CRITICAL PERIODS OF DEVELOPMENT
Seven or eight weeks is normally the age when pups are sent out to their new homes. There are varying opinions as to the optimum age, but one thing most people are agreed on is that pups should stay with their littermates and mother until at least 7 weeks. It is the time between 4 weeks when they are weaned and 7 or 8 weeks that the puppy will learn all the behaviours that make him a dog. He will be able to practice body postures, facial expressions and vocalisations, and learn their effect on his siblings and mother and any other dog around. He will learn how to bark and bite and what it sounds and feels like. And most importantly, he will learn discipline from his mother. The breeder’s responsibility is to socialize the litter with other animals and people during this period. Puppies that are removed from the litter too early tend to be nervous and to bark and bite and often cannot accept discipline.
When you get your pup at 7 weeks, therefore, he should already be well on his way to becoming a well-balanced dog. From 7 weeks to 12 weeks is when most rapid learning occurs. He has the brain waves of an adult, but not the ability to concentrate for long periods of time. He also does not have the experience of an adult. Any learning the pup does at this stage is permanent, whether the learned behaviour is desirable or not, and whether you have anything to do with it, or not. This is the ideal time to start any obedience training of the basic behaviours with gentle, positive methods and lots of play. It is also the best period to expose him to many different people, objects and noises and anything the breeder has not exposed him to. This is the time to set boundaries and to work on your relationship with him.
You should also be aware that between 8 and 11 weeks, any painful, frightening or traumatic experience will have a more lasting effect on the puppy than at any other time. New experiences should be as non-stressful as possible, but they shouldn’t be avoided because this fear period has a purpose and is linked to the pup’s survival instinct. He is naturally inquisitive at this age but to protect himself, he also has to be a little fearful of any new stuff so that he doesn’t barge in to a potentially dangerous situation. So let him explore – just make sure that he isn’t getting into anything that could be traumatic.
Between 12 and 16 weeks the pup will have gained more confidence and will, possibly, not be as willing to follow instructions as he was in the beginning. It is more important now than at any other time to establish your leadership and make quite sure that your pup knows that you are in control of resources. Consistency is extremely important if the pup is to learn to respect you.
This period is the time that formal obedience training should begin if the full potential of the puppy’s intelligence and companion ability is to be realized. Bearing in mind that the pup’s attention span is still short your training sessions should be very brief – not more than 10 or 15 minutes twice a day, with frequent “play” breaks.
Of particular interest to retriever trainers with regard to training and critical periods of development of the young retriever is that many canine skills, like retrieving, willingness to stay close during walks and coming when called appear to have especially sensitive periods for their introduction and training.
Scott and Fuller (1965) discovered that a dog’s willingness to fetch an object is definitely influenced by early exposure to retrieving games. What they found was that pups exposed to retrieving games between the ages of 9 and 14 weeks became significantly more avid retrievers than those exposed later. They also discovered that these puppies were easier to train than those who had been introduced to retrieving later (around 32 weeks).
Another area of interest to us as retriever trainers, as well as pet owners, is the dog’s willingness to follow and come when called. Steven Lindsay says in his book “Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour and Training”:
“An area of interest for average dog owners regards active following and coming when called. Long walks consisting of occasional surprise manoeuvres, exciting changes of pace, unexpected chase and counter-chase episodes, hide-and-seek games, punctuated with occasional opportunities for ball play or stick fetching – all facilitate the learning of appropriate “staying close” skills in puppies. Such interaction strongly stimulates leader-follower bonding and other social components conducive to obedience training. If puppies are not exposed to such experiences during the socialization period, as adult dogs they are typically more difficult to train to come when called or to stay nearby on walks. In contrast, puppies exposed to off-leash walks, playful recall training, and ball play, are invariably easier to instruct in the performance of related tasks as adults.”
Knowing all this you can now plan what to do with your pup and when.
8 Weeks to 12 weeks (Rapid learning and Relationship building)
- Establish boundaries – be consistent.
- Introduce retrieve as a game.
- Attention-paying, follow me and establishing sit as a default behaviour by feeding one meal out of your pocket whenever your pup does something you like. At the same time start using your clicker. Click for eye contact, click for following you, click for sitting. Withhold rewards for undesirable behaviours such as jumping up and biting.
- Adventure walks with play recalls, play retrieves, and chase games.
- Desentisizing to the collar and lead, but, at this stage no formal heeling. Pup should want to stay with you, so there is no danger of developing a “pulling” habit.
- Introduction to the water and swimming. Remember that any negative experience will have a lasting effect on your pup during this period of his development, so be sure that his intro to water is as positive as possible. Even if you have to wade in to encourage him in after you. I wouldn’t advise using a retrieve to get him swimming, because if he associates a scary experience with the retrieve in water, this would not be a good thing.
- Introduction to permanent sleeping area and desensitization to being left alone for short periods.
- Introduction to riding in the car – pair the rides with pleasant experiences
- Out and about – shopping centres, traffic, motorbikes, bicycles, children of all ages, visits to the vet (do these before he is due for his second vaccination), enrol in a puppy class.
- Now is the time for crate training if you plan to use one.
12 to 20 weeks (Onset of Independence and Start of Formal Training)
At this stage your pup still has quite a short attention span, so make the lessons short. The most important obedience skills for him to learn now are:
- Sit to whistle – near and at a distance.
- Recall to whistle
- Brief sit and stay
- Walk at heel with an automatic sit
- Swing finish
- Start formalizing the recall
- Retrieves should still be fun. Steadying not that important, but he must be sitting calmly before being released. So wait until that happens.
Always remember to stop before pup wants to stop. He should be begging for more. Limit the number of retrieves to 3 a day. At this stage keep the retrieves relatively close and in very short grass. Do not grab the dummy away from him, but rather let him hold on to it for as long as he likes before you take it. Start introducing him to someone other than you throwing.