ClickerSolutions Training Treasures

Puppy Shaping

First, congratulations on your new pup! Puppies take enormous energy, and this is to me, the hardest part. It means a probable 3 year commitment to close supervision and extensive stepped-up socialization in public. It can be extremely difficult for some of us with non-static disabilities to meet the needs of the puppy, who still needs those daily outings no matter how lousy we are feeling. The task training is truly the easy part.

But getting that puppy out every single day is really draining, so gear up, my dear! You will need energy in abundance. But it's oh-so-worth it. There is nothing better than shaping a puppy. It's a clean slate, a sponge waiting to be filled, and there is something about puppies that seems to GIVE us that extra energy we need, even when we think we're too tired and sore to move one more finger.

I'll be sending you the puppy posts in a private email, but wanted to share a few thoughts about things to teach early and things not to teach early. I made a few major mistakes with this pup, and hopefully you can use them to bypass the same problems I created.

First, Have a plan! I didn't and I paid dearly for that. I just trained what felt right at that moment, helter-skelter. I'd shape nearly anything the puppy offered. He learned at warp speed, but some things worked against me.

For instance, I taught a retrieve before I taught targeting. I would not do this again. It was hard to get behaviors NOT mouth-oriented after this, and he wanted desperately to bite the target stick or use his nose instead of his paw for other bheaviors, such as pressing buttons. Next time, I plan to have a plan, follow it as much as possible, while still being flexible and adjusting it as necessary. Targeting first, then retrieving!

Next, I will never again teach a young puppy to open and shut doors until they are out of adolescence. It is a super fast behavior for them to learn, so no need for me to teach it early on. Puppies can be very smart, and learn to open those cupboard doors and drawers on their own, help themselves to garbage and goodies. They can even learn to open the childproof locks.

I'm not the only one who has learned this the hard way. Yesterday, Rita, my training partner came to visit. Melissa had been here visiting for a week, and we were talking dogs and shaping behavior. Rita told us about how when her service dog LaLa was a pup, she shaped Lala to open the refrigerator door. Rita came in the kitchen one day and found Lala and the cats inside the fridge, just having the greatest time checking out all the neat smells.

Next, I'd teach "checking in" with eye contact first thing, and keep reinforcing this daily. We have many posts on this, and it's an excellent behavior to teach your dog. This way, it will become automatic to "check in" and make eye contact without having to call the dog's name or otherwise coerce his attention.

One easy way to do this was demo'd by Melissa yesterday, and is very similar to what Dr. Deb Jones did in her seminar a couple weeks ago at the Papillon National. Hold out a really smelly wonderful treat in your hand, with arm outstretched by your side. Let dog mug your hand, try to get the treat. The moment the pup stops mugging, looks away, backs away even a tiny bit, you click and treat. Incrementally, you up the criteria until you have the dog looking at you before you click. This gets the puppy quickly to focus OFF the food and to look to YOU for leadership and direction.

There is no limit to the amount of behaviors a young pup can learn--they are truly behavior-offering fools at 9 weeks. But they have the attention span of a gnat, of course. Just be very careful about what you shape, and think all the time about how the behavior you are teaching will affect other behaviors you will want to teach down the road.

Do tons of bathroom training. I'm sold on it, truly. The bathroom is one of the best places to teach in the world: it's small, it's quiet, there are few distractions, and you can easily keep their attention and keep the other dogs and distractions away. And since you use this room several times a day, it's a natural for short training sessions. Keep clicker and treats in your bathroom all the time!

Some things you can teach a puppy in the bathroom:

  • attention
  • targeting
  • sit
  • down
  • retrieve
  • tug
  • release
  • bite inhibition
  • touch
  • wave
  • roll over
  • front
  • settle on mat
  • head turns
  • 101 things to do with a box
  • flush the toilet
  • put object in trash container
  • leave it

I think one of the most important early behaviors to teach is the tug and release. And the bathroom is just the perfect place to teach it! It's a small, neutral environment, low stimulus and distraction. You are GOD in the bathroom and don't have to compete with any other stimulus.

On Bite Inhibition training:

There are a good many traditional trainers and breeders on my chosen breed list who vehemently disagree with me on teaching this behavior. They feel puppies should learn never to mouth human skin, and begin adding aversives at a young age to discourage the pup ever touching human skin.

I totally disagree, and want all my dogs to know and understand just how hard human skin can be manipulated. I want that to be a default behavior, for those emergency times. I follow Jean Donaldson's methods of teaching this behavior as outlined in "The Culture Clash" and it has served me well. My dogs have all developed a very "soft mouth" this way, and learned to control the intensity of their bite so that they never bruise or lacerate human skin.

This is helpful for any dog, I'm convinced, but especially helpful for dogs who may need later on to learn to lift human legs, arms or hands and place them in different positions. If they learn as puppies how hard to hold human skin, it will be with them for a lifetime.

On Targeting: Now is your chance, with a fresh puppy, to use more and more targeting and less and less food luring. This will be SO helpful down the road, when you are asking your puppy to ignore tantalyzing smells out in public. Get the puppy working for the click, not the food lure from the get-go, and your job is SO much easier. You set youself and the pup up for success this way.

Why lure a sit with food when you can get the pup to follow a target instead? Same for down, front, right, left, behind, over. The less you lure and the more you target, the less food-focused your dog will be. Food motivated, we want. Food focused can work against you.

If you do lure with food, fade that lure really fast or it will come back to haunt you. Again, get the pup quickly targeting and working for the click, not the food.

I blew it on this one, folks, and I'm paying the price now. Targeting is one of the most helpful behaviors you will ever teach, and you will use it for the rest of the dog's life. It's one of the "key" behaviors!

Another helpful thing you can teach a young pup to do with a target stick is to longe like a horse, around you in a circle. This is excellent for trips and controlled areas, where you need to get the pup exercised, but have little room or energy to do it. It also teaches the dog to balance, especially when you longe the dog in both directions. You teach this with a target stick, gradually increasing the distance the dog is circling your body. It's SO handy!

The most important lessons, however, are those you will teach in stimlus-rich environments. From the time you get your pup to about 4 months of age is absolutely crucial: what they learn in these few months will be lessons they have for life. And never will they learn as quickly or be more sponge-like than during this period of time. This is your key window: use it well, have a plan, and make each outing a teaching game.

Make daily outings routine, and each day up the criteria (the distractions) just a little bit, and teach quiet acceptance. This is the time I like to teach the puppies that it's okay to watch the squirrels scampering in the park, as long as they are sitting or standing quietly and not lunging on the leash to get them. If you teach this during that first 4 months, you will be well-rewarded for your efforts.

I have two manic rabbit-lizard chasers (my un-trainer husband taught them well), but not the pup. He just quietly takes it all in, because he was heavily reinforced for those quiet behaviors as a youngster. Every single day. It's default to him now, and he wouldn't think of chasing a squirrel, lizard or cat. And that's amazing, considering these Papillons are quite birdy, coming from a Spaniel background. They are highly reactive, so teaching them how to react early on sure helps with service behaviors!

One thing I did each day was take a trip to Wal-Mart, just 3 blocks from our home. They have two resident cats in the garden department, and each day we'd go say hi to the cats and reinforce quiet acceptance. And each day we'd work on attention in this very distracting environment. Gradually we moved INTO the main store, first making only sweeps through it, and then extending the time in the store minute by minute.

Because I have a lap-sized dog, I started this very early. I didn't have to worry about elimination mistakes, because the pup was on my lap. For those with young pups who cannot be held or put on laps, it's a good practice to get the pups to empty out just before going into the store, and to make very short trips, keeping them moving. Be prepared with a spray bottle and towels just in case, though!

Those early trips were fantastic for my pups. They learned that carts rumbling and screeching by were just ho-hum, and that loudspeakers blaring were no big deal. That kids rush in from all directions, and that looking to mom for direction means good things happen. That ignoring funny sounds other humans make means more good things happen. That sitting still at the cash register for just a few seconds means really good things happen. And that walking on a loose leash in a stimulating environment means really, really good things happen. And that smelly stuff ignored on the floor means superduperreallygoodthings happen!

Get the puppy out early as possible to safe environments. Expose him to skateboarders, joggers, cyclists, inline skaters whizzing by. Reinforce quiet and attention. Teach safety behaviors for being around loose dogs--Nina Bondarenko has some wonderful posts shared on this topic.

Teach elimination on cue from day one! Don't wait. It will be another "best lesson" you ever taught. We have many posts on this as well in the archives, which are searchable by topic. Jean Donaldson's elimination training program is excellent, as well.

Be sure you give your adult dog some "down time" away from the puppy. Puppies can be so full of energy, like little mosquitoes, and can really tax the patience of adult dogs. I love to use ex-pens to keep puppies contained, but still allowing them to be part of the family hubub.

Once the puppy knows a few stationary behaviors, such as sit, down, settle, touch--go ahead and click both dogs at the same time. Find several things you CAN click at the same time so that little learning sessions happen all during the day, and so that the adult dog also gets a chance to earn your clicks and treats. You are also teaching the adult dog that though puppies can be extremely aggravating at times, when they are around, mom plays fun games with Miles too!

What videos do you have on hand? Do you have Karen Pryor's "Puppy Love"? Deb Jones three "Click and Go, CLick and Retrieve, Click and Fix" videos? Virginia Broitman's "Take a Bow Wow and Take Two" videos? I think these would be very, very helpful to you in helping shape new behaviors with the pup.

Also, "The Culture Clash" by Jean Donaldson is one of the most helpful books I have ever read. Add to this "bible" another "bible" by Turid Rugaas, "On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals" and her video on the same topic, and you have some very powerful and effective information at your fingertips.

Good luck and keep us posted! I'm so envious. I love working with puppies!

Debi Davis
copyright 2000 Debi Davis


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