By: Shirley Bevilacqua

I am a firm believer in Puppy Testing to find “the right” puppy for obedience training. It may take as long as a year of looking at different litters to try to find the right one. Once I pick my puppy (usually at 7 weeks of age) and we are home, I first give the pup a couple of weeks to acclimate itself to the household routine and the other dogs, etc.

While this is going on, anytime I pick the puppy up I have soft treats such as really small bits of hot dog that I put in my mouth, letting the puppy see it and while pointing to my mouth I will use my “attention” cue. I let the puppy take the food from my mouth with lots and lots of praise. Picture 1 (Food is in the right hand.)

I then put on a small soft buckle collar and let the puppy get used to that. The next step is just attaching a leash to the collar and letting the puppy drag it around, chew on it and all the fun things. All this is done with strict supervision so the leash does not get tangled in anything.

I will then take the puppy out into the yard (weather permitting) or my garage and teach controlled walking, letting the puppy go wherever it wants. After a few days of this — and if the puppy is no longer fighting the leash or trying to chew it — I will begin to put slight pressure on the lease and encourage him/her to go in the direction I want to go. This is all done with small treats.

I will tell the pup to “let’s go” and encourage it with the treats. All I ask is a few small steps with no straining on the leash. This does not take too long if you have a really food motivated puppy. Frankly, I have never had one who was not food motivated. Perhaps that comes from the type of puppy I pick after the testing.

The personality I like is always that of an upbeat pup, and they are usually food motivated and real chowhounds. After a couple of days of the “let’s go” exercise I begin to be more and more insistent that they go where I want. Lots of food and lots of praise. This all takes a couple of weeks and by about 10-11 weeks I am ready to teach “heel” position.

This entails making the puppy sit by my side with food in my right hand and the leash held in my left hand (very short leash). I say my attention cue word and as soon as the puppy looks at my left hand it is rewarded and praised profusely. Eventually, the pup must look up into my face. This takes several days.

Once this is accomplished, I then start to teach the turns (Beginning the left turn. Note position of left foot.). I personally feel that the left turn is the hardest for them to learn so I start with that. I do stationary turns with no heeling. It may take a couple of weeks just to get the left turn almost perfect. Then I do the right turn and when I feel the puppy understands that, I do the about turn.

At first when I say “heel” the puppy naturally sits there and hasn’t a clue what I want, so I simply put my hand through the collar and very gently lift the pup off its feet and praise, praise, praise. It does not take them long to catch on to the fact that when they hear that word “heel” they are to get off their butt and move with me.

After the turns are pretty near perfect (all on very short leash held close to my leg, which is very hard on my back)! I will then start with 2-3 short steps of straight line heeling, all this must be done with attention.

This sounds like a long training session, but honestly, I don’t spend more than 10 minutes each day when the puppies are this young. That is about all the time they can maintain an interest in all this. After a several weeks of this, I will then start to loosen up on the leash and do longer and longer straight line heeling sessions. I still practice all the turns but usually will concentrate on one turn at a time for several days until it is absolutely perfect. Then will go on to the next one while still practicing the previous turns.

I have used this method for my last 8 dogs, and they are all very good heelers. My 7-month-old Boxer pup, Ginger, does a left turn as well as any Border Collie you would see. We are still working on the about turns. Her right turns are very good as well, but she has a tendency to go a bit wide on the about turns. But she is getting better each day.

On Recalls, I actually start recalls around the house. I always have food in my pocket (robe, vest, etc.) and just at random when I am up close to the puppy I will say, “come, come, come” and center my hands with a treat at the front where I want to puppy to focus.

This is done as a random game and I do not ask the puppy to sit, just focus on the center. Gradually my hands move up so that the puppy looks in my face. Later on when the pup has matured a bit I will use a 3′ lead and just do a lot of backing up and asking the puppy to focus on the center. I start doing a lot of “doodling” at this point, i.e. turning in different directions making the puppy “find” the front, usually saying something like “where’s come, where is it; atta pup, there it is” etc. and reward with a treat.

Later on (maybe a couple of weeks) I ask the puppy to sit and wait and then back up and call it to me while backing up and putting the puppy into a straight sit in front.

I will also have someone hold the puppy (lightly) while I run away and turn and say something like “Ready? Ready?” and call the puppy and the other person releases it. Usually they just come flying in. Ginger has been so over eager I have had to work more on getting her to “wait”. That brings up another point. I am a great believer in teaching my dogs a vocabulary. They must listen to the commands. I use “wait” whenever I am going to call them off a spot and I use “stay” for sits, downs and stands. That means “you had better glue your little butt to the spot and not move”.

I should digress here – in my previous post I forgot to mention a couple of things. After the puppy is used to the leash and not objecting to being “led” here and there, I put a long line (30′ tracking line) and go in the back yard. I always have treats at this point. I let the puppy wander wherever it wants and then say the pup’s name in a pleasant tone, bend down and show the treat.

They should come running for the treat. If not, then I put a little pressure on the leash and move closer showing it the treat. I will do this for several days. All I want them to do here is to just look up at me and acknowledge that they recognized their name, and are at least interested in me.

After several days of this, I will put more and more pressure (not a jerk, just pressure on the buckle collar) and proceed as above only now I will say their name and “come here.” I use “come here” around the house and “come” for formal obedience work. “Come here,” means just get over somewhere in my neighborhood or come on we are going in the house or maybe I want to pet you or give you a treat, etc. “Come” means come as fast as you can and find the front and sit.

At this stage when the puppy is only maybe 12-13 weeks old, every thing I do is mostly a game — or so it would appear that way to the puppy. They don’t really know they are being trained. My philosophy in puppy training is the puppy is never wrong, they can never make a mistake.

They are not born knowing all this, so it is up to me as a decent trainer to teach it. You can never get upset with a puppy for not doing something or not doing it right. If they don’t do something to my satisfaction, I simply start over and make sure they are successful. Even if I have to break it down into very small increments, just so they can win at something and be right.

Now for socialization: I personally do not like puppy kindergarten classes. There are several different ways to teach these classes, but I see more and more of them that just turn all the puppies loose and have a free-for-all. I think this can be very harmful. If you have a very pushy potentially aggressive puppy it only makes them more of a bully, and if you have a shy timid one, it can very easily turn them into fear biters.

I will take my pups to a class atmosphere after they have had all the necessary shots and just walk around the perimeter and let them observe things. I will approach people and ask them to pet or greet the puppy. I never let the puppy around other dogs at this age simply because I never know which dog will tolerate puppies. So I just don’t take the chance.

My puppies are well socialized but I always have full control of the situations as far as formal obedience classes go, I personally don’t take classes until my puppies are well on the road to understanding what I want. That is just because I have been doing this for so long that I can teach my pups all they need to know.

After I feel they understand what “heel” and “attention” mean, I will put them in a class situation just to work with them on paying strict attention to me. I may work on that and some heeling for about 10 minutes and then step out of class and let the puppy relax and play a bit. Then go back in for a few more minutes. I don’t expect a young puppy (say 6-7 months) to be able to hold “attention” for 30-40 minutes.

When I get into more formal training, I really only work at it for about 10 minutes and then will wrestle, play tug, throw a ball-just anything to let the puppy relax mentally. I think they can get just as much socialization by just being around a class atmosphere, listening to the noise, greeting people, playing a bit, walking around, etc. as they can in a kindergarten class, maybe more so.

The Stand
I also introduce the “force retrieve” to my dogs at a very young age. It is so much easier to do it when they are smaller than to wait until you have a 60 to 70 pound dog resisting you. But that is another whole article. But I am a firm believer in a “force retrieve” and trust me when I tell you I have never had a reluctant retriever. They all love it and can’t wait to get that dumbbell. If it is done right, and there is a whole long process you must do before you ever think of doing a pinch, the dogs just love the retrieve.

The Finish

After I have worked for several weeks on the preliminaries and finally do the pinch, it is usually a very mild thing and I generally only have to actually pinch once or twice. I may never have to pinch again but the dog knows I can if I have to. Picture 6 (Beginning the finish. Dog only has to move towards hand with food.) Picture 7 (Second part of finish. Dog starts to turn. Later the food is held closer to encourage nice tight turns to finish.)

Another highly successful Obedience competitor is Jim Hutchins of Cincinnati, OH. Jim and his UDX titled bitch, Annie, won the Krecji Memorial Trophy for High Combined at the last National in May. Jim trains for both obedience and agility competition. Here is how Jim described his training techniques.