The Fundamentals of Learning and Training

Puppies and Learning
The prenatal period — It has been found that puppies react to touch and/or pressure from the outside of the mother’s abdomen. This fact has been confirmed with ultrasound. Since puppies have such a well-developed sense of touch at birth, the sense of touch would also be well-developed before birth. Puppies may be sensitive to touch received by the mother while still unborn. Studies have found that “when a pregnant animal is petted her litter is more docile (Denenberg and Whimbey 1963, in Fox 1978).” According to Fox, this facilitates relaxation, emotional attachment, and socialization as well. Other studies have indicated that puppies that receive outside contact (petting of the mother) while in utero have a higher tolerance for touching than puppies who receive no contact at all. One could deduce that gentle petting of the mother’s abdomen could help to facilitate positive, beneficial puppy socialization with people.

Neonatal Period — During the first two weeks of a puppy’s life, also known as the neonate period, puppies can learn simple associations. However, early experience events are unlikely to carry over into later periods. Studies indicate that puppies in the neonate period do not seem to learn by experience. It is theorized that this is due to the fact that the puppy’s brain, sense, and motor organs are still undeveloped. Based on its limited capacity to sense and learn it would be difficult to affect the puppy psychologically, either in a positive or negative sense.

That being said, this is an excellent time though to start their early neurological development. Though they may not be able to “learn from experience” that does not mean that they are not able to develop.

The U.S. Military in their canine program developed a method that still serves as a guide for a lot of breeders today. In an effort to improve the performance of dogs used for military purposes, a program called “Bio Sensor” was developed. Later, it became known to the public as the “Super Dog” Program. Based on years of research, the military learned that early neurological stimulation exercises could have important and lasting effects. Their studies confirmed that there are specific time periods early in life when neurological stimulation has optimum results. The first period involves a window of time that begins at the third day of life and lasts until the sixteenth day. It is believed that because this interval of time is a period of rapid neurological growth and development, and therefore is of great importance to the individual.

The “Bio Sensor” program was also concerned with early neurological stimulation in order to give the dog a superior advantage. Its development utilized six exercises, which were designed to stimulate the neurological system. Each workout involved handling puppies once each day. The workouts required handling them one at a time while performing a series of five exercises. Listed in no order of preference, the handler starts with one pup and stimulates it using each of the five exercises. The handler completes the series from beginning to end before starting with the next pup. The handling of each pup once per day involves the following exercises:

Tactile stimulation
Head held erect
Head pointed down
Supine position
Thermal stimulation

These five exercises will produce neurological stimulations, none of which naturally occur during this early period of life. Experience shows that sometimes pups will resist these exercises, others will appear unconcerned. In either case a caution is offered to those who plan to use them. Do not repeat them more than once per day and do not extend the time beyond that recommended for each exercise. Over stimulation of the neurological system can have adverse and detrimental results.

These exercises impact the neurological system by kicking it into action earlier than would be normally expected. The result being an increased capacity that later will help to make the difference in its performance. Those who play with their pups and routinely handle them should continue to do so because the neurological exercises are not substitutions for routine handling, play socialization or bonding.

There are some additional exercises that I have seen added to some people programs – such as “problem solving” and the timing of the “problem solving”, smelling, etc. I have also seen it reported that the “Super Dog Program” was a complete failure. According to one of my friends who was stationed at Fort Benning, GA and worked daily with dogs from the bio-sensor program in Aberdeen Proving Grounds, there were some problems with the dogs – they were weak nerved, slow to recover, and often would shut down when overly stressed. However, they were superior when it came to healthy, hips, conformation, etc. There was a “bottleneck of the genetic gene pool with a focus on health with most of the dogs. And, true, health is essential, but, I personally believe that the “Super Dog Program” can not change the genetics of an individual. If you want a “super dog” you must have super genes but I do believe that the early neurological stimulation can be of some help in improving the overall dog. Pups that are handled more are simply more easy to handle and appear to be “smarter” and “healthier”.

Five benefits have been observed in canines that were exposed to the Bio Sensor stimulation exercises:

    • Improved cardio vascular performance (heart rate)
    • Stronger heart beats,
    • Stronger adrenal glands,
    • More tolerance to stress

Greater resistance to disease
Also, in tests of learning, stimulated pups were found to be more active and were more exploratory than their non- stimulated littermates over which they were dominant in competitive situations.

Although the stimulation proved beneficial, over stimulating had detrimental results. The researchers also found that regular handling and socialization were still necessary.

In addition to socialization, exposing puppies to various sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches allows them to better cope as an adult dog. Enrichment activities can begin at a very early age, perhaps even at birth. Some ideas include providing toys of all shapes and textures; providing a variety of footing such as newspaper, carpeting, window screens, plastic, concrete, gravel; providing a variety of sounds such as radio, cap gun, vacuum cleaner; providing a variety of challenges such as climbing steps, going through a tunnel, playing hide and seek, etc. Just be sure that the enrichment activities you design won’t hurt or scare the puppy.

Socialization Period — This is the most important developmental period, beginning around 3 weeks (21 days) old, and ending around 12 weeks old. The biggest aspect of this period is social play. Social investigation (curiosity), playful fighting and playful sexual behavior (body contact) is very important to developing social relationships during its life. This is a time for developing social relationships, both among other puppies as well as with people. These behaviors are relatively easy for any individual who stays with the puppies during this period. However, there is a point where the puppies can develop a fear of strangers. At 3-5 weeks of age, puppies will actively approach strangers. Shortly thereafter stranger avoidance begins and slowly escalates until it peaks around 12-14 weeks of age. While this natural fear of strangers could serve as a way to keep a curious puppy away from predators, it can also hinder normal relationships with people.

Studies by Scott and Fuller indicated that these were critical periods in a young puppy’s development. During these periods, if a puppy does not interact with other dogs (at least his mother and littermates) and with people, he may never be able to bond to other dogs or to people. For an interesting account of how this research was used to dramatically increase the number of guide dogs who successfully completed training, read The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior by Clarence Pfaffenberger.

During this period, startle reactions to sudden movement and sounds is now present. This serves to help the puppy learn to differentiate between which events are dangerous, and which events are safe or insignificant. (Scott and Fuller, 1965) During the socialization period, the development of attachment to certain locations occurs. This is displayed by an extreme disturbance in the puppy whenever a change in location occurs. This is known as “localization”. “Localization” often peaks in puppies between 6-7 weeks old and then tapers off after that time to the point where a change in location is no longer distressing to the puppy.

Dogs that are handled and petted by humans regularly during the first eight weeks of life are generally much more amenable to being trained and living in human households. Ideally, puppies should be placed in their permanent homes between about 7 and 10 weeks of age. Puppies are innately more fearful of new things during the period from 10 to 12 weeks, which makes it harder for them to adapt to a new home.

Additionally, puppies can begin learning tricks and commands as early as 7-8 weeks of age; the only limitations are the pup’s stamina, concentration, and physical coordination. It is much easier to live with young dogs that have already learned basic commands such as sit. Waiting until the puppy is older and has already learned undesirable habits makes the training much more challenging.

Bringing your puppy home….
For thousands of years dogs have lived in social groups called packs and each pack member has his own position or rank in the pack. Once puppies are able to walk and interact, they try to determine their position in the litter. A puppy soon learns if he is submissive, the other puppies will push him away from the food. If he is larger and stronger than the other puppies he will most likely be the one doing the pushing. As puppies get older they will have to figure out their position in the pack.

After a puppy is adopted into his new human pack, he has to re-establish his position. If he was the bully of the litter, he may try to bully his new pack members. If he was submissive with his littermates, he will probably start out being submissive. As he grows older and larger he will try to determine where he fits into this new human pack. His ultimate rank will depend on how his human pack members respond to his actions in various situations.

When first introduced to his new family, a puppy will usually act somewhat submissive. When greeted, your new puppy may roll over on his back and urinate or he may squat and urinate. He is sending you a message in dog language which says, “don’t hurt me, I am not a threat to you.” If he submits in this manner, do not scold him or you will make the problem worse.

As a puppy grows older he will take his cues on how he should respond to his new owners by the way they react to his actions. For example, a puppy is chewing on his favorite chew toy or rawhide and a child approaches the puppy. The puppy uses the body language he learned from his littermates to warn the child not to come any closer. These warning signs may be a low, soft growl, a curled lip, raised hackles or a nip directed at the child. If the child heeds the warning and backs away, this puppy has just learned that a threatening growl is a good way to keep his prized possessions away from this particular child. The puppy also learns that his rank or position in his new family is higher than this child’s.

If a puppy gets away with threatening a child or younger member of the family, he will usually try the same thing when other family members come near one of his favorite possessions. If the family member gives the puppy a stern correction and lets him know he should never growl at humans, the puppy has just learned that his position in the new family is lower than the family member who corrected him but still higher than the child he threatened. Over time, similar incidents will likely occur with every member of his new human pack. The response of each family member to the puppy’s actions will help determine his ultimate ranking.

Obedience training is the easiest way to establish the social hierarchy. When your dog obeys a simple request of ‘come here, sit,’ she is showing compliance and respect for you. It is NOT necessary to establish yourself as top dog or leader of the pack by using extreme measures such as the so-called alpha roll-over. You CAN teach your dog her subordinate role by teaching her to show submission to you in a paw raise (shake hands), roll over or hand lick (give a kiss). Most dogs love performing these tricks (obedience commands) for you (or for kids) which also pleasantly acknowledge that you are in charge.

Social maturity

Once he determines his family ranking and he submits to higher-ranking family members, there may not be any more problems until he reaches his social maturity. At social maturity (when your puppy becomes a teenager) usually occurs between 12-24 months for a female and 24-36 months of a male, with 18-24 months of age being the norm. He is now older, stronger, more confident and may seem to “all of a sudden” forget everything he has been taught. He will sometimes seem to say “I heard you but I will be there in a minute”. The best to way assure your puppy knows his proper position in his human pack is to begin making him earn everything he receives, as soon as he joins your family. Prior to receiving anything such as food, petting, or play, you must make him sit to earn these privileges or rewards. By making your puppy sit, you will teach him that he must submit to you before you will give him anything. Nothing in life is free. Everything must be earned. If you keep enforcing this principle, the teenage years are much easier.

Basic training classes
Formal obedience training – puppy training in a class situation – can start anywhere from 9 to 12 weeks of age. It is usually a good idea to may sure that your puppy receives a series of 2 vaccinations given before starting in a class – for the pup’s protection, as well as the protection of all other pups in the class. A Bordetella (a type of kennel cough) vaccination and negative stool sample are also recommended.

Professional “dog trainers” usually do not train the dogs, but actually train the owners on how to train their own dogs. Although it is also possible to send a dog away to a training school, the owner still must at some point learn what the dog has learned and how to use and reinforce the techniques. Some call this a shortcut, but plenty of work is still required and training must continue over the course of the dog’s life. Owners and dogs who attend class together have an opportunity to learn more about each other and how to work together under a trainer’s guidance. Training is most effective if everyone who handles the dog takes part in the training to ensure consistent commands, methods, and enforcement. Classes also help socialize your dog to other people and dogs. Ask your vet or the owner of a well behaved dog for recommendations in your area.

Obedience Training is one of the best things you can do for your dog or puppy… and yourself. Obedience training doesn’t solve all behavior problems, but it is the foundation for solving just about any problem. Training opens up a line of communication between you and your dog. Effective communication is necessary to instruct your dog about what you want her to do.
Dogs are social animals and without proper training, they will behave like animals. They will soil your house, destroy your belongings, bark excessively, dig holes in your yard, fight other dogs, and even chew on you. Nearly all behavior problems are perfectly normal canine activities that occur at the wrong time or place or are directed at the wrong thing. For example, the dog will eliminate on the carpet instead of outside; the dog will bark all night long instead of just when a stranger is prowling around outside; or the dog will chew furniture instead of his own toys. The key to preventing or treating behavior problems is learning to teach the dog to redirect his natural behavior to outlets that are acceptable in the domestic setting.