March 6, 2016

One of my clients has been looking for a dog. Her needs were fairly specific as she is an active 78 year old and her husband 84. They have had dogs all their lives up to now and miss having a dog around so would love to give a dog a home. But she was very clear in terms of her requirements:

  • She didn’t want a puppy and would rather have an adult dog.
  • The dog needed to be one who was looking for a new home, either because the owners couldn’t keep him any longer, for whatever reason, or because he was a Rescue.
  • He needed to have good manners around people as my client’s husband was frail and would not be able to handle a lively, excitable dog.
  • He needed to be cat friendly.
  • He needed to be calm around her grandchildren.
  • As she loved walking, he would need to be able to walk with her without pulling.
  • She would love a Labrador Retriever as they had had this breed in the past.

Ah, you might say, that is a tall order, and I would agree with you as the first two dogs we looked at were for two very different reasons, totally unsuitable. They had very little self control, very poor manners around people, and had had no basic good manners training. Their connection with people also left a lot to be desired. They were very typical of dogs that had been acquired as puppies, given attention when they were cute and cuddly and as they got older and more boisterous, were banished to a life out of doors with minimal contact with their humans.

We eventually found a dog who looked as though he was the right dog. He was calm and friendly when we arrived to meet him. Although he had very little formal training he was very much part of the family with his owner taking him out for regular walks, spending time playing fetch games (at which the dog excelled). He was very good with children although as they didn’t have a cat we couldn’t assess his behaviour around cats. I felt that this was a problem that could be addressed because of his generally calm behaviour. With this dog the characteristic that impressed me the most was the connection he had with his humans.

This connection can only be achieved if the owner spends some time bonding with the dog in terms of activities that they do together. This dog is one that would fit in with my clients.


Circumstances change and I hesitate to judge people who need to re-home a dog because of unexpected or unplanned for changes in their lifestyle. There are often things going on in their lives that we know nothing about. But if these same people had taken the trouble to make sure their dog was socialized, had some basic training and had a connection with humans, then this would be their gift to their dog. It does not take much time to train your dog to be a good citizen, and just in case you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to put your dog up for adoption at least by doing this you will be ensuring that his future is secure.

Fearful puppies

October 21, 2014

In my previous post the sentiments expressed were that “dogs are a blank canvas” and that the dog’s personality could be shaped by how the puppy was raised.  However much we would like to believe this as it would make our lives as trainers much easier, it is not entirely true. Nurturing is all very well, but what about the hand Nature plays in the outcome.    In other words what factors went into making up the personality or temperament of the pup before it was born, during its neonatal phase of development and during its critical period of development.  Ongoing research is showing that it is actually neither one or the other, but rather an interplay of genetics and environment working together to determine how your pup turns out.

I sometimes come across dogs who have very fearful, anxious or shy personalities. There is often some improvement with a programme of desensitization and counter-conditioning, but in many cases the general skittishness continues, particularly when confronted with a novel event or strange environment. Rescue dogs often display this type of personality and because often nothing is known of the dog’s history, early abuse is often blamed. There might be a history of abuse, but fearfulness in dogs is more complex than that.

Fearful posture

Fearful posture – notably crouching and leaning back, ears back, tail tucked.

With all animals fear is necessary as a self-defence mechanism. The fearful, cautious puppy will often out-survive his bolder, more confident brother and so live to produce offspring who tend to be cautious. There is therefore huge selective pressure on the evolution of fear. Knowing this, and furthermore realising that there are a number of ways that a pup can become fearful or anxious, believing that abuse is the only reason for the dog or puppy’s fearful behaviour is questionable.

  • Genetics: There is ample evidence that animals (rodents, dogs, humans) can inherit a fearful, anxious disposition from its parent or parents.
  • Prenatal Environment: A stressed pregnant female will often give birth to pups with little or no resilience to stress.
  • Maternal Behaviour: There have been suggestions that the dam’s fearful behaviour will have an effect on the pups’ behaviour. No one knows for sure what the mechanisms are of this. It couldn’t have been genetics but it could possibly have been some nutritional component in the dam’s milk, social learning, or just being around a stressed mother.
  • Early Environment: If the pups’ early environment is impoverished in terms of lack of social contact with humans or other animals or experiences, the result will often be a fearful and anxious young adult.

With a rescue puppy that exhibits fearful behaviour, the best we can do is to make sure there is a comprehensive programme of socialization before the puppy is 16 weeks and continued exposure throughout the dog’s life. If a purebred dog is desired make sure that the puppy’s dam does not exhibit fearful behaviour by visiting her prior to whelping. Be aware that if she is genetically fearful puppies raised by her will be influenced by her genes, by any stress she experiences during her pregnancy and by being reared by a fearful dam.

For myself my ideal pet/companion puppy is one who is “middle of the road”. The one extreme would be a puppy who is fearful of everything novel in spite of extensive, careful socialization. The other extreme would be the crazy, fearless pup that dashes headlong into every novel situation, often at great risk to himself physically. My ideal would rather be a pup that approaches each novel situation or person with a certain amount of caution until he or she ascertains that there is no threat to his wellbeing.

Coppinger & Coppinger. Dogs: A new understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution. (University of Chicago Press 2002).

Jean Donaldson. Oh Behave!: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker. (Dogwise Publishing 2008).


The Eight out of Ten Rule

November 21, 2011

The whole point of so-called “obedience” training is to have some control of your dog’s behaviour at all times and in spite of distractions, without having to physically handle him.  This can only happen if you train thoroughly.  This means that for each behaviour you must apply the 80% correct rule.  This means that you need to get 8 out of 10 rewardable repetitions before you can raise your criteria.  The problem with most training is that the reinforcers are removed too soon – before the behaviour is conditioned.  Conditioned behaviour is something the dog does not have to think about.  He hears (or sees) the cue and his muscle memory takes over.  This conditioning is very much what happens to humans who play a musical instrument or drive a car.

For example, let’s assume that you have planned to practise “sit” in your formal training session.

Step 1:  What are your present criteria for this particular behaviour?  How does it look?  How fast must it be?  Where must it be?  Make a note of this.  Don’t rely on memory – you might remember where you practised two days ago, but I’m pretty sure you won’t remember if you were rewarding ½ second sits, or 2 second sits.

Step 2:  Take out 10 treats and either hold them in your hand (out of sight of the dog) or place them on a surface near you.  For each sit that meets your criteria Click and Treat.  For each non-existent or slow sit, place one of the ten treats to one side.  And continue asking for sits.

Step 3:  At the end of the session count the treats that you put aside.  If there are, say, four, then your dog has only scored 60% and is not ready to move on.  If there are two treats put aside, then your dog has scored 80% and you can think about raising criteria.  You might decide that in your next session you want neater sits.  You will, next session, only reward the neatest sits.  All the other criteria remain the same.  You might be happy with the quality of the sits, but would like to practise the sits in a different environment.  These decisions are up to you.

The point I’m trying to make here is that just because your dog meets all your criteria for sits at home, he will probably not meet the 80% rule when trying sits in the park or at a dog show.  So apply the 80% rule wherever and whenever you train.  If your dog does not make the grade, then your criteria are too high.  Lower your criteria and raise your rate of reinforcement until you are scoring 80% again.

The other thing I am seeing a lot is that too much time is taken to move from one trial of a behaviour to the next.  By trial I mean one individual response (from the animal), to a cue or prompt from the trainer or from the environment.  Jean Donaldson in her book “Culture Clash” puts it very well.  She says “Good trainers are very efficient: as soon as a trial has ended with either a reward, praise, release, NRM (no reward marker) or punishment (see my comment) they immediately commence another trial.  They have great “flow”.  The payoff in terms of efficiency is obvious: more trials per unit time means more progress.  In 10 minutes a good trainer can accomplish more than someone with poor delivery can in an hour, even if their skills match up otherwise.”  She goes on to say “Trainers with good delivery lose the dog a lot less.  Post trial loss of the dog’s attention is a common problem, necessitating time and energy to get the dog refocused before the next trial.

Comment:  Clarification of some of the terms used in the quotation above:

NRM – No Reward Markers:

Because we are verbal we tend to want to relay information to our dogs by talking or signalling verbally.  A No Reward Marker is our way of letting our dog know that the behaviour that it has just offered is not the behaviour we want (it does not meet our criteria for that particular behaviour) and it must try something else.  Not all dogs perceive an NRM as neutral, however, and some sensitive dogs might regard it as a mild punisher.  If this happens you might find that, over time, the rate of emitted behaviour falls off and your dog becomes reluctant to experiment with new behaviours.

For this reason I hesitate to recommend the use of NRM’s and would much prefer that by clicking and reinforcing the choices you like and ignoring and not reinforcing the choices you don’t like, you allow positive reinforcement and extinction to work together in a powerful way.


Bear in mind that punishment can range from simply withholding a reinforcer on the one hand to physically causing pain on the other.  When I am training new behaviours I try to keep the session as positive as I can.  If I find that I am withholding reinforcers too frequently, I will review my criteria for that particular response.  Be aware that if you have set your criteria too high and your rate of reinforcement is too low, you are in danger of extinguishing the behaviour altogether.

Another point to remember to look at punishment and reinforcement from the dog’s point of view.  What may seem like a great reinforcer to you may not seem so to the dog.  The dog may perceive your choice of reinforcer as punishment!  It is the dog that chooses the reinforcer.

Another comment:

This rule, obviously, only applies in a formal training session.  However, dogs are learning all the time, so your training in other circumstances needs to be more informal and you will make use of environmental rewards, praise and play.  The important point here is that you must get into the habit of making the most of time spent with your dog.

Focus, Attention Paying and Impulse Control

November 1, 2011


Before you read this article, I would like you to answer the following questions:

  • Is your dog easily distracted?
  • Is he more interested in other dogs and people than in working with you?
  • Does he get overly excited in certain situations?
  • Does he spend time sniffing the floor when you want to train?

If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes” then working on focus, attention-paying and impulse control will help.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that everything else you try to train is much more difficult than it needs to be.  Spending some time and effort on these exercises will pay off by making all your future training easier.  Even dogs with lots of training experience would still benefit from improved focus and impulse control.  The exercises are appropriate for dogs in various dog sports such as agility, obedience and field trials as well as helping your dog become a more responsive and focused household companion.

Offered Focus:

Step 1:  First of all decide what your criteria is.  If you haven’t done this exercise before, you will probably be rewarding a momentary glance in your direction.  Start by attracting the dog’s attention with a kissy noise or a click of the tongue.  Or, just stand still and wait for the dog to look at you.  As the dog looks at you, CLICK! And feed 5 or 6 treats in quick succession, one at a time..  Then, toss the 7th treat on to the ground so that he has to unfocus to get it.  We are doing this so as to give the dog an opportunity to re-focus on you – or find your face.  As soon as he looks at you again, reinforce with the click and treat, treat, treat, 6 times.  Again, toss the 7th treat on the ground.  Repeat this exercise 2 or 3 times. It is very important that no coercion is used for this exercise – no leash jerks or calling the dog’s name.  As the dog’s focus improves, gradually increase the length of time between reinforcements.

This behaviour must be a default behaviour – in other words, no cue. Practise this two or three times a day for two or three minutes at a stretch.  One of the times could be before you give him his dinner.  Leave the bowl on a table, and wait for him to focus on you before giving him his dinner.

Step 2:  When your dog is able to sustain the looking at you for 5 seconds, you can raise your criteria again by only clicking for eye contact.  You will probably have noticed that in the previous step the dog did make eye contact every now and again.  In Step 2, you will only be clicking and treating the glances where your dog made eye contact.

Step 3:  Show the dog you have some really nice treat (a Beeno) or a favourite toy in your hand, then hold the toy or treat out to the side at shoulder height.  If your dog starts jumping towards your hand, simply put it behind your back.  As soon as your dog stops jumping, bring the toy out again and hold it at shoulder height.  If your dog is sitting calmly, simply wait for him to glance in your direction.  Click and give him a treat from the other hand.  The toy goes away behind your back.  The point of this game is that the more your dog ignores the toy or treat in your hand, the more likely it is that he will get a click and a treat.  Repeat this a couple of times, and for the final successful attempt, let him have the treat or toy in your hand.

You need to use up at least 10 to 15 treats with each session and you should try and have at least two or three sessions a day.


Leave – an Exercise in Self-Control

This exercise, apart from teaching your dog the cue “Leave” (that dead frog on the ground – or the cake on the table – or the food in a toddler’s hand) also teaches him about self-control.

Step 1:  Show the dog a treat, then fold the treat into your hand so it’s totally protected. There must be no part of the treat available to a questing tongue or prying teeth. Put your hand down in front of her at mouth height. Note that your hand protecting the treat is a fist. This fist will be the dog’s first CUE. The fist cue says “Keep away from my hand.” Later you can change the cue if you want to by associating a word like “Leave” with the presentation of the fist.

Trying to protect the treat by holding it up above the dog’s head, or jerking it out of her reach as she approaches it, are common mistakes. Holding it up high will only encourage her to jump up to get it, and jerking it away from her will force her to grab at it to try to get it away from you. You’re already protecting it by holding it in your closed fist. Let the dog figure out how to get that treat out of your quiet hand.  The minute she gets tired trying to get the treat from your fist and moves her nose away, you click and open your hand so that the treat drops on to the floor.  As she takes the dropped treat, you can say “Take It”.  You can also feed her with the other hand, but don’t confuse her by feeding her with the hand that’s protecting the treat.  You’ll know that she’s grasped the concept when she pointedly ignores your fist when you put it in front of her nose.

Adding the Cue:  Once she’s realised that ignoring the treat makes you click you can start associating the word “Leave” with the presentation of your fist.  You can also at this stage move on to the next step.

 Step 2:  As you present your fist, say “Leave” and open your hand so that the treat is visible.  If your dog doesn’t grab the treat, click and drop the treat on to the ground.  If she does make as though she’s going to grab it, quickly protect it by closing your fist over it.  Say “Leave” once more and open your fist.  In all likelihood she will ignore the food, in which case you can drop it on the floor and cue “Take It”.
Step 3:  What you’ll probably find is that with each repetition her “staying away” is getting harder, faster, longer.  You can now start raising criteria by either gradually increasing time or distance.  Be careful not to start raising criteria until you get at least 8 successes out of 10 trials.

Step 4:  When you’ve got some decent time and some decent distance, find a convenient coffee table.  Show the treat to the dog, put the treat on the coffee table, and cover it with your hand.  If you think this is going to be easy, think again.  Staying away from your hand is NOT the same thing as staying away from the coffee table.  You might have to go back to the beginning or on the other hand, she will catch on immediately.  Both are normal.

Once she’s decided that this is the same exercise as the one she did with your fist, she will move her nose away from your hand.  Click and flick the treat onto the floor, saying “Take It”.  When she’s made the connection move your hand away from the treat. Of course, when you move your hand off it, she’s going to grab for it, so be ready to cover it again.  Click and flick it off the table when she’s staying away from it.  When you can lean back and leave the treat alone, with the dog holding back waiting for you to click and flick it off the table, add your cue as you’re placing the treat on the table.  There’s no need to bellow “LEAVE!” simply use a normal quiet tone.

Self Control at Threshholds:

This is a useful exercise to teach your dog whenever you are going through a doorway or gate or exiting your car in a strange place.  In a nutshell, what you are going to teach your dog is to stay put until you are given permission to go, and when out or through, reorient to you until you release him.

This is NOT a rank reduction exercise.  I honestly don’t care if the dog goes through a doorway before me or not, but what I’m trying to guard against is for the dog to leap out of my car when the door is open directly into oncoming traffic, or to charge out of my gate and leap onto a passerby to say “Hi”!   I also do not want to constantly be telling my dog to sit and stay, stay, STAY while I concentrate on getting my parcels out of the car before he runs amok.  Any gateway or doorway will do for the purpose of this exercise.

Step 1:  The door does not open until the dog is sitting.  The “sit” must be a default.  A default behavior is a behavior that has been rewarded many times in the past, and is the behavior a dog falls back on when it’s not sure what you as the owner want it to do.  You have just arrived at some place that the dog enjoys and that is safe – either home at dinnertime, or the dog park or some other safe area.  He is dying to get out of the car so is standing on the seat tail wagging furiously.  You, on the other hand, are just standing calmly – waiting.  Because something good usually happens when your dog sits down, he will try this.  You immediately put your hand on the car door handle.   Your dog’s rear end immediately comes off the seat – poised to leap out.  Your hand comes off the handle.  You continue in this fashion until the dog has realized that the only way to get the door to open is to sit and wait.  You have not said anything at all.  All you have done is to watch for the sit, and open the door (or start opening it) when your dog sits.  If the dog will stay sitting until the door is fully open (you may block the opening with your body, but do not SAY anything) reward your dog by allowing him out.

Note:  The default may be lying down That is fine – just be consistent.

Step 2:  Reorienting to you once he is out.  Once your dog has learnt that he needs to stay sitting until you cue him to get out of the car, then you need to teach him that getting out doesn’t mean that he can dash off.  He needs to know that reorienting to you is what is required.  Have the lead on your dog before you leave home.  By now he should be sitting when you open the car door.  Take hold of the lead and invite him out.  When he gets to the end of the leash, he should turn around and look at you.  Click and treat.  A couple of times before releasing him.

Use the same methods to teach your dog self-control at gates and at doorways.

Be consistent.  Be patient.






What Exactly is Puppy Socialization?

August 3, 2011

You probably hear the word “socialization” tossed around a lot – especially if you have just acquired a new pup.  Your pup’s breeder insists that you need to “socialize”; the rescue organization your pup came from says you need to “socialize”.  But what does everyone actually mean by socialization?

What they mean is that not only do you have to introduce your pup to a lot of strange dogs of all shapes and sizes, but also to different humans and as many different species of animals as you can, particularly animals that your pup will contact in your home.  It also means that you should expose your pup to as many different environments as possible; as many different sounds as possible from babies crying or toddlers screaming and shouting to traffic sounds, vacuum cleaners, motorcycles.

Even more important than just exposure is for you to carefully observe your pup’s reaction.  Your goal should be that your pup’s experiences should be positive, not neutral or bad ones.  If your pup’s response to either the environment, person, object or handling is either overarousal (nipping, barking, growling or lunging), avoidance or freezing, then this particular item needs more work.  On the other hand, if the pup stays calm and relaxed, explores the object or environment, is playful and stays focussed on the food, or is all these things even without the food, then you know that your socialization is going well.

Some specific things you need to add to your list are:

Handling – in addition to the more obvious ones, cradling your pup in your arms, squeezing his paws, putting on his collar or harness, grabbing and pulling at his collar – all these things very gently, of course.

Different people, such as people with canes, people with uneven gaits, people with sunglasses, and so on.

Less obvious surfaces such as wet grass, manhole covers, stairs.

Also, blankets or rugs being shaken out, brooms, balloons…

Socialization is much, much easier to do during the Critical Period (before the pup turns 16 weeks) than later in the pup’s life.  Definitely worth it.

Shaping Behaviour

June 1, 2011

Imagine you are in a country where people do not speak the same language as you.  Because you can’t understand the language, following verbal instructions are obviously very difficult.  Imagine being instructed to draw a straight line on a board with a piece of chalk when you can’t understand verbal instructions. Very difficult, I’m sure you’ll agree.   Your instructor’s job, without actually showing you is to break the job down into slices and build it slice by slice.  This is shaping.

In this example, the slices would be like this.

Slice 1:  Look at the board

Slice 2:  Move toward the board

Slice 3:  Look at the chalk

Slice 4:  Touch the chalk

Clice 5:  Pick up the chalk

Slice 6:  Touch the chalk to the board

Slice 7:  Draw a line on the board.

Shaping a dog to do something works the same way.  The dog is equally disadvantaged in that he can’t speak your language.  So you break down the behaviour you want into small slices and reward each slice, gradually building the behaviour by raising your criteria as you go.  For example, the bow would be sliced up the following way:

Slice 1:  Look down

Slice 2:  Bend elbows

Slice 3:  Put elbows on floor

The interesting thing that I noticed about this video, apart from the excellent timing of the click was the presentation of the food.  What we tend to forget when we use the clicker to mark behaviour is that the food also influences what the dog is learning.  Bob Bailey said about the primary reinforcer “As much thought should go into the delivery of the primary reinforcer as goes into the secondary, or bridge (clicker).  Generally, to make this work for you, Click For Action, Feed For Position.”   This is exactly what the handler in the video clip is doing and it is very effective in getting her dog to understand what she wants.

You can also use shaping to build on an existing behaviour and this is how distance, duration and distractions are incrementally added to an already existing sit, down or heel.

There are other ways of getting behaviours that I can think of.  Luring, Moulding, Capturing and Targeting.  However, none of these are as flexible as shaping.  It is limited only by the animal’s ability and the trainer’s skill.

Sometimes the best solution is to use a combination of luring, capturing, targeting and shaping.  Get the dog on the right track by luring or targeting, then free-shape.  As a dog trainer you need to be creative and use whatever tools are available to you.

Criteria, Consequences and Consistency

May 17, 2011

I think I can safely say that ALL dog training consists of these three elements.  Before you even start training any particular behaviour you must have some idea of what you want (Criteria).  Your training philosophy will determine the consequences and your consistency in establishing realistic criteria and providing consequences will make the learning process quick and trouble-free.


Even when training a basic behaviour such as a sit you need to decide what you want from your dog.  This sounds simple enough.  You want your dog to put his rear end on the ground when you say “Sit”.  But, once you have decided what the basic behaviour is, you have to start asking yourself these questions:

  • Where do I want the dog to sit in relation to my position?
  • What do I want the sit to look like?
  • How long should the sit be sustained before I release him?
  • In how many real life situations do I need my dog to sit when I say “Sit”?

All  this means is that you have to give some thought to the complexity of the behaviour.  Once you know exactly what you want the behaviour to consist of it is then simple to formulate a training plan.  This doesn’t need to be complicated with charts and schedules, but it will help you to know what to do next.  All behaviours can be broken down into steps and will go much quicker and easier if you tackle one step at a time.


Consequences drive behaviour.  In other words, consequences are what make a behaviour strong – or weak, for that matter.  If there are no consequences there will be no behaviour.  Behaviour cannot exist in a vacuum.  If the consequences are unpleasant, the behaviour will be suppressed or will weaken.  If the consequences are pleasant, the behaviour will get stronger.  This is operant conditioning, and it is how all animals learn.

Say now we are teaching our dog to respond to his name.  Our criteria is that our dog must swing his head towards us immediately (within ½ a second of hearing his name).  If he meets our criteria he will get a treat.  If he takes 2 seconds to swing his head around, the consequence is no treat.  Of course, if we have set our criteria too high, then we are setting ourselves up for failure, and this is why setting realistic criteria is so important.


No matter how carefully you establish your criteria and how much thought you have given to providing good consequences all your training can fall apart if you are not consistent about what you’re asking for (in other words the criteria for that particular behaviour) and what happens as a consequence of meeting your criteria (or not, as the case may be).   A lack of a consistent experience can slow down or even disrupt training so that your dog fails to learn, or learns an unexpected variation of a desired behaviour.

So, set your criteria realistically depending on where your dog is at that particular stage of the training, provide appropriate and desirable consequences if the criteria is met, and be consistent in your communication with your dog.  If you can maintain these things your training will be more enjoyable for your dog and yourself, with fewer errors and a lot less frustration.    


February 17, 2011


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.

Food as Primary Reinforcer

January 4, 2011

As recently as 10 to 15 years ago, most dog training was done with compulsion.  These days, however, we use more positive methods as they have been found to be more successful and less traumatic for the dogs and puppies.  What we try to do is to consistently set clear limits for  behaviour and effectively communicate the rules by  immediately rewarding correct behaviours and  preventing access to or immediately removing the  rewards for undesirable behaviours before  they are reinforced. It is this consistency and clarity that will create a more confident puppy who knows his place, trusts you, and looks to you for all his needs.  Bad behaviour only happens because it has, in some way been reinforced, either inadvertently by you or members of your family, or by something in your pup’s environment.

Reinforcers (or rewards) can be anything the dog likes or wants.  In the beginning we use food to reward because it is a primary resource that the dog depends on for its survival.  It is also easy to manipulate and carry around with you – always on hand to reward anything the pup is doing that you like.  Puppies are learning ALL THE TIME – not just during our 10 or 15 minute formal training sessions and being able to reward good behaviour whenever it happens is a huge advantage when teaching your pup acceptable vs unacceptable behaviour.

If you follow our protocol of feeding at least one meal of the day out of your pocket and NOT in the bowl, you will always have your food rewards on hand and since our rate of reinforcement initially is extremely high, there is no danger of our pup gaining weight.


The other advantage of training with food is that it is a very valuable resource that you control.  Training with food strengthens the bond you have with your pup and improves the relationship.  As soon as pup has learnt the correct behaviour and has also learnt the value of games and interactive play with you, the food rewards can be replaced with life rewards such as access to other dogs, games with you and favoured toys and also praise and petting.

First Things First…

January 3, 2011

Welcome home with your new Puppy.  Read these notes as soon as you can as I’m sure you will want to get right down and sort out problems like potty training, bite inhibition and leash desensitisation as soon as your pup has settled down, which at 8 weeks will probably take a day or two.  If the breeder has done her job well, your pup’s ability to fit into his or her new life should be a piece of cake!

Potty Training

Check out Ian Dunbar’s article on potty training for detailed instructions.

You might not want to go to these lengths to potty train your pup, but there are five important points to bear in mind:

  • Put your pup on a schedule with regard to feeding so that you can predict when he has to go.
  • Take him outside immediately on waking and wait with him in the appropriate spot so that you can reward him (either with a treat, or with LOTS of praise) when he doesgo.
  • Supervise him closely when he is indoors with you so that you are aware of when he needs to go so that you can rush him outside when you see the signs, even if you have to tether him to you when you can’t supervise.
  • If you always take him to the same place to potty, and reward him there, he will always be inclined to seek out that spot.
  • If you “catch him in the act” all you need to do is to clap your hands smartly together to break in to the behaviour and when he stops the pee or poo, scoop him up and take him outside where he will be rewarded for going in the appropriate place.

Bite Inhibition

Your pup will already have learnt a lot about bite inhibition from his littermates and mother.  However, he will be inclined to bite when he’s excited or when he wants attention, and with his needle-sharp teeth it’s likely to be a painful experience for you and members of your family.

What he needs to learn is that biting will not be tolerated and that teeth and human skin and clothing do not go together.  This is one of the boundaries you will start setting now while he is still a puppy.  Each and every time your pup bites you will say in a loud voice “Ouch!” and immediately stop playing and leave the room.  Your pup will soon learn that biting you makes you go away (which is the last thing he wants) and playing gently makes you stay.  Apart from the word “Ouch!” you will say nothing – no nagging or chastising – simply get up and walk away, closing the door behind you.  Stay away for a count of 10 and return to your pup to resume the game.  The minute he starts biting again, repeat the procedure.  Removing attention is a very powerful tool to teach the pup what behaviour is acceptable and what is not.

The Collar and Leash

If your pup does not understand about leashes yet, go slowly.  Put the collar on and play a game with her to take her mind off it.  When she’s comfortable with the collar, clip the leash to it and let her drag it around for a while (supervised, of course).  Distract her by feeding her or playing a game with her.

When she comfortable with the leash, sit down next to her and put a very small bit of pressure on it.  Not enough to scare her or make her try to get away, but just enough so that she knows it’s there.  Then, either call her, show her a toy, or anything to show her that SHE can release the pressure by moving WITH the leash (towards you).  Give her a treat when she does.

Remember that it’s a counterintuitive response to push INTO the pressure – so that when the leash tightens, her instinctive reaction is to tighten it more.  She has to learn that moving into the leash and towards you is what releases the pressure.   Once your pup understands this you will have gone a long way to getting your pup to understand walking with a loose leash.

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