The Second Thing To Teach Your Puppy

A lot of people have enjoyed seeing what my friend Marge Rogers decided to teach her puppy first.   She taught Zip (and continues to teach him) that she is FUN. So I asked her what she was going to teach him second. (I love to watch her training, too!)

She said, “Now I’m going to teach him that learning is fun.”

Teaching a Dog that Learning is Fun

Why would this be so important that Marge would embark on it so early on? Doesn’t she need to train Zip how to behave acceptably?

First, we need to shake the notion that training is something we do to the dog. It is something we do with the dog. Then, it wouldn’t hurt to drop the “obedience” model from the back of our minds. With positive reinforcement-based training, we can get something better than obedience. We can build a joyful, trusting partnership between two species, and along the way we can ease our dog’s path into the weird human world.

And right along with that:  Using aversives in training is known to inhibit learningIf you went to math class and the teacher hit you over the head with a ruler every time you got the answer wrong, you could still learn math.  It probably wouldn’t be your favorite subject and you probably wouldn’t learn it as fast as you would if you enjoyed it.

What if, instead, the teacher valued above all that the student be happy, relaxed, and enjoying himself, and did all in her power to make that happen? This is not only humane and kind, but also very practical. If Zip is “in the game,” if he and Marge are partners, he will value the game. She can help him build resiliency. If at some point she makes mistakes or gives unclear information, he’ll keep trying.  And that’s where we see that the partnership works both ways. Zip will teach Marge to formulate training plans, improve observation skills,  and work through timing errors.

Marge goes so far as to say, “At this stage, the behaviors I’m teaching him don’t really matter.” Wow. So obviously true, yet so radical.

What she wants, what she values, and what she is building: an eager student.

A dog can learn a behavior at any age if he has the physical skills to do it and the trainer has the mechanical skills to teach it. That’s why the lesson right now is two-way communication.

If learning is fun for him, Marge can teach him anything.

Zip holding tug large

What Do They Practice?

So, what did Marge show us in Lesson 2? Keep in mind that the actual behaviors they work on are less important that the growing partnership. But I know some of you will be curious about some of what they do, so here is a list with short explanations.

  • Name training. She is teaching him that hearing his name predicts something great. He is learning to shift his attention immediately to her when he hears his name.  The name game builds a positive classical association to hearing his name and to her, and also builds a recall.
  • Puppy retrieve (with optional somersaults!). What all is this good for? Let us count the ways. It is an interactive, cooperative game.  It’s great for exercise: it drains the dog’s tank, but not the owner’s.  It’s a great interaction for kids and dogs. Also, Zip is rehearsing returning to her and releasing things to her. Deposits into those “Let Go of Stuff” and “Return to Me” accounts are always good!
  • Impulse control. Just about all of life with dogs boils down to impulse control, doesn’t it?  Many “good dog” behaviors share the principles of that exercise: do not help yourself to things you want. Look at your person when there’s something you want.  Do it in the face of distractions (starting with a food distraction).
  • Turns. Those are some agility moves Marge is making, and they teach some nice lessons. Prime among them are moving with Marge, turning, and switching seamlessly from being on Marge’s left to her right. For many of us, the days of teaching our dogs to walk exclusively on the left side are long gone.
  • Perch work. This is for both hind end awareness and strength. It will help in sports, everyday coordination, and tight turns for competition heeling. Plus cool stuff like a “tuck sit” as you can see at the end of this short video.
  • Hand targeting. Hand targeting teaches puppies that hands near their face are a good thing.  It teaches them to use their nose on hands instead of puppy teeth.  It is a foundation behavior for a recall. The dog is at point A, and you want them with you at point B: use a hand target.  Marge says it is a great way to start a training dialogue.
  • Experiencing new things. Just like in Lesson 1, Marge is continuing to introduce Zip to new things. Can you see that she has made it more challenging?  Dogs are great discriminators, and as they get older are quick to categorize things as abnormal and scary if they haven’t seen them before. So the more surprising and rare stuff she can show Zip, as long as it happens with good associations, the better. What she shows in the movie is the tip of the iceberg. She is taking him every day for different levels of observation of and interaction with the world.
  • Conditioning praise. Did you hear all the utterances of “Good boy good boy good boy”? This is not just filler. Dogs find repeated sound stimulating.  You’ll hear that kind of  repetition from many good trainers when they are having an exciting fun time with their dogs. But also: how many times in his life is Zip going to hear “good boy” and get a treat or special play? Answer: a lot. Marge is also conditioning praise as a secondary reinforcer. If she keeps it conditioned well, the phrase by itself will gain some reinforcing power. This is another foundation she is laying down in their training relationship.

What About Sit, Down, and Stay?

Zip profile 2Have you noticed the absence of certain behaviors that many of us are brought up to believe are the absolute foundation of proper dog behavior? How come Marge hasn’t taught Zip to sit or lie down, or stay on cue?

[8/26/14 Edited to remove a comparison with traditional training that wasn’t quite accurate. Thanks, reader S.T.] It’s not really that she isn’t reinforcing sit and down. They are some of the many behaviors of his that she is capturing and reinforcing in contexts. She is putting money in the bank for later. She has Zip’s whole life to teach him specific behaviors and put them on cue. Now is the time to establish a bond, show him that certain things pay off bigtime, to reinforce a large variety of desirable behaviors in an informal way; to teach him that learning and trying stuff aren’t scary. This will give Zip a palette of behaviors to default to in life situations. Sit and down are definitely in the palette, and a tiny puppy “stay” is developing as she waits a little longer and holds eye contact a little longer. And the more of these good behaviors he knows, the less time Marge will have to spend diminishing undesirable ones.

And the verbal cue thing? Believe it or not, you really don’t need word cues at this point. Zip has already picked up situational cues to do certain things. Dogs are geniuses at this; so good at it that we don’t even notice it half the time. We think they know a verbal cue but they are really reading the situation. Zip is already developing a default sit (you can see that in the impulse control section), eye contact, and can walk nicely on a leash.  A word is just a label. There will be time for that.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Have you shown your puppy or dog that learning is fun? (And what do you think Marge’s next lesson will be?)

Related Posts

Life Lessons for My Puppy (all)

Other Good Stuff

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe and see Zip’s next lesson!

Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues

P.S. Editorial remark: I’m so glad Marge didn’t say she’s “teaching Zip how to learn.” I’ve always thought that was a very human-centric thing to say. Animals already know how to learn. Many of our problems come from the fact that they learn stuff that we don’t want them to.  Marge is teaching Zip how to be her dog, have fun with her, communicate with her, solve problems, and be happy in a human world. And with her gradual challenges, she is helping him develop his brain power.

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  • When training a puppy, what's more important than the actual behaviors?
  • If we show the puppy that learning is fun, the sky is the limit on what we can teach him.

About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
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11 Responses to The Second Thing To Teach Your Puppy

  1. cburger2 says:

    Eileen, I have loved each and every one of your blogs. Now I find I love Marge too!! Reading this has made my day!
    In one of my classes I have an adolescent Goldendoodle that was brought into the family with a littermate and neither were socialized (admitted to me without prompting when I first met the family). This dog is terrified and just wants climb into his “Dad’s” skin. They are taking their dogs to class separately, but I think the classroom environment is too much for this scared boy.
    Oh if only they had taken the time at the very beginning what a difference it would have made!

    • eileenanddogs says:

      Thank you so much! This puppy project with Marge is very fun for me.

      Yes, so sad when dogs don’t get the right start. I’m glad the folks have come to you.

      Thanks so much for the reminder about how important puppies’ beginnings are.

  2. rescuedobe says:

    Loved all the great ideas, but please don’t forget–foot handling so that they learn to accept having their nails trimmed or dremeled. It’s important to their structural health and it’s one of those things people don’t address as pups, and then have to fight throughout the life of their dog. If you hear the nails click, you’re past time to get those nails back. Start as a pup!

    • eileenanddogs says:

      Excellent, and other handling too! Foot handling needs to come early on, with plenty of great associations. I know because I am rehabbing all three of mine right now, even Clara. I did start early with her, but didn’t work hard enough on it. I bet Marge will provide us with a video one of these days. She’s good at getting dogs happy and relaxed for all sorts of handling. Thanks for the good reminder!

  3. Tara says:

    This is very interesting. I haven’t given “making training fun” very much thought, but it makes a lot of sense! The dog will be more willing to listen if they enjoy your company and they’re having fun. Thanks for sharing this information!

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  5. Heather-Lynn says:

    Would teaching these amazing life lessons to an older adolescent dog who came from a different type of life (farm dog to my companion dog) be too late? I got him as an 8 month old, he’s a year and a half now.

    I absolutely love this concept. I find even with +R I can get a bit “drill Sargent” on my Aussie, and he’s naturally a playful dog. I imagine he’ thrive on this way of play-training.

    • eileenanddogs says:

      Heather-Lynn, this response is from Marge Rogers:

      “That’s a great question, Heather-Lynn. And, well worth thinking about.

      I think the short answer is: it depends. I try to always train the dog in front of me. If a dog or puppy was nervous or worried, first I would want him to feel safe. That’s the great thing about marker training – it is typically very confidence building for dogs.

      Another way to look at “fun” is win/win. I grant access to things the dog wants in exchange for things I want. I do try and incorporate non-food reinforcement as soon as possible. And I try and mix up the reinforcement – sometimes food,
      sometimes play, sometimes a life reward. It keeps training interesting – for me and the dog.

      Thank you for taking the time to watch the video and comment. I appreciate it.

      Happy training,
      Marge Rogers,
      CPDT-KA”

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