Ten years ago, I picked up a black lab puppy. I knew the prospects for Luna were unlike anything I’d ever had in a dog due to her bloodlines, and I was terrified to screw it up. With this on my mind, I figured I’d seek out some advice, so I called Tom Dokken during my drive home with my new hunting partner.
Dokken is the inventor of the DeadFowl Trainer dummies and quite possibly the best retriever trainer on the planet. During our short conversation, he told me something that I’ll never forget.
“Teach that pup to sit before your wife and kids get home,” he said. “Use a handful of kibble, push down on her backside while saying sit, and then give her the reward the second her butt touches the ground.”
I thought he was nuts, considering Luna was only eight weeks old. But in the 20 minutes between when I brought her home and my family showed up, she was sitting on command for a bite of kibble. This lesson is one that all new pup owners should heed.
Scientists think the reason human babies are helpless for so long after birth is because of our brain size. Big brains equal big heads, and the bigger the head on the child, the tougher birth can be on the mother. Anatomically, they have to start out small and helpless just to get into the world.
This is not the case with canines. They hit the ground with a shorter life ahead of them and a genetic history of having to either learn quickly or die quickly. While it’s easy enough to consider them fur babies and treat them like we would a human infant, it’s a bad idea.
Pups, from birth on, are primed to learn. By the time you pick them up at eight weeks, they are ready to absorb information about the world around them. They’re also ready to figure out how to make you happy so they get attention, and more importantly, food.
It’s a huge and unbelievably common mistake to assume young puppies aren’t trainable. They are, and they should be trained. The groundwork for so many of the skills that good dogs need to possess can be laid from the moment you pick them up. Recognizing this is a huge step toward having a well-behaved dog later in life.
Most puppy owners won’t overwork their dogs. In fact, most dog owners will never come close to overworking their dogs, except for those of us who own high-drive sporting breeds. Even then, hitting the overwork threshold isn’t all that easy and is not tough to avoid if you understand dogs.
When it comes to your first month with a pup, too much work might be a matter of a few seconds. Their attention spans are extremely limited. You have to understand that in any given training session, you might only get half of a minute or a minute to work with them before it’s time to play.
The good news is that there isn’t a real limit on how many times a day you can treat-train for sitting, lying down, place, recall, or even steadiness. The goal with all of the basics and puppy training is simply not to overdo it during any given session. This is the secret sauce that sets clueless puppies up to become excellent dogs—short training sessions built into everyday life, conducted multiple times every day.
Two things that people do with dogs of all ages, which can ruin them, are inconsistency in training and moving too fast. With puppies, these are good-behavior killers. They need lessons every day to learn what you really want them to do and to understand they are in charge of the rewards they get. A dog that learns to work for a bite of kibble at eight weeks is a dog that will learn to work for a little love or a fun retrieve later in its life. You want a dog like that.
When it comes to moving too fast, this is difficult for even the most patient pup owner. They often seem to advance quickly, but a pup that shows you it can sit in the first twenty minutes you have it home is a pup showing you a false positive if you move right on from that.
It takes time to get lessons to stick and turn into positive, reliable behavior. This is why so many good trainers won’t tell you exactly how long it’ll take to get your dog to recall on command or stay put until he is released, no matter how many distractions are around. They don’t know how long it’ll take, and they know the danger of rushing things.
Consistency in training is just as important as taking it slow and being patient. Recognize not only that they are ready to learn right out of the gate, but that you’ll also be dealing with a tiny attention span, and you can use that first month to set the stage for a lifetime with a well-behaved companion and hunting partner.