A young puppy is like a little sponge…ready and willing to learn. People who train guide dogs know this and begin the learning program when pups are three weeks of age. Puppies learn something from every new experience.
The ideal time to bring a puppy home is at seven weeks of age, when they begin to bond best. The owner can immediately begin teaching the puppy desired behavior. If this is not done from the beginning, then these little sponges may do a great deal of negative learning.” As mistakes are made, the puppy is learning, “I can do this,” and many wrong behaviors are self-rewarding, and therefore, self-perpetuating.
The eighth to the tenth week is a stage of development called the “Fear Imprint Period.” The young pup is just learning to trust, and its fragile ego can be easily damaged. This is about the time when the new pet owner is trying to housebreak. If housebreaking is done in a negative manner, with ill-timed, physical corrections, it may have long-lasting, detrimental effects. The dog’s spirit may be broken or submissive urination may occur whenever the dog is approached.
Current research indicates that it is crucial for puppies to receive proper socialization and training during the third and fourth month of development if they are to mature into calm, confident, well-rounded adults. Behaviorists are now calling this critical period the “Socialization Period,” in which experiences are all new and exert a long-lasting effect on shaping the dog’s personality. The dog’s temperament is molded more by early training than most people realize. In order to be well “Socialized,” it is vitally important that the young dog have lots of positive exposure to a variety of strangers, numerous other dogs, and many different environments.
Dogs that have limited exposure during these early months quickly mature into aggressive, antisocial, fearful, nervous, or untrained adults. At the early age of five or six months, it is often difficult or impossible to do what could have been so easily accomplished had the training started earlier.
When I began training dogs twenty years ago, it was commonly believed that a dog should not begin a training program until he was at least six months old. Perhaps this was due to the fact that dog training at that time was a fairly negative, sometimes harsh process, not advised for the young, fragile, insecure puppy. By six months of age, the average dog has usually undergone plenty of negative learning. It ignores its owner, is totally confused, and has many bad habits.
Today the concept of “Puppy Kindergarten” is sweeping the country. This program of early training is a very gentle, positive approach to learning and problem prevention. Puppies not only learn amazingly fast, but owners also learn how to handle those first crucial months of development and set the tone for success.
Speaking of success, the statistics for dogs are quite grim. Only one-third of all dogs succeed with their original owners. Most of the two-thirds which are given up are ultimately euthanized. This horrible truth is largely because people do not realize the importance of early training and socialization. Even if the person knows how to train the puppy him/herself, the puppy needs the types of experiences, socialization, and handling that are easy to obtain in a puppy kindergarten, but difficult to adequately provide otherwise.
©1992 Joann M. Locher, M.S.