizes and ages would come up to say hi. Everyone loves a puppy and there is no shortage of people willing to pet and cuddle a puppy – even one with sharp teeth and a strong desire to use them! Luckily, Jack is very happy to be touched and cuddled so I didn’t need to manage people too much. It’s often a challenge to keep people at a distance with a more fearful puppy until they have maybe had a few treats and gathered the courage to be a little more curious. As I often say to clients, when you have a puppy you find out very quickly that everyone is a self-proclaimed dog expert! Just do what you need to do for your particular dog and move along if an “expert” is insisting otherwise.
In between daily jaunts for our socializing activities, I created a list of other things to begin working on in this early phase:
– house-training topped the list, of course
– learning to settle and keep himself occupied with chew toys and de-stuffers was also very close to the top of the list
learning to sleep and be contained in a crate and in a pen or containment area
– learning to come when he was called, also super important
– learning some manners around our cats
– learning to be left alone (we have 2 other dogs, but everyone needs to learn to be on their own)
– drop whatever is in your mouth
– stop whatever you’re doing (starting with play between our 2 youngest dogs)
Jack also chose some behaviours of his own. He started doing them all by himself and he loves doing them, so I simply took what he liked to do and added rules of my own and practiced in such a way that was fun for both of us:
– fetch (including take it and give it up)
– back-up (this was one of his very first behaviours and he’s very good at it!)
– tug (a toy not my clothes)
– sitting at a distance (usually on something like a rock or a stair)
– hip-checking (kind of a reverse spin with his hip hitting my leg)
– targeting my foot with his back foot (kind of combined with the hip-check)
– paw targeting
– tunnel – zipping between our legs (not always a safe choice, but kind of fun!)
Those first few weeks were very busy! I found myself training him all the time we were together – I couldn’t help myself. Things were happening and I wanted to reinforce them when I saw them. It just became a habit to carry my clicker and treats all the time I was with Jack. I didn’t want to miss any opportunity I might have – and frankly, it was a lot of fun watching him learn and really enjoy himself. I’m definitely not a training addict, but he sure made me into one for that initial period of time. Just watching his brain process information, watching him try different behaviours and the joy he took out of doing things and getting reinforced was so much fun – it’s hard to describe. I am truly grateful I use the training methods I do – so rewarding for both the dog and for the trainer!
Interestingly, despite all of our daily socializing experiences, when his imprinting period ended he started displaying some reactive behaviours. It literally was like a switch flipped from one day to the next. He started barking at people and dogs he sees in the distance when just the day before he would be happily wagging his tail and anticipating a chance to say hi! I’m so happy we put all that work in early on, though, because his behaviour now resembles alert barking and to some degree demand barking (come over here now!) vs. fearful barking. He is still very friendly once he gets a chance to meet people and dogs. Whew!
My challenge now is to continue our socializing with a focus on managing his encounters so that barking doesn’t get reinforced by greetings and to help him no longer feel the need to bark when he spots something in the distance. It’s interesting to see the behaviours he’s displaying knowing his training history to date as opposed to the behaviours I’ve seen in our other Dobies who had no early socialization. Their behaviours were so extreme compared to his. A good reinforcement for me for doing what we did so far!
It’s important to note that your goal of socializing your puppy is not necessarily to hit on every experience your dog is likely to have in his or her lifetime – that would be pretty hard to do. But rather the goal is to get your puppy used to seeing and experiencing novel things with a positive outcome so that in the future, encountering something different won’t be nearly as stressful for them.
I’ll keep you updated in my next article as we begin work on getting rid of the alert/demand barking and polite leash walking!
My advice to you: If you get a new puppy, get them out and about early – within the first few days you have them at home. Pick clean environments that aren’t contaminated and heavily used by other dogs – but get them out and socializing within that early 12 week period. I can’t stress enough how important this is! Do your socializing carefully and thoughtfully based entirely on the temperament (and to some extent breed or breed mix) of your puppy. Be cautious and supportive for shyer puppies and get some good help from a professional positive reinforcement trainer to ensure you’re on the right path. Have fun and stay tuned for more of Jack’s adventures!