Puppy Training: How to build a solid foundation

Puppy Training: How to build a solid foundation
Photograph by © CHARLES LAUGHTON

Once you pick a puppy, knowing how to gently introduce your dog to its new environment then establishing a proper training regimen is critical to setting your gun dog up for success. Knowing how to build a solid foundation for training and setting boundaries for your puppy will go a long way toward putting your puppy on the right road to becoming a great field dog and companion.


In this installment I would like to build upon the progression laid out in the previous issue's "Picking a Puppy" column. There we discussed how to best select a breeder and a pup to meet your specific needs and wants; once this has been achieved, however, the real work begins.

Once you pick a puppy, knowing how to gently introduce your dog to its new environment then establishing a proper training regimen is critical to setting your gun dog up for success. Knowing how to build a solid foundation for training and setting boundaries for your puppy will go a long way toward putting your puppy on the right road to becoming a great field dog and companion.


In this installment I would like to build upon the progression laid out in the previous issue's "Picking a Puppy" column. There we discussed how to best select a breeder and a pup to meet your specific needs and wants; once this has been achieved, however, the real work begins.


Introducing a puppy to its new environment is a critical first step in establishing the foundation and the boundaries upon which all future training is built. As we have highlighted all along, a well-bred pup will possess great genetic potential, but when you bring that pup home at 7 or 8 weeks, it is critical to remember he is just a baby. Your primary job from here forward is to get that puppy introduced to his world in a positive way and set him up for success. It is vital you, the owner, don't do things you can't undo. Consider the following a cautionary tale.

Throughout most of my professional training career, I supplemented my income by guiding hunters at several of New York's renowned sporting clubs. Having completed a morning hunt on one such guide day at Orvis' Sandanona Shooting Grounds, I stumbled across a gentleman in the clubhouse who was the proud owner of a brand-new retriever pup.

I immediately engaged both the pup and his owner, and during the course of our conversation, asked what the pair was up to that day at the club. My assumption was that the gentleman and his dog were simply out on a socialization exercise, but I was about to learn that the owner's goal was altogether different.

Photograph by © CHARLES LAUGHTON

"I'm here to get my puppy used to the sound of the gun," replied the gentleman. "The best way to get a young gun dog acclimated to the sound of the shot is to bring him out on the clays course for a few hours. I'll leave him tied up in the buggy while my friends and I shoot, and by the end of the day he should be completely conditioned to gunfire."

Needless to say, my response to this horribly misguided opinion was firm. As I recall it went something like this, minus the more colorful language:

"So you are taking this tiny puppy out on the course to surprise him with explosions that he can neither understand or escape, and you will be doing this without offering him any distraction or reward? And you didn't even think about the fact that while you are shooting you are wearing those fancy electronic earmuffs, but you assume that the gunshots won't impact the pup's hearing at all? I can only imagine how many other dogs you've ruined, if this is how you always begin your training'¦"

I like to think that the gentleman described above took note of my warning, but if nothing else, he managed to illustrate the most fundamental point of dog training, namely, that effective training requires little more than basic common sense. When a pup joins you in your home, he is generally 7 or 8 weeks old. His eyes have been open for maybe a month, and the world is still very new. In short, a young pup is a baby, and will be so for some time.

Despite the fact that you the owner have aspirations of great hunting days to come, you must acknowledge that before any birds are flushed, shot or retrieved, you have a significant responsibility and a good deal of hard work in store. The lessons you teach your pup during the pivotal first few weeks will establish the foundation and boundaries upon which all future training will take shape, and those lessons will require care and consistency. You must remember to walk before you run.

For the purposes of this article, let's create some working definitions. I look at the FOUNDATION as the groundwork, the first steps, the instruction, affirmation and reward that defines the behaviors that you want the pup to achieve. BOUNDARIES, on the other hand, are the guardrails or corrections that we use to reinforce the foundation.

But how, in a practical sense, do we apply these concepts to give our pup the best possible start? Let's play out some strategies that might illustrate how to deal with common, early behaviors and training.

GENERAL ATTITUDE

A move from the whelping box to your home will be a dramatic shift for the pup. Smells, sights, sounds, etc., will all be new, so your first job is to make sure that the pup is happy. Don't hold back giving treats, and don't be overly concerned about complying with your puppy's needs.

Though many will say that I am crazy, I typically take the pup into my bed with me for the first couple of weeks I have him in the house. My rationale here is that he is used to sleeping with his dam and littermates, and I want to smooth that transition. Also, with the pup in bed, I can respond quickly to any whimpers or whines that indicate when the pup needs to pee or poop.

The FOUNDATION work here lies in establishing a positive learning environment, establishing a reward structure, and building a bond.

CRATE TRAINING

It is a good idea to get the pup acclimated to the crate early on. Dogs are den animals, and therefore often feel a sense of security in a confined space. Choose a crate appropriate to the size of the pup. If the crate is overly large, the pup will not hesitate to pee or poop in the crate, which will do little to streamline house training.

Put a bed or a blanket in the crate, but no food or water. Every time the pup goes in the crate, reinforce the behavior with a one-word command such as "Kennel," "Crate" or something of your own choosing. When the pup enters the crate, always give him a command and a treat. Early on, you may need to manually place the pup into the crate, but with repeated command/reward, he will start going in quite voluntarily.

The FOUNDATION here is in creating a secure, positive place for the pup to (eventually) spend extended periods of time. BOUNDARIES are provided when the pup does not comply with the "Kennel" command; remember, the command/reward is not a question or an option. The command is given, the behavior enforced with a positive but firm correction (i.e., push the pup into the crate if necessary) and then a reward is given.

Photograph by © HEATHER C. MILNE

SLEEP TRAINING

During the first couple of weeks the pup is in the house, I don't recommend heavy reliance on the crate. Much of the pup's time should be spent with you, the owner, engaging in the surrounding environment. I have learned over a lifetime that young puppies, for the first couple of weeks anyway, sleep best in bed with their owners. Not only can owners respond to the housebreaking needs of the pup quickly, but puppies simply will not whine if they have that close contact.

When transitioning to the crate at bedtime, simply create a positive, consistent program. Kennel the pup, reward, turn out the light, and let the pup settle in. If the pup whines, give a firm NO command, and potentially a firm, quick physical correction (i.e., a quick tap on the nose). The pup needs to understand that "No" means no, and that there is no negotiation. Repeat as necessary. The pup will at length learn the desired behavior.

The FOUNDATION here is establishing a sleep program and behavior expectation. The BOUNDARY is a NO command, and a clarification that whining is unacceptable.

HOUSE TRAINING

House training is of course a fundamental component of the pup's initial training. As a member of the team, a pup cannot use the house as its litter box. Effective house training requires vigilance, and therefore the pup must not be given the run of the house.

When the pup looks as if it may be circling to pee or poop, pick him up quickly and carry him outside. Once on the ground he will finish the job, and he should be praised and rewarded. If he manages to begin peeing or pooping inside, give a firm NO command, pick him up, move him outside, and put him on the ground to finish. Praise and reward at this point.

House training is all about consistency and vigilance. Note the FOUNDATION here lies in establishing acceptable behavior (i.e., pee outside, not in) and the BOUNDARIES are the stern NO and/or the swift removal of the pup from the indoor space to the appropriate place for peeing or pooping.

THE COME COMMAND

Aside from NO and KENNEL, a recall command will be perhaps the most critical early command to teach. Once more, this should be a simple, one-word command such as COME or HERE.

To set this command in place, get the pup coming toward you with a treat, give the command to enforce, then praise and treat upon completion of the recall. Soon you will be in a position to command THEN show the treat, enabling the pup to respond to your command more proactively. Again, praise and reward upon a job well done.

The above illustrates how to establish the initial Foundation and Boundaries that will enable success in future training. In the coming installments, we will move this progression forward, cementing the recall command and initiating the sit/hup command.

It all begins, however, with Foundation and Boundaries, created and enforced with common sense. Remember, stay consistent, do the hard, steady work, and your efforts will be rewarded.

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