Preparing Puppies for Performance

Ch. Red Branch Daragan O'Rockledge
Photo by Erin Cyr, 4PawsPic

Puppy buyers often ask, "When can I start training my puppy? Is it too early to start?" A good answer is "If you spend a lot of time working with your puppy in its first year, you will likely have a good dog forever." Don't you wish that were true with human children, too?

Puppies grow and learn rapidly during their first three months. This is the ideal time to lay down a good foundation for performance work, and to prepare them to become "canine good citizens" regardless of where their life's journey takes them.

Weeks 1 — 2

It might seem silly to talk about training puppies in their first two weeks of life. They spend most of their time sleeping and the rest of the time nursing. They cannot see or hear. Their only perception of the world is through warmth, touch, and scent. Yet this is the most critical time for shaping their relationship with humans.

The puppies' mother should be the center of their world, and they should be left to nurse and warm themselves whenever they want. But puppies will wander off and explore even when they are only a few hours old. When they wander, they should encounter warm and gentle human hands.

Mother Time
Mother time is very important.
Ayfa and baby Titania, two days old.
June 2, 2013

Observe how the mother spends time with each puppy. She rolls them around with her snout and cleans them thoroughly with her tongue. When the puppies struggle under this treatment, the mother gently holds them down and continues her work. The puppies should experience similar handling by their humans. Hold them closely and stroke their bodies. Move them into various positions - feet down, feet up, head up, head down. If they struggle, gently control them until they submit.

Those screaming puppy in the middle of the night episodes are good opportunities to build the puppy-human bond. Walking around with a closely held puppy is therapeutic for both puppy and human, and that comforting time will become part of its catalog of memories.

Puppies instinctively recognize, trust, and submit to their mothers. In their first two weeks of life, they should be trained to do the same with humans.

Human Time
Human contact from day one.
Elena, Daragan and the Little Dragons, just a few hours old.
February 3, 2015

Weeks 3 — 4

Puppies change rapidly in the next two weeks of life. They begin exhibiting dog-like behavior like barking, wagging tails, sniffing, walking, and playing with each other. They become aware of themselves and of their surroundings. The first glimmerings of individual personalities become apparent. This is when they begin to interact with humans, so we continue the training from the first two weeks and add some new lessons.

Their first two weeks of training pays off when you walk into the whelping room. The puppies all rush (or waddle) to the pig rail to greet you, saying "Me! Me! ME!" This behavior should be rewarded with happy voices, touching, and cuddling. The puppies should still be held in all possible body positions. You will notice individual dogs showing preference or aversion to being held one way or another. Continue to gently work on training them to submit to being held in any position, and reward them when they do.

The rush to greet shows the puppies are becoming aware of the world around them. Place objects in the whelping box for them to explore. Choose items with different sizes, textures, and colors, and change the mix of objects every day or two. Squeak toys and chew toys tend to be the most popular. Observe how the puppies react to new objects. Are they curious, indifferent, fearful?

Bullet looking at the big world outside the whelping box.
Four weeks old.
May 30, 2011

New sounds are also good. We keep the whelping box in our laundry room. This is a warm, sequestered location, perfect for mother and puppies. Here, they get used to the sounds of the laundry machines, water running, doors opening and closing, people coming and going. They hear music and human voices and dogs barking outside. This helps them learn to feel at home in the noisy, chaotic human world.

The puppies are becoming self-aware, so this is a good time for them to get used to being touched, especially on their ears and feet. We start trimming nails around this time to make life easier for the nursing mother and for the groomer that will someday need to work with the dog.

Elena trims 128 nails each week.
Daragan, five weeks old.
June 3, 2011

Tiny puppy teeth are remarkably sharp, and puppies have no idea about the polite use of those little weapons. We begin to teach bite aversion by reacting loudly whenever we are bitten. If the puppy isn't getting the message, it is placed back into the whelping box and a sibling is chosen to receive attention instead. Some puppies learn bite aversion pretty quickly, but others stubbornly continue to bite whenever they can. This can be an early indication of personality.

As the puppies become more mobile, they will choose to eliminate away from where they sleep. We encourage this by placing an absorbent cloth pee pad in a corner of the whelping box, and change it out at least twice a day. (The disposable paper ones are convenient for the first week or so, but the puppies quickly learn that they are fun to shred.) The puppies will choose to urinate on the pad pretty quickly. Of course there are comical episodes where they carefully walk over to the pee pad, place their front feet on it, and let it loose onto their sleeping sibling. But they are at least learning that there is a place for everything, even if the execution is not always perfect. Puppies seem to have less control about when and where they defecate. When we happen to see them spinning and squatting, we move them onto the pee pad so they get the idea that they should at least try to go "over there".

Weeks 5 — 8

By now the puppies are fully mobile and perceptive. They are fearless and curious at this age, so now is the time for exploring and socialization.

Just as in earlier weeks, the training regimen that began on day one is continued and expanded. In weeks five through eight, the goal is to introduce the puppies to as many new experiences and new people as possible.

Until now, the puppies were sequestered and their only visitors were their mother and a few humans. Starting around week four, they move into an ex-pen in the kitchen where they are exposed to more noise and activity. They begin having excursions into the back yard. The pee pad moves with them, so there is always a designated spot. This will eventually lead to outdoor potty training.

The puppies play on as many different surfaces as we can find. Their legs may not yet be strong enough to stand on slippery surfaces like linoleum or tile, so care needs to be taken. They play indoors and outdoors and in different weather. They are introduced to wobble boards and play tunnels. We cover them with a towel (and later a blanket) and let them find their way out. They like to use their teeth to rip up cardboard boxes and to perform surgery on their squeak toys.

Puppies should encounter as many different objects, surfaces, textures, and environments as possible.
Left to right: Dragonfly, Snapdragon, and Dragontooth.
March 12, 2015

The mother will begin to wean the puppies, so feeding time becomes a training opportunity. We use a sound to signal the arrival of food. Clapping, tapping the food bowl, calling "Puppies! Puppies!" — any consistently used sound will do. This is the beginning of recall training.

At this age their play gets rougher and little puppy battles start to break out. They also start jumping on their human companions, which needs to be discouraged. Bite aversion training needs to be taken more seriously, as their stronger jaws enable their sharp puppy teeth to do more damage.

We try to have the puppies meet fifty different humans by the time they are eight weeks old. The anxiously waiting potential puppy buyers are now encouraged to visit often. We have weekend puppy parties with four to six guests at a time. We try to invite a variety of guests, including responsible children. There are strict rules. Guests must not have contact with other dogs before visiting. They must arrive wearing freshly laundered clothes, leave their shoes on the front porch and wash their hands before they can see the pups. The party is all about socializing puppies. There will be no discussion about who gets the puppy with the red ribbon.

We put a blanket and some pillows down on the kitchen floor and everyone sits. We don't want anyone stepping on or dropping a wiggly puppy. When everyone is settled, we bring the puppies out. Everyone is encouraged to handle the puppies, pet them, cuddle them, turn them over, touch their feet and ears, etc. There are plenty of opportunities for bite aversion training, as the puppies enjoy getting tangled in long hair, stealing earrings, and nibbling on toes. At this age, puppies tend to go through cycles of 90 minutes sleeping and 90 minutes active. If the guests arrive during a sleep cycle, we wait until the puppies begin to be active before we bring them out. This results in about 90 minutes of rollicking fun for everyone. The puppies gradually slow down and fall asleep, usually cuddled in someone's lap. Then it's time to put the puppies away and let the tired, happy guests go home.

Puppy Party
Puppy Party: The Aftermath.
Daragan's November 2017 litter, seven weeks old.
January 16, 2016
Photo by Dennis Reily

(These puppy parties are a great way to evaluate potential owners, and to see which puppies might match up with which owner. The owners who come to the puppy parties feel more invested in their puppy, have a better feel for how we train them, and are more likely to come back to us for advice when they run into problems.)

Weeks 9 — 14

We do conformation evaluations on all puppies at the end of week eight, and personality testing about a week or two later if possible. We want to complete all evaluations before the puppies head off to their new homes.

Young puppies are curious and fearless. But around week nine the puppies often begin to react to new situations with fear rather than curiosity. This can be a critical time in their training, as a fright can leave a lasting impression. Weeks five to eight are all about new experiences, but now the puppies might need a more structured world if fearful reactions are observed.

If a puppy is frightened by something, we try to turn the encounter into a fun event by touching the scary object and encouraging the puppy to approach and explore. If the scary object is a human, we encourage it to offer treats, but not to try to approach or pet the puppy. We never force the puppy to approach the scary object. Sometimes another puppy will come by to explore, and this can pique the frightened puppy's curiosity.

Scary Object
Dragontooth and Snapdragon encounter a scary new object.
Dragonfly is already playing inside the tunnel, making it all the more spooky.
April 21, 2015

At this age, it is best to extend the existing training regimen rather than adding a lot of new activities. The recall exercises that began at the food dish can be extended to less structured environments, first in the kitchen and later outdoors. Leash training can be extended to include attempting some basic commands like "come" and "heel". "Sit" is easy to teach but very hard to un-teach. We let pet owners have the pleasure of teaching this command to their puppy. Performance and conformation owners will want to introduce it at their own convenience.

Moving On

Somewhere between weeks nine and fourteen the time comes for the puppies to move on to their forever homes. By now, you should have a good feel for the puppy's personality and structure. Here are some things to think about when choosing a puppy destined for a performance home:

Personality is very important. Did the puppy learn bite aversion quickly? Does it pay attention to you, even when there are distractions around? A dog that has focus and a strong desire to please gives the performance team a leg up before training even starts. That super active puppy might be cute and fun to watch, but it might also require a lot more time in training to prepare it for performance sports.

Structurally, a good conformation dog will make a good performance dog. Irish often come into their peak as performance dogs at the age when other breeds are retiring, so it is essential that they start with a sound body that will remain rigorous for the long run.

It can be hard to predict how large a puppy will grow when it is eight weeks old. But if it is going into a sport where jump height matters, choose the more compact one if all other considerations are equal. Adult Irish terriers usually measure around 18 inches at the shoulder. A dog measuring 18 inches or taller has to jump over a 20 inch obstacle. A 17 ¾ inch dog will have to clear a 16 inch obstacle, so a small difference in height can provide a significant advantage.

Early training makes a big difference, regardless of whether the puppy is destined to be an agility master or a little girl's best friend. The first three months presents many opportunities to impart lessons to the puppy that will help it be a good companion for the rest of its life. There is a lot of work involved, but keep in mind that those three months go by very quickly. No "teachable moment" should go unused.

Titania's daughter Dutch, enjoying a run through the tunnel.
Eight weeks old.
August 13, 2017

Copyright © 2018 by Joe Metz
Adapted from an article published in the May 2018 Irish Terrier Club of America newsletter.

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