Good Beginnings: Puppy Training Plan for Weeks 9-12
In my last essay, I shared my plan for my first week with my new puppy, which I'll be bringing home this August (!).
In this post, I describe my plan for weeks 9-12, which are the final moments of an important developmental window in the puppy's life, during which small training efforts can yield lifelong results.
As I said before, I'm writing these articles as a sort of letter to myself, so when I say "do this" or "you" or "your," don't take it personally. I'm not telling you, dear reader, what to do. You can do whatever you want. That said, I hope it's useful to you, and I think it will be.
I expect my puppy schedule during these weeks to be largely the same as in week eight, with the puppy sleeping much of the day; with potty breaks after every nap, meal, and playtime; with one meal per day served in the dish, and the rest of the kibble dispensed as training rewards during playtime (reinforcing the good, redirecting the bad); and with a chew provided in the puppy pen during downtime.
Each day's meal-in-the-dish will involve a quick resource-training exercise, as described in my last post. Each toy and chew, when taken away, will be immediately replaced with a treat. Each potty outing will take place at the designated potty spot.
So much for what stays the same: let's move on to what's new.
Plan to give the puppy one socializing outing per day.* Every day, put it on your schedule (or I, at least, won't do it) to seek out one of the following experiences.
* For me, setting a goal to do one thing, once a day makes socialization feel possible, whereas the oft-repeated rules ("meet 100 people in 100 days! introduce your puppy to all kinds of dogs! do everything, everywhere, all at once, over time!") completely overwhelm me. One outing, once a day. I can do that.
Go to a place
Take the puppy somewhere new. Think of all the places you'll want to bring them as an adult; then pick one. Coffee shops, trails, waterfront, downtown, dog-friendly stores, car.
Take them on a road trip.
Carry the puppy if you don't feel good about putting them down. (Yes, dear reader, Parvo is a concern, but lack of socialization is a bigger concern, as your veterinarian will agree.)
Err on the side of caution in sheltering the puppy from any formative bad experiences (at this stage, the potential for single-event learning is a double-edged sword), but do give them experiences.
Meet a person
Introduce the puppy to friendly humans of various ages, gender expressions, clothes, ethnicities, mobilities and hairstyles.
Meet a dog
Introduce the puppy to friendly, vaccinated dogs of various sizes, colors, coats and ear-shapes. If you let the puppy interact with the dog on foot, have them off-leash to avoid altercations, but make sure they have a getaway: something low to hide under. Or introduce them on leash with a fence in between. If holding the puppy during the introduction, present them to the dog butt-first to smooth any canine worries or tensions.
A puppy class is a good idea if you can find one that's well structured, but if it's just a free-for-all puppy tangle, I feel it's better to find socialization opportunities on your own.
Building on last week, continue cultivating the puppy's courage and curiosity by introducing small challenges and rewarding them for choosing to investigate. If they don't interact when invited, don't try to change their mind. Just make the challenge easier, and click and treat the puppy for every incremental step.
Three challenges to introduce during week nine are the wobble board, the floppy tunnel, and the platform ramp, all of which educate the puppy for experiences they'll run into later in life. A fourth challenge is bath-time.
I can walk anywhere
The wobble board replicates unpredictable footing. You can build your own board by gluing half a tennis ball to the bottom of a plywood square, or duct-taping a rock or something to the bottom. Or just find some other unstable surface in your environment to walk across.
You can put that on my head
The floppy tunnel prepares the puppy not to mind things put over their heads, like bath towels. You can make your own. String out some twine a foot above the ground, lay a big towel over it like a pup tent, put some rocks or books on the towel's edges so there's room to get inside, and see if the puppy will go through.
I can stand on that
The platform ramp prepares the puppy for the vet's scale, as well as any other surface they may be asked to jump onto as an adult. You can devise your own ramp by propping up scrap lumber, cutting-boards, or other household objects. It should consist of an incline leading to a flat, stable, elevated surface. Don't let the puppy fall off.
You can give me a bath
Whatever the bath scene is going to be for the puppy—outdoors with a hose? in the tub with a sprayer nozzle?—set the stage for that now. Don't start with a full-on bath. Just put them in place (e.g., in the tub) and give them some treats. Introduce them to the implements (let them touch the shower hose, the soap you'll use, the towel). When they're good with that, try touching them all over with the dry nozzle. Ruffle up their fur in a lathering motion with your hands. Give them a rub-down with the towel. Later add water, getting just one part of their body wet. In all of these steps, keep sessions short, click and treat all the way, and work at the puppy's pace so they feel fine and have fun. When they're comfortable with all this, give them their first bath.
Once the puppy is a pro at all four challenges, you can drop these from your list of at-home training games. From here on out, enrichment challenges will come from your daily outings, so go ahead and use your at-home sessions on other skills—such as obedience training.
Continue laying the foundations for obedience by reinforcing good behavior any time the puppy happens to offer it. Click and treat the puppy when they spontaneously look at you, come to you, sit, or lie down.
Meanwhile, add some structured training sessions, just 2-5 minutes each. Remember, puppies learn best if they can take a nap after experiencing a success, so be sure to give them some downtime after every session.
What to train first
The first three skills to focus on are Come to Me, Look at Me, and Loose-Leash Walking.
Come to Me
Fire up the puppy call by using it every time you put the food dish down: Pup! Pup! Pup! Pup! This fast, high-pitched call is naturally attractive to puppies. Using it at mealtimes builds up a joyful association, prompting the puppy to come bounding in your direction.
Use the puppy call while playing with the puppy. Click and treat them just for looking, then click them for taking a first step, for getting halfway there, for getting all the way, and eventually, for sitting and looking up at you after having arrived. Rewarding each baby step on the way to a desired behavior is a technique called shaping, which builds a more durable skill than if you were to reward the end-result alone. In other words, a puppy that learns to come in this way will be better equipped to have a bombproof recall later.
As the puppy becomes reliable at completing the entire behavior in response to the puppy call, start adding a voice cue, "Come!", before giving the call. This cue is a musical note delivered in the same pitch and tone every time. Say the cue, give the puppy call, and as soon as they complete the behavior, click and offer the puppy a high-value treat. If ever they don't manage to complete the behavior, stop giving the cue and go back to shaping the behavior.
Once the puppy's response to "Come!" is reliable, start experimenting: call them from different rooms of the house or corners of the yard, and at different distances. Reward the puppy handsomely for all their successes. If ever they don't respond as you wish, lower the criteria; dial back the challenge to something they can win at.
Look At Me
Make a noisy kissy sound and pop a treat into the puppy's mouth. Keep this up until the puppy looks at you in response to the sound; click and treat them immediately when they do. Once the kissy sound is a reliable attention-getter, add the puppy's name to the cue: "Puppy, mwah!"
Next, play with delaying the kissy noise. Eventually the puppy will be able to look at you in response to their name only; at that point, you can try leaving the kissy noise out entirely: "Puppy!" Again, say their name as a musical note, not just a word, and deliver it in the same pitch whenever you want them to look at you.
Then raise criteria: say the puppy's name from different directions and distances. Click the puppy the moment they look at you so they know it's the looking, and not whatever they might do next (moving toward you), that earns the treat. (I make this note because I want Look At Me to be a discrete, stationary skill, separate from Come.)
Take the puppy outside. Click and treat them every time they happen to come into the heel zone on your left. See if they can figure out the game.
As soon as they get into position, start walking counter-clockwise, so the puppy is on the inside of the circle where it's easiest for them to stay in position, and give them a treat every few steps for romping along with you. If you started this game off-leash, add the leash and start again.
If the puppy pulls on the leash, drop it and step away. If they bite your ankles, stop walking; pick them up and hold them facing away from you until they calm down. If their attention wanders, try hustling away to get them to chase after you, or make a series of high-pitched sounds to renew their interest.
Once the puppy is doing well at walking on a loose leash, start experimenting with setting. Walk loose-leash inside the house, on the driveway, in the front yard, on the sidewalk. Don't practice for longer than your puppy can concentrate: start with sessions 2-5 minutes long and build slowly from there. (A two-month-old puppy should walk no longer than 10 minutes max; a three-month-old, no more than 15.) If the behavior falls apart, go back to something that the puppy can do successfully and keep practicing.
What to train next
As you and the puppy develop a foundation in these skills and you feel ready to branch out, try adding a new game from the following list to your routine. Don't add these all at once. Just pick one new skill and start weaving it into the games you're already playing; when that one feels good, try adding another.
Down and Sit
You've already been clicking and treating any time the puppy spontaneously lies down or sits. Now, can you predict when they're going to offer this behavior? If so, put a cue on it. For example, the puppy probably offers a sit whenever you approach the puppy pen, since you've been conditioning them to do that. So, the moment before they sit, say clearly, "Sit!" When they complete the behavior, click; then give them a high-value treat.
If you can't predict when the puppy will sit or lie down, try shaping the behavior. The game is, can the puppy figure out what earns a click? They lower their head; click and treat. They bow; click and treat. They enter a full lie; click, give them all the rest of the treats, and end the game on a really high note.
Another option for training Down and Sit is to lure the behavior you want. For Down, hold a treat against the floor so the puppy can lick it, but don't let them get it into their mouth until their body drops into a full lie; then click and let them have it. Practice until your downward hand motion reliably prompts the behavior. Then add the voice command, "Down," before making the hand motion. Keep practicing until the puppy can respond to the voice cue alone.
Similarly, to lure a Sit, hold a treat right in front of the puppy's nose, then raise it slowly up and back, directly over the top of their head, so their nose cranes up and backward until finally their bottom touches the floor.
The problem with luring is that the puppy's mind is not engaged in trying to crack the riddle of your training game. They can certainly learn the behavior this way, but generally speaking, shaping results in a stronger, more reliable response than does luring. Shaping involves more mental stimulation and joy for the puppy, because they get the major pay-off of figuring out the puzzle for themselves. Think of how you feel when you find your own next Solitaire move, versus when someone notices it for you.
Pick It Up and Drop It
Show the puppy a ball (or some other easy-to-grab toy). Click them for nosing it, then mouthing it, then holding it for a moment, then holding it for longer. Add the cue, "Pick it up," when you know for sure they're going to do so. Practice this until it's reliable. Then, the moment before they drop the ball, add the cue, "Drop it," and click that too. Experiment with duration, until the puppy is waiting on your cue to drop the ball.
Once learned, this trick supports service dog skills (you can expand the cue to include any object, so the puppy can pick things up for you when you drop them) as well as safety (you can use "Drop It" to separate a dog from any object in their mouth, even if they're extremely possessive of it).
Let the puppy see you hide a medium-value treat under your hand. Wait until they stop trying to get it, then click and give them a much better treat. Experiment with moving your hand off the forbidden food (don't let them get it) until they're able to refrain reliably. Once learned, add the cue, "Leave It," before you move your hand off the treat.
This trick makes it possible to stop your dog from getting into something gross or dangerous before it's too late: valuable life skill for a grown dog to have.
Target, Stay and Release
Hold two fingers in front of the puppy's nose, and click when they touch you. Once the puppy is good at this, experiment with distance, moving your fingers away to prompt them to follow; duration, increasing how long they have to follow to earn the treat; and direction, guiding them in circles and zigzags. The hand position itself is the cue for this trick, but once it's established, you can also assign it a voice command like "Right Here."
This trick (targeting) gives you the ability to maneuver your dog's body wherever you need them to be. It's a very practical skill that can come in handy in any number of unexpected ways.
You can also expand it to include objects; for example, once the puppy knows how to follow a target, you can turn their mat into the cue (I lay the mat on the floor, and the puppy lies down on it). At that point, the game morphs nicely into Stay. With the puppy on the mat, you can play with duration (how many seconds can they remain there?), distance (how far away can I go while they stay?) and distraction (how exciting can life get without them getting off the mat?). Once you know the puppy will wait to move until your click, add a voice cue for Stay, and also add a cue for Release, so they understand that the Stay game doesn't end until you've invited them to go free.
When you have a couple voice cues that are reliable at home, it's time to begin proofing these skills. To proof a behavior means to retrain it in a variety of different contexts, among a variety of distractions. The behavior will fall apart if you raise criteria too quickly, so add new variables one at a time, and make each incremental change small enough that the puppy can succeed.
Plan to get in one proofing session per day, choosing from one of the following exercises. (These can double as socialization experiences, above. One outing a day is plenty.)
- Go to a quiet location away from home, and practice one of your skills (e.g., "Look at Me") while you're there.
- Go to places where interesting people, animals, noises or smells are present. Locate yourself at a distance from them: close enough so the puppy notices, but not so close that they're completely distracting. Practice a skill.
- Experiment with proximity. How close can you get to one of these distractions without losing a good response from the puppy?
- Seek out a situation where the puppy can interact with a mild interest—a leaf pile at the park, a familiar human, a toy—and attempt to interrupt this interaction with one of your voice cues.
- Experiment with intensity. How excited can the puppy be about their interaction without losing a good response?
Any time a behavior falls apart, lower the criteria as much as needed for it to come back together; then work forward (more gradually this time) from there. Remember, 2-5 minutes is plenty for one session. You don't have to train everything at once—and you can't. What you can do is accumulate lots of incremental experiences, whose potential to build a really strong response over time is much more powerful than it often feels. Just end on a success, give the puppy a nap, and call it good.
One last note. According to the Avidog puppy program, you can use adventure walks to teach your puppy to keep tabs on where you are when they're off-leash, and stay with you. Take your puppy to a place with varied, uneven terrain (woods, gully, brushy meadow) where you can safely let them off leash. Walk along and see if they follow you. When they get distracted, hide from the puppy until they discover you're gone; then let them work to find you (obviously, give a clue if they're headed in the wrong direction). When they figure it out, praise them—with love only, not treats.
According to Avidog, if you do this routinely through puppy's first month home, you'll end up with a dog that takes responsibility to keep you on their radar instead of disappearing into the woods—which is something I really want in a dog, so I think I'll try this. Again, I'm not going to plan more than one outing a day, so if I do an adventure walk with my puppy, that will replace socialization and proofing for the day.
Putting It All Together
The daily routine for weeks 9-12 is much the same as last week. Napping, pottying, hanging out, eating. While hanging out, reinforce good behavior, and redirect misbehavior. Do a few treat- and toy-trades at mealtime, playtime, or in the puppy's crate to lessen their instinct to guard resources. And find time for a few structured games throughout the day:
- 2-3 minutes for body-handling, to evolve into a daily brushing or nail trim
- 2-3 minutes practicing Come, Look At Me, and loose-leash walking
- 2-3 minutes for an enrichment challenge, to be replaced by other training games once the puppy is ready to move on
The biggest modification to the schedule during this phase is simply to add one intentional outing per day: either socialization, or proofing, or an adventure walk.
Here are a few more videos from Emily Larlham that may help with what riddles pop up:
- On "come"
- On "look at me"
- On using "look at me" as a positive interruptor
- On loose-leash walking
- On "drop it"
- On "leave it"
- On the touch cue
And that's it! I'll be back, I hope, with some follow-up posts soon to let you know how all this plays out in real life. New puppy, ONE WEEK OUT!