What can (and should) a puppy learn?
Updated: Feb 23, 2022
When you get a fresh puppy, you need to remember that they've been on this planet for two months. Think about the things you would need to learn if you were brand new to this planet and inside of a rapidly developing body. Puppies reach full size between 9 months and two years depending on breed, giant breeds growing the slowest. Before that happens you may want to learn how to navigate an environment; climb over things, under things, go from sitting to standing, step up on a platform and back down, spin in a circle or turn without tripping over your own feet. Yes, these are things puppies are very bad at, and if we show them how to move their body better, they can be healthier as they grow up.
To teach a puppy proprioception you need to have a puppy who knows how to work for food. While puppies may be little sharks who devour anything you hand them, they need to learn how to take food softly and accurately. There's a few different techniques we can combine to get the best variety of feeding behaviors as the puppy moves through training. When starting with a puppy, use their kibble for training! There's no reason not to and they love it, plus hand feeding promotes bonding during this critical time.
My first goal is to be able to carry food with me without having a puppy trying their hardest to dig into the whole stash of kibble. I do this by putting a meal amount in a treat pouch or cup, I sit down on the floor and prevent the puppy from eating anything from the pouch or cup while using a kibble in my hand to lure their nose away from the pouch or cup and on the floor where I'll place the kibble. Then when the puppy eats the one off the floor, I will use that same hand and grab another, place it in the SAME place, or approximately the same place. For different training goals, you may migrate that spot over to get your dog in a better position. You can do this exercise on a mat for maximum benefits. Now you have a mat they'll be conditioned to stay on because it's a good predictor of reinforcement, congrats, your puppy is now mat trained!
Another way I want to be able to feed a puppy is from my hand, and puppies have sharp mouths that hurt a lot! Plus no manners makes for a bad day on my hand. This is why we need to get smart about hand feeding, no more pinching your fingers! My puppy's teeth keep digging under my thumbnail and it's a painful reminder every time that I'm not feeding her correctly. Feed a puppy, or any dog, like a horse. You should have the food in your palm, and place it right under a puppy's chin. Practice keeping your puppy in different positions while hand feeding, it's a good skill if you are looking to have a beautifully trained dog in the future. If you need to hold the treat in your hand for an extended period to lure a puppy, squeeze the base of your thumb over your palm to hold the treat tight. They won't be able to nip at your hand.
Teach puppy how to get into a sit, down or stand and all the transitions from each behavior, not that they have to. Before you can expect your puppy to hold a sit stay for 5 minutes, they need to build those muscles that allow them to get into a position and stay in a position. Cycle between sits, downs and stands while also practicing the feeding in position to keep puppy in the same position until you lure them into another.
Now that we have a puppy working for food and following food, we can teach them how to move! Bring out simple objects like a cardboard box they can walk into, or a yoga block they can step on. If you are up for a challenge but a really cool looking behavior, teach rear end awareness. This can be accomplished by having a platform like I mentioned before, or I prefer a rubber feed bowl set upside down. Then you teach the dog to stand/stay with the front paws on the bowl. Then start to move the nose to one direction using luring. Now turn the nose and hold the treat there while you wait for a back leg to move in the direction.
Another skill a puppy needs is to chase things. But my puppy chases everything, you might think. Yes, so we need to funnel that behavior into something useful while we have it reliable. Toss a kibble down the hall and have the puppy chase it. When the puppy catches it, call the puppy's name and then feed again when they return. Throw another kibble out and repeat. This builds name recognition, which a puppy needs to know for our convenience and their safety while also teaching your puppy how to accurately chase down a tossed treat for future training endeavors.
These may not seem like the glamorous heel, recall and stay work like most imagine when the words dog training come to mind. However I would argue that without these skills, that flashy stuff will not fall into place. It all starts here and if you build your foundation out of sand, it'll all come tumbling down. Lay your foundation thoughtfully, one brick at a time.