The chocolate Labrador in the whelping box thumped her tail in happy anticipation as I approached her litter of puppies, just 12 days old. Abandoned in a rural area of Alabama, Maggie, the Lab, had been with me for only 10 days before her litter of four arrived. Sitting well-fed, cared for, and safe in her box, Maggie and her puppies had come a long way in just a few short weeks.
Approaching the box, I eagerly search for signs of new development in the puppies. All appeared to have grown overnight, with noticeably full bellies. The two biggest boys were closer to walking than the day before, their uncoordinated belly crawl almost supported by their legs. And, in the biggest development, the eyes of all four were now nearly completely open. Developmentally, the litter is perfectly on schedule.
I carefully picked up the male puppy wearing the red collar, Chief, and began his daily exercises: five seconds held vertically head-up, five seconds held horizontally on his back, five seconds held vertically head-down, five seconds placed on a wet towel, and five seconds of gentle tickling between his toes with a Q-tip. I repeat the process with his littermates, then step back, knowing that the twenty five seconds I just spent with each puppy would have a lasting impact on their future health, behavior, and reaction to the world.
The exercises I performed with the puppies are part of the Early Neurological Stimulation program, commonly known as “Bio Sensor” or “Super Puppy.” The program consists of tactile, thermal, and motion based stressors which would not normally be experienced by neonatal puppies. Studies suggest that puppies exposed to the Bio Sensor program days 3-16 show increased cardiovascular performance, stronger heart beats, stronger adrenal glands, increased tolerance to stress, and increased disease resistance than their non-stressed counterparts. The stimulated puppies were more exploratory within their environment and more active than their non-stimulated counterparts.
With only three days left of their ENS exercises, I begin designing a training and socialization plan for the next six weeks they will be in my care. We often remind our clients that their puppies are little sponges, eagerly waiting to absorb all that we can teach them. The reality is that the puppies are little sponges well before leaving for their new families, a reality that breeders and trainers need to take advantage of for the betterment of the puppies and their future families. Puppies as young as three to twelve weeks are capable of a wide range of behavior, including following a lure to sit, down, and to step-up onto a raised surface. They can even learn the fundamental components of more complex behaviors such as retrieving, tugging for opening doors or zippers, and targeting for light switches.
Early development plans for puppies should address their future focus on their success as family companions. With puppies as young as three weeks, we can begin establishing life-long habits and attitudes which their future families will covet—ease of housetraining; aptitude for learning; ability to be alone; impulse control; sociability with humans, dogs, and other species; comfort level with normal household activity, sights, and sounds; and ability to adapt to novel places, sights and sounds.
Our plan begins with introducing the puppies to the soundtrack of their world as soon as their ears open, around the 16th day. Placing the whelping box in a high traffic area such as the kitchen around the 23rd. day is the first introduction the puppies receive to the noisy world of humans. Various CD’s, played at low levels, expose the puppies to common sounds such as vacuum cleaners, garbage disposals, blenders, fireworks, thunderstorms, and gun shots. Show prospects listen to a CD of crates being dropped, dryers, applause, and judges calling out ring patterns. The very versatile Through a Dog’s Ear series of CD’s lulls puppies to sleep.
As the puppies become more mobile, we begin to introduce new things into their whelping box. These items encourage exploration and acceptance of novel things. Stuffed animals are the first new introduction—our twelve day old puppies can already be found enjoying the pillow provided by a stuffed animal. The stuffed animals presented in the whelping box may have been cuddled by us or played with by our other resident dogs to gradually introduce new scents. Crawling over the stuffed animals encourages muscular development as well as a higher tolerance for frustration as the puppy attempts to crawl over the toy to get to its mother’s milk. Stuffed animals are often followed by small cat play tunnels, crinkle mats, and other objects which the puppies will walk upon inside of the box. Use your imagination, as these objects are the puppies’ first introduction to new surfaces and textures. Toys which squeak, moo, and make other similar noises are also excellent choices. Explore your home for novel items—cookie sheets from the kitchen, a child’s step stool, small empty boxes, or even a small, open child’s umbrella can be puppy learning toys. Encourage the puppies to interact, explore, and climb on or in the toys you have placed in the whelping box.
Good housetraining habits may also begin at a very early age. At three weeks, establish a separate living and elimination areas. Because puppies quickly establish a substrate preference, try using a small piece of sod placed on a tray as an early elimination area. Crate training can begin now as well. Make the first few nights in a new home virtually painless for both the puppy and its new owner by acclimating the puppy to a small crate while still in your care. Place a small crate, door removed, within the puppy pen or whelping box. The puppies will most likely gravitate to the cozy space for napping all on their own. Occasionally separate pups two at a time within the crate to begin isolation training in a safe, positive way.
We want puppies to become lifetime learners—eager to interact with their humans and to offer new behaviors. Lure and reward training can begin as early as the puppies are mobile enough to follow a lure. Try an elementary recall–with a finger dipped in baby food, lure the puppy to you, either to your face if the puppy is on a raised surface, or between your legs if you are seated. Similarly, lure sit, down, and stand or step-up. Begin teaching polite greetings by luring a sit for petting and interaction, or before lifting from the puppy pen or whelping box. Encourage the puppy to target your hand and other objects such as target sticks, easy buttons, even a remote door bell with his nose or feet. This early training plan is simple by design—allowing a controlled, positive introduction to behaviors and attitudes which will in turn help to develop a stable, confident dog capable of fitting into many different types of households.
As trainers, we have long known that we must include veterinarians in our behavioral programs. We have changed the long-held belief that dog training should not begin until a puppy turns six months old. Increasing numbers of puppies now safely begin their socialization and training in classes as early as eight weeks. We need to extend our outreach to breeders and rescues as well.
A simple shift in our outreach programs can include likely puppy raisers who need to hear this message. For example, reaching out to a veterinarian specializing in reproductive services is an excellent way to reach caring, dedicated breeders. While some breeders are aware of the benefits of ENS/Bio Sensor programs, many still believe that the only thing to be done with newborn puppies is to keep them warm and nursing. Ask about presenting an early learning seminar for their clients, or leave information for the vet to distribute to their clients on your services as a litter-raising consultant. Spread the word about early puppy education to conformation breeders and performance sport enthusiasts by offering seminars through kennel clubs. Breeders of conformation dogs and future agility champions know what they want—happy, confident, outgoing dogs that they can take anywhere. You can help make their dreams of a future Best in Show winner or MACH agility champion happen. Rescues, which frequently save pregnant bitches from kill-shelters, often have foster homes with little puppy raising experience. Offer a seminar for their foster families, or to write handouts for their puppy raisers. Perhaps you can offer to foster a litter for the rescue…offer to write an educational blog for the rescue’s website on the early learning opportunities you are practicing with the litter. People will be eager to adopt the puppies that have benefited so much from your expert care.
©2013 Monique Williams
Monique Williams is a dog training and behavior professional certified nationally through both the National Association of Obedience Instructors (NADOI) and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). Through her company, ShadowMe Dog Training LLC, Monique provides the Atlanta, Georgia metro area with in-home training, group training, and behavior counseling services. Monique has over 30 years of experience in training and behavior, titling her own and client dogs in a variety of training disciplines including Conformation, Obedience, Rally-O, and Lure Coursing.