The first call I made when I picked up Luna, my then 7-week-old black Lab, was to Tom Dokken. Tom’s a good friend and an obvious source of dog training information, but I didn’t call him seeking advice. I just called him because I was excited to have a new dog.
He knew that, but he also knew that he’d done me the favor of reading a pile of pedigrees and locating Luna, so he was in a proxy sort of way, responsible for her upbringing. So after we chatted for a bit, he asked me when my wife would be home with our twin daughters. I told him I had an hour before they would arrive and he simply said, “Good. You’ve got time to teach her to sit.”
I thought he was maybe a few kibbles short of a full bowl, but he went on to explain to me that it was go-time training-wise and that Luna would undoubtedly be able to learn plenty of commands in the next few weeks if I taught her correctly.
With a handful of puppy food and more than a bit of skepticism, I led Luna into my front yard and sat down with her in the grass. A few minutes later, she sat for the first time after having learned that when her butt hits the grass, a treat would hit her lips. As they say across the pond, I was “absolutely gobsmacked.”
Each week after that, Tom would call me up and tell me what I needed to do for the week. It was incredible and made me realize that we often don’t give our dogs nearly enough credit for what they are capable of learning and doing. I know I had fallen into that trap in the past, but will never, ever again slip into that line of thinking.
And you shouldn’t either.
The Time Is Now
When you order up a new pup, the excitement and anticipation is a special part of the process. By pickup time, you’ve probably already decided that within a few months, you’ll start working with the dog so that by the time it’s a year old, you’ll be ready for all the upland world has to offer.
Here’s the thing about that – waiting even a few weeks is waiting too long. A puppy is ready to learn as soon as you get it home. It just needs to be taught in the right way. Treat training and praise are the rewards (heavy on the treats at first and then eventually working toward praise) for lessons that might only last one or two minutes tops. Puppies have a minimal attention span, so when the clock starts ticking you’d better get something done or the next butterfly to flap by will shut the whole thing down.
Waiting to start training is admitting that you’re going to allow some bad habits to form. These will seem very minor in a 4-month-old puppy, but not so minor if you have to try to correct them in a 2-year-old dog while you’re trying to work a CRP field for roosters. Training correctly, right away, doesn’t leave much room for the bad habits to form because the good ones will be developing. That is exactly what you want.
Puppy Training Strategy
Short-in-duration, purposeful drills with a 100-percent chance of success are ideal. An eight-week-old puppy that fails over and over is a puppy that won’t want to drill when it’s six months old. Whether you’re working on sit, or place, or come, or whatever, structure your mini drills for easy success.
Figure out simple times to work in lessons during the dog’s (and your) everyday life. Feeding time is a great opportunity to work on steadiness. You can work on “come” in the living room (better yet in a hallway) in your house, just about any time the puppy is awake and ready to play.
No matter when or where you train, make it a point to do several things each day as soon as you bring your pup home. In the beginning, 10 little drills might only amount to a 10-minute time commitment, but the accumulated effort over weeks is worth its weight in gold.
Don’t underestimate your puppy. A good bird dog is capable of learning a lot in the first part of its life. You just need to provide the proper environment to foster some mental growth. Do that, and you’ll end up with a brag-worthy dog, and as an added bonus, will also start to develop a truly special working relationship with your dog right out of the gate.
Who doesn’t want that?