Well, what should a puppy learn in his first year? You’ll probably get as many answers as you ask trainers and handlers, and there is no single right answer to this question. With every new puppy I meet, my own philosophy gets further refined, and as science discovers new truths about the development of animals, my ideas change, sometimes subtly, and sometimes radically. Let me share the puppy and young dog training answer I’d give you today.
I believe that every dog is an individual, and the amount of exercise and action needed on the one, and relaxation needed on the other hand varies from dog to dog. I also believe there are general things that are true for most puppies of a certain breed, and there are other things that are true for most puppies of any breed whatsoever – and there are also things that differ from dog to dog, from one individual to the next. The things I’m going to focus on today are the ones that I consider important for every puppy and young dog, no matter whether big or small, working or toy group.
The first level – a foundation for behavioral health.
- A dog should learn to be comfortable just “being in the world”.
1A. Being confident and curious around people (adults, children, quiet ones, running ones, people on bikes, skateboards etc.), and not startled by their touch.
1B. Being confident and curious around other dogs (off-leash and on-leash, big ones and small ones, calm ones and active ones etc.)
1C. Being able to relax at home even when not tired and exhausted.
1D. Being able to relax out in the world even when not tired and exhausted.
- A dog should learn to be comfortable in his own skin.
These are the two single most important skills – everything else, in my opinion, is secondary. Everything else (from basic pet dog manners to dog sports skills) can be taught to adult dogs as well as to puppies. However, being comfortable and confident “just living” is something that should be taught during puppyhood – the longer you wait to socialize your dog, for example, the harder it will get.
The second level – greater life quality for the human & greater freedom for the dog.
The next important level increases the life quality for the human part of the team by means of making her dog easier to handle and an eager partner in crime, and the amount of freedom her four-legged partner can be allowed in a safe way: the more reliable your dog, the greater his freedom.
- A dog should learn how to learn, and that learning is fun.
- A dog should learn basic everyday skills:
4A. Peeing outside.
4B. Staying home alone.
4C. Walking on a loose leash.
4D. Coming when called.
4E. An appropriate way to greet people.
4F. An appropriate way to ask for attention.
4G. Riding the subway/wearing a muzzle/settling under a restaurant table/relaxing in a box if you’re planning to travel etc.
- A dog should learn things related to the kind of husbandry he will have to experience on a regular basis. (Brushing, clipping, trimming, cutting nails, getting a bath etc.)
The third level – foundations for sports and work.
Then there is nothing for a really long time, and then we come to the specific skills you expect of your dog. These can, but don’t have to be started in the first year. If you start them later – no worries. Even adult dogs can learn to excel at them. If you have a scared or anxious puppy, don’t worry about these skills at all, but spend 90% of your training time on points 1 and 2, and 10% on points 3 to 5. However, if you have a confident, happy-go-lucky puppy, now is a good time to lay the foundations for the future:
If you want to do any kind of performance work, you’ll want to build numerous reinforcers (food, toys, personal play etc.)
If you want to do any kind of performance work, you’ll work on building value for attention and motivation to work with you in distracting environments.
If you want to do agility, you may want to work on general body awareness and rear-end awareness in particular.
If you want to do pet therapy work, you might place an extra strong focus on enriched environments and introducing your dog to small kids, people on crutches, wheelchairs etc.
If you want to do obedience, you’ll make sure to not only teach a rockback pet dog sit, but a separate clean tuck sit, not only a relaxed hip-bent down, but also a sphinx down with a separate cue etc. from the very start.
Things handlers should learn in the first year with their dog.
- General canine needs – how much sleep, how much exercise, how much mental stimulation do dogs in general and your breed in particular tend to need?
- Get to know your dog as an individual: what does he like? What doesn’t he like? What games does he enjoy, what’s his favorite food, what’s his favorite sleeping spot, his favorite spot to be petted?
- Read your dog well in specific situations to predict and avoid stressful situations before they escalate. What does it mean if his body stiffens? If he wags slowly/fast? If he pricks his ears? What kinds of noises does he make, and what do they mean? etc.
- How to train animals in a scientifically and ethically sound, force-free way.
… This is it for the handler, in my mind – and believe me, this is a lot for first-time dog owners – and even for experienced ones!
I’m looking forward to reading about your experiences in the comments – what has worked for you in your puppy’s first year, and what hasn’t worked? I also hope to find some time to post videos about Hadley’s first months and the skills he acquired in those days in the next days/weeks. I’ve taken what feels like a gadzillion videos, but haven’t found the time to edit, upload and share them yet!