There are a lot of things we can do to help our puppies during the first couple of months we have them. Some can be difficult, and some are easy but often overlooked.
Prime among these are some basic behaviors we teach our puppies, things like tolerating (dare I say even enjoying) being touched, willingly being picked up, making and holding eye contact, voluntarily being led by the collar, voluntarily touching an outstretched hand or other object, having impulse control and voluntarily coming to you.
So let's take these one at a time.
Collar Grabs and Handling
First and foremost, it teaching your puppy to enjoy being touched in many different ways. A simple but effective way to accomplish this is to condition your dog to associate being touched with good things. First you have to figure out what a 'good thing' is to your dog, every dog is different but most like food! Some like certain foods more than others, and your job is to find out which foods your dog likes the most! Lot's of puppies will happily work for their kibble, so lets start there. If that doesn't work, try some boiled chicken breast hot dogs, or small amounts of cheese, remember what matters is does your new puppy LOVE the treat!
When we condition a dog to like something, we do it by having them experience it, then feeding them, and we repeat this process a lot of times. So, if we are conditioning our dogs to like to be touched, we touch them, then feed them, then repeat LOTS OF TIMES, like 30 - 50 times in a session. Now, we have to remember that some dogs, even puppies, don't like to be touched in some places (like the top of their head) so we have to start in a place that are not too objectionable, like their shoulder, or under their chin. So touch (gently please) and feed, touch again, feed, touch again, feed, touch somewhere close but a bit different, then feed, repeat, repeat, repeat! Hopefully, you are getting the idea.
Here are the places we should practice touching our puppies:
- Top of their head
- Feet (all of them)
Why do we go to all this trouble? So your dog loves to be
touched, brushed, have it's toenails clipped, get it's temperature taken and even enjoy going to the vet! They will also learn that a hand reaching toward them is a good thing, not something to run away from!
Picking Your Dog Up
OK, so now lets talk about puppies and getting picked up! This is especially important for small breed dogs as they are likely to have to deal with getting picked up most of their life!
Let's face it, sometimes it's just easier to pick them up rather than convince them to go somewhere, but consider the puppy who's always getting picked up by somebody for some reason or another. Often getting picked up doesn't even come with a warning, and if they are not supported properly but dangled over thin air it can be pretty traumatizing! A bit like those new roller coasters with not floors, where your feet dangle! So let's try and make these events more predictable for the puppy as well as more comfortable!
Start by warning your puppy that you are there, talk to them, place a hand gently on them (and treat), then slide that hand across their back and under their belly. As you pick them up hug them close to your body and support their back ends, much like you would hold a football or a child on your hip. Now FEED THEM, yup, each and every time you pick them up! And practice this, as much as you practiced touching them! Get them used to it! Warning touch, feed, pick up, feed, hold, feed, put down, repeat!
One more note about this. Children should NOT be picking puppies up! If the kids want to play with the puppy, let them sit on the ground and let the puppy come to them! That way, we know the puppy is a willing participant, and there's no risk of injury to the puppy.
When we make eye contact with our pups we start to create a bond with them, as well as encouraging them to look to us for guidance. This is one of the easiest behaviors to teach, every time the puppy looks at you just click and reinforce with something yummy! Start by saying the puppie's name, when they look, click and treat! The more you do it, the more they look at you. The more they look at you the stronger the bond and the more they are likely to look at you when you need them to.
Most people have a tendency to 'guide' our dogs by the collar. It's not one of my favorite things (I like using a touch cue better, but more on that later) but nearly everyone does it at some point or another. So, if we teach our very young puppies, the meaning of gentle guidance by the collar, rather than just grabbing the collar and dragging the dog around, we can avoid all manner of issues. Chief among the issues is bites and having the dog run away every time you try to grab their collar.
It starts with the collar grab exercise described above, then we extend that exercise so that we apply gentle pressure on the collar and when the puppy moves - even a little, we reinforce the movement with a treat. So, collar pressure, results in movement then reinforcement, repeat - lots and lots of times. Pretty soon the puppy is going to be happily moving forward with the slightest collar pressure, rather than resisting or running away!
OK, I will admit, I stopped guiding my dog by the collar years ago when I discovered hand targeting. I find it to be easier than bending over the guide by the collar as well as kinder, as it is basically a conversation between you and your dog instead of a command.
Because my dog has such a strong positive associate with touching my hand with her nose (i.e. lots and lots of repetitions and treats when we started) it's pretty much a lock that she's going to do it unless there's a good reason not too. Recently, as she is now 13 years old, she is more resistant to walking on slick surfaces, as her balance isn't very good and she sometimes falls. By hand targeting, I know that if she's uncomfortable with a surface I'm not going to be forcing her into a situation she can't stand on.
This is also one of the EASY things you can teach your dog to do. Puppies are naturally curious, so if you extend the palm of your had toward your puppy and hold it still about 3" away from their nose, they are very likely to come sniff your hand. As soon as they touch it, you mark it with a click or 'Yes' and feed! Repeat, repeat, repeat! Pretty soon, if you put your hand a few more inches away from your puppy, they will be actively moving toward it to touch their nose to your hand and voila, you have taught hand targeting!
We all want our adult dogs to have impulse control (not jumping on people, not barging through doors, not barking at things, not pulling on leash), but few ever consider teaching this to our very young puppies. In fact, we often encourage our young puppies to be totally out of control because when they are little we think it's cute! Then the dog gets older AND BIGGER, and it's no longer cute, it's a behavior problem! The dog hasn't really changed it's behavior, we've changed how we see that behavior, and now the rules the dog must live by!
If we start teaching our very young puppies impulse control from the beginning, we don't have to retrain them when they are 6-9 months old! So, if you don't want the behavior when the dog is 60lbs, don't encourage it when they are 6lbs!
Instead, let's encourage (and reward) the behaviors we are going to want when the puppy is 60lbs. All puppies will sit still at some point, mostly in response to our being still. So if we stand still and wait long enough, the puppy is likely to hold still for a bit and/or even sit. We can mark that behavior (click or 'yes') and reinforce it with a small yummy treat. Remember, we have a baby puppy, so make your criteria EASY (1-2 seconds max)! The more we reinforce this calm behavior, the more it's going to happen. We can reinforce calm behaviors in all sorts of places too, like when we are feeding, when we are going out the door, when we come in from outside, when visitors are around, when the door bell rings, the opportunities are truly endless!
Name Recognition and Coming When Called
These are fundamental behaviors that we should begin to teach when the puppies are 8 weeks old and in the beginning it's pretty simple.
Stand in front of your dog and say it's name, feed a yummy morsel. Repeat 20 times, 5 times a day for 3 days.
Next step, take a step back from your dog, say their name and the word 'Come', when the dog walks toward you mark it (click/'yes') and reinforce with a yummy morsel. Repeat 20 times, 5 times a day for 3 days.
Repeat the process extending the distance between you and your dog by a foot each time. Work in NON-distracting areas until the dog is happily coming each time you say their name and the word 'come'.
All of these behaviors are fundamental foundation skills for the well behaved dog, and you can easily establish this foundation in the first 6-8 weeks you have your new puppy!