Like a certain brand of paper towels, puppies are the quicker picker-uppers. They absorb everything they see, hear, smell, taste and touch, storing incredible amounts of information about people, places and behavior in their highly intelligent puppy brains. Don’t let it just sit there! Make use of that capacity for absorption and learning by teaching your puppy the good manners and behaviors that will help it become a civilized canine member of your family.
Back in the day, it was thought that puppies weren’t capable of learning until they were at least 6 months old. That old chestnut has long been disproven. Beginning at 3 weeks of age, puppies experience a stage of rapid brain development, with EEG measures showing a marked increase in the amplitude, or height, of brain waves while puppies are awake. From this period on, puppies rapidly acquire new skills.
Studies have shown that early experiences can shape the physiology of the brain, writes University of British Columbia psychology professor Stanley Coren in his book The Intelligence of Dogs (Free Press, 2005). Puppies brought up in an environment with lots of toys, problems to solve—which is the learning process in a nutshell—and ever-changing sources of stimulation had better learning ability and even developed larger brains than puppies brought up in a more limited environment with fewer opportunities for learning.
Think about it: Which puppy will develop better physically and mentally? The one that learns to go up stairs, jump in the car, weave its way between furniture legs and meets lots of different people, or the one that spends all its time confined to a single room or crate, interacting only with family members? That doesn’t mean your puppy should have the run of the house—far from it! But it does mean the puppy should spend a lot of time with you as you go about your day.
However, it’s easy to inadvertently encourage behavior problems when you give a puppy too much freedom too soon, allow misbehavior to become a habit and let the puppy think it’s the one in charge. But early, consistent training can put your puppy’s paws on the road to good behavior. Training at home, in combination with a good puppy kindergarten class, provides the structure your puppy needs to learn everything you might possibly want to teach.
When should you start training your puppy? The earlier the better, say experienced dog breeders and trainers. “There’s a preconceived notion in society that you can’t start training dogs until they’re 6 months to a year old,” says dog trainer Laura Noll of Jamul, California. “But they’re such sponges at younger ages, and they’re physically manipulable.”
That’s one reason, Noll says, early training is especially important for puppies that will grow up to be big dogs. By the time they reach 6 or 8 months of age, large-breed puppies are too strong for most people to handle easily.
Even better, puppies learn almost effortlessly if training begins while they’re very young. “Breeders and experienced dog owners often have little problem with biting or other behavior problems because the corrections come naturally and effectively right from the start,” says Joanne Nash of Los Altos Hills, California, who breeds Dalmatians and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. “The person teaches and the puppy learns almost without either one being aware of it.”
Rottweiler breeder Paula Cingota of Jamul, California, believes new puppy owners should start training the first day they bring their puppies home, usually at 7 or 8 weeks of age. She starts training her puppies when they’re 5 weeks old, using lots of positive motivation, such as food and toy rewards, and gentle guidance with her hands.
By the time they’re 7 or 8 weeks old, they know the commands sit, stand, down and stay. By the time they’re 4 months old, they’re capable of doing a half-hour down-stay and a 10-minute sit-stay. “If you start training puppies when they’re 8 weeks old, they will absorb anything you ask. There’s never a question,” Cingota says.
You do, however, have to be smart in what you ask. “Don’t ask them to do a half-hour down after they just woke up,” Cingota says. “I wait until I’m watching the 11 o’clock news. I sit on the floor in my bedroom with my back to the bed and put the puppy on a down-stay with my left hand resting on its shoulder, as a way of saying ‘stay here.’”
And just because it’s sleepy doesn’t mean a puppy won’t try to get up. “The first three or four times you’re doing a half-hour down with a puppy, you might be putting it back in place 20 times,” Cingota says. “But believe me, you’ll be surprised at how fast it learns.”