A new pup is a living, four-legged promise. Tucked deep inside of the adorable awkwardness is a future full of rooster flushes and limits of greenheads. All you have to do to do is train it to listen and understand its role at home and in the field.
It’s simple, really, yet so many people get it wrong. Or, they give up before their dog matures into the finished product it should be. These shortfalls often begin with the puppy phase, and just as often, are the result not of the dog’s faults, but ours.
One of these faults, that nearly every new dog owner will deal with is impatience and unrealistic timing.
Josh Miller, who owns the Wisconsin-based River Stone Kennels, is an accomplished trainer and breeder. He has worked with hundreds of dogs in his career and has identified one common flaw in most folks’ training styles.
“People go too fast with puppies,” Miller said. “Six-month-old dogs should not be doing advanced work. They should still be working on basic obedience, and leash work, and all of the foundational elements that have to be there long before you move on to harder skills.”
This issue stems from two parts, typically. The first is that we are biased toward believing our pups are really something special. Of course they are, but just because we love them and are pretty sure they are the canine equivalent of MENSA members, that doesn’t mean they’ll fly through any training drills we throw at them while they are still super young.
Just like you don’t see too many first graders winning chess matches against adults, puppies need time to build their problem-solving skills and learn the behaviors necessary to build to more complex tasks. This takes time and doesn’t happen on a schedule.
“Having a timeline is generally a bad idea,” Miller said. “If you say that your dog is going to be ready to hunt grouse by October, because that’s what you want, you’re setting your dog up for failure.”
Even pups that boast truly impressive bloodlines, should, at least on paper, excel quickly. Yet, they often don’t because they are individuals. That doesn’t mean they are bad; it just means they take to lessons at their own pace, and forcing them into a made-up timeline can be disastrous.
“I have a dog that I’d put up against any dog,” Miller said. “He’s incredible, but his puppies just develop really slowly. They end up being awesome, but they just aren’t as fast as other dogs. For whatever reason, they just take more time but the end result is always worth the wait.”
Having training goals is great, but comparing your pup to past pups, or your buddy’s dog, isn’t. Pay attention to how your fresh recruit takes to new lessons, and move them along when they’ve demonstrated a true understanding of their skills.
“I’m big on the mental approach to training,” Miller said. “If you can’t handle your emotions, or deal with frustration, it’s going to derail your dog’s progress.”
Like it or not, you are the leader of the pack when you pick up your eight-week-old puppy. Almost instantly, they start feeding off of your energy, whether that’s positive or not. If it’s not, good luck getting the training wins you desperately want, because they are going to be a hell of a lot harder to come by.
This is one of the reasons why, if you’re lucky enough to spend time with trainers like Miller, you see an almost unbelievable level of positivity with pups. Older dogs that have demonstrated their understanding of commands, and excepted behavior beyond, don’t need as much coddling.
But puppies, do. This goes for the times when you’re treat-training a two-month-old on his first lessons to sit or lay down and continues right on to the teenage years when you’re diving into commands that involve more advanced skills recall or steadiness.
Keep your emotions in check, and celebrate all of the minuscule wins. Pay attention to your puppy’s actual progress, and forget about holding your new pheasant hunting buddy to a militant schedule. If you do these things, you’ll avoid an awful lot of the big pitfalls that keep so many sporting dogs from reaching their full potential.