How The Experts Do It — Part 1

By Liz Sullivan

In talking to some top competitors in the breed, obedience and agility rings about their road to success, one fact was repeated over and over, that proper training was essential to success. “Train Early and Train Often” might be the motto they all believe in! All of these highly successful competitors make it a practice to begin training their puppies as early as possible to insure success in their chosen field of competition.

Before beginning to describe the specific methods they use in training their puppies, it might be helpful to summarize some of the research on puppy development and learning abilities, to show why their methods have been so successful for them.

There have been a number of scientific studies done on canine development — some of which have actually been used as the basis for human Infant and early childhood studies. As early as 1963, Clarence Pfaffenberger presented information on the developmental stages in a puppy’s life in his book, The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior.

Mr. Pfaffenberger was deeply involved in the early research into the genetics of behavior and the development of traits through his work with the Guide Dogs for the Blind organization. In his chapter titled, “Some Critical periods in the Life of a Puppy”, he described studies into canine development that were largely based on the research of J. Paul Scott, PhD, of the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Me.

Dr. Scott and his associates studied hundreds of puppies from birth until early adulthood – including their interactions with people in training situations.

While the main focus of Dr. Scott’s work was to discover developmental patterns and learning routines that could be applied to human children, the observations he and his colleagues made of their test puppies have added immeasurably to our understanding of how our dogs learn and how their personalities develop. Dr. Scott’s research showed that all puppies go through the following stages:

Stage One – Neonatal Survival (from birth to 21 days old). During this period, the bitch’s influence and her care of the litter is critical to its survival, but aside from having their physical needs met, (food, warmth, care by the mother, etc.) little else in their environment affects the puppies.

Stage Two – Primary Canine Socialization (21st day through 49th day). Both Dr. Scott and Mr. Pfaffenberger’s research showed that starting around the 21st day, when the puppies can see, hear and smell fully, a critical period of socialization takes place with it’s mother and litter mates that last at least until the puppy is 7 weeks old. It is during this period that the puppy learns how to be a dog and to interact appropriately with other dogs. A premature end to this critical canine socialization can lead to lifelong maladjustment problems with other dogs.

As Mr. Pfaffenberger remarked, “It has been our experience at Guide Dogs for the Blind that the puppy who does not complete his seven weeks of canine socialization is often the same dog that, when grown, picks fights with all the strange dogs he meets.” (Page 124)

Based on their experiences with the dogs bred to be guide dogs, Pfaffenberger felt the ideal time to place a puppy with its new human family was between weeks 7-8. However, he also said, “Socialization with human beings, by taking the puppy from the nest and giving personal affection and some little training as early as five weeks of age (my emphasis), was found to be desirable.” (Page 126) So we find evidence that as long ago as 47 years ago, there were indications that very young puppies could begin preliminary training.

Pfaffenberger went on to say that because they tested their puppies to determine their aptitude for guide dog work, they could not place them in a foster home until after 12 weeks of age. But they discovered that regular socialization and training, which were part of the evaluation process (at least one half hour a week) were sufficient to properly socialize their puppies. They routinely taught puppies from 7 to 12 weeks of age to heel, come and fetch.

Stage Three – Broad socialization and significant new experiences (from day 49 to day 84). This period from approximately the 49th day through the 84th day of a puppy’s life should be devoted to as wide a variety of new experiences as the puppy is capable of absorbing. This is also the best time to forge man/dog relationships. During this period, puppies are absorbing information at an astonishing rate and furthermore, they appear to be laying the foundation for their later (and lifelong) learning abilities.

As Pfaffenberger goes on to say, “When is the best time to start to teach a puppy? The answer is, of course, as soon as it can learn, which is during the second critical period, 21 to 49 days of age. Like a child, a puppy is going to learn. If it does not learn what you want it to learn from you, it will form habits and learn from its littermates and other associates, things which may be contrary to what you want to teach it. The things which a puppy picks up on its own may be a block to its learning which will make success in training difficult or impossible later.” (Page 128)

Pfaffenberger warns that beginning socialization and training during the critical 2nd and 3rd stages is an opportunity that comes only once. And that if this opportunity is lost, it can never be regained because once a puppy has passed through these critical stages, he will never go through them again.

While Pfaffenberger’s book was one of the earliest to deal with this subject, many subsequent books on the subject of canine behavior and development have added to this knowledge and to the warning about delaying proper socialization and training. Do not waste this critical time in your puppy’s life, but begin gentle “play-training” lessons with your young puppy. And also keep in mind that consistent, regular and brief training sessions with your puppy can make a world of difference in his success in later life.

OK, if I’ve been able to convince you of the importance of training your puppies early and often, let’s get to the “How to Train” your little Boxer baby. For this next section, we are going to hear from a number of highly successful competitors in all areas of canine competition. They are going to share with us, their puppy training techniques. Let’s see what training methods top competitors advise to make your Boxer as successful as possible in the ring.

First we’ll hear from Debbie Struff of Raklyn Boxers. In addition to being a successful Connecticut breeder, Debbie is one of the top professional breed-ring handlers in this country.