Realistic Expectations for Training Based on Age
For many new dog owners excited to bring their puppy home, the amount of contradictory advice for when to start training their new family member can be confusing. On one side, some dog trainers recommend avoiding training until the puppy is at least six months old, preferring to let the puppy experience the world without guidance and sometimes without integration into the human family. On the other side, some experts recommend diving right in to training as soon as they are brought home.
As it turns out, both sides are correct, depending on which style of training the pet parent chooses. Discipline-based training, which uses spike collars and harsh corrections, should only be started when the dog is developed and grown enough to withstand the physical corrections. This style has also fallen out of favor once positive-reinforcement training was shown to be more effective in the long term, creating a stronger bond between dog and human and a higher training success rate1. Positive-reinforcement training is appropriate for any age pet as long as the behavioral expectations are realistic for the age on the dog.
‘Doggie Residence does not recommend discipline-based training, but it is still practiced in some parts of the profession’?
While we have looked into why some trainers recommend puppy training to start only at six months here [link “When you should start training” article], it is also important to keep in mind what are realistic behaviors to train for at different stages of growth.
Training at Eight to Ten Weeks:
Before eight weeks, your puppy is entirely dependent on their mother for all life’s necessities, but they are also learning valuable life lessons from their siblings. This is why most pet professionals recommend eight weeks as the earliest time you should take a puppy home. Starting at eight weeks, your puppy is forming object associations and is entirely dependent on you in many ways. This period of interaction will also set the tone for your relationship with your dog for the rest of your time together, so creating good memories is important.
Don’t expect too much deliberate action on your puppy’s part during this time, it is all about forming positive associations with behaviors you like verses behaviors you don’t like. Giving plenty of praise and treats for good behaviors, such as eliminating on the grass, coming to you when called, and learning to associate people with good memories. Direct their attention to appropriate objects so that they learn acceptable behavior by giving them a puppy toy when they choose to chew on a couch cushion. Harsh corrections or discipline at this stage will only serve to create a fear response to your presence, not train your puppy out of any unwanted behaviors.
Training at Ten to Sixteen Weeks:
Starting from ten weeks, your puppy should have all their shots and be spending more time awake and less time sleeping. Having spent all their time with other members of your family, both furry and non, it is time to start expanding their awareness of the world by increasing your socialization. Enroll them in a puppy class, where they can meet other puppies and people and you can start to teach them basic obedience.
They should be eliminating more consistently outside, along with plenty of praise, and playtime should include plenty of toys and treats.
It is also a good time to start integrating some treat-led basic obedience. From ten to sixteen weeks treat led training to sit, lay down, stay and leash manners are reasonable behaviors to master. Sixteen weeks also closes the ideal window for socialization, so this is the time to go out and show off your fluffy ball of fur (and reward them with plenty of treats). Encourage your puppy to explore the world around them and give them plenty of opportunity for new experiences, along with some short training sessions to keep them fun. Be sure to break training sessions into short periods with breaks for play and rest to account for your puppy’s short attention span – always keep it fun and they will be eager to learn more.
Training at Four to Six Months:
From four to six months, puppies are entering the period just before sexual maturity (generally around six months). After your work with them in basic obedience, they should know all the basic commands, or at least be well on the way to having them as second nature. If your puppy is a natural learner, you may already be moving on to more advanced tricks such as rolling over and high-five. While your puppy is outside their ideal socialization period, it is still just as important to continue their understanding of the world. Now is an especially good age to practice recall in an enclosed space, with the incentive of plenty of treats and toys.
Training at Six Months to Eighteen Months:
After six months, the real work begins. Once they reach this stage of development, you will see a new and independent pup, one who is very interested in exploring everything everywhere. While the work before this period was the foundation of your training, now is the time when you have to repeat, repeat, repeat. Many owners are tempted to step back on socialization at this time, but without continued exposure to new people and dogs your puppy may lose all the benefits from that initial work. This age is a challenge of balancing your dog’s new independence with a routine of practicing the tricks they know as well as introducing new tricks to keep them engaged.
If choosing to use discipline-based training, this is the age you would start to introduce your puppy to training using a combination of command, correction and praise. Most discipline-based trainers discourage training before this age for a very good reason. Typically, training sessions would include the use of a spiked collar, which would be pulled if the puppy did not perform the behavior asked by the trainer. This type of training puts extra stress on your puppy’s body, which is why it is recommended to start at such a late age. Puppies would also suffer emotionally if introduced to this style too soon. This method is not more effective and can affect your relationship with your dog for the rest of their life.
Training When Your Dog is An Adult:
Not all families find their furry loved ones when they are puppies; many bring them home when they are fully grown and may have a mysterious background. Adult dogs may not be as dependent on you as an eight-week-old puppy, and they often have picked up some tricks along the way, making them the perfect companion for many families. The major difference between training a puppy and an adult is that you are more likely to need re-training to alter some behaviors, whereas your puppy is learning from scratch. This is why counterconditioning and operant conditioning are frequently recommended as the most effective and fast way to start new habits with your dog. While training an adult dog is very similar to the puppy process, your dog will have a longer attention span to pick up tricks faster, often making many aspects of training easier.
No matter at what stage you start training your new fuzz-ball, keep in mind that gentle, rewards-based training has been proven to create a calmer dog as well as a stronger bond with their humans. For now, the debate continues in the training community on which age is best.
By Lauren Pescarus
1 Coren, S. (n.d.). Effectiveness of Rewards and Punishments in Dog Training. Retrieved July 1, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201506/effectiveness-rewards-and-punishments-in-dog-training