My friend Marge has a new puppy, Zip, a Portuguese Water Dog. I just love what she decided to teach him first.
Marge is a professional trainer. Depending on Zip’s interest and aptitude, he may eventually be able to to help her in her business as a neutral dog, play therapy dog, or uncle dog. He’ll be introduced to a variety of fun dog sports. I think I heard whispers about agility as well as water dog sports. All these are possibilities, of course. No matter what his temperament, health, and inclinations, he will always be a beloved family pet.
Marge said, “Do you know what the first thing I’m going to teach him is?” I didn’t know, but I figured it would be good.
“I’m going to teach him that I’m FUN.”
I have to say that was not what I expected, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.
That first lesson accomplishes so many things.
- It sets the tone for a lifetime bond.
- It associates Marge with terrific things. Most of us get strong associations with food with our dogs. That happens almost automatically if we train with food, and if we are careful how and when we feed. (See my article “Double Your Money” in the Spring 2014 issue of BARKS magazine, page 19.) But in addition to being the provider of food, Marge is setting herself up as the entertainment center in her pup’s life. Via classical conditioning, she is building an association with herself to joy as well as nurturance.
- Zip’s play with her is something he can learn to “take on the road.”
- The behaviors that happen in the play (little proto behaviors that will be built on for skills later) get imbued with the fun–more classical conditioning.
- Finally, fun and anxiety are mutually exclusive. Play creates a joyful world.
Marge’s lesson would not be appropriate–as a first lesson anyway– for every dog. She’s got a well bred, confident, socialized puppy (of a social breed, no less). She picked the sassy one of the litter. When we get a dog with a suboptimal or unknown history (Marge has had plenty of rescues too, I might add), the first lesson we often need to teach the dog is some version of “You are safe.” Or “I won’t be mean to you.” Or, “We’ll always go at your speed; I won’t force you.” Those things look a bit different. What you see Marge doing in the video is appropriate for a confident, dare I say “pushy,” little guy.
But even with our fearful dogs, the sooner we can get some joyful fun in their lives, the better. And the more I think about it, the more similar the approaches are. Whether you are showing the pup a rollicking good time or giving him a place to feel safe, you are prioritizing his emotional state over mere skills or obedience.
Do you see all the sub-lessons in the movie, all the bricks that Marge is laying for Zip’s future skills?
- Zip is getting experience on stable and unstable surfaces, including a metal surface.
- Zip is climbing through things that touch his legs.
- He’s getting to put different things in his mouth and getting an outlet to chew and be mouthy.
- He’s experiencing things that make sudden noises.
- He is learning to tug.
- He is learning to release and trade.
- He is learning a puppy retrieve.
- He’s learning that Marge will direct him to things that are OK to play with. (Did you notice that there is only one “real” dog toy in the whole video?)
- He is learning to come when called.
- He is learning to settle down and to be handled.
All this in a few minutes of play with a really fun lady.
I’m trying to remember the first things I taught Clara. In a four dog household, I think one of the first lessons was, “This is how you can happily fit into the group.” But I also taught her “You are safe with me.” (Actually I just remembered: The very very first thing I taught Clara was, “I have spray cheese, the ambrosia of your world.”)
I didn’t set about using play cleverly like Marge. Frankly, I let Zani babysit Clara a lot, since I was really in over my head with a geriatric dog, a reactive dog, and then a feral puppy, most of them incompatible with each other. If Clara and I hadn’t had such a strong bond, all that babysitting could have been a bad idea. Luckily Clara is up for just about any kind of fun with me, and has always played any kind of game I offered with enthusiasm. But I do wish I had been as deliberate as Marge in setting the stage for a playful relationship with Clara. Even more so with Zani, a born party girl.
I’ll remember for next time: there are some things that are even more important than sit and down. Build the relationship. Then the skills will likely be a piece of cake.
What was the first thing you taught your puppy or new dog?