Dog trainers recognize how important it is to start socializing puppies early on and how much easier it is to prevent problems from arising instead of trying to fix them later. Puppies go through a sensitive period of socialization between 4 and 14 weeks of age (the exact length of this period is variable and constantly being debated). Within this time period, the worst thing we can do is to keep the puppy indoors at all times, with no access to members outside of the household. It is critical that the puppy goes outside to interact with the world.
There are some health considerations during this period because the puppy’s immune system is still developing and thus some caution is advised to minimize exposure to diseases. Going through where we should or shouldn’t take our puppies early on is beyond the scope of this article, but this is something that you can discuss with your veterinarian and dog training professional. If your veterinarian does not recognize the importance of early socialization and advises you to keep the puppy indoors until the puppy is four months old, I would recommend that you seek a second opinion.
Socialization is critical and you will probably only have one chance to do it right. If you start too late you are already risking the puppy developing phobias and other detrimental behavioural issues. I also recommend that socialization is an ongoing commitment with special emphasis during the first year. If you let too much time go by without exposure to a certain stimulus (dogs, people, places), the dog may start to show some type of negative emotional response towards those things.
Here is a real life example: imagine that you are raising a child and that between the ages of 2 and 15 years of age that child only lives inside the house and never goes out to school, to play with other children, to interact with other adults, to visit different places, etc. Certainly, this child would not develop healthy social habits and behaviour. A similar process happens to dogs, but it happens faster. Dog trainers are aware of this and they take their puppies out to interact with other puppies, friendly adult dogs, people from different age groups and ethnicity, and to places that look, feel, smell and sound different.
Dog trainers are very good at using management solutions to make their life (and their dogs’ life) easier. A dog in a new environment (especially if it is a puppy) with too much freedom to roam the house and make his/her own choices is a recipe for disaster. Dog trainers are aware of this and take a proactive approach to minimize the amount of mistakes that the dog can make.
The use of dog crates, baby gates, exercise pens, leashes (when supervising the puppy) and other management tools makes it easier to control where and what the dog is doing. Many new pet owners simply bring a puppy home and hope for the best (they hope that the puppy will know where to relieve himself/herself and what are appropriate chew items). Dog trainers know that puppies will probably make choices that we don’t like and so they use confinement to minimize issues during the initial phase. Thus, if the dog cannot be supervised he/she goes into a confinement option. Dog trainers are also aware that harnesses and leashes are great tools to be used inside the house, as long as this is done under supervision (leashes are not just for leash walking).
Dog trainers will balance out the amount of confinement with the amount of physical activity, mental stimulation, socialization and training sessions. When house training and chewing appropriate items is reaching success on a regular basis, dog trainers start to progressively offer the dog more freedom until the use of confinement is considerably reduced.
Dog trainers are fully aware that generally dogs will not do things to please us. They will mostly do things to please themselves. With that in mind, most dog trainers use access to high value resources contingent upon doing something that they want the dog to do. A great approach that many trainers use to put motivation working for them is to get rid of the food bowl and to offer food in training sessions, in puzzle toys or other environmental enrichment options. The dog’s wild cousins have to work hard to get food and that approach seems to make sense to our domesticated companions as well.
Dog trainers also put other resources working in their favour. Does the dog want to sniff a bush? Does he/she want to say hello to another dog or person? Go through a door? Does he/she want you to toss a tennis ball? Dog trainers will ask the dog to do something before they proceed with these highly prized events.
Petting and affection might be valuable in the living room, but out there in the real world they are probably not that high value for your dog. Dog trainers are aware of this and adapt accordingly to the situation they are in. In some cases a piece of kibble is high value enough for your dog to be engaged with you, but in other scenarios you may need a piece of cheese or cooked chicken.
4. Occupational activities and exercise
Most dogs are pretty good at spending a big part of the day resting and sleeping, but they also need a regular supply of mental and physical stimulation. Dog trainers make sure that their dogs receive exercise and environmental enrichment on a regular basis.
Here are some tips and tricks that dog trainers use:
· playing fetch will get a dog tired faster than walking him/her on a leash;
· a long leash (8-15m) attached to a harness is a magnificent tool if the environment is safe enough to use such a device;
· if you will have a very busy day consider using the services of a dog walker or doggie day care;
· if the weather is terribly bad, there are still lots of stimulating activities that you can do indoors;
· leaving a stuffed food toy for your dog to chew will make it more likely for the dog to be content with being left alone;
· there are many “Kong recipes” out there that will make food toys more challenging and interesting;
· finding food throughout the house and/or yard is more fun than eating it from a bowl;
· preventing access to shoes, socks, rubbish, etc. is likely to make your life easier;
· toys that are available all the time lose value and become “furniture”.
5. Preparation for real life situations
Dog trainers realize that prevention and preparation will go a long way towards avoiding fears and other behaviours that we do not want our beloved dogs to show. They prepare for such a situation in a way that is easy for the dog to handle before he/she is confronted with the real life potential trigger.
Here is an example: many dogs are very likely to show fear towards thunderstorms or fireworks. One possible way to help preventing this occurrence is to play recorded sounds of those events with soft volume and then progressively increase the volume until it somehow resembles the real sound that the dog may encounter. This process is called desensitization. Dog trainers also like to pair desensitization with counter-conditioning. To include counter-conditioning in the previous example you would pair the “frighting sound” with something that the dog enjoys (e.g. food treats). The sequence would be: thunder sounds equals super yummy food rewards; no sound equals food treats are no longer available and “life is boring”. With this approach we would possibly create a positive emotional response to the sound of thunderstorms or fireworks.
A dog trainer will not wait for these events to be exposed to his/her dog in real life and hope for the best. Instead, a dog trainer will assume that a negative emotional response is likely to evolve if things are left for chance, and for that reason he/she will actively prepare the dog for a real life situation before it happens. If enough preparation is not possible, the dog trainer will use management and counter-conditioning to try to minimize the negative experience as much as possible.