When You Should Start Training Your Puppy
Ask a group of dog trainers when the best age is to train a puppy and you may get several different answers. This is because the standards for dog training has gone through such an evolution over the years: industry techniques that were common twenty years ago are now regarded as cruel and unusual for today’s trainers. This is especially true when discussing the ideal age to start training in puppies: should pet parents immediately dive in to the basics of obedience, or should they wait until their dog is more mature? As it turns out, the standard age for dog training has always been hotly contested and it is mainly due to the practices of trainers.
A Brief History of Dog Training Styles:
How and when people have trained their dogs has gone through several dramatic changes in ideology throughout the years. There are records as early as 125 B.C. of farmers training dogs to help in herding and other livestock duties, often starting from a young age1. Much later, in 1848, a dog trainer named Hutchinson was recorded to stress the importance of both gentle handling and a rewards-based training system. At the start of a formal system of dog training, punishment-based systems were not encouraged when training a working partner and working dogs were often an integral part of daily life from an early age. When puppies were born on a farm, if either of their parents were working dogs, the puppies would tag along with them during their duties and would pick up some amount of training through modeling behavior.
It was at the start of 1914 that a dog trainer was tasked to revolutionize German police dog training during the war effort. That man, Konrad Most, developed a strict routine of using instinctual behaviors to drive training. He integrated police and service dogs with the war effort. He also encouraged the use of operant conditioning, relying on a mixed combination, which included punishment training. These techniques used spiked collars, harsh punishments and striking the dog as a correction1. While these methods are not used in most training circles today, Most’s basic principles are still used in training police and military dogs. Training for these dogs did not start until they were around six months old, as many of the training methods could cause harm in a young, developing animal. This is when the proscribed amount of time to start training puppies at six months was first documented.
After this period of militaristic training, dog behaviorists began to use science and psychology to study the motivation behind canine behavior and a new era was born. Training theories began to evaluate the intelligence behind dog behavior and the instincts which appeal to their habits. Dr. Ian Dunbar was the first to publicize the importance of early training, as people were still not attempting to train dogs younger than six months. Dr. Dunbar, a veterinarian in the 1980’s, was also the first to encourage the use of puppy classes as a way to strengthen the bond between owner and dog and to impart good social manners. This spelled the final shift in the canine training world away from harsh punishment training towards more compassionate and understanding techniques. With the bloom of television trainers and clicker-based training, punishment style training is actively discouraged in most training circles. The old-fashioned belief of delaying training until the puppy is at least six months old, however, still lingers despite the popularity of puppy socialization classes.
Does Early Training Benefit Dogs:
When deciding whether to endorse early training or whether to wait until the puppy is at least six months old, trainers should take into account if it benefits dogs to have early stimulation with their humans. While few trainers advocate for advanced training during this time, many report that priming the puppy for training behaviors makes for a quick learner later on. Puppies go through several developmental stages in the time between recommended adoption at eight weeks and six months.
From eight to ten weeks, puppies are at the first stage of developing first impressions. Object associations formed during this period will follow them into adulthood and experiences in this time period may color how they react during training3. If a dog parent follows the rule of delayed interaction during this period (just letting puppies be puppies), the puppy may miss out on experiencing a wide variety of situations that will be common in later life, such as vacuum cleaners, traffic noises, other furry and non-furry family members. This stage is often carried on to the ten- to sixteen-week-old period, when the puppy is still largely dependent on their person but is still malleable to accept new stimuli as positive. It is during this time that pet parents enroll in some type of puppy class, both to help socialization and to prime the puppy for training later in life. Without the intense interaction encouraged by modern dog trainers and pet professionals, many puppies would be isolated during this time of rapid brain development. Especially during the period, during which a puppy develops their fear response, intense interaction should be encouraged to allow for a more socialized and calm adult dog.
In 2013, researchers Michael Renner and Mark Rosenzweig investigated the studies that recorded the growth of a brain in animals who experienced an enriched environment, with human interaction and novel experiences, and the brain growth of animals who had no enrichment2. What they found was that animals who experienced enrichment, even in moderate amounts, had larger and more developed brains than those who did not. Humans have known this for ages, as early stimulation for children has shown to produce more intelligent and adaptable adults. This is conclusive proof that interaction and enrichment have a direct impact on the brain development of other mammals. To recommend avoiding a puppy for the first six months of life (and brain development) may result in a less intelligent and developed puppy.
Along with the developmental stages of dog development creating critical periods for exposure to new stimuli, early stimulation in this period will create a more developed brain. Both of these reasons argue for an early introduction to training and socialization, rather than waiting for the puppy to reach a certain age to be introduced to new behaviors and environments. It is not possible to have a puppy as part of your home without giving them some basic training, even if it is as simple as not biting shoes or to eliminate outdoors, so the alternative would be to keep a puppy in isolation from humans for six months.
As long as training behaviors are gentle and keeping to behaviors possible for the age of the puppy, training should start as soon as they are brought home. With the spiked collars and “Command! Correct! Praise!” trend thrown out the window, there is no reason not to include your new puppy to a training routine that is appropriate to their age.
By Lauren Pescarus